Last year, the film Dear White People — shot at the University of Minnesota and other Twin Cities locations — was a success on the indie circuit that jumped into mainstream conversation.
The film's composer, Kathryn Bostic, created a complex score that didn't simply support scenes, but introduced new layers of meaning. She spoke with me about her musical background, her involvement with Dear White People, and how the score drew on influences from Schubert to Ligeti to Lateef.
You started music at age three, right? How did that happen?
My mother was a classical pianist and piano teacher. I think I just came out this way with a strong musical sensibility and an appreciation for the piano; the tactile aspect of just touching the keys. I also had a very good ear at a very young age so I would just sit down and create these little songs.
Did you play piano and start singing at the same time, or did the singing come after?
The piano started first. I just loved touching the keys and seeing where it led, and then the singing came a few years later. The piano has always been my sanctuary.
Have you used that as a jumping-off point to other instruments, or would you consider yourself a pianist predominantly?
Yeah, pretty much a pianist. I did study violin for a hot minute, and guitar. I'm left-handed, so as hard as they tried I was not wanting to switch hands and you know, we cannot have that bow going into someone's eye in an orchestra. But, I love the guitar. I love string instruments in general. I love the warmth and the vocabulary. At some point I plan on getting back on that horse, probably with guitar.
Was music for you an internal process that simply gave you joy, or did you quickly become a performer for others?
It was more internal at first. Like you said, I just got so much joy. It was sanctuary of creativity. Then you start meeting other people — musicians in particular — who also have this cool level of self-expression and you want to share what that is, you want to create together. That led to jam sessions, which led to a desire to perform, and the singing...it's the music, really. The music is such a tour de force. It requires and requests an outlet if you really want to do reverence to it.
For a long time I was very shy about it because writing is a very subjective thing. It's a very subjective process; it's personal and it's intimate, and I used to be very self-contained with it because I had reluctance but then the music became bigger than my neurosis. When you're creative you let that creative sea flourish the way it's been intrinsically given to you. If you let that be the momentum then things really happen and they happen in a way that's breathtaking, but it took me a long time to honor that and even now I feel like I'm just at the tip of the iceberg.
Do you think some of that was just growing up, getting experience, and no longer caring what people thought of you?
Truly! You hit the nail on the head. As you grow up the approval of people in terms of whether or not thy will be receptive is no longer at the forefront of your decision making. At the forefront is your own appreciation, authenticity, and the gift of what that is to you.
How did you start to reconcile all of your influences? Was it a lengthy process to find your own distinctive voice?
I'm still discovering that, because there are endless influences. For me it's all very organic. It's just the music. I open myself up to what I'm feeling and what I've been exposed to and thankfully it's been a wide range.
Besides your mom being a pianist, did you have a lot of music at home?
There was a lot of music in our household. My mother exposed me to classical because she would sit and play for hours and hours: Schubert, Schumann, Bach. Then my brother would come home and he was listening to a lot of Brazilian artists, jazz and then at school it was heavy rock and R&B. It was a wide range of old school and new school. The music was kind of like a patchwork quilt.
Then, as I got more involved in the musician community, I had friends who toured with everybody from Sun Ra to the Rolling Stones. I also worked as a singer with a variety of artists like Nas, k.d. lang, and David Byrne. It was crazy — an incredible cornucopia of styles and signatures. The more I heard the more I wanted to keep hearing and exploring.
Did you find this made it easy to step into film where you have to work with other sound and visual elements? Absolutely. Film is just another mechanism, another dynamic of storytelling and that's what music is. It's all storytelling and it's all hitting those emotional points that are going to be evocative and revelatory. It made a lot of sense for me.
When did you start to realize you wanted to work in film?
Some people wake up and say "I want to be a film composer." I just woke up and said, "music." After I moved out to L.A. and got the Sundance fellowship, which was very affirming, that's when I really began to understand that it was something I could do — I really enjoyed it. That fellowship, where you are in this environment working with directors and people who are supporting and encouraging you, makes all the difference. Once that began to kick in I decided to be a lot more proactive about perusing it.
How did you get the assignment for Dear White People?
I met Justin Simien, the director, through the executive producer Stephanie Allain. She and I had been talking and she made the introduction. He and I worked on a very small project and we saw that our synergy was great, so then he asked me to score Dear White People.
Did you know he was going to use a lot of other music in addition to the score?
No, I had no idea what he was going to do musically. He is very gifted in terms of how he understands music as a storytelling element, and a lot of the direction was explicitly his. I came up with ideas based on his instructions, but he was very clear he wanted this sort of pastiche of genres and styles.
Did you score to picture?
I worked once the picture was locked, that's when I was brought in. I didn't have a lot of time. I am usually involved from the beginning in theater, but haven't had that experience yet in film scoring. Either way I like the process of collaboration and would be curious to score a film starting with script or storyboard, developing themes, etc. I may be going down a rabbit hole with that desire as everything definitely changes a lot once the film's been shot, but it would be an interesting part of the organic nature of creating the score.
Have you noticed any difference working with filmmakers who have a musical background?
It depends. Sometimes that helps and sometimes it hinders because ultimately it's about communicating what's needed. I try to let the directors know they don't have to speak to me in musical terms as long as we're talking about the emotional intent and what that means for them then that's what I want to utilize.
When you were cutting Dear White People, did you get a lot of direction as to how each track should work?
A lot of the diversity was Justin. For instance, he loves Stanley Kubrick. So, as sort of a nod to him he wanted to use that Schubert piano trio — the same one that was used in Barry Lyndon — so we tried different arrangements and came up with an electronica approach. If you listen to the melody for "House Elections" [above], that's the Barry Lyndon Schubert melody. He also referenced Gyorgy Ligeti and Yusef Lateef, and some of the cues reflect those influences. His direction was very specific in the wide variety of genres he chose and this of course, was very helpful.
I did not get the direct connection to Kubrick.
Yeah, check it out. He loves Barry Lyndon and the way Kubrick scored that movie. It was really a great experience to work with Justin on many levels, and especially because I got to create from such a wide range of musical taste.
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