'Let the passion excite you' BlacKkKlansman composer Terence Blanchard on working with Spike Lee
Terence Blanchard is a movie composer, jazz trumpeter and long-term collaborator of Emmy-winning director Spike Lee. He composed the scores for Lee's classics Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, 25th Hour, Chi-raq and now BlacKkKlansman starring Adam Driver, John David Washington, Laura Harrier and Topher Grace. Here Terence tells Mandy News how he started, what his process of composing for Spike Lee is like and what young professionals can do to succeed.
Terence, tell us where you’re from and how you got into the industry.
My name is Terence Blanchard and my family comes from Louisiana. I got involved in music because music got involved in me. I grew up in a house where there were musicians all over the place, my father was an opera singer and sang at church, my uncle sang with him, my aunt, my mum and sisters sang and taught piano. My grandfather played guitar. From the time that I was a little kid, I just heard music all over the place, everywhere.
I eventually got involved in it. My next door neighbour was my first piano teacher from the time that I was five years old, and one thing just progressed to the next. Growing up in the church and growing up with a sense of social activism, I’ve always equated art with making social statements.
One of the cool things about the film world, for me, and what attracted me was a) I got a chance to write for larger ensembles like I wanted, and b) the social implications of what it was that you’re working on could be something very beneficial to other people and help them in their daily lives.
I became a jazz musician, wound up playing with a band for three years, left that, co-led a band with Donald Harrison for three years, then went out on my own.
In the midst of me going out on my own, I met Spike Lee, because I was a session musician recording for one of his earlier films, School Daze, and he noticed me, remembered me, and called me back to do Mo’ Better Blues. While we were doing that, I was playing something on the piano that he loved and he asked if he could use it.
He asked me to write an arrangement for it, and here I am. Because of that chance meeting.
You’ve been working with Spike Lee for quite a long time and you’ve explained how you met but how did that relationship develop when you began composing for him as a full time role?
I kind of feel like we both were developing as artists at the same time. We were both young when we got into the business. Granted, he had more experience in the film world than I did, obviously, but it’s one of those things – I could just see him growing as an artist. The look of every film just seemed to evolve.
His credo to me was “look I’m not into underscore. I want all of my scenes in all of my films to have strong melodic content,” so that was a challenge because Spike is an incredible director. He wanted music in scenes that are heavyweight and with important information. I had to figure out a way to create this melodic content but still give the weight to important dialogue that was needed for information to help with the storyline.
That, in itself, was a challenge.
When you actually sit down to write and compose, what is your process? What instrument do you start with and how do you evolve it from there?
Well, I was taught that pianos hold the key to everything, in terms of composition, in terms of orchestration and developing the melodic content. So it always starts there for me, and frankly that’s the way Spike wants it. He likes to hear the raw melodic content on the piano. He doesn’t want mockup orchestrations, that’s not who he is at all. As a matter of fact, he’d rather wait to hear it with a live orchestra – which is a great thing on his part because what he wants to do is hear it for the first time the way an audience would hear it.
That’s how I start. I start with the piano, and then once I’ve found out what the melodic content is going to be, the rest is left up to me, to just go ahead and do my thing. Spike is really very trusting in that regard. It’s one of the reasons why I bust my ass when I’m working for him, because you never want to betray that trust when somebody has that type of faith in you.
When it came to working on BlacKkKlansman, how did you approach this particular film? Was it any different to how you would normally work?
No, I don’t think it was any different. I think the only difference is, stylistically, what it is trying to do. We wanted to have like a R&B beat and bring in some of the sounds of the ‘70s to be a part of the score, but generally what I tried to do with the score, I tried to make sure that the score has a universal approach. The score has to be the thing that can make anyone understand the storyline, the content. Within the score, we also have those elements that kind of help decide the period, the tenor and the tone of the entire piece.
For example, when we did 25th Hour, while was there was orchestra, we brought in bagpipes, Arabic singers, percussion, and Irish whistles to represent police, firemen and then the muslims. With this particular piece, we had an R&B band, which is my band, the E-collective, with the electric guitar, and it kind of symbolises Jimi Hendrix. We used that inside the orchestra.
Speaking of your own band, and music aside from film, you’ve won five Grammy awards and have worked with the likes of Herbie Hancock. And you have a new record out. What can you tell us about where you are musically at the moment, and what the new album has in store?
The new album is about the huge epidemic of gun violence that occurs in this country. Large numbers of people who are shot, who are unarmed, and about just carrying arms in general. It started out as unarmed people being shot by police, but it quickly grew into a larger story, because there’s such a fascination with guns in this country.
It appears as though, the way things have been going, not just in the recent past, within the last few decades, that we’ve taught ourselves and our children not to compromise. We’ve taught our children that there are no other solutions, so we don’t have discussions about coming together. In public, we say that, but in reality that’s not what we do, and our kids watch us.
So, we’re trying to continue the debates about gun violence in this country. We went to cities that had serious tragic events. We went to Dallas where the police were shot. We went to Minneapolis where Philando Castile was shot. Going to Minneapolis personalised the entire thing in a way that I didn’t expect. I got to Minneapolis, we had organised a little performance to do for the kids at the school by the park, and it was a powerful experience for me, not for the kids. Because the first thing I noticed when I got there, was how the kids looked like a Jackson Pollock painting, you know what I mean? They came from all different walks of life, all different creeds and colours, all different religions, and it was profound. One of the guys who worked with them came up to my road manager and said, “Phil always was a sweet dude,” and just by personalising, by calling him Phil, that just brought it home.
Then the principle told me that the kids still asked about this guy. When you look at what happened, Philando Castile was a legal gun owner who did everything he was supposed to do. He told the officer that he had a weapon. He was taking care of family, he had a job. But that’s not what the cops are. The cops think something else just by looking at him. That’s what needs to be debated. Now that Trump has been in office, there has been an uptick all of these racially motivated incidents. What we’re doing to try to do, through music, is tell people we understand the frustration and pain, and let the music help cure you. We want to hopefully change some hearts and minds.
I tell this story that happened to me in Cleveland all the time as an example. Since I had this band, not too much anymore, but when we first put it together, some people come up to me and say, “oh man I miss the other band.” So, when this guy walked up to me and said “Man, I was really expecting to get A Tale of God’s Will,” I thought “Oh, no, let me get ready to do battle with this guy.” He said, “When you started playing you just sounded so angry. I could feel in my mind that it sounded so angry, but when you said what the music was about my next thought was that the guy who created A Tale of God’s Will is this angry about this topic. I need to to rethink my position on gun control.” That’s what we’re hoping to do around the country, with this album and performing our music.
This album, to me, is not an album. It’s more of a movement than anything, because we have to do something. The news cycle here is consumed with Trump, and granted, I’m not a fan, I think he’s the worst president we’ve ever had, but at the same time, Puerto Rico, man, they’re still struggling – nobody’s talking about that. The water in Flint, Michigan, is still screwed up – nobody’s talking about that. The banking industry is still…people are getting ripped off – nobody’s talking about that. We’re talking about one thing and one thing only, every day.
The thing that people should understand is that it doesn’t matter what side of the island you’re on, whether you’re independent or democrat or republican, most people are just decent people. That is what we have to deal with. I’m not trying to make a statement as a Democrat or an Independent, I’m trying to make a statement as a human being, because people are dying.
So, for those kids, to go through that shooting that just happened in Texas and for that young girl, to say that she expected it? That should be a wake up call for everybody. Because, man, when I went to school, that was the last thing. If a guy brought a knife to school, that was national news. Now for these kids, this is just par for the course for them. That’s unacceptable to me.
Amazing. Hopefully it can bring people together. We fully believe that music has the ability to do that and it’s good to use a voice, to use music in such a positive way.
You hope. That’s the one thing that I can do as a citizen of the country, that’s the way I look at it. There are two things that I can do; I can do this and I can vote. I’ve been encouraging people not to stand on the sidelines. Everybody wants to b*tch and moan about what goes on, but most people that b*tch and moan, I want to ask you, did you vote? Did you vote? Because if you didn’t vote, stop crying. “Voting doesn’t matter,” – well, you start to see it does. It does, and there are ramifications behind voting and not voting, so get off your ass and get involved.
So, what’s coming up next for you? Obviously the film’s coming out and you have the new album. You say you have plans to tour it, but what’s actually going on at the moment and what’s coming up?
Oh man, I’ve got a bunch of commissions I’m working on doing. I’m working on a documentary about the public defenders, here in Louisiana. I’m also working on a commission piece for The Sphinx Organization, which helps young kids learn how to play string instruments in orchestras. They educate them, and these kids can really play. I’m writing something actually challenging for these kids and it’s going to be a full orchestra. Right now the working title is Dance for a New Day.
I’m also working on an opera, my second opera. It’s based on Charles Blow’s book called Fire Shut up in my Bones, for Opera Theatre St Louis.
Wow. When do you start work on the second opera?
I’ve been working on it. I’m just taking a break from it right now because I have to finish this concerto for cello and violin.
What advice do you have for kids and young professionals wanting to get into music and hopefully take their music skills into the film industry to score for film?
Well, there are a few things you can do. The passion that you have for music is a wonderful thing to get you involved but the brain needs to sit down and assess – “how do I get better at it? – so you need to break down what it is you want to do into its core elements.
For example, I play the trumpet, so for me, it’s breathing, tongueing, slurring and fingering. I have to sit down and break those elements down and work on them individually, and then find pieces that help me bring those things together.
As a composer, it’s the same thing. I love big orchestrations, but I have to go back and say “What makes those things work? Why does this thing sound this way? It’s because it’s voiced this way between the strings and the brass, or the woodwinds and brass.”
So, the first thing is, when you have a passion, let the passion excite you, but let your brain break it down into its core elements. Then, let the passion come back to see how to put it all together.
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