“When I Am Dead”

A few months ago, I stumbled across the works of English poet Christina Rossetti (1830 – 1894). I was struck by the eloquent melancholy in her surprisingly contemporary writing, and could practically hear her voice speaking to me as I read. I found a two-stanza poem simply called “Song,” and read the first line: When am I dead, my dearest, sing no sad songs for me. An explosion went off in my brain, and I knew I had to write music for these words. Today, I just posted a video of the complete piece:

Scoring music for narrative can be a joyous experience (that is why I dedicate the vast majority of my waking hours to doing it), but I am always open to exploring other avenues of musical expression. Taking advantage of my sudden burst of inspiration, I carved out a weekend to… ** gasp! ** … write music just for the fun of it! 

A melody poured out of my brain onto Rossetti’s words like melted butter over popcorn. I honestly think I had the vocal tune all but locked down in a matter of minutes. The rest of my weekend was spent crafting interesting harmonies underneath it, and composing developmental material to function as an introduction and epilogue.

I strove to push my harmonic limits, to stretch creative muscles that don’t get used frequently when writing to picture. I peppered the piece with minor sixth chords, and struck the end of each stanza with lavishly lyrical french sixth chords. My love of Ravel, Debussy and Gershwin shines through pretty brightly in the harmonic construction of these passages.

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As I wrote, I knew the musicians I would want to hear perform this. For the all-important voice, I approached mezzo-soprano Melanie Henley Heyn, with whom I first worked back in college. Melanie debuted my first orchestral composition when I was a student, The Collapse of Saint Francis, which was also an orchestral text setting (of my own original text). The tricky interlocking string quartet riffs were tailored specifically for the Calder Quartet, with whom I have worked on nearly every score I have composed in the last three years. I also added viola da gamba lines for Malachai Bandy, who has contributed frequently to my scores, most notably the Main Title of Da Vinci’s Demons. Fortunately, all of these insanely talented people enthusiastically agreed to work with me on this odd little project.

While I was working on this, I was fortunate to perform a concert of my original works at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica with the Calder Quartet. In two sold-out shows, we assembled a chamber orchestra to play excerpts from Outlander, Europa Report, The Walking Dead, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Da Vinci’s Demons, Battlestar GalacticaDark Void, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and more. I brought Melanie up to the stage and we treated the crowd to the world premiere performance of “When I Am Dead.” It was one of only two pieces on the program not from a soundtrack, so I was initially nervous the crowd wouldn’t care for it. After the shows, I was shocked by how many fans and friends alike kept asking about this piece, saying how much it had moved them. That response gave me the encouragement I needed to press ahead and create a fully-produced recording.

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My key players and I went into studio and laid down the basic performance. I had to spend a few days prior brushing up the tricky piano part that I had written just slightly outside than my comfort zone. I also recorded orchestral overdubs with a fifty-piece orchestra to add gravity to the narrative. Lastly, I layered in some bowed piano strings and hurdy gurdy drones to add a subtle scratchiness to the warmth of the orchestra. (What classical art song is complete without hurdy gurdy?!)

I brought my whole score production team in, including orchestrators Ed Trybek and Henri Wilkinson, mixer Steve Kaplan, mastering engineer Pat Sullivan and filmmaker Kevin Porter. Together, they helped me create a recording and behind-the-scenes session video that captured the joy of producing “When I Am Dead.”

Once it was all done, however, I suddenly realized that I had no clue whatsoever what to do with it! The notion of selling a track like this as a single felt weird, and I don’t really have other material like it to justify an album. I decided to simply put it up on YouTube so you guys can all hear what I’ve been up to.

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So, there it is.  Now you know what I do in my spare time. :) I had the time of my life producing this with some of the best musicians I know. I think this video captures the sounds that burst into my imagination the night I first read Rossetti’s poem.

When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.

I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget. 

So, what do you guys think? Should I do this more often?

-Bear-+