From Spark to Soul
Replenish Earth had the opportunity to interview Harold O’Neal about his spark, his musical journey and the processes involved in the conception of the Pixar movie ‘Soul’.
Harold O’Neal is a world renowned and prolific Pianist, Composer, Artist, Storyteller. The New York Times has compared his piano playing to Duke Ellington and Maurice Ravel. In 2020, Harold collaborated with Pixar as a creative expert for the storytelling for their film “Soul” which won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film, at the 2021 Oscars.
Soul is about finding your ‘spark’, do you remember the moment that you found yours, how did it happen?
My earliest memories of finding my spark would be with my grandmother, Florene O’Neal. I was four years old when she retired and we became best friends. She would take me everywhere with her where we would try all sorts of things; archery, painting, golf, Etc. At the end of the day she would ask me what I thought about the activity we explored and if I would like to do it again. Eventually, I settled on the piano!
How did you develop your spark into a career?
I remember this Herbie Hancock album that came out in the 90s called “The New Standard”. Being exposed to that album and even simply seeing the photos he had for the album art hit so deep within me. Seeing artists like him and Quincy Jones inspired me to become a professional in the industry. Branching out in multiple genres and different lanes of entrepreneurship. I’m a strong visual learner. I like to take what inspires me, take a picture with my mind, and replicated in my body and spirit until it becomes part of my internal process. Making it my own and creating something new.
Would you describe a little more the ritual/process that you explain here?
Sure! Like many children, I dealt with a lot of anxiety. Especially with being an immigrant. I remember feeling so anxious sometimes that everything around me would disappear into a haze. My peripheral vision became blurry. I soon discovered that I could take the things I loved to that space inside of myself with me. My creativity would thrive in isolation. I consider myself to be a visual learner. I would take pictures with my mind of what I would see and in my internal isolation would attempt to replicate the experience. With repetition and being combined with a will to survive through my anxiety, I found that whatever I brought with me would become a part of me. Apart from my mind, body, and spirit.
How did you overcome the fear of failure and work towards creating your own chances?
I realized that though I did not have a choice of what was happening externally, I did have a choice about how I processed and handle things internally. I learned to see the positive intention in my fears of failure. That it was something deep inside of me wanting to protect, love, and nurture myself. I had to accept that my method was not working for me and I needed to make another choice about it. The question was, “How can I lean further into my positive intention with a different method? One that is generative?” When I changed my perspective I changed my world. Realising that the turning points that usually lead to fear were actually opportunities.
How did your social and cultural environment influence and support your spark?
The core of influence and support would be from my family. They did a pretty good job of supporting me 100% and making it clear that they loved me. When they were concerned, they also made that clear too and stayed out the way at the same time. Having that as a foundation provided me with great support in how I interacted with my social and cultural environment. Most of the time my social and cultural environments were supportive with meeting lots of wonderful like-minded friends and mentors. Sometimes, certain elements of my social and cultural environments were not as supportive. It was in those times where the foundation of my family was important.
Is it possible to have passion without soul? Or soul without passion?
In my opinion, I think it is possible to believe we can have one without the other, while in reality, it is not true. What I pay attention to is the quality of the connection between the two.
What is the Creative Expert role for a movie like Soul?
While on a personally guided tour at Pixar I was able to meet Ed Catmull, co-founder, and father of modern animation. After meeting, he mentioned that they were working on a film about a black piano player and that the film’s director, Pete Docter, should meet with me. Eventually, I was brought in to meet with Pete and the other filmmakers of Soul as a creative expert in a variety of fields. Even sharing my stories as a resource to the film. They are such brilliant storytellers. One thing that I could tell right away that was very important to them was that they wanted to make sure they got things right about what it means to be a black jazz pianist in New York City.
Watching Soul was a very emotional and spiritual experience. We feel the movie successfully transferred this to the audience through its music. By what process do you, as a musician in your own right ensure these emotions are translated and reflected in the rhythm/music/composition?
I believe the simplest way to get grounded and ensure that emotions are translated and reflected in music, rhythm, and composition, is to simply breathe. I mean breathe what I play on my instrument. Sync my breath to the rhythm and composition. When we do this we are sharing our life force with these crafts and objects. It is a part of the process of becoming one with the instrument.
How might the journey find one’s soul’s purpose and passion lead towards meeting the world’s needs to Replenish Earth?
If everyone in this world was supported in finding their soul's purpose and passion, what a different world it would be. And calling it a journey is right! Doing this in a healthy way is important. Doing it in a grounded way is important, too.
One way I like to see this journey is as a garden that resides inside of us. This garden connects us to the life force. Tending to this garden is part of the journey. A practice of watering this garden and making sure its soil is healthy and nourished. When we are connected to ourselves in this way it enhances our connection to our planet. When we are connected to ourselves and our planet in this way, the floodgates open!
I believe that transforming the obstacles in replenishing the Earth starts internally. If the vitality of that connection inside is distracted, then even if we solve the external material obstacles (which are very important) there is a high chance that it will revert back to the old status quo in some way.
The resource to enhance this connection is within each and every one of us. It starts with simply breathing.
Replenish Earth, a cause and a collective action to protect the global commons — the natural resources we all share. Replenish Earth is focused on ecosystem restoration, with a multidisciplinary approach to creating a positive impact on earth including and not limited to education, eco-therapy (physical and virtual), eco-products, eco-futurism.
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