Friday, June 10, 2016

Classical Music, Inspiration and the Importance of Superman

The following post originally appeared as a guest blog on the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's PSO BLOG. Special thanks to their Director of Media Relations, Joyce DeFrancesco, for extending the invitation to contribute!
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Me and my artwork in front of Heinz Hall
Photo: Kristin Ward
SYMPHONIC AND CLASSICAL music entered my world when I was eight years old. It wasn’t in a particularly sophisticated way – if one goes in for notions of art belonging to “high brow” and “low brow” classes, which I don’t – but rather the same way it does for a lot of people. I was exposed to it through the release of a specific film which resonated with me before I’d seen a single frame: SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE. I had already been a fan of the Man of Steel for half my life, and was at the perfect age to see that film. SUPERMAN was big and full of spectacle and it perfectly brought to life a character I needed in my topsy-turvy home life. Much of my early years were characterized by dysfunction and instability; Superman always delivered the opposite of those elements, wherever I encountered him. He was always strong, smart, caring, and dependable. These traits immediately made him my lifelong hero.

Reading his adventures in comic-books directly inspired me to start drawing, which in turn became my lifelong profession. I realized that most people decided what careers they wanted to have as adults only as they got older. Some wanted to be doctors or police officers, and some wanted to be firefighters or astronauts. My mother was a gifted musician, and her siblings and their children always said she had “the gift” of being able to naturally play the piano in church from a very young age. I ended up taking a cue from my father, who had visual arts talents, which led directly to my exposure to comic-books and the worlds of superheroes. Every time I opened the covers of another issue, I knew, without question, that making stories with my own artwork was what I wanted to do with my life.

Other media reinforced this notion. I watched cartoons and television, like every other child, and Superman and his cohorts were there as well in various incarnations. Reruns of the 1950s television show The Adventures of Superman brought a different kind of thrill into the living room. I instantly memorized the opening title march and heroic music became synonymous with the character. In much the same way, The William Tell Overture had, over time, became synonymous with another fictional hero who also had a tv show in the ‘50s, The Lone Ranger. Unlike that western hero, however, Superman merited his own original music, and no one understood this more than composer John Williams. Having just scored a hit, literally, with the soundtrack of the original STAR WARS, Williams then turned his attentions to helping us all believe a man could fly. His results have since proven to be one of the most impressive special effects to have ever been derived from comic-books.

It's more accurate to say that I felt the music of SUPERMAN more than I heard it. That’s probably the way most movie-goers absorb orchestral movie soundtracks. The more impressive scores produce melodies and motifs that we recognize in our day-to-day lives. Most people on the street could identify the treading water DA-du, DA-dum, DA-dum notes of JAWS (another Williams composition) as readily as the Dum-dum-dum-DUUUUUUUM opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. So it was for me in 1978 with the soundtrack to SUPERMAN, one of the first albums I owned.[1] In the days before most homes had VCRs, that was how I managed to re-visualize the cinematic world I remembered. Thanks to Williams and the London Symphony Orchestra, I was able to temporarily lift myself out of the tumult of my surroundings and soar on musical wings, just like my hero, every time I played that album. And I played it a whole lot.

You should believe a boy can fly…because I did.

OVER TWENTY YEARS later, I was finally able to see Williams, my orchestral hero, in person, conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra through a program of many of his most well-known works at Heinz Hall. The night was grand, and I found myself buoyed by his music in a way I’d never realized was possible. Listening to orchestral music in a hall designed for it is an experience that can only be described as metaphysical. I left Heinz Hall that night convinced that everyone should experience the fullness of a performing symphony in person at least once in their life.

My pencil composite for the H&I poster.
I had only one quibble with that night’s performance: the Theme to Superman had been performed in truncated form, as part of a heroes-and-villains montage (which ended with the indelible image of Christopher Reeve in costume being projected on a big screen above the PSO). We’d all heard a few notes of my favorite symphonic piece ever, but not the full thing. You could say this allowed us to hover, if not fully fly. I got to see Williams conduct his music with the PSO again just a few years ago, and it was an equally moving experience…except this time the piece wasn’t a part of the program at all. It felt like one of the most cruel plots Superman’s arch-nemesis Lex Luthor could have ever devised.

None of that quelled my love for symphonic music in general though. By adulthood, I’d branched out far beyond movie soundtracks into the work of classical composers. I often listened to the three B’s – Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms – in direct rotation with contemporary musical artists like Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna. Everything was fair game, and when I sat down at the drawing board (a real drawing board, with paper, pen and ink) Mozart, Chopin, Vivaldi, etc. all helped inspire me to bring super-heroic worlds to life on paper.

And, intermittently, I continued to go see the Pittsburgh Symphony perform. For a while, my girlfriend worked in ticket sales with the PSO, and this allowed the opportunity for her to take me to a number of shows I may not have otherwise experienced. My belief that everyone should experience this music in person increased with each performance I attended, but I also became aware of barriers which keep potential audiences at bay from these shows. Some of these barriers are invisible if you aren’t the person experiencing them. For me, this was noticing that I was usually in the minority in distinct ways when going to shows, much like in the rest of the world. I was often one of the younger people in attendance, and usually I was one of few people of color. When I would actively count the people I saw at PSO shows who looked like me (trust me, we all do this), the numbers rarely entered double digits.

But I wanted this music to affect people like me in the same way I’d been affected. I wanted it to open up worlds in both directions. I wanted more people to fly.

A FEW YEARS ago, I attempted to bring this to the PSO’s attention, along with some ideas I had for marketing and promotions, and had a brief discussion with one of their representatives. They were very polite in listening to my suggestions, but it was quickly apparent nothing was going to be used, and I was somewhat discouraged. It felt as though the PSO was locked into a certain way of presenting itself. I’ll admit my attendance at their shows tapered off and my enthusiasm for live performances dimmed. I always listened to the music, and certain shows still brought me back (the afore-mentioned return performance by John Williams being emblematic of that). I’ll even admit to getting into a heated public (and then private) online discussion once in defense of symphonic music concerts. I loved this stuff! But I wanted more people to be able to enjoy it too, people who, like me, had to deal with exclusive barriers.

My poster in great company! (The heroes are going interplanetary!)
Photo: Jami Marlowe

Flash forward to 2015 when an article appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about how the Pittsburgh Symphony was looking to expand its audience membership to broader age ranges and racial groups. The article cited research studies the PSO marketing staff had conducted towards these ends, and the comments section was full of people who had much to say about their goals. I also chimed in and posted a comment, citing my own experience attending shows and my thwarted attempt to change their marketing. I fully expected my comments to get lost in the flood of others, but to my surprise, the PSO staff reached out to me and invited me in to revisit my thoughts and solicit my feedback.

I like to talk. A lot. So, I met with them and talked a lot. And you know something? The PSO listened. They still didn’t use my brilliant idea (which really is a thing of genius), but they listened. And during the conversation, I also learned of some of their current initiatives and saw that, yes, the PSO was looking to make the concert-going experience more inclusive for its audiences as well.

One of the things that came up was their Sensory Friendly concert series, shows designed to make for a more comfortable experience for people with various types of disabilities. The promotional artwork for their original performance was drawn by local artist Joe Wos, and I had heard great things about the show. My friend Mike took his daughter Zoey to the show, and they both loved it. It was essentially made for her, and others like her. She even appeared for just a moment in the promotional video the PSO created, culled from footage shot at the event.

The staff of the PSO encouraged me to come to new events they were holding, and took the time to follow up and see what I’d thought about those concerts. Over the following months, I also crossed paths with some of their staff at local arts events, and they became more aware of my comics-based artwork. The last few years, I’ve had opportunities to combine my passion for creating comic-book art, and my love of super-heroes, along with projects that showcase real-world heroes educating us on real-world topics. (Things like COMIC-TANIUM and CHUTZ-POW!) Little did the PSO and I know that we would soon be combining forces in a way that played to both of our strengths.

THIS PAST JANUARY, I was approached by the PSO about doing the promotional artwork for their next Sensory Friendly concert. They said that while discussing the theme for this show, it was suggested that I would be a good match to come up with something appropriate. When they revealed what the theme was, I couldn’t fault their logic: HEROES AND INSPIRATIONS. I felt destined to draw this artwork.
Line art composite.

When asked if there was anything specific they wanted included on the promo art, they said it was mostly up to me as their artist. I was allowed to include whatever kind of heroes I wanted, including superheroes, and it was an all-ages show that everyone was encouraged to attend. Now, having that kind of freedom to create artwork for a client is great, but it’s also daunting. I thought, what should it be?! Some imagery came to me right away, and I wanted to include faces on the poster one might not typically associate with classical music, but that do exist everywhere in our world. I wanted this to be something in line with the other artwork I’ve been producing…but I needed the spark to make it all come together.

Then my friend Wayne Wise suggested something magical (which he often does when I’m pondering an approach to a project) by saying, “You should include Mike’s daughter Zoey in the poster.” And just like that, I knew how it was going to look. There would be two groups of characters, a group of kids and a group of adults, and they would be dressed alike. The kids would clearly be deriving inspiration for their future professions from the adults, their heroes. And Zoey would be a superhero.  Actually, she already is a superhero…I just revealed her secret identity.

I took a more methodical approach to producing this piece than I often do. First, I drafted the composition and got it approved; then I drew the figures separately in layers. This allowed for more flexibility in positioning the characters, but I also did it because the characters quickly became very real to me, and I wanted to give each one my full attention. I even named each of the fictitious children in the drawing, because they had very vivid personalities in my mind. They had souls. After a point, I wasn’t making them up, but rather they were dictating how they would be drawn. Even their choices of professions came organically. These kids already knew what they wanted to be when they grew up just as surely as I knew what I wanted to be at their age. I wanted to be an artist…and you better believe there’s an artist included in the group, smeared with paint and full of enthusiasm.

It’s up to the viewer to decide if the adults in the drawing are the kids’ parents or the kids themselves as adults. I don’t even have the answer to that. What I can say is that everyone in it is taking inspiration from someone else. We may be inspired by our heroes, in the way my dad inspired me to draw, and Superman inspired me to be use my powers for good. But heroes are usually inspired by their own heroes, and they are also inspired by you and me to become better heroes.

Someone else took a cue from Superman's example too...

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is working to become a better, more inclusive venue for promoting the arts. In my vividly illustrated book, that’s pretty darn heroic.

THE PSO LIKED my artwork, and it’s been an adventure watching them use it in promotions online and out in the world. Friends have posted photos of the fliers for the show when they see it the world. My friend Jami took one that gave me my first glimpse of the actual poster outside of Heinz Hall, which made me do a double-take. When I saw it in person I discovered the poster is at least six-feet tall! Usually the only thing oversized about me is my ego. This may have even exceeded that.

When I drew the poster, and created the adult version of Zoey’s superhero, I hadn’t thought of the back-story for her character. But almost immediately after I sent it to the PSO, the character told me who she was. It was so obvious, as though the hero had been shouting at me the entire time: She’s Crescendo – The Hero of Symphonic Music! If I could compose music, I’d create her a march to rival Superman’s. Who knows, maybe I’ll ask my mother to help me with that.

Photo: Loran Skinkis
There was also an unexpected follow-up offer. It’s the kind of thing that solidifies your belief in destiny.

Last year, Joe Wos did some live-drawing during the actual performance of the Symphony, sharing the stage and creating artwork that was projected while they performed a selection. The PSO now made me a similar offer, and whether they knew it or not, they sealed the deal as soon as they told me what the musical selection was.

Yes. That one.


So, I invite you all to come to Heinz Hall on Saturday, June 25th at 2:30pm and experience the thrill of the amazing Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in person, the way everyone should hear symphonic music at least once in their life. Come out and allow the Symphony to see YOU and take further inspiration from all of the many colors and ages and abilities that you embody. Because, you know, this inspiration thing works both ways.

Come see me either floating to the gilded ceiling of Heinz Hall with joy, or crashing and burning under the weight of my massive ego. (I suspect I’ll just remain grounded onstage, which is fine.) Watch me live out a dream as I draw while backed by the PSO, performing music I’ve been drawing to since I was eight years old.

Watch as my drawing is projected on the same screen that they showed Christopher Reeve dressed as Superman. And who will I be drawing? None other than Crescendo, the Hero of Symphonic Music.

Come on out and be someone’s hero, or bring your hero and share this performance. And don’t forget your capes.

I do believe an audience can fly…because you will.

The kids are alright, and we can be heroes!
Middle row, l-r: Sing, Dayna, Sanji
Bottom row, l-r: Maggie, Zoey, Jamychael

[1] Technically, it was a double-album!

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