Interview: Composer Chad Cannon on the Obamas’ Higher Ground
Composer Chad Cannon talks about his work, including the first project from Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions, American Factory.
Chad Cannon: I first heard about the film from a friend I had met during the Sundance Composer Labs in 2016. That person referred me to Steven and Julia, knowing I had a lot of experience working on projects connected to Asia. This was my first project with them, and it was incredible to learn about the work they have done for many decades now. They are among the most accomplished documentary filmmakers in the history of the genre.
PB: The Obamas created Higher Ground Productions, which produced American Factory. Michelle Obama said, “Our goal isn’t just to make people think, we want to make people feel and reach out of their comfort zone.” Did that mandate play into the way you approached the score for American Factory?
CC: American Factory is definitely a film that accomplishes Michelle Obama’s stated goal. First, everything about the Fuyao Glass factory is an exercise in pushing the limits of comfort zones. There’s the CEO, Cao Dewang — who hails from Fujian Province — a self-made man who, in many ways, bucks stereotypes of the Communist China elite and is a pioneer in his efforts to create such a huge factory in the heartland of the American Midwest. There are the Chinese workers who are sent to Dayton, Ohio to train the Americans, and find themselves in a completely foreign land — complete with carp fishing, shooting guns, and Twinkies. Then, there are the American workers who find themselves in a very foreign work environment, even though the factory is in their own neighborhood, and who are blown away by everything they see when they visit the Fuyao headquarters in Fujian, and attend the company’s wild New Year’s party. All the people we meet in this film are experiencing something far outside their comfort zones, and I think everyone who views the film can walk away having learned something about how to successfully engage in cross-cultural dialogue.
As for how this concept played out in the score, Julia and Steve pushed to have the music be something different, and a bit unrecognizable. They were often giving directions like, “Can we choose something that is less identifiable as [insert instrument name here]?” From the start, Julia was interested in using woodwinds as a color palette. Especially the low ones: bassoon, contrabassoon, bass clarinet, English horn. She had heard a piece by Mozart, the “Gran Partita” Serenade, and was so sure that this kind of instrumentation would work, and she was right! The woodwind ensemble ended up contrasting with (and becoming a complement to) the intense factory sound that pervades the film. As a string player, woodwinds are somewhat foreign territory for me, so perhaps Michelle Obama’s mandate was playing out in my efforts to engage with these instruments in a convincing and idiomatic way.
PB: You’ve worked on many documentaries. What do you feel is the role of the composition in non-fiction? Do you ever struggle with music’s ability to manipulate emotion when working on a doc? Or is enhancement just another tool to go deeper into the truth of the story?
CC: Non-fiction film has had a wonderful “reawakening” with the public. It used to be that documentaries were hard to find beyond BBC and PBS. But now I see fantastic documentaries every week listed right next to the blockbuster hits — on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and HBO. This represents a huge opportunity for music, as well, since these stories need great scores that mirror the significance of the subjects, and enhance their impact in the hearts and minds of the viewers. Budget questions aside, I see no reason why documentary scores should be any less significant than the great scores of fiction films. Thanks to some of my seniors in the genre, such as Miriam Cutler, scores for these films are getting more and more recognition. For example, there is now a specific doc scores category in the Emmys.
I would say the primary difference between fiction and nonfiction scores is the degree to which dramatization is allowed. Even though the stories being told in American Factory are indeed dramatic, the rules of documentary seem to dictate that we can’t use huge musical gestures without upsetting the sense of reality in the viewer (e.g. A big, dark Darth Vader theme on the CEO’s scenes would be a bit editorializing). Just like the workers who are learning to navigate the nuances of their bi-national work environment in the film, as a composer for documentaries, I am often learning the rules as I go. Just like the workers, I learn by trial and error.
One mistake I made in this score, early on, was I misread the opening of the film as being just purely beautiful. We called this scene “The Forge.” It’s this gorgeous montage of piles of sand being processed, melted down, and reborn as sheets of auto glass. It’s completely mesmerizing. But what I missed at first was how it needed to feel “unsettled.” Julia kept using that word. Unsettled. It needed to be both pretty and somewhat ominous, and yet not too dark that we misunderstand the message of the film. So again, I was walking this tightrope of delivering an emotional impact but not overstepping the bounds of the genre. I was also trying to give a taste of both American and Chinese music, but not honing in too strongly on one or the other, so that added another set of rules to balance.
There is almost no bigger story in the 21st century, in terms of sheer numbers, than the economic rivalry between the United States and China. But how does one take that huge story and distill it down to a format that can have an emotional impact and actually mean something tangible to its viewers? Julia and Steve have done just that, through the eyes of many individuals on all sides of the story. They also give just enough space for emotional impact. These choices affected the score greatly, because they became opportunities for musical development – small moments where we get to process the drama.
PB: You are currently working on the TV series The Roommates, about two senior citizens living in a retirement home who plot to kill their obnoxious roommate. How did you develop the musical narrative of the story?
CC: So far, I’ve only scored the pilot episode of The Roommates. It’s by this young and ambitious director, who recently graduated from NYU, named Cameron Penn. It’s impressive how much he’s been able to do on a shoestring budget, including getting a great cast together. Because I have been the beneficiary of so many other talented people giving their time to me on small budgets, I try to make a point of doing so for others, when my schedule allows.
Like documentary, comedy is a genre that has its own set of rules about the score. It can be incredibly nuanced. One too many notes in a chord, and somehow the joke flops. It’s really very challenging, and I admire composers like Ted Shapiro who are masters of this. Working with Cameron to figure out the right balance of serious and funny (in order for the funny to win out) was a tricky process. My favorite cue for this film is this sequence called “A Dream Vacation,” where one of the characters is fantasizing about a cruise to the Bahamas with his girlfriend, another older woman in the retirement center. It stands in contrast to the “Kill Jerry” theme, which is a pseudo-religious, dark, chromatic descending idea.
PB: Chad, you have arranged and orchestrated for some of the world’s top composers, including Studio Ghibli’s Joe Hisaishi, Alexandre Desplat, Howard Shore, and Tyler Bates — what have you learned from working with these masters of their craft?
CC: When I put on my arranger and orchestrator hat, it is really rewarding to dive into the mind of another composer and look for solutions that will help them realize their musical vision most completely. In the case of Joe Hisaishi, this has been one of the most musically enriching experiences of my career. He is someone who truly knows his craft. He is like John Williams in his own way — a master of melody. He knows how to make a live orchestra soar, and he has this gift for attaching musical ideas to images and characters that then become completely unforgettable. He is a household name in Japan, and it is not uncommon to hear his melodies over the loudspeakers of restaurants, airplanes, and shopping centers throughout the rest of Asia. Spirited Away recently topped Toy Story 4 at the box office in China, where the older anime film had a theatrical run.
I’d say the biggest thing I’ve learned from working with Hisaishi Sensei is that there is a nearly inexhaustible number of colors that can be created from a large orchestra. From the huge, dark, and gorgeous melodies of Princess Mononoke to the exuberant choruses of My Neighbor Totoro, and from the watery impressionism of Ponyo to the Okinawan-flavored textures of Spirited Away, Hisaishi has demonstrated that the exploration of the orchestra in film music is far from complete, and that the power of melody is still relevant. He often encourages me to add my own flavor to the arrangements (he gets mad at me if the arrangements are too similar to the original, ha!), and then provides feedback. Sometimes, he will call me in the middle of the night from Tokyo or New York to talk through things (in Japanese) – so I am constantly learning from his decades of experience.
As for the others, I am only able to claim a connection because of two other really fantastic mentors of mine — Conrad Pope and Tim Williams. Even after working through thousands of pages of score with Conrad on Desplat and Shore scores, I am still impressed by Conrad’s innovative and thoroughly detailed orchestrations. He can take a cue that might otherwise be “typical” and make it so completely fresh and original. Desplat’s scores are, of course, already so whimsical and beautiful, but with an added Pope touch, they become masterpieces. Tim Williams, likewise, has great insights into how to create a really impactful orchestration, and finds interesting solutions to the problems presented by the complex, cross-genre Tyler Bates scores (which often incorporate rock elements – Tyler is a true rocker!). Tyler was a mentor of mine, also, at the Aspen Music Festival in 2011, and I’d say the biggest thing I learned from him was that creativity is most effective when it comes from a place of sincerity. He is pure in his creative impulses – his music has this rawness that one can’t help but respect! I should also say that Tim and Conrad are excellent, exciting composers in their own right.
I was lucky to land in Conrad’s circle right as he started work on Howard Shore’s Hobbit trilogy. That was a wild ride, with many late nights. Baptism by fire. We had four time zones covered: Peter Jackson and Conrad in New Zealand with the orchestra; me and our team in Los Angeles; Howard and his team in New York; and the choir recordings in London. Howard was an icon in my musical life. I was a superfan of The Lord of the Rings, to the point where I made a knockoff series in high school called The Lord of the Rams (my high school mascot was a ram). Obviously, it was really exciting for me to get to work on his Hobbit score, and I’m happy to say we are still in touch. The main takeaway from Howard would be that it’s important to spend time to craft themes that really capture the essence of each character in a film. When we are given the luxury of time, we should not squander it!
PB: As founder of the Asia/America New Music Institute (AANMI), what can you tell us about its mission and accomplishments?
CC: AANMI is an initiative I created with some of my Juilliard and Harvard classmates as a way of creating bridges across cultures — something I’m really passionate about. Since 2014, we have organized cultural exchange concerts in many countries in Asia (China, Japan, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, and South Korea), as well as several cities in the US, including a three-part residency at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, and concerts here in Los Angeles at the USC Pacific Asia Museum. We released our first studio recording, Transcendent, on the Delos label in 2018, with very positive reviews in Stereophile and Gramophone. Our biggest project to date was a seven-city concert tour of mainland Japan in 2018, sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo. We performed at some of the most prominent temples, shrines, and cultural sites throughout the country (including two UNESCO World Heritage Sites – Nijojo Castle in Kyoto and Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine in Fukuoka), as well as one performance at Suntory Hall, which is like the Carnegie Hall of Japan.
AANMI is in the preparation stages for a program in Japan next summer called “Passing the Torch,” where six composers from six cultural traditions will present new works inspired by their national anthems, or by folk melodies from their own cultural tradition. This echoes the musical tradition of playing national anthems at the awards ceremonies in the Olympics, so our program is designed to comment on and expand upon this idea, and will occur just prior to the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. We are also sponsoring our first AANMI Young Composer Competition, where the winner will become the seventh composer on the concert tour — all expenses paid — and will receive performances at some of Japan’s most prominent and sacred sites. I’m so excited for this program and can’t wait to see how it affects the lives and art of our participants. AANMI is a tax-exempt organization and survives on program grants and donations.
Cover image via American Factory (IMDb).
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