Review Fix chats with New York-based film composer and musician David Cieri, who just celebrated ten years of working with the renowned filmmaker, Ken Burns, as well as Lynn Novick and Florentine Films with the release of a compilation soundtrack in December with sounds from hit films. Discussing his career and more, Cieri lets us know he is just getting started.
Review Fix: How did you first get involved in music?
David Cieri: I was always in the middle of it right from the beginning of my life. I grew into it, rather than getting involved. I can’t remember a time without it. As a matter of fact, my first memory is an aural one: the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. Every time I hear it, even to this day, it brings my cells back to being a tiny little person. I had a violin under my chin at age three, and was playing piano when I was six. My sisters were playing Top 40, and my brother was trying to save my ears with The Beatles while my ma, being a concert pianist, was playing Scarlatti all day long. So this great and terrible feast of sounds was always swarming around.
Review Fix: What makes composing for soundtracks special to you?
Cieri: It’s a special thing for me because I am marrying two loves of mine since I was very young. My awareness of how much I love music caught fire around eleven or twelve years old and at the same time, I found a new world that I was fascinated by and attracted to – history. Because I have been writing music, mostly for documentaries, I get to have both worlds combined, which feels very personal. In a more general sense, its incredibly fun to write with pictures in mind, because there exists a natural dance between sounds/music and images. It’s so interesting to see how even a still photograph changes when music is coupled with it. I think it was Bresson who said that there are two projectors in film – the one showing the movie and the projector of our own perceptions. In a still photo – say a Letizia Battaglia Mob photograph – a single note accordion line does not change the image in any physical sense of course but the picture surely changes. Certain things are brought forward and other details recede as a result of our mind’s eye being under the influence of the sounds being made. That music can have an impact on a seemingly fixed idea is endlessly fascinating and in a way, an encouraging act: a way of getting unstuck from what we thought was a static object.
Review Fix: What makes this new album different or special for you?
Cieri: Well, it’s the first record that considers a much larger swath of time – 10 years – so it’s a survey of a much larger landscape than is normally held by the little sponge we call recordings. It’s a road trip of much greater proportions, and I hope listeners think it’s a fun and challenging one worth the taking. Also, the music I made for ‘The Vietnam War’ is in this recording, and I feel very close to these collections of sounds – their particular incandescent horrors and their redeeming sides. Lastly, when Ellington was asked what his favorite piece of music was that he wrote, his reply was, “the next one”. So in that sense, this is “the next one” right now, but even as I type, this is fading into what’s ahead.
Review Fix: What has it been like to work with Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Florentine Films?
Cieri: Lynn, Sarah Botstein, Ken, and the whole Florentine Films gang are the kind of collaborators that every creative person hopes to be around. They challenge me always, but in a contented way, and they always leave so much room for me to be free and for me to be myself. Also, they have this incredible ability to hold their assumptions about music while also being wide open to new and unexpected music making. I find this quality so rare and I am forever grateful to them for it. (I love you guys!)
Review Fix: You’ve done so much. What goals do you have left?
Cieri: Have left? Ha! I am just beginning! The beautiful thing about living with an art form like music is that you will never “arrive” or get the whole thing in your hands. It’s impossible and if it were somehow possible, I think it would be hell. I am not sure if I can explain this adequately enough, but I am not a goal-oriented person either. I never did get the “where do you see yourself in five years” question but I surely admire those that can see that far ahead. All that I am sure of at the moment is that after I finish with the interview, I will be inside the piano, swimming in it, reaching into the dark and hoping that the little traps I set will catch something that I did not know was there before.
Review Fix: What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a working composer?
Cieri: I would advise people not to worry about the “working” part or the “composer” part. Make music with honesty, ever intensifying clarity and awareness, relaxation, and in the spirit of love, no matter if the music you are making is a slice of heaven or is a little piece of hell. Find a cheap place to live because time – not money – is what you need most. Get quiet and unplug from the accelerants that surround us. I believe that the rest will have a chance to grow out of this rich soil – like being a “working composer.”
Review Fix: What’s next for you?
Cieri: Who knows. It’s terrifying and exhilarating all at once.