A Conversation with Composer Wendy Blackstone
New York, NY, USA
With scores for over 100 film, theater, and TV projects, Wendy Blackstone has found a distinctive place in the world of musical composition. Her remarkable artistry combines downtown experimentation with classical tradition, rock, jazz, minimalist, and Latin. Primetime TV, film, comedies, and dramas, multi-lingual and multi-cultural, Blackstone's encyclopedic understanding of instruments, orchestras, and acoustic ensembles creates a singular identity for each. Eight of the films she has scored have been nominated for or won Academy Awards. She is particularly lauded for her work in documentaries: HBO's Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq, Masterclass, and Weight of the Nation. One of her latest, Larry Kramer In Love and Anger, will be premiering at Sundance 2015.
BASCOVE: At what point did you realize that music was your life's work?
WENDY BLACKSTONE: I started making up music at a very early age and remember realizing it was particularly special for me about age 13 when I started playing violin at school in the orchestra, becoming the concertmistress probably because of my dedication.
BASCOVE: What drew you to composing?
WENDY BLACKSTONE: It came to me. I was creative as a child, drawing dreams and creating works on paper, as a young teen as well. I also wrote down my surreal dreams and tried my hand at poetry.
BASCOVE: How did you study to prepare for a life as a composer?
WENDY BLACKSTONE: I needed to pay my way through school so I juggled music-related jobs like working after school at the school music library/music studio. I played every instrument I could get my hands on, from the guitar to piano to flute, after the violin which was my first instrument at 12. The other instruments I worked for and got about age 15 or 16 when I really started using them to compose.
BASCOVE: You have lived with poets, are a devoted reader, and are enthralled by art. Do you find that these different endeavors have influenced your work?
WENDY BLACKSTONE: Absolutely. I am drawn to spend much of my time, when not composing, at museums, a great thrill of my life. To keep inspired I will be composing as I walk around the Guggenheim as I did for Life Beyond Earth while gazing at a Miró piece I recall being named Planets, and a wonderful Calder about the stars. To augment my day and center it on art and human creativity I'll often have a great book of poetry by my bed or a great book usually that brings me to another time, another language (another way to travel). Neruda or Lady Murasaki's Genji, or rereading any Henry Miller, will be like a spiritual artistic bath before going to bed. Life in busy, fast tempo New York can easily tip one's balance if we don't center.
BASCOVE: You've toured and traveled extensively with several bands and are fluent in several languages. Has that had an effect on your music?
WENDY BLACKSTONE: I played a few instruments and was backup for a couple of Latin bands when in college. Yes, this allowed my Spanish to improve to a degree of fluency which made it easy to pick up French and Italian. As a composer of mostly film scores, many of the films take place in other countries, so I've traveled in my mind and through listening and research, embodied those cultures through my own sensibility. Right now I am working on my first production being created in Beijing. I am very excited about this.
BASCOVE: How do you compose, sitting at a piano, at a computer, improvising with other musicians? Do you prefer to work alone for the major part of the composing process?
WENDY BLACKSTONE: I work so much of the time alone. It's a hermetic life, the way I approach it. Almost all alone, either at any of my instruments, in my mind, or at the computer, where the keyboard conveys what I am playing into the computer so I can sketch arrangements there. I lock the computer to the film itself so I can hit certain points and sculpt it to the image. This is usually after I've been at the piano after seeing the film once or twice, where I go fishing for the thematic material. Then I can sculpt it for each scene. Then, it's a string of pearls. Each scene has to work on its own as well as to work in the overall scheme of the film. I see it as portraits within the mural.
BASCOVE: You've worked in many music genres. Do you have a favorite?
WENDY BLACKSTONE: I love contemporary orchestral and making up unusual sounds for each particular film to make it unique and expand the audio palette for whomever listens. I may take a word from a key character and shape it in a way where it sounds different. I like metaphors, so often the sound I choose is symbolic of something interesting about that character. For example, in a film about World War II, I shaped the chopping of onions in a kitchen scene to become the goose-stepping of the Nazis invading the household.
BASCOVE: Is scoring a film different from scoring a play or for television?
WENDY BLACKSTONE: Very much so. Theater is tricky to score because often times, since you cannot record the performance, you almost have to compose it at rehearsals. And it's changing to the last minute, even more so then film.
TV has become more sophisticated over the years so it's a toss up. Sometimes it's very similar to film, sometimes it's a bit more on the cue. Films can be more subtle as there is a bit more time for emotion to unfold in the scene and therefore in the music. You have to make sure to see your work on the big screen for films, to make sure it translates to that format well.
BASCOVE: Does your process start when you are invited to be part of a project or when you see the film or play for the first time?
WENDY BLACKSTONE: I'd say I start thinking about it as soon as I know I'm on a project, but really seeing the film is when the muses start working and also when I sit down with the Director and we have a spotting session. There I get to hear what this person's been planning for that scene, to communicate, to help direct my understanding of the scene/character more deeply so I can get it right.
BASCOVE: When beginning a new project, how do you decide on the sound palette or decide which instruments will be needed?
WENDY BLACKSTONE: I'd say the project speaks to me, what's the film about, who's the audience, who's the director…various factors go into the choices. I do try to go for the most interesting and most creative to keeps things fresh for myself and really the audience. But it always comes down to what is best for the film.
BASCOVE: You've created music for Anna Deavere Smith's Twilight: Los Angeles and HBO and James Gandolfini's Alive Day: Memories from Iraq. How do you approach a project when you have an intensely painful subject matter to describe?
WENDY BLACKSTONE: I've done many, many projects about such things. You write with your heart and soul, what can I say?
BASCOVE: Does the music sound different when you hear it for the first time in the film? Or in front of an audience?
WENDY BLACKSTONE: It's great to see it on a big screen with the audience. You love doing the work because there are few things better in life than to create, but at a screening you feel the satisfaction that you've contributed in some way to something positive for people. People love to hear authentic music, I believe.
BASCOVE: What do you find most challenging about your work?
WENDY BLACKSTONE: Schedules can be challenging and you work many, many hours on your own.
BASCOVE: Which project is your favorite?
WENDY BLACKSTONE: I love too many but I, for some reason, love Love Walked In and Boy Who Cried Bitch, both directed by Juan Campanella, a very talented director who got an Oscar for best picture a few years back. I loved Dear Diary and the Maybe it's Me project because I got to laugh and be quirky and silly.
BASCOVE: Your music has a powerful, spiritual impact. Where does that come from?
WENDY BLACKSTONE: My nature showing itself.
BASCOVE: What are you working on now that you find most exciting?
WENDY BLACKSTONE: I'm thrilled to be working on this film with China, to be communicating with people whose culture I hadn't known enough about before. Therefore, this is truly traveling in a different way. I love very much to travel, learn, and create.