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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

A still from Shoes (1916) by Lois Weber. Public domain.

In recent years, bassist and composer Alexis Cuadrado has expanded his focus to encompass scoring for film and radio. His latest long-form score is for Lois Weber’s 1916 silent film Shoes, a drama following a young woman who struggles to replace her only pair of shoes while supporting a family of six with deadbeat father. In Cuadrado’s words, “The score is a dialogue meditating on the fight for women’s rights, poverty, and workers’ rights over a period of a century, reflecting how these issues continue to plague our world today.”

The score was premiered at Jazz at Lincoln Center, and will be performed with the film at The Jazz Gallery by vocalist Kavita Shah, trumpeter Nadje Noordhuis, cellist Brian Sanders, vibraphonist Christos Rafalides, pianist Martha Kato, drummer Shirazette Tinnin, and Cuadrado himself on bass. We discussed the score with Cuadrado in depth, and dove head-first into a discussion on he composes music that reflects complex social and personal questions.

The Jazz Gallery: Your upcoming Jazz Gallery show is a live performance of your “Shoes” score. I’ll link your beautiful blog post on the process here, but would you mind briefly telling me how the project started?

Alexis Cuadrado: Three years ago, I wrote a score for Charlie Chaplin’s “The Immigrant.” I wanted to write another film score, a follow-up relating to a social justice angle, a shift that has been happening in my last few years of original work. I was prompted by my daughter, a beautiful transgender girl, which I mentioned in the blog post: Before she came out as transgender, she was always asking “Why are you always playing with men? Where are the women? Why aren’t there enough women musicians?”

I had the lucky chance to sit down with Richard Brody, film critic for The New Yorker: He gave me a lot of suggestions, and this film Shoes was among them. I saw a trailer about the restoration of the film online, then found the film through the New School library and had it shipped from a library in Philadelphia. When I saw it, I knew this was the film I want to work on. It’s so beautiful, so aesthetically strong, so thematically resonant with what’s going on today. In many ways, it looks at the same issues as the Chaplin film. These films were made a hundred years ago, but they still reflect many of today’s social issues. They describe a kind of social injustice, and it’s good for us to watch and reflect. It’s a good checkpoint.

TJG: When you first saw the film and had these immediate feelings, was there a scene that encapsulated those feelings for you?

AC: There’s one scene with astounding cinematography in which there are these big superimposed hands that hound the main character at night. The hands have the word “poverty” painted in large script, you know, like poverty is hounding this woman. It really shocked me. Here we are today, class is still difficult to overcome, women are still being abused. That was a powerful scene.

TJG: You had the challenge of building a musical arc from the beginning to the end of the movie.

AC: Yeah, and it’s 53 minutes [laughs].

TJG: Could you talk about the trajectory of the score? As if you were describing an album or symphony?

AC: I wanted to to achieve a few important things with this score. “The Immigrant” was a more literal score, it really follows the movie, with classic comedy moments where the music follows the visuals. I wanted Shoes to be more like musical theater, with songs rather than a conventional film score. That was my point of departure. So every piece had to have a beginning and an end, last a few minutes, and work as a standalone song too. If you don’t see the film, you can still listen to the songs and they tell the story. Of course, the songs had to work with the film at the same time.

TJG: So did you approach the songs by concept, by topic?

AC: Yes. The songs follow the narrative arc of the film. When you have a big job in front of you, you can’t do it all at once. I had to break it into parts. I watched the film twenty or thirty times, wrote a lot of notes by hand, tried to figure out good breaking points where one song would end and another one would begin. It was research, if you will, on how to effectively play the pieces so there would be a narrative arc that would follow the film, while keeping the pieces independently sustainable, and creating a unified collection of songs.

The thematic subject of each song has to do with the film. My first idea was to use the text cards from the film as lyrics: That idea lasted for one song [laughs]. I thought, “This just isn’t going to work out.” So I started writing lyrics, which is something I’d never done in my life. I was terrified of that, because I’m not a writer, but I did it, and as I went along, I gained more confidence. I’m lucky to have a wonderful friend who is an opera librettist, of all things, and when I had a first version of the songs, she looked at them and gave me some suggestions. My wife is a writer as well, so we re-wrote three of the songs together. Still, ninety percent of what I wrote is there in the final music. There was a vision in the back of my head that just came out. I don’t know how it happened, to be honest.

TJG: You have a diverse musical background, a lot of different stuff in your bag. What kind of musical language would you say you used during this scoring process?

AC: I grew up musically as a jazz musician, playing on the scene in Barcelona and then in New York. I would write songs, write tunes, and was lucky to play with a lot of the heaviest cats in the New York scene. That’s still a strong influence for me. But I’ve opened myself up to a lot of other things, including film scoring. Now I write a lot of music for podcasts and radio as well. My voice has expanded to production too, which can be a very creative enterprise, thinking about how sound and orchestration affect you psychologically, as a listener.

I have some really amazing musicians playing this score, and they are amazing at playing the written notes and shine as improvising voices. There’s quite a lot of improvisation, and a lot of non-improvisation too, since we play with a click track in order to sync with the film. There are other influences, including contemporary classical music/new music, flamenco, all the things that form part of my own musical vocabulary: It’s all there, but honestly I don’t think about it all that much. I just hear music as my palette comes together to create a range of ideas.

TJG: So when you’re dealing with a wide range of issues, including women’s rights, trans rights, poverty, feminism, in this film, how do you code those ideas musically?

AC: When teaching composing and arranging at The New School, I’ll tell my students: “It’s all about the vibe, the feeling that you convey in a piece of music.” That’s the ultimate goal. How do you write a piece about poverty and make it feel like poverty? I don’t know. However, what I can do is attempt to write something that encompasses that feeling. Shoes is not a cheery score. There’s no happy ending–there’s no ending at all, for that matter, which I love. The movie just stops. Life goes on. It’s avant-garde, in a way. Anyway, there’s a lot of soul-searching in this score, because it has to have that intense emotional component. All the elements, whether technical, musical, orchestrational, or stylistic, function in order to achieve these emotional states. It’s honest in the sense that I want to convey these feelings. So I bang my head against the wall until I find something that feels like it works [laughs].

TJG: Imagine I’m one of your students, I come to you, and say “Professor Cuadrado, a friend wants me to score their two-minute film on a certain social issue. I don’t know where to begin, what should I do?!” Any suggestions for that student?

AC: Go outside. Walk around. Think. Try to hear some music in your head. Use anything you can to get at least one simple idea. It could be a drum pattern, a bassline, a melody, a vibe, a groove, something musically tangible. Maybe you hear a sound, like tremolo guitar: So be it. Start there. Try it out. See if it works. If it doesn’t, change it until you find something that works. And if you don’t find something that works, find something you can live with, and then move on to the next piece [laughs]. Every piece you write isn’t going to be amazing. That’s reality. I have dozens of pieces that I’ve played once. I’ll say “Hm, that’s not so great, okay, next.” You have to keep working, failing over and over again, taking away whatever didn’t quite work. Once you discover that process, at least you’ve learned something with that piece that you can apply to the next one.

For example, right now I’m working on the music for a podcast called Slow Burn for their new season about the 2000 election. I’m working on a theme for George Bush [laughs]. Yesterday I spent about five hours just trying to find a vibe, and I wrote some music that I know is not it, but I like the vibe I found. I knew it wasn’t going to work, but I was fine failing as long as I could get a vibe, a sound, a tempo, everything else but the music itself. Now, today, hopefully, I’ll go down to my studio and find the music inspired by the work I’ve already done. It’s not an immediate process, it just doesn’t work like that for me. Another piece of advice is to do the work every day, just like you practice your instrument. Sit down, write something, even if it sucks.

TJG: Any thoughts about the upcoming Gallery show?

AC: We’ll be screening the film. I’m so excited to present it at the Gallery, because it’s like a home for me. I’ve been playing there as a leader since 2004! I’m excited to present it with these musicians as well. I knew all of the musicians I was writing for while working on the score, so I could consult with them. I would ask, “What do you think about this,” for example, with Amy the cellist, we got together at her house and worked on this solo cello part, and we worked it out until it became what I was hearing. That was an amazing experience for me as a composer, to pick the brains of these amazing colleagues and get some beautiful music coming from them. You’ve seen the lineup: They’re all fantastic. We also became an instant family, the project is a kind of siblinghood. We performed in DC in September, and everyone was so chill, yet really worked their asses off to learn the music and played beautifully. This is a joy. I am incredibly privileged to be able to work with this group of people.

Alexis Cuadrado presents his score to Shoes at The Jazz Gallery on Friday, March 15, and Saturday, March 16, 2019. The group features Mr. Cuadrado on bass, Kavita Shah on vocals, Nadje Noordhuis on trumpet, Brian Sanders on cello, Christos Rafalides on vibraphone, Martha Kato on piano, and Shirazette Tinnin on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. each night. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.