Father-son composers collaborate on score
New Salem resident Steven Schoenberg, a composer and improvisational pianist.
NEW SALEM — 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 have had their first collaboration composing the score for an award-winning feature film, “Graceland,” which will be presented Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at Amherst Cinema as part of its Meet the Filmmaker Series, with a discussion by Steven Schoenberg.
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 e-mail 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,” says the young composer, who attended Swift River, Mahar Regional and Northfield Mount Hermon schools. “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 coat-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.
“It was the smoothest transition,” says Steven. “If I thought there was something missing or something off, I sent something back to him where I took out a couple things he’d done and added a couple things. He looked at it and said, ‘Wow! I really like that!”
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.”
“Graceland,” which premiered a year after the project was presented to them, at New York’s 2012 Tribeca festival in New York “is disturbing because of the of topic,” says the elder Schoenberg. “It’s really a heavy film, a suspenseful thriller where there are twists and turns, and you think it’s one thing, and its another.”
His son admits film scores often aim at manipulating emotions, but also are used “to subtly add to the atmosphere but be emotionally ambiguous.” Because part of the plot also involves sex trafficking and the relationship between the main actor and his daughter, the score also tries to reflect vulnerability and innocence.
The young composer, whose latest commissioned work, “Bounce,” is dedicated to his own yet-unborn son, says, “I love the art of collaboration, and my father and I work really well together, My dad is an extraordinary improviser, and I inherited some his improvisational skills. We’re both very intuitive as composers and because he’s my father, we share a similar aesthetic. It was a very smooth collaboration.”
If the father-daughter drama is a key element of the plot in “Graceland,” the father-son relationship played a role in writing the film’s score — with the added drama of Adam Schopenberg’s starring role, at age 5, in a key moment in his father’s life. The two were playing “tag” in the backyard when the father caught his son in his arms just as his foot caught a rock, and instinctively stretched out his hand to avoid landing on top of him. The injury to his hand kept the concert pianist away from his instrument for three years and away from the concert stage for 12 years at a critical point in his career.
“Maybe it was karma or coincidence, or was meant to be,” said the elder Schoenberg, who watched his ascending career cut short. He’s returned to do improvisational concerts, as well as recordings, and to write for musical theater, stage and television.
“Adam’s a good friend, and he’s inspired me to write an orchestral piece and get back into symphonic composing,” says the 60-year-old father, who hopes to do more film score collaborations with his son.
“Schoenberg and Schoenberg: We’ve got our name,” he says with a laugh.
You can reach Richie Davis at
or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269