Richard McKay conducting the Dallas Chamber Symphony during the Dallas Video Festival’s performance/screening of ‘Metropolis’ at City Performance Hall.
Commissioning a new artwork can be where the whole creative process begins: picking the right artist, setting the right goal. Commissioning and creating new works is the topic for State of the Arts at the Dallas Museum of Art Thursday. KERA’s Jerome Weeks will host the conversation. He spoke with one of the panelists, Richard McKay, musical director of the Dallas Chamber Symphony, about commissioning composers.
State of the Arts: Commissioning and Creating New Works, Thursday, Dallas Museum of Art, 8 pm. Free.
Richard, welcome to the KERA Newsroom.
RMWell, thanks for having me.
Unlike many artists, you actually commission new art works. You commission composers to create new sound scores for silent films, and the Dallas Chamber Symphony plays these live during screenings, as you did recently with ‘Metropolis’ for the Dallas Video Festival. When you start a commission like that, who – or what – are you looking for?
RMWell, the first thing I’m looking for is a composer who’s accomplished at the particular set of skills that is required for scoring a film, which is quite different from just your ordinary composer. You need someone with a knowledge of film, you need someone with a knowledge of the process and how to time the score. You’d also prefer to have a collaborator who’s very experienced at meeting deadlines and working in studios, someone who can deliver that score at least a month or so out from your show. We also look at what types of films or scores that the composer has written before. So we like to find a composer, for instance, when we’re screening maybe a horror film, we’d like to work with a composer who’s done those kinds of films in the past.
Obviously, the composer you commission is limited by the film itself — and by your orchestra, the kinds of instruments you have. Beyond that, how involved are you in shaping the score? I mean, you’re paying for it.
RMI would say that generally once we decide on the composer who we would like to commission for a score, we let that composer just run with it. And they generally know best how to color the score, make it fit with the film, so once we make that commitment, I’m pretty hands-off through the whole process.
With this hands-off approach, you seem a trusting a soul. Have you ever received a score and thought, ‘This isn’t going to work’?
RMThat’s never happened — ever. So I hope that continues to be the case.
Many artists would say that we need commissions to create new works, we need this to keep this art fresh. But you’re in an unusual position of commissioning new works for old.
RMThat’s true. I think there’s a trend right now within orchestral programming where audiences are starting to expect more of a visual element to concert experiences. And so one of the ways that we can really tap into the culture of music and the history of film is to screen these films. It does give us a modern playground with a historic backdrop. It’s something that straddles both worlds and seems to work.
One of the purposes of commissioning new works is to try to push the boundaries. What do you see you can do with the genre of the movie score?
RMWell, oftentimes, it is the case that a very good score doesn’t exist for a classic film. This happens. And quite often what you would see is perhaps a score that’s made up of popular music that’s basically edited and cut into the film. Also, quite often you’d have someone improvising maybe on piano or organ. So I’d say that there’s not a whole lot of through-composing an original score for a lot of these silent films. And so it adds new life to these films that would not otherwise have it. I think orchestras are one of the best vessels to re-familiarize people with the best cinema.
Jerome Weeks is the Senior Arts Reporter/Producer for KERA. Previously at The Dallas Morning News, he was the book columnist for 10 years and the drama critic for 10 years before that. His writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Salon, Los Angeles Times, Newsday, American Theatre and Men’s Vogue magazines. View more about Jerome Weeks.