July 01, 2004

Kenya Tillery

By Erik Philbrook

Composer with Class

TilleryUp-and-coming film composer Kenya Tillery has steadily been building an impressive foundation on which to base a long and fruitful career. She has a master’s degree from the North Carolina School for the Arts; was a participant in the ASCAP Film Scoring Workshop; studied at the Sundance Composers Lab; and was named as one of Filmmaker Magazine’s “25 New Faces of Independent Film.” She composed a jazz score for Laurence Fishburne’s Riff Raff, produced at The Juilliard School. Her classical composition, Simple Things, was recorded for Albany Records. And she has composed theme songs for television shows airing on Lifetime.

Kenya has been teaching music privately while pursuing film and TV projects. This year, however, all of her good work brought her even further recognition when she was awarded a $33,000 artist/teacher scholarship as part of the “Teach Music in New York City” project. The program, created by the efforts of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton in partnership with Congressman John McHugh and the generosity of the VH1 Save the Music Foundation, will help Tillery complete her music teaching certification and will place her in an NYC public school as a music educator.

You just finished your residency at the Crane School of Music this summer as part of the Teach Music in New York City project. What did the residency consist of?

The residency started this passed summer, and, for me, it will end May 2005. It consists of the few courses all of the artists lack, beyond our performance masters degrees, to become certified to teach pre K-12 music. We just completed a few of those classes. We’ll finish the rest this fall, teach under supervision in the spring, and then, move to New York City to pursue positions.

Since you have already taught music for some time, how has this program enhanced your approach to teaching?

Well, the jury is still out, but so far I’ve gotten a significant amount of information on the way the school system works and is affected by societal influences like politics, community, etc. I’ve taught private lessons mostly and have only one year of school system classroom experience. At this early stage, this program has allowed me to begin to define what type of environment would be most suitable for me and which I could be most effective in.

What do you see as the benefits of teaching music in New York City?

Out of all of the places I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to, and spend a good amount of time in, New York City has been the place I found that if you have an interest in many things, your exploration of or pursuit of as many of these things as possible is respected and valued. I’ve been accustomed to the mentality of “either/or” in determining careers, and I finally came to realize that I needed to find the environment where I felt I could be 100% nurtured. Being a composer is more than just what I do, so it is never compromised. New York City supports the broader view of what I think it means to be an Artist. There’s no point in being one if you can't use what you do to affect as many people as possible. It's what attracted me to the program. If you notice, we are titled "Artist/teachers".

Do you think there is a particular challenge to teaching music in New York City or any major urban area?

Yes, but I think they vary from individual to individual depending on experience and many other factors. I have one year of experience under my belt of teaching in an urban area, however, this was in a smaller city in North Carolina - my hometown, as a matter of fact. So, I'm quite a bit familiar with the different set of challenges the families of this environment face which filter into the classroom- many of them are things that I believe no class can prepare you for. I think my main challenge will be to be as inclusive as possible of the diversity of the population which is different than my hometown. Hopefully, I will become sufficiently bilingual by that time, which I think is extremely important, but making cross-cultural connections takes more than just learning the language, and I think I'll probably end up learning as I go.

Tell me about the selection process for this program. It seems like You were up against a lot of competition from some very talented people all across the country and Canada.

That's right. It is my understanding that out of all of the applicants, a smaller group was chosen to participate in an individual phone interview. Then, an even smaller group was selected to fly to upstate New York to visit the Crane School of Music for an in-person interview with the same Selection Committee. From this group, three were chosen. I was particularly honored to be given the opportunity since I was the only artist chosen who was not already living in the city.

What was Senator Hillary Clinton’s involvement in the program?

She and Congressman John McHugh pushed the Omnibus spending bill that made the program possible. As a result, the project received funding from the U.S. Department of Education, with the remaining funds coming from the New York City Department of Education and VH1 Save The Music Foundation.

You are a film and TV music composer who has had to teach music to augment your income. How do you see this program as furthering your career, not just as a film/tv composer, but as a musician in general?

I have to admit that, yes, this was the initial reason I started to teach, but my teaching experiences have revealed a couple of things to me. One is that I actually enjoy it very much, and I think that my creativity is an asset to my potential as an educator. Another is that I don’t see my goals in life as being limited to one aspiration, so I don’t really see my teaching through the lens of its direct effect on my film-scoring career. I see all of my new ventures as enhancing myself as a person, which then, makes me a better musician - then, a better film composer and so on.

You have been involved with some very impressive and very valuable programs for composers, from the Sundance Composers Lab to ASCAP’s Film Scoring Workshop, all of which I’m sure have been important to your development in this field. What does the ASCAP workshop experience meant to you? For example, what was the best thing you got out of it?

I think that what any film composer wants and needs is exposure. I felt that if I could get the chance to demonstrate my ability with the orchestra, new doors would open, and they did. ASCAP provided that rare experience for me that proved to be absolutely essential for me to feel well-equipped on future projects.

Who are some of your favorite film composers?

James Newton Howard, Christopher Young, Carter Burwell, Thomas Newman, David Hirschfelder, Danny Elfman. “Trouble Man” and “Chinatown” are two of my favorite scores, so I’d have to say Marvin Gaye and Jerry Goldsmith also. Most recently, I've become a fan of RZA as well.

Who are some of the film directors with whom you’d love to work?

There are so many, but the first couple of names that come to mind are M. Night Shyamalan and Antwone Fuqua.

What would you love to be doing five years from now?

Professionally- composing for theater and film projects, teaching Music. Since I'm really into politics and staying well-informed and have had some extremely challenging and enlightening personal experiences, maybe occasionally contributing to a column of some sort - all of this while living comfortably in New York City.

I know you are good friends with film composer Carter Burwell (Fargo, The Big Lebowski). Are there any particular words of wisdom that he has shared with you?

Carter has taught me many things by example. Of course, I have learned a tremendous amount by studying his music, but it is more impressive to find that the sincerity you sense in his work is a reflection of his character, and I find myself, after thinking of conversations I've had with him, striving to maintain that standard in my work.

What accomplishment, career-wise or other-wise, are you most proud of?

Career-wise, I am most proud of the jazz score I composed for the Drama Division at Juilliard. It was a theater production written by Laurence Fishburne entitled, Riff Raff, and it was directed by Regge Life. I was recommended by someone who was familiar with my work as a result of the ASCAP workshop, and there were a lot of things about the project that I was apprehensive about, due to it being the first opportunity of its kind that I'd had. I was responsible for the sound design as well as the score. I am very proud of the decision I made to turn that apprehension into confidence in my musicianship and, as a result, end up producing some of my best work.

Although you are relatively young yourself, you have accomplished quite a lot in a very competitive business. Is there any advice you would give to those just starting out in the field?

My advice would be to learn very thoroughly the way the game is played before someone deals you a hand, and read and be well-informed. Don't take the common practices of the business personally, but I would strongly suggest that a person find some sort of center to focus on spiritually to maintain strength and sanity. Present yourself as who you are no matter what the environment is, because regardless of the environment, people respond to sincerity. It's refreshing, especially in Hollywood.