NEW SALEM, Mass. – Say ‘Schoenberg’ and music together around these parts, and people tend to think less of atonal composing giant Arnold Schoenberg and more of New Salem improvisational pianist Steven Schoenberg. Adding “Graceland” to the mix might bring to mind Elvis or Paul Simon.
But then there’s Adam Schoenberg, Steven’s 32-year-old son, who has gone on to become a successful symphonic composer in his own right. Together, father and son had their first collaboration composing the score for an award-winning feature film, “Graceland.”
Anyone expecting the elder Schoenberg’s stream-of-consciousness piano or Adam’s symphonic works — full-scale compositions commissioned by the Atlanta, Kansas City and Los Angeles symphony orchestras — may be surprised by the score behind this thriller by Philippine-American director Ron Morales. The film, in Tagalog with English subtitles, tells the story of the Filipino chauffeur of a crooked politician who races to save his daughter from kidnappers after she is abducted for ransom in a terrifying case of mistaken identity.
“The score has not one acoustical instrument,” explains Steven. “It’s a sampled, electronic score with beats we made up. It’s very eclectic. We present a world with a lot of energy and suspenseful stress. We worked on getting sounds that are haunting and ethereal. There’s nothing symphonic about it. What we did is construct a musical landscape.”
Adam, who describes “Graceland” as “such a dark film in which the music creates tension and release,” met Morales in Italy in the summer of his sophomore year at Oberlin College, while on an ASCAP (American Society of Composers and Performers) fellowship to study Italian film scoring. At the New York University campus in Florence, Morales was studying filmmaking, and the two became close enough that Schoenberg scored Morales’ senior thesis film the following year.
“Graceland” has gone on to win awards at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival, where the Schoenbergs first got to see the finished product last spring, and at the San Diego Asian and Ghent International film festivals. The father-son team has been nominated for a Star Award for Indie Movie Musical Score.
Now a Juilliard-trained composition professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, Adam Schoenberg got an email asking him two years ago to write an electronic score for the 84-minute film, which had already been shot.
“This had to be an electronic score, because there was no budget for live musicians,” he said. “They really wanted a drone-based score with a lot of rhythmic elements. The instructions called for drone, ambient-type tracks, along with rhythmic infused tracks. I’d never written anything like this, but it was fun.”
Fun, but Adam, who has been composer-in-residence for the Kansas City and Atlanta Symphony orchestras, reached out for a hand from his father.
“He’d done some smaller films, but this was a very complicated film to do,” says Steven Schoenberg, whose credits include “Farmingville,” “Monica and David,” as well as such television productions as “Sesame Street,” “Zoom” and “3-2-1 Contact.” The younger Schoenberg asked his father to look at one musical cue, along with the corresponding film sequence and asked for his thoughts. The coast-to-coast file sharing went back and forth, with suggestions of adding one element, removing another, and adding yet another to cues that lasted from less than 20 seconds to 10 minutes.
The sound samples from their synthesizers came from so many sources, it’s hard to remember exactly what they are, says the New Salem musician. “The way I approached it, when a sound is made, it becomes the instrument. You sort of absorb it in the palette of colors, and you’re using that as a real instrument, even though it’s a sampled instrument. And the beauty of it is that you get to manipulate even the manipulation you did if you want. You can’t do that with an orchestral score.”