Guest Blog by ETD Composer, Daniel Tobias! / by Eryc Taylor

DANIEL TOBIAS & ERYC TAYLOR DANCE
By Daniel Tobias

 I first met Eryc Taylor in 2010 in the Pilates class he was teaching. I can’t remember exactly how toning my midsection led to composing for his dance company. Just one of those New York City serendipities. But not many months passed before I’d composed “The Missing” for his dance company - a seven-minute piano solo. I was new to the world of modern dance, so I tried to absorb everything. I went to his dance retreat. I attended rehearsals. I watched every video I could find on modern dance. By the time The Missing was premiered, I’d composed another seven-minute chamber piece for his company – “Song for Cello and Piano” – which integrated even more romanticism and movement. Then the raw, emotional, athletic “The Missing” became a huge hit that season. And then “Song for Cello and Piano” became an audience favorite.

Does Eryc’s choreography match the movement in my head as a composer? Not at all. But Eryc’s choreography always adds a schizophrenic complexity to the experience. He salivates at the opportunity to challenge assumptions. In that regard, we’re very much aligned. Also, literalism in modern dance is just plain tedious, isn’t it?

After two projects, I understood what turned Eryc on creatively: passion, dark souls, eruptions of emotions, and a solid narrative. He played in a ball game I wanted more tickets to. At the end of 2016 I composed a full orchestral piece called “The Lure” that climactically complimented “The Missing” and “Song for Cello and Piano.” It was a big twelve-minute thing - dark, foreboding, twisted, and romantic.

However, we learned the hard way that recording a full orchestra in New York City is both prohibitively expensive and nearly impossible unless you’ve the resources of The Met or The Disney Corporation. It was so frustrating because I shed blood and tears composing that monster! But good things grow out of mulch, and I sat my butt down and finally learned Logic Pro once and for all. Does any music software provide the perfect replication of an orchestra? Of course not! But it allowed me to render my own compositions without having to shell out thirty thousand for a full orchestra and recording studio. And it opened the door to the next phase of compositions: Eryc’s extraordinarily epic EARTH series.

Listen…I get it.

There’s nothing more tedious than to read a composer’s process. Typically the process is always esoteric and infused with academic bombast – as if the composer is still seeking approval from professors at Juilliard or The University of California, Berkeley. I studied at both. I know the kind of scholasticism that gets academia’s rocks off. And I don’t care. I’m not seeking tenure. I’m not a misfit in dark-rimmed glasses who pretends human ears haven’t been exposed to a full century of movie music. I’ve Meisner-trained emotional access. Also, as a social dancing addict, I refuse to ignore the body below my neck. I want my blood, core, limbs, and nether regions stimulated by music - not just my left cranial lobe. I write music that moves limber sweaty dancers, and, more importantly, moves me. I need lyricism and musical narratives, and I won’t compose without either.

So…along came Eryc’s rather epic request:

“Daniel, will you please write a twelve to fifteen minute piece of music that represents the Creation of Earth?”  

I blinked twice, swallowed hard, and replied, “Umm…sure, Eryc, no problem.”

“And Daniel, would you drop everything and have it finished in three weeks?”

“Umm…sure Eryc, no problem.”

I wiped the shine off my forehead.

Oooh, what am I getting myself into?

Secretly, I actually loved the challenge, and Eryc knew I’d drop everything and work 24/7 until I got it done. Even at the expense of paying my rent.

God, what a bastard!  

So, how does one even tackle a musical representation of The Creation of Earth? One researches everything one can about Earth’s history. One hunts for anything that makes an emotional impact, from geology to physics to astronomy. In the end I felt completely justified in concluding that the word collision would be the emotional center and through-line of my piece.

Somewhere in infinity, two dust particles accidentally collided, and Earth was initiated. Over billions of years more dust particles collided into these original two, eventually growing to generate heat from the ever-increasing friction of collisions - the same friction that sustains Earth’s molten core today. Asteroids collided by chance into our planet over billions of years and brought with them the elements that would create water. Theia collided into Earth and sheered off a piece that would become the Moon. The collisions of tectonic plates would produce volcanic combustions that radically altered Earth’s temperature pendulously, creating and destroying life over and over, long before dinosaurs appeared. Finally, after continental collisions upheaved the Himalayas, Earth arrived at the very delicate, precarious, pristine, and momentary arrival point in which mammals could survive and flourish.

All that gave me a dynamic palate I could use, but it was still sort of cerebral. I needed an emotional context to draw out the musical themes.

And I found it.

There's a poignant, spiritual beauty (represented in the last third of the music) where Earth seems to take a deep breath, sigh, and indulge a short respite from all the turbulence it suffered in order to arrive at the Time of Mammals. Earth in its present state is in a serene pause, but one that only exists in the eye of a hurricane. To me this is very moving. To know that, sadly, no matter what we do on Earth and to Earth, according to the long-term pattern, it would be consistent that another collision will eventually wipe life out entirely yet again.

All we can do is be as full and present as we can in the short time that Man has left in this solar system. To be fully alive - for all our joy, tragedy, and impermanence - is our obligation and our role to play before the next collision that renews Earth once again.

So Earth’s Creation became all about the emotional dynamic of collisions vs. serenity.

And I tried to synthesize all that in…um…twelve minutes.

Yup.

Bombastic?

Yup.

Too much brass?

Maybe.

Well, YOU try creating the entire Earth in three weeks!

This last March, at the performance of Earth’s Creation, I opened the program and learned something I’d previously not known.

I cornered Eryc at the reception, “Um…Eryc…sweetheart…I see in the program that I will be composing two more pieces.”

“Yes,” he affirmed. “Oh! Didn’t you know that?”

“No.”

“I’m sure I mentioned it.”

“No.”

“It was a last minute decision. Civilizations Rise is your next piece. Twelve to fifteen minutes. Your choreographer is Gierre. You guys worked well together in the past. You have until the middle of May to finish it.”

“Fine,” I answered. “But in return, you have to let me use your apartment for the table reading of the play I finished.”

“All yours. C’mon, let’s take pictures!”

Oh, boy.

I suppose I could sell my body to pay rent. Or write a Romance – those do well. Or go back into the corporate world. Uggh. None of which I’d now have time for anyway. My heart beat fast trying to reconcile writing Civilizations Rise and finance.

God, I wish my brain worked faster!

God, I wish I lived in the days when composers had patrons!

The truth is I really did want to work with Gierre again. I love the muscularity and musicality of his choreography. And Eryc knew full well I couldn’t say no to this.

What a bastard!

So…how does one attempt to rope in ALL of civilization into twelve to fifteen minutes? It’s an insane goal. For a week this challenge had me stumped. Until, mid boot-camp at New York Sport Club, it occurred to me that all civilizations – from ancient ones to today – have one thing in common: civilizations can only form when its citizens put the needs of the many above the needs of the one. Jane doesn’t just plow Dick down when she wants to drive through the intersection. Jane agrees to wait for the light to turn green before accelerating. The more I thought about this, the more profound and noble that idea of self-sacrifice became.

And that was the starting point for my piece.

Once I had a starting point, I had something I could develop and variate. I had something I could color. Then I could contrast it with the middle section. Personally, I’m pretty proud of that middle six minutes of the march. It gets my heart racing. It’s suspenseful. It makes my body want to move. It slowly and sinuously crescendos to a climax and then de-crescendos in eerie chromaticism. Then that noble French horn duet emerges out of that swamp of eeriness. Very Pines of Rome. Very early Stravinsky.

“Daniel, stop composing for the masses. You’re far too populist.”

“I don’t care, Professor of Music Theory! Go alienate another audience with one of your Twelve-Tone lectures in a dark museum somewhere! Ughh!”

I shouldn’t say things like that. That attitude will never get me to Carnegie Hall. But maybe a gig scoring Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure at Universal Orlando.

Anyway…

What is that march in the middle? Is it the trampling down of human rights and the fragile eggs of endangered species in the name of progress? Is it the construction of an Egyptian or Mayan pyramid using thousands of slaves? Or is it just some contrapuntal reference to Mesopotamia and other ancient civilizations?

A lot of ideas kicked this piece into gear, sure. But, honestly, after week upon week of writing all through the night, I sort of dropped agendas and just wrote music that felt good. That stimulated me from head to heel. Plus I was determined NOT to merely loop digital music samples in the Rise of Civilization! No, no, no! All fourteen minutes and seven seconds are fully orchestrated, Eryc Taylor, and you’re welcome!

What is the final take-away of the music to Rise of Civilization?

I sat in Hells Kitchen, New York City, writing every note. From my desk window in my little apartment I can see the World Trade Center, the Empire State Building, the Intrepid, Times Square, and the park where they filmed the last scene of West Side Story. This incredible metropolis is the final act of centuries of sacrifice, cooperation, creativity, and vision. It’s profoundly inspirational to think man has the ability to work together in order to coexist, thrive, and achieve such great things. So, if we can work together to grow to the point where we’ve put Earth in peril, do we not have the ability to work together to heal Earth?

I think we do.

Perhaps that is the final message of this piece.

Listen to it yourself and let me know.

Whatever it is, it took a big, beautiful, hair-greying journey to get to it.

I’m grateful to my friend Eryc Taylor, as always…but mostly for motivating me to get to the gym just in case my husband divorces me for falling short of the rent. But Civilization had to Rise! 

ABOUT DANIEL

Daniel studied at University of California, Berkeley and The Juilliard School of Music. Daniel’s debut book “The Next” was a Lammy Award finalist for Best Mystery of 2014 under the pen name Rafe Haze. He taught the Meisner Technique of Acting for the Bay Area Acting Studio for a decade. He competes regularly in line dance choreography competitions, and won First Place in 2016 at the Fort Wayne Dance For All Line Dance Choreography Competition. You can find him West Coast Swinging, Two Stepping, or Line Dancing in New York City at least three times a week. In the works are: 1) a new play entitled “Be Still Be Silent,” 2) a new novel by Rafe Haze, 3) a backstage theater book for children, and 4) a song cycle to benefit the Japanese victims of the Tsunami of 2011. Daniel’s greatest credential is his husband of 18 years, Gerardo Torres, the Executive Chef of Masa, Bar Masa, Kappo Masa, and Tetsu. No, Gerardo never cooks for Daniel at home aside from quesadillas, but he loves him to death anyway.

Contact: daniel@danieltobias.com