We Create Music Blog
June 27, 2014

Film Music Friday: Joshua Abrams on Life Itself

Joshua Abrams

Joshua Abrams

In a career stretching over some 20 years, Chicago composer and musician Joshua Abrams has carved his own musical path. He's improvised music with some of the towering figures in free jazz, and collaborated with a menagerie of respected artists, including The Roots, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Toumani Diabate, Prefuse 73, Godspeed You Black Emperor, Jandek, Tortoise and many more. More recently, Abrams has turned to film scoring. His third film Life Itself documents the life of another one of Chicago's native sons, film critic Roger Ebert.

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Roger Ebert was such a prominent figure in Chicago arts. What did his work mean to you personally?

I admire his skill as a writer and his humanist orientation. I appreciate his clarity and ability to articulate the nuances of what made a film exquisite, delightful or awful. At the beginning of Life Itself he speaks of how he sees the movies as a machine designed to generate empathy. It struck me that empathy and the possibility it contains for understanding where another person “is coming from” was central to Roger in his work. That in turn inspired me while working on the film. His perseverance throughout his illness and his acceptance of death as part of living also made a strong impression on me. 

Did you do any research about Ebert that informed your score - his musical preferences, what he would say about film music in his criticism, etc.?

I read Roger’s autobiography from which the film takes its title. He mentions songs from childhood including  “The Wayward Wind,” “Downtown” and “The Tennessee Waltz” as well as going to hear the Count Basie Orchestra. From what I know, Roger was an avid music enthusiast across the genres. He once wrote, “They say we only use a small percentage of our human minds. I believe music has its best existence in those parts we do not otherwise employ,” which is beautiful. Ultimately though, it was his demeanor and stories which inspired the film’s score more than any particular song.

What kind of direction did you get from the film's creative team?

When I spoke with director Steve James during our initial meetings, he and producer Zak Piper were already keen on a brass band serving as the basis for what would become Roger’s theme in the film. In general Steve wanted a jazz-oriented score to help catch the feeling of Chicago and of Roger’s irreverence for the societal norm.  Towards the end of the process I worked closely with Steve on editing the music to fit some late changes in the film and to help highlight details of each scene.

There are more swung beats, walking bass lines, horn solos in this one than your first two films. How did you decide you wanted to up the jazz quotient on Life Itself?

As I mentioned above, Steve wanted a jazz score, but one that aimed towards timelessness rather than evoking a specific historical moment. Sometimes I would try to achieve that “out of time” quality through a twist in the instrumentation that would be historically unusual. For example, the addition of the harp to the brass band during Roger’s theme helps place that cue in a somewhat different context than a typical brass band. Combining electric keyboards such as the Pianet or the Fender Rhodes with acoustic instrumentation also helped place the sound of several cues outside of a specific era. I have worked as a jazz bassist for over twenty years so this is an area of music that is familiar to me. In fact, some scenes take place at the Old Town Ale House, a bar that I have played at several times in previous years. 

Many of the cues you wrote explore texture, minimalism, and that line between composition and improv in similar ways as your solo work. What's it like to adapt your style to fit the constraints of a screen narrative? 

The constraints are part what make working with film so engaging. I find it brings out different elements of my voice and musical experiences. The primary goal is to create music that serves the scene and the film as a whole.  f it the music can achieve that and still feel like it is of “my voice” then I’ve gotten somewhere. As far as improvisation goes, I have devoted much of my career to working with improvisation and at moments it can be effective to include it within a film score. For example, the great Ari Brown takes a beautiful tenor saxophone solo at the end of Roger’s theme to help bring the film home.

On the other hand, there are many moments throughout the score that are written to feel improvised or off-the-cuff that are actually notated. The bar scenes, Roger’s time at the Conference of World Affairs, and the other elements of Roger’s theme besides Ari’s solo all come to mind. In general I try to consider the individual voices of the musicians I hire rather than treat them as a generic embodiment of their instrument.  I find this helps make the music more particular, even if their parts are notated. 

There are these contrasting threads of regimented rhythm ("Corliss," "Daily Illini," "P Kael") and total openness ("A Machine for Empathy," "Rock Bottom," "Shelf of the Mind") in the score. Was that a deliberate thing to have those playing off each other?

Life Itself flows back and forth between a historical biography of Roger Ebert and vérité scenes of his battle with cancer in the last months of his life. To help navigate the gulf between these areas the music needed to take many approaches including moving through rubato sections at times, and rhythmic passages at other points in the film. This is not an uncommon practice in film scores (pads vs. rhythmic passages). Some moments such as “Rock Bottom” are very specifically rhythmically notated but create a feeling of suspended rhythm.  Others such as “Shelf of the Mind” take a drone approach.

Is there anything about scoring that you've gotten better at over the last few films?

Hopefully everything. These past years have been an immersion into film scoring. Last year alone I completed three features (the third being Aaron Wickendon and Dan Rybicky’s Almost There, which will debut in 2014). Through these experiences I have more perspective on how the music and image interact, the amount of space necessary for dialogue, and how to make the music feel bigger when needed (I tend to lean towards understatement). The experience of the past year has also helped me have better and clearer workflow with the rest of the film’s team. So much of the process is about communication with the director and the editor.  

Life Itself is your third film and third documentary. Is there something in particular about this area of film that inspires you? Or are these just the jobs that Kartemquin handed you? 

To answer your first question, absolutely. The stories and the filmmakers are both very inspiring. It is a huge responsibility to create a soundtrack not just for a movie but also for someone’s life story. I was brought on board to score my first film, The Interrupters (2011), with six weeks to go until its debut at Sundance. The team had heard some of the recordings I had released under the moniker Reminder and picked me for the job. Based on the work I did for The Interrupters, Steve James decided to work with me again on Life Itself.  After Bill Siegel saw the The Interrupters he asked me write music for his film, The Trials of Muhammad Ali (2013). 

In regards to your second question, Kartemquin is an amazing production company and it has been an honor to be involved with their films. They have been presenting the world with powerful, socially insightful work for over 45 years! However, as far as I know, Kartemquin doesn’t “hand” composers jobs, they tend to leave those decisions to the people making the film. I have been working in independent music for the better part of twenty years, so in many ways the doc world is a good fit for me. That said, I look forward to working on a narrative film should the right situation arise.

Life Itself was funded partly by a very successful IndieGogo campaign. Did that make a difference in what you were able to do? And...did it make you think any differently about crowdfunding in general?

It helped give a little more flexibility with musicians and studio time. I was able to work with the great engineer John McEntire (of Tortoise fame) to mix the soundtrack.   I think the success of the campaign reinforces the possibility that crowdfunding can be a viable option to help make a film.

How has being an ASCAP member impacted your music career? 

I’ve been a member of ASCAP for 11 years. As I’ve delved further into the world of filmmaking the staff have been helpful with helping me navigate protocol for registering my music. Last but not least, the work ASCAP does to facilitate royalties is much appreciated.

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Life Itself is in select theaters nationwide on July 4th, 2014. Find out more at kartemquin.com/films/life-itself.

Visit Joshua Abrams online at joshuaabramsfilmmusic.com.

Find out more about Joshua’s improvised music at eremite.com.