Why What Other People Think of Your Art is None of Your Business: With Composer David Cieri

By Yitzi Weiner and Casmin Wisner

“I think because I have so generously been ‘heard’ over the years, there is so much more room for me to integrate and ‘hear’ the voices of others because I understand it’s infinitely powerful and healing potential.”
I had the opportunity to interview David Cieri, composer and multi-instrumentalist who in December 2017, released a compilation soundtrack celebrating a decade of working with Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, and Florentine Films documentaries including The Vietnam War, The Roosevelts, Prohibition, Baseball, and The Address. The album is aptly titled Notes from the Underscore: 10 Years with Florentine Films. Earlier in the year, David’s score to Oklahoma City, was nominated for a Primetime Emmy award for Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking. The film explores the intertwined narratives of the worst domestic terrorist attack in the U.S and the anti-government movement that inspired the actions of Timothy McVeigh, including two standoffs with law enforcement with tragic outcomes — Ruby Ridge and the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas.
The music dutifully, gently, and deftly helps with the storytelling, which balances between then horrors of the Oklahoma City attack and the backstory leading up to it. In the fall of 2017, David contributed several hours of score to The Vietnam War (along with Trent Reznor/ Atticus Ross and Yo-Yo Ma and Silk Road). He spent three weeks in Vietnam prior to beginning work on the project, taking in the sounds and music of the region, some of which he incorporated into the score. The documentary averaged 6.7M Viewers For PBS and reached 34M In Live+7 ratings.
The premiere episode of The Vietnam War was the top-performing PBS telecast since the finale of Downton Abbey and is the highest-streamed series opener in PBS history. The doc has also been licensed by 21 broadcasters in 43 countries. He also released White Dust, a jazz album with Pulitzer-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa, a recipient of the 1994 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. The New York Times listed their song “Dolphy’s Aviary” among their new and notable tracks.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your backstory?

Thank you for inviting me to take part! My backstory consists of three cities, two teachers, many instruments, and one life-altering experience. I was born and raised in a suburb of Philadelphia on the morning before Nixon resigned and the morning after Phillipe Petit wire walked between the twin towers in 1974. I dreamed — in retrospect (of course) — that these events set me forward on a life of interest in history and in the power and transcendent potential of art.

I was surrounded by music at all hours, as my mother was a concert pianist — so Bach and Scarlatti were in the air all day long. At the same time I was really into Pat Benetar and my brother was whispering in my ear about the Beatles. In the middle of all these sounds, I would sit up in bed and conduct the violin concertos of Tchaikovsky, Mendhelsson, and Beethoven every night, passionately waving my arms in all directions. A violin was under my chin before I can remember and around the age of six I was playing piano.

My first teacher was my mother. The best lessons I had were when I was doing other things while she practiced. My mind was receiving things in a very non-concentrated and relaxed way, which made its way into my bones by way of osmosis. I can still to this day feel her piano and harpsichord playing in my ears when I am dragging musical phrases against the unmoving and soldier-like quarter note beats. If this ocean of sounds and influences wasn’t enough, I unwittingly took part in an event that altered my way of being.

Once while playing my violin (and wearing my bow tie — hello, huge nerd), my friend from across the street asked me to come outside and play. I said I could not because I was practicing my violin. He walked away dejected and I watched him with increasing interest and suspicion as he went home and from his garage was slowly lugging a huge sledge hammer across the street. He came right up to the glass storm door and swung with abandon. All three feet of me stood dressed and adorning the violin while the shards flew violently passed me like beams of light. I was unscathed but I was quite moved. He was trying to set me free, but what he didn’t know was that the music was my own private jailbreak.

Ever since this, I have felt music to be, at its core, about making more elbow room — creating more freedom which is our magnetic north as human beings. I moved to Denver after high school, and studied with a musician who changed my life — Art Lande. If my cells knew that music was about freedom as a result of my lesson with my sledge- swingin’ friend, Art showed me how to get there, how to hold these expanding possibilities, how to be responsible for this freedom, and how to use it with increasing sense of humanity in mind. Cecil Taylor, Carla Bley, Ornette Coleman and Anthony Braxton among many others exemplified ways of being, which I aspired to with my music.

To this day in my home of homes, New York City, I am trying to build music that a frightened kid could hide behind; that a person feeling at the end of their wits could feel the presence of more options; that people who feel marginalized and spiritually homeless could live under — or till up — or feel like everything would turn out alright. The sacred music of my ma’s classical world and the secular music of improvising and the blues made room for a more dimensional representation of life, which could be, perhaps danced with by confronting it rather than running from it.

Without knowing it, the music was my jailbreak by means of not going around, but by locating and going through my inner world. How grateful I am to my long-ago friend for showing me the importance of being free — even if we have different ways of getting there.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began working in the film, music, and entertainment industries?

In my early 20’s, I played in a rock band that played a Halloween party at the house of one of the original Merry Pranksters in Oregon. We played strip poker with an audience of say 200 — us six against this mass of costumed beings. Somehow — don’t ask me how — we won every hand, one after the other. The utter hilariousness around the luck we were experiencing and its sloughing consequences took our minds into another place altogether, as we ended up playing to the unbedecked crowd for three hours.

On the same run, down the West Coast of the US, we played for an all-deaf audience, which was some of the most profound joy I have ever experienced. It was yet another time that the music showed me ways of breaking through or communicating where I might have been inclined to think it wasn’t so easily attainable. Everyone was dancing and having the time of their lives. I remember weeping after the gig in the alley of the club, thinking that music is a place where anything is possible. I knew in that moment the meaning of Einstein’s words, “Logic will take you from A to B; imagination will take you everywhere.”

As a composer, what does your role entail when you’re involved in the production of a film or theatrical piece?

My role as composer in a film or theater is to etch out the things that are happening between, among, and within the characters or subjects that the dialogue and the action and the image making are not covering. I have to tempt forward the things that are part of the story but not perhaps immediately obvious or capable of being talked about — the movement of cigarette smoke, the secret feelings of desire, revenge, love. I do my best to insinuate relative information about a scene and, in a sense, it’s a reversal of Plato’s cave because while I am working to be descriptive with sounds, I don’t want to fill in too much for fear of completing the image.

I’m trying to present incomplete shadows on the wall so as to nudge the mind of the receiver into finishing the rest for themselves, so that we — maker and receiver — can co-author the events together.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful for who helped get you to where you are?

The deepest root-level success is something I owe to my mentor from long ago, Art Lande. He reaffirmed and shored up a feeling I have had all of my life about music, which is that the success IS the making. Being with the music and working with it and actually being IT is the lifeblood all by itself. He taught me the value of courting the inner flame while knowing how to walk through this fire and not let it consume the spirit.In a more practical (and not by any means less meaningful) sense, Florentine Films editor and Ewers Brothers Productions director Erik Ewers saved me from a life of playing at grocery store openings and miniature golf courses. I feel voluminous gratitude for his magnanimity, generosity, and general belief in my music.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I think because I have so generously been “heard” over the years, there is so much more room for me to integrate and “hear” the voices of others because I understand it’s infinitely powerful and healing potential. I know now that being violently awake and attentive to the thoughts and feelings of others is a tool for breeding happiness, love, and gratitude for being alive — the (as Peter Singer would say) “widening circle of empathy”.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I became an entertainer,” and why?

  1. Be good to yourself while finding your way into your dream. Learn to see the ways in which we fall short as being partly hilarious. And if you aren’t making mistakes, you aren’t quite reaching.
  2. Perfection is a bore. We adore little kids for having heads way bigger than their bodies.
  3. Cheap rent is the first and most important thing you need.
  4. What other people think of your art is none of your business.
  5. Giving an audience things to confront and wrestle with is more meaningful than trying to move everyone in the same way and at the same time.

Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

Back to the beginning — I would love a breakfast with Phillipe Petit because the gift he gave us is infinite. I think he showed us that the human being is not an automaton and a programmable machine but rather a series of infinite possibilities. He showed us how to cultivate true freedom and how to get unstuck from our very thin perspective on what we think the world is and how it rolls. Forty-eight hours in one day. By walking between the towers, he opened us up to the terrifying and exhilarating awe that is — when we really have the courage to look — at the center of our existence. If we connect to this transcendence, I believe it activates our finer feelings for ourselves and for one another.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!


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