Composer Michael Abels rarely shies away from a challenge. His chilling cinematic scores have graced the silver screens for global audiences in Jordan Peele’s acclaimed horror films Get Out and Us. And when, in March, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra came calling with an unusual invitation, Abels was instantly on board. Using its 1943 premiere of Fanfare for the Common Man as a jumping-off point, the orchestra recruited a new generation of composers to reflect on months of isolation through single-instrument fanfares, released to a digital audience on the orchestra’s website. We caught up with Abels to discuss his viola fanfare, “Salute in Solo,” a piece inspired by the trials and hopes of a world in lockdown.
You live in Los Angeles. So how did you get involved in a project here in Cincinnati?
I was contacted by the assistant artistic administrator, and he explained that the Cincinnati Symphony was looking at ways to commission works that responded to quarantine. And the proposed project being pieces for solo instruments and individuals in isolation, that also harkens back to their Fanfare Project from 50, 60 years ago. That idea really struck me. It just seemed genius. It seemed really appropriate and poignant and powerful. And so when I understood what they were looking for, I was like, Yes. Absolutely. I’m on board. So from there, it was just about figuring out what would be the instrument to write for. And I wanted to choose an instrument that I could easily get a range of emotion from, but I wanted to do something a little less conventional, maybe. So I chose viola, because viola is clearly a very emotional instrument. Often, solos are given to the violins or cello, so I got to go with the really nice balance between expected and the unexpected.
For the untrained listener who might not be familiar with the term, what makes a fanfare special? What’s your creative process like when it comes to composing one?
It’s traditionally thought of as being for brass instruments, or featuring brass. And the reason for that is two-fold. One: Fanfares are often performed outside at very public celebrations. And in outdoor music that’s not amplified, from back in the old days, you need a certain amount of volume to get your point across. And good brass instruments have the ability to play very loud. The other thing about a fanfare is that it’s usually in celebration of something. And so it implies a certain grandeur—a certain largeness of scale. On a scale of 1 to 10, a fanfare is supposed to operate at a 10.
Tell me about what inspired your fanfare, “Salute in Solo.”
Fanfares usually aren’t very long. But the nature of a piece in isolation kind of stands against some of the preconceptions. You could certainly have a solo instrument. But mostly, when we celebrate and there’s an official thing—if you think about it, that implies a lot of people. The very nature of celebration with only one person—those are things that we think of as polar opposites. So therefore, because these fanfares are set up to be soliloquies, as a composer, you’re forced to bust out of the traditional notion of a fanfare. So for me—and this was all happening in March—I was extremely struck by all of our health care workers, what selfless heroes they are. We think of heroes as being extroverts—people who are outgoing and craving public attention. And healthcare workers, particularly nurses, they aren’t people who are craving spotlights. Their heroism is kind of in isolation, if you think about it. I was easily drawn to that image. The music I wrote begins with a phrase that’s kind of introspective, and introverted, and a bit mournful, but then the music takes that phrase and turns it into a very, very fast and joyful exploration of the same music. That was my way of depicting the crisis that we’re in, and the exhaustion and hopelessness that those people must feel, and yet transform that into something that can overpower—that can effectively cheat death by being so selfless and so bold.
What has your work life been like during COVID-19? Have you found that you’ve been able to draw inspiration from the uncertainty, or have you found it difficult to create during a time like this?
We’re all under tremendous emotional stress. Obviously, people who are out of work, people who are sick, or have family members [who are sick]. But even if you manage to not have to face those things, the uncertainty in our lives and the amount of change and upset can be hard on anyone. As a composer, a lot of what composing is is kind of the definition of isolation at home [laughs]. And a lot of times, in composing, what you’re doing is you’re trying to create space for yourself in your life to be in a solitary place. And life is very good at trying to prevent that, actually. So when everyone was ordered to stay at home, it’s basically an unbelievable opportunity to be with your creative self and not have to justify to people why you aren’t out with them, because suddenly no one’s asking you. There are no distractions. I expect there will be a great deal of really compelling art that will come out of this because of artists being able to—being given permission by the circumstances in society—to actually do the things they do. That being said, I’ve also had days where it’s been so stressful that I wasn’t able to create the concentration level I needed to be productive.
I can’t pass up the opportunity to talk about some of your work in film, specifically when it comes to your scores for Get Out and Us. How did you end up working with Jordan Peele on both of these films?
Some of my concert orchestral pieces are on YouTube. And they had tens of hits. But one of those tens was Jordan Peele, who was looking for a composer to score his feature film debut. And before anyone really knew that Jordan was this person, he is the world’s hugest fan of suspense and horror. He’s a student of those films. He understands everything about why they work, including their scores. And the scores he was most interested in—a lot of the ones he likes—use 20th century concert classical music, like the works of Penderecki and Lutoslawski. So he was looking for someone who had that language—that kind of concert hall credit—but also someone who he thought could understand the character: A young African American man in a white world. I think he heard and saw that in me. He invited me to lunch, and we had this great conversation about what scary music is, and he talked about how African American music always has a thread of hope in it, even in blues and in tragedy, and how he wanted that to be absolutely gone [laughs]. So out of that, I wrote the main title track for Get Out, and then I ended up scoring Us. And Jordan, he’s an auteur. He has a definite point of view and definite things he loves to do. And one of those things he loves to do is take things that you think of as very harmless and nice and ruin them for you.