Composer Kris Bowers On Working on Oscar Winner Green Book, Finding Early Success

Bridging Past with Present

Mar 12, 2019 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


One of the positive effects of Green Book winning big this awards season – including Best Picture at the Oscars – is that it provided a wide-reaching introduction to the film’s subject - African American pianist Dr. Don Shirley. The film depicts Shirley’s 1962 tour through the Deep South with his white driver Tony Lip (portrayed by Viggo Mortensen) and the friendship that developed between the two.

Actor Mahershala Ali portrays Shirley onscreen, but he has 29-year-old composer Kris Bowers to thank for making him look authentic while playing the piano. Bowers spent much time transcribing the original recordings for the film and later worked several months with Ali. He also stands in as a double during some of the scenes focusing in closeups of Shirley’s hands.

While the film is Bowers’ first studio film, he’s quickly made a name for himself as a composer - he scored Netflix hit series Dear White People and wrote an Emmy-winning song for Amazon's children's special The Snowy Day. He also composed music for the new ABC drama For the People.

In celebration of Green Book’s Blu-ray release this week (March 12), Under the Radar caught up with Bowers to discuss his work on the film and how he’s found success as a young composer.

Joshua M. Miller [Under the Radar]: What does it mean to have an Oscar winning film on your resume this early into your career?

Kris Bowers: It’s pretty wild. I wasn’t even expecting the film to get that kind of attention…because this is my first studio film and first time doing a project with people on the level of Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen and Peter Farrelly and Linda Cardellini. I was already pretty stunned just to be part of it, to be honest. And then once it started getting a lot of attention around the awards, it all became so surreal. So the fact that it won is pretty wild.

Have you gotten an increase in film or TV offers since the Oscar wins?

Yeah. More offers and more conversations that solidified a bit. If there had been people that had already been interested in me, this win made them even more curious about having me come in and meet. So that definitely has changed things a little bit.

What do you recall of the first time you heard Dr Don Shirley’s music?

The first time was actually right after the meeting I had with them. Or it was right after I read the script. The first meeting they had me come in just to talk about the project. I hadn’t heard of him or his music before. So around that time that I met with them and got the script was when I started listening to some of his music. I was pretty blown away. I started wondering what I had gotten myself into, actually. But I knew I had to practice, and it would be a lot of work. I was excited by it.

What aspects of his music and life story do you relate to most?

One thing is that he was so inspired by so many genres of music and found some sort of way to incorporate that into his own music. He not only was inspired by the classical music and classical repertoire that he studied his whole life, but early Gospel music, spirituals, and a bit of jazz standards. I think he was more inspired by the American Songbook and the songs that became jazz standards than he was by jazz musicians’ renditions of American Songbook pieces. Just because he had his issues, honestly, with jazz musicians. And I think he was upset that he was considered a jazz musician. But he took himself more seriously than they did.

Similarly, I’ve been inspired by so many different styles of music and love all these genres and try to find ways of representing all of that in my own music. That was one of the biggest things.

One of the things that drew me to the film in the first place was that I felt similarly isolated when it came to not fitting in with both people in my community sometimes and also people outside that. And always feeling a little bit like an outsider. In general people would assume things about you being a person of color just when you walk into a room. And it takes a lot to show them otherwise. That’s something I’ve been mindful of ever since I was a kid. Obviously, he was dealing with it on a much deeper level.

You similarly started playing piano at a very early age, as well.

Yeah. I was 4 or 5 when I started learning the notes on the piano. A little bit after that I started lessons. But he was more of a prodigy when he started. But, yeah, about the same age.

 Is there a composition he did that really speaks to you?

His rendition of “Waterboy” is something that really spoke to me, just hearing somebody that’s playing something that has much more of a spiritual or early Gospel sound to it. It was really great to hear and different hearing it. Also, his rendition of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies,” because of how incredible it is what he’s playing completely separate ideas in either of his hands. That’s a complicated and difficult thing to do, that the average person might hear and not realize how difficult it is. And he does it with ease and flawlessness. That’s another piece that blew me away.

Since there wasn’t sheet music available, you listened to recordings and transcribed it note for note. What was that process like?

Honestly, it was the thing I was most thankful for through this whole process. Because it allowed me the opportunity to get even more intimate with Dr. Don Shirley’s music and therefore get to know him a little better. I think it was tough not knowing much about this person or who he was as a person, and a lot of it was how guarded he was in his life. And how private he was when he was alive. Spending time with the music allowed me to understand who he was a bit more, at least as an artist.

Understanding how he does arrangements and how specific the arrangements are and how he chooses to use the melody. It shows me how meticulous he was and how specific he was about things and how respectful he was of written music that wasn’t his. He made them his own but did so while being true to the original and was clear to play the melodies correctly. Telltale signs of somebody who is doing their best to do their own version of something but also paying respect to the original composer and artist. That’s something that comes from his classical training and classical background. I feel I got to know a little more of who he was as an artist through playing the music, which was really big.

What was the most challenging part of that process?

Mainly playing it. Transcribing it never is very difficult just because one, that’s something I had to do in school and studying and learning this music. When you’re transcribing something, you can listen to it and play it back and play it at a slower rate. But [you need] to get it at the level where you can perform it and feels as if it’s come out from you. Honestly, transcribing something feels like you’re regurgitating something. Because it loses its original spark, that performance aspect of somebody creating it in the moment.

So, the big thing when you’re transcribing it is figuring out how to put that energy back into it so you’re playing it like it’s happening in that moment. So, the biggest challenge was making sure everything was accurate and my feel and touch were as close to Don Shirley as I could and making it sound like there was life to it. We knew most people probably hadn’t heard his music before and this would be the first they were hearing it. So we wanted it to be as exciting as possible.

You spent three months working with Mahershala Ali and teaching him how to play piano. What was it like seeing his dedication and excitement in learning? Did that make your job easier?

Yeah, it made my job much easier. The way that he was dedicated made it so we could progress much quicker than many other students I’ve had. It’s a difficult thing to learn how to play, and on top of that he’s trying to be a different person at the same time. So, I was, first of all, blown away by his ability to do all of that. His focus and diligence made it so that by the time we got to month two I could teach him little melodies and things like that. And it made the process incredibly easy for me. I was pretty happy to see him put that much effort into it, and it was such an honor to work with him.  

You’ve had some experiences with TV series. How does that process differ?

With the TV series, it’s going a lot faster. So, you don’t really have a lot of time to digest, or you have to digest as quickly as possible. I get an episode on a Monday and by Friday I should be done with it, essentially, and ready to turn it in. With that, you’re basically doing first reactions. You’re watching something and my initial reaction is “do this” and I start writing from that initial reaction and I turn it in. Unless the director or somebody feels that it’s not exactly right and we should revisit it, then I’ll revisit it. But if they think it’s great, then my initial response is what usually gets put into the final product.

That’s the other fun thing about it, is you don’t have any time to critique or judge yourself. It also forces me to put my best foot forward all the time. So, my first go at something isn’t half-something. It’s full on. That’s because you never know if that will be the final product. There were so many times where I’d write something, and it was a little demo or idea and it became the final product because they liked it so much. And then I’d feel frustrated that it wasn’t exactly what I wanted it to be. So, there’s not the luxury of time when it comes to TV stuff. There’s a pro and con to that.

The big thing [with film] is you have time to revisit things and make sure you really feel about something. And you can sit back and watch it in the context of the film a few times. So, there’s a little more time with a film that you can finetune things a little better.

How do you think millennials like yourself are influencing the landscape of composing?

It’s amazing. You look at the Oscar nominees, it’s cool to see a lot of guys I would consider my friends or that are my peers, at the very least, on those lists… these are all the next generation of composers. A lot of time you see these lists and they’re people in their 50s and older. One, because it takes so long to get recognized as a film composer. And two, because it’s a catch-22 thing where you can’t really get big projects unless you’ve done big projects. So, a lot of times it takes a while for young composers to get recognized on that level. It’s pretty amazing to see this young generation because it’s inspiring for other people.

When I look at people like Ludwig Göransson, who just had an amazing year where he won an Oscar and a few Grammy for his work on Black Panther but also his work with Childish Gambino, I imagine someone younger looking at that and being incredibly inspired by that. It’s easier being inspired by somebody just a little bit older than them because it feels a little bit more obtainable. It’s cool to part of that generation of guys that are doing it. 

What’s one piece of advice that you’d give to an aspiring composer?

It would be to figure out who you are as an artist as much as you can and permit yourself to be that unapologetically. I definitely spent a lot of time when I was younger trying to figure out in a sense if I was doing something the best way when I was compared to somebody else. Looking at other people and thinking there was something else I should be doing and to be more like that person. Because that person is finding success so maybe I should be a little more like them. The more I started feeling comfortable with who I was as an artist and what I was into as an artist, the more success I found.

It’s also tough as a young artist, especially if you’re in school and feel that you need to know everything. You need to be able to do everything and be a jack of all trades. Sometimes that’s not what you should do. If you’re really great at all things, you don’t really have one thing that you’re the best at. It’s about trying to find what you really love and really can do [well] and spend all your time and investigate that and be obsessive when developing and honing your craft.  

(www.krisbowers.com)



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