The name of Jeff Beal may not be as well-known as “House of Cards,” the Netflix original series on Washington politics, but the show owes much of its popularity to its music composer. A graduate from the Eastman School of Music, recognized for his jazz career and television composing, Beal is a recipient of three Emmy Awards. Next Monday, Nov. 23, Beal will visit Vassar College to lecture on and explore music in film. He will also attend several classes and dance shows as a part of an overarching conversation about music’s presence in different artistic forms.
Visiting Assistant Professor of Dance Miriam Mahdaviani was one of the organizers of this event. She met Beal this past summer when she attended a dance performance. “I had a chance to meet Jeff this summer through my work with the G. Schirmer music publishing company. We were both attending a performance of a dance piece which was choreographed to music that Jeff wrote specifically for that performance. I believe Jeff is delighted to be visiting Vassar. He is looking forward to seeing his music interpreted for dance at the VRDT performance and he responded enthusiastically when he heard that our students would relish an opportunity to learn directly from him about his work for film and television.”
Before the lecture on Monday evening, Beal will attend Dance Composition, a class taught by Mahdaviani. The class visit will offer a space for both the composer and student dancers to discuss their respective art forms. This perspective will likely complement Beal seeing his music being performed on stage during VRDT’s Final Showings. Mahdaviani noted, “Students will have the rare opportunity to interact with a composer who is at the top of his field.”
She continued, “They will share the dance works they’ve created this semester and discuss how the addition of music, or the type of music, informs a dance piece. Jeff will be joined by composer Howard Kilik. Howard periodically composes a score for the VRDT dance company and has done so again this year for faculty member Kathy Wildberger’s choreography. Jeff and Howard will speak about their collaborations with Kathy and me, and speak about how music and dance combine to produce a work of art.”
Having little exposure to dance composition, Beal said that the experience will be new to him, while noting the similarities with his previous works. He explained, “I’m relatively new to the dance world, but I suppose we will talk about musical structure, form and narrative content. There is a very interesting relationship between ballet choreography and film music. Each of those pursuits involve working out a parallel structure (i.e. the film score, of the dance choreography) to a pre-existing one (i.e. the film, or the musical score to a ballet).”
In addition to Dance Composition, Beal will also give a lecture about his work behind two episodes of “House of Cards” to students in the class, Music in Film. Chair of the Music Department, Professor Michael Pisani said, “As for what interests me most in Jeff Beal’s work, it is how he is able to develop his own personal voice as a composer in the midst of having to speak a largely formulaic language and of trying to meet what must surely be the heavy demands of directors and studio heads. My impression is that this is a balancing act each composer needs to find for him/herself. The corporate investment in mainstream cinema and major TV serials almost invariably leads to the establishment of and reliance upon successful formulas. How does one use the formulas–the expectations du jour–and still find something new to say?”
After his visit to the two classes, Beal will deliver his lecture at 5:30 p.m. in the Rosenwald Screening Room, Vogelstein Center for Drama and Film.
He aims not only to present and demonstrate his music, but also his creative methodology. “I’ll be showing lots of examples of my work from various films and TV shows (“House of Cards,” “Blackfish,” “The Queen Of Versailles,” etc.) and hopefully some works in progress to show how I get form point A to point B in working out a musical solution for a certain film sequence,” Beal elaborated.
Chair of the Film Department and Professor of Film Sarah Kozloff holds high expectations of this lecture given her past experiences with Beal’s work. She said, “Previous to this event I knew of Jeff Beal primarily through his scoring of ‘House of Cards’; that opening title sequence provides the perfect feeling of fast-paced menace.”
Kozloff continued, expressing her excitement, “I was delighted to learn that he has scored two highly-acclaimed recent documentaries: ‘Blackfish’ (2013) and ‘The Queen of Versailles’ (2012). ‘Blackfish’ is being held up as a social documentary that actually has prompted change (have you read the latest announcements about Seaworld?); ‘The Queen of Versailles’ is a complicated character study about wealth in America. I am eager now to rewatch the films and study how the music enhances these powerful documentaries.”
For Beal, composing music for films and TV series were not so different from playing in a Jazz band. Beal elaborated, “I grew up playing jazz trumpet. Playing jazz is a very collective creative experience. I feel working in film to be very similar, i.e. I draw a lot of inspiration from the actors and trying to work with their performances and embellish them, to play in their band, so to speak. One of the most important things is to really listen to and to observe what is happening on screen, and how music can affect and/or support that. I like to write to picture; I’ll work out a basic sense of the tempo that feels ‘right’ with a scene at the beginning. Dialog writing, and editing all have a certain rhythm to them, and I try to address that in the way the music folds into a scene.”
Well-known for his role in the crew of “House of Cards,” Beal will discuss the series as a highlight of his lecture here. “I’ve loved doing ‘House Of Cards’ from the start. The tone was set by David Fincher. He is very creative and very obsessive (in a good way) with doing things with precision and style. He puts a lot of thought into incredible visual detail, blocking, setting up shots, all in service of a dramatic tone. As we found our way into the music, it became this wonderfully dark and sophisticated type of scoring that I love to do. Coming from jazz, the occasional touches of film noir type harmonies and slightly jazz and/ or dissonant type of textures is something I love to do,” Beal said.
As a final note, Mahdaviani emphasized the opportunity Beal provides for film and music students and the campus at large. She explained, “Music adds immeasurably to our perception of the images and dialog on the screen. Jeff ’s lecture will give us insight into his creative process and explain some of the technical aspects of the ‘music for film’ industry. Students will also get a behind-the-scenes look at how Jeff ’s music grows from an original idea into the recording one hears when viewing his films. Students who wish to pursue this field will gain a deeper understanding of what is involved.”