I can’t really pinpoint when a creative project takes form in my brain. In my case, and for the last few years, it’s generally been as simple as receiving a commission of some sort as a composer and bandleader. However, I found myself at the beginning of 2018 without any major creative obligations, and in an attempt to not panic or perhaps to not feel that I had lost my artistic purpose, I “commissioned” myself a lengthy work. I believe that to grow as an artist, I have to challenge myself to produce something that initially seems like an insane idea and that I’ve not done before. The terror of the unknown seems to inspire me. That was the case with Shoes, a score for a 52 minute piece of music that would accompany Lois Weber’s iconic and somewhat unknown film from 1917. The beauty and depth of this movie threw me into the creative vortex.
I had been wanting to follow up my 2015 live silent score for Charlie Chaplin’s The immigrant with a second work for a film about social justice, but that musically be a radical contrast to the former. Perhaps the second installment would end in a silent film score trilogy. The question was what film to do? I was in luck when my wife Ave (who produces The New Yorker Radio Hour) connected me with Richard Brody – The New Yorker’s film critic – and organized a sit down with him. Mr. Brody’s sat with me for a half hour in which I scribbled movie titles and plots while trying to not be floored and in awe of what I was experiencing. It was one of those “that’s why we live in NY” moments, in which we savor our privileged access to some of the most amazing people in the world. I walked out with a list about 20 films to research.
In the meantime, my 10 year old transgender daughter, who has always been a very gender-conscious child since she was verbal, asked one day: “Papa, why do you always play with men? Where are the women?” And she was right. We traveled to Washington D.C., and she’d say, “Where are the monuments for the women?” or “Why are there no construction workers who are women?” I resolved to change following my daughter’s directive, and amongst the films that I got from Brody, I found Shoes. I managed to get a DVD copy of it and was floored. What an amazing cinematography, story, and relevant plot, especially now where we, men, are all still working to understand what so many women go through on a daily basis. So, Shoes became my project, and it was a feminist project, and I was proud and scared of attempting something that would make me feel uncomfortable, and that would challenge me musically and personally.
The film is a drama that follows the story of Eva Meyer, a young woman who struggles to replace her only pair of shoes, which are falling to pieces, while supporting a family of six with a deadbeat father. As it happens in movies, there’s a guy who likes the girl, but in this case he happens to be this sleazy jazz singer who harasses Eva and offers to buy her new shoes in exchange for sex. Desperate, Eva sleeps with him, gets the shoes but loses her innocence and perhaps her faith in humanity. However, at the end of the film her father announces that he has found a new job and that all is well. Life goes on, “the river flows” as the last title card says.
I was so moved by the film, and by the connection between a story from 100 years ago and what’s happening now. I was fascinated by the idea of engaging in a dialogue through time that would make us question if things have changed much at all. The score had to be a meditation about women’s rights, poverty and workers’ rights over a period of a century, reflecting how these issues continue to plague our world, about how we’re in the same place and yet so much more advanced. I owed it to my daughter to at least try to make things right, so I also determined that when this was to be presented, I was going to have more women than men in the ensemble.
I started writing in February of 2018, and I knew from the get go that I wanted to have a female voice that would be complemented with an unusual orchestration: Trumpet, cello, vibraphone, piano, bass and drums. I wanted to fully embrace the idea of a “chamber-jazz” sound and experiment with the “in between-ness” of both aesthetics. I quickly realized that this was going to be almost like a musical theater piece, and initially considered using the silent film cards as lyrics. They didn’t quite work, and before I knew it I found myself writing words for songs that tackle despair, desire, dreams, disdain and so many more emotions that just couldn’t be expressed any other way. THAT was crazy, I have never written lyrics in my life, and I happen to have worked with some amazing writers and poets, so the shadows of self-doubt came quickly. Many times I thought that the words I was writing sucked, and that I had absolutely no business in attempting such a project. I eventually got completely blocked by these thoughts, and at the end of March I decided to stop writing. I had initially booked a premiere gig in May, and I cancelled it. I was lost and demoralized. I knew that rushing was not the way to do this, and that the music that I was going to perform in that premiere was not going to be something I could be proud of.
It wasn’t until May, while I was on tour with Chano Dominguez that I started writing again. Suddenly ideas started to flow and even if it was 4 bars at a time I was making some sort of progress. I was determined to finish writing both the music and the words, and by the end of July I had a first draft. By then I had also decided who was going to play in the ensemble, and luckily all of the musicians agreed to work with me and were eager to tackle the project. I managed to assemble a wonderful cast of musicians: vocalist Kavita Shah, trumpeter Nadje Noordhuis, cellist (and incredible painter) Amy Kang, drummer Shirazette Tinnin, vibraphonist Christos Rafalides and pianist Luis Perdomo. They all dove into the music and brought it to life. I can’t even express how their work, kindness, professionalism, talent and passion have made of this one of the most beautiful music making experiences that I can remember. The group also immediately clicked as a hilarious sister-brotherhood family, and at times I am just in awe to witness the privilege of being in contact with such amazing people. We premiered the music in September at Georgetown and in December at Dizzy’s. The energy of these concerts has been amazingly unique, and the sold-out audiences loved them. I couldn’t be happier with it.
Here’s a last thought about what happened through the process of writing this piece, a lesson that I keep learning time and over again, and that I constantly try to pass on to my students. As musicians, we have two jobs, we must be both craftsmen and artists. Sometimes we’re required to wear one hat or the other, but when we do our own work for our own sake, we must embrace both, they’re the angel/devil yin/yang within us, and their balance is what makes us create something unique. For me, writing Shoes was painful and yet healing, hard and yet easy, made me go crazy and yet made me get in touch with my sanity. In short, this became a reflection of what life is, no more, no less. Maybe it’s also because I wrote this music in a time where I needed healing, maybe it’s because every note the band plays exudes kindness, I’m not sure. All I can say is that I am proud of having been able to write something that touches my soul, and that I hope does the same to whomever listens.
Thank you for reading!