Wired for Sound

By Sacha Zimmerman

Musician and composer Kathryn Bostic on otherworldly downloads, cosmic dictation, musical divination, and other forms of celestial inspiration.

Whether she’s working on a symphony, an album, or a score for a major film, Kathryn Bostic is always a storyteller. Or, as she might put it, a sonic storyteller. On the Lives That Speak podcast, Bostic spoke to Head of School Bryan Garman and Director of Equity, Justice, and Community Natalie Randolph ’98 about working with August Wilson, celebrating Toni Morrison, honoring her own self-sovereignty, and listening to silence.

BRYAN GARMAN: We’re fortunate to talk with Kathryn Bostic, an amazing composer, songwriter, and musician. We are also delighted to be honoring you with a 2020 Distinguished Alumni Award.

KATHRYN BOSTIC: I’m completely honored and blown away. I think of so many of my class members as being distinguished alumni. Sidwell Friends has always been such a part of the way I’ve gone about my life. There’s this energy field Sidwell encompasses; it’s such a nurturing, giving environment. It’s a sense that the sky’s the limit, you’re capable of doing anything. I didn’t really intellectually understand that until I got out into the world, and I experienced the contrast. Life is always going to present itself in ways that are a lot more severe, full of naysaying and fear. At Sidwell, you’re in this nurturing bubble. I’m so grateful it’s a part of the foundation of who I am; it really has provided me with a sense of self.

BG: Who do you draw inspiration from?

KB: Musically, Frances Cleaver inspired me. Mrs. Cleaver was so passionate about her service of music at the Sidwell Friends community. The musicals she would create and the holiday sea- son music she would galvanize everybody to perform was really powerful. And there were so many artists I grew up listening to. You had a range of artists who were also activists in their work, who were trailblazers—Earth, Wind and Fire, Joni Mitchell, Marvin Gaye. For me, it’s about being around people who are consumed with passion for their self-expression. I had the good fortune of working with August Wilson on Gem of the Ocean. That process—not just because of the amazing talent that he embodies as a playwright and as a griot, but his way of committing to that calling—had a big impact on me. Music is this incredible teacher. I call it “cosmic dictation.” I’m really just getting these inspiration downloads, and maybe in that way, I’m a griot, too. A sonic griot.


BG: When you’re presented with an opportunity to score a movie like Clemency, which was the 2019 Sundance Grand Jury winner, what is your creative process?

KB: With Clemency, which stars Alfre Woodard and is phenomenal, the director wanted to convey, with a cold eye, the parameters of the prison system without weighing in on how you should feel about it. She just wanted to present the facts: a week in the life of this warden played by Woodard and the toll of being the one who deals with the rites of passage of death-row inmates. What kind of toll does that take on her psyche? The director wanted the music to be very, very sparse.

With a film, sometimes you’ll get the script, but everything changes once you get the visual: That’s how you’re informed about how to use music to enhance the emotional cadence of a scene, how to elevate the content of that scene and the overall arc of it in the movie. Typically, you have what they call “temp music,” so when you’re cutting the scenes, you have something to cut to. They’ll either use music that suits the tone of the film, or they’ll ask the composer, “Would you have pre-existing music we can use to sculpt the film?” That’s called a “temp score.” But this movie was edited without any music. I had no point of reference in terms of finding the tone.

It took a while to score because the director had become used to the silence—understandably, the prison environment is very stark. There’s nothing warm and fuzzy about it. So any tonality could be over-emotionalizing or tipping the senses to feel a certain way. Music is so sensory-oriented, so visceral. It was a very challenging score, probably one of the most difficult I’ve written. I began to listen to the prison—the footsteps, the coldness, the austerity of that environment, the metal clanking of the cell doors. There’s also echoing in this vast, cavernous place. I had to figure out what was going to be the palette—the sound, textures, instruments.

Initially, the director wanted a lot of vocal textures to reflect the warden’s inner struggle. That was interesting, but a little bit too much in terms of a score, too heavy-handed. We ended up using a few vocal overlays, and I chose some ambient, metallic textures.

Whereas in the Toni Morrison film, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, the director and the editor just let me do my thing, which is very rare. Usually you have a lot of people weighing in with their notes, which is as it should be; it’s their vision and it’s a collaboration. But the moment I saw the Toni Morrison film open—the way it’s edited, the way it’s cut—it has a rhythm to it. I began to feel that rhythm, and I began to feel this swagger. Plus her voice, oh my god. Her voice alone is so majestic, so powerful. I wanted to frame that, not get in the way of it. I wanted the music to have a summoning kind of a quality to it, saying, “Gather around people, because you’re about to go on a journey that is going to be beyond memorable and powerful.”

At that point, the music is more about what you’re feeling than what you’re hearing. I call it “musical divination.” I imagined this community of musicians coming together, and the music basically wrote itself—even that end title song, “High Above the Water.” I wrote an anthem to Toni Morrison. I started hearing this old-school piano revival, elevating the spirit, and lifting into a place of comfort, solace, and peace.

Morrison describes this in Song of Solomon as slaves were being brought to this country: The ancestors elevated the slaves off the ship and brought them back to Africa. That imagery was so powerful. These African angels coming to get their family and take them out of pain and misery. I started hearing that song based on that imagery and that feeling of being transcendent, transcending this horrific situation.

The water is also such a powerful element in Morrison's storytelling: There’s tragedy in the water, carriage in the water, rebirth in the water. So the water became this baptismal element, and then I began to invoke the character who was telling that story. It was this old soul, an old woman telling her family about the water: “There’s a shine on the water, high above the water, where secrets lie.”

Self-sovereignty is about showing up in a way that is honest and enables an appreciation for life, even in the middle of all this chaos and struggle.

NATALIE RANDOLPH: I’m interested in how you don’t define yourself in certain boxes and how you’ve managed to assert what you call your “self-sovereignty”?

KB: Self-sovereignty is about showing up in a way that is honest and enables an appreciation for life, even in the middle of all this chaos and struggle. What I do as an artist comes from another perspective, an otherworldly way of being informed. My goal is to be at peace.

The value of one’s unique individuality is what you bring to the collective, what you bring to enhance and be of service. Much of today’s messaging though is topical and constructed. You have “people of color.” Do you say, “people of white”? The term, “white privilege”—why is it a privilege to be white? It is not a privilege to be white. The privilege is in the fact that there’s access because of perverted legislation. The term “white supremacy”—there’s nothing supreme about being white. These are acts of terrorism. Even the term, “racism”—it’s not race; we’re talking about pigment. How shallow and superficial is that?

These are constructed parameters that create a smoke-and-mirrors reality. How come we never talk about the belief system that put those constructs in place, the belief system that there is a need for hierarchy? That is the illusion we are living in right now.

BG: What are you listening to these days?

KB: I’m doing so much composing, though sometimes I do take a break from music. When I do, I am listening to silence, and to the birds and nature.

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