In the Oscar-nominated documentary short A Concerto Is a Conversation, acclaimed composer Kris Bowers traces a line from his family history to the premiere performance of his original concerto “For a Younger Self” at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2019. Following that line is Horace Bowers Jr., Kris Bowers’ 91-year-old grandfather, who sits down with his grandson to tell the story of his journey out of the Jim Crow-era South in the pursuit of his American Dream.
Co-directed by Bowers and Ben Proudfoot and executive produced by Ava DuVernay (whose Netflix limited series When They See Us also earned the composer an Emmy nomination in 2019), the short profiles both men as the elder Bowers recalls his past and the younger Bowers looks at how his family’s past has affected his artistry. Weaving personal history with creative pursuit, A Concerto Is a Conversation examines the ways in which music recreates human connections and emotions.
Kris Bowers spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about his Oscar-nominated short, re-creating his grandfather’s journey through music and his talent for evoking the past in the sound of the present.
There are two projects to talk about here: the film itself, and your concerto “For a Younger Self,” performed at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Were you working on the music first, and the film was a way to document that?
Yeah, exactly. The American Youth Symphony commissioned me first in the summer of 2019 to write the concerto. And then Ben Proudfoot, my co-director, was contacted by the L.A. Philharmonic to do a documentary short that had to do with the overlap between Los Angeles and music. He reached out to me and was like, “Hey, do you mind if I follow you around and make a documentary about this concerto that you’re working on?” And then the day that we met to talk about how that process would look and what he would be doing, I happened to be coming from an event that was celebrating my grandfather. Ben was like, “Why are you so dressed up on Tuesday morning? We’re just gonna chat about this thing.” And I told him there’s a block dedicated to my grandfather in downtown L.A., and I told him pretty much my grandfather’s whole story about coming here from Bascom, Florida. And that’s when the collaboration started. The film was originally going to be about the piece, and then it grew into this tribute to my grandfather.
What was your role as co-director?
I think the main way was helping to pull my grandfather’s story out of him. [As a director], Ben is usually the one interviewing the subject. Given that this is more of a conversation, but really me interviewing my grandfather, and me trying to not only pull out aspects of the story that I’m just interested in myself personally, but also thinking of what would lend itself to this story that we were trying to tell. And then from there, whether or not we were paying tribute to my grandfather in the best way possible. We wanted to see if we could somehow map my family’s history — from slavery to the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
One thing that struck me was the way the film presented your conversation with your grandfather. You’re both facing the camera head-on, inviting the viewer in almost as a participant. How did you decide on that method?
Ben’s company, Breakwater, they already do a lot of projects where they are using the Interrotron, the Errol Morris technique where they have the subject looking directly into camera. And a lot of that is just the idea that — as much as we might hate to admit — a lot of these projects are watched on a cell phone, and we really want to get as much story from these people as possible. So much is really in the face and the eyes and expressions. When you’re that intimate, that close, you can really pull a lot of emotion from how the person just looks. Once we started talking about this idea of including my grandfather, Ben was like, “I’ve always wanted to have two Interrotons set up facing each other [so that subjects] could have a conversation with each other. This just felt like the perfect project. So it was set up in a way that both of us were looking at a screen of the other’s face so it looks like we’re just talking directly to each other, but right behind that screen is a camera lens. Once we had that positioning, it really felt like a very comfortable, normal conversation — we just sat there and talked for three or four hours.
The film’s title comes from your explanation that a concerto is a conversation between the orchestra and the soloist. How do you approach the theme of conversation differently as a composer and now as a film director?
I definitely see it in the same sense. It’s all about this call and response and the interaction of the dialogue that’s happening. A theme is introduced by one side and the other side carries on that theme, and however they interact with each other where the interesting thing comes about — where there’s tension or harmony. That title represents so much not only with the film itself being this dialogue between the two of us, but also representational of our relationship. At any point my grandpa is telling his story, he’s the soloist in the concerto; it’s the world, the obstacles or even own family’s support, that’s the orchestra supporting him, and so on and so forth. Looking at myself and how any of the things in my career wouldn’t be possible without the entire familial support that I have — generations of support.
I always tried to mirror, structure-wise, in different mediums or disciplines. Even with the concerto itself, I was trying to follow traditional control form but also at the same time I was trying to follow the hero’s journey to see if I could map this out thinking [of the] soloist and as the hero. The musical journey could be mapped in the same way that a film would be mapped; at the midpoint, where our hero would take on their own power and start to make decisions for themselves and have much more intention, was when the violin has his cadenza and then from that point on has much more command over the the orchestra. It’s all storytelling, it’s just a matter of like what medium it is. It’s kind of fun to see how those things overlap, and how you can bring the sensibility of one to the other space.
Much of what happens in conversation is reaction, but as a composer you are deciding how the conversation in your concerto plays out. How do you find ways to feel more like a participant in that conversation rather than as a storyteller who dictates where it goes?
There were two things that were really helpful. All the themes in the score for the short are from the concerto itself, so we always knew there was going to be this moment where we would hear the concerto as it’s performed with the full orchestra and wanting to find a way to not have that moment feel really out of time. One of the hardest parts of getting into a project is finding what the themes are going to be, so having them a lot of themes already set up, then I was able to focus on the emotional journey of my grandfather, because that’s primarily who we’re following. That was really fun, and honestly quite easy to look at him as our hero and follow his story. It was a lot of fun trying to capture the feeling and the mood of what he was saying. And I really pictured the most cinematic version of his story in my mind. I’ve heard these stories so much, but it’s a different thing to try to write music for it.
I think the second thing that was really helpful, especially in the section about my life and my career, all of that was written to picture. [I thought] it would probably be difficult to write for, just because I just would feel a little weird and self-conscious. Ben suggested that I write and record something rubato — free of time, free of click and free of picture — and just focus on the feeling of the piece. And that was also really liberating for me, because that piece in the film is meant to represent this familial feeling and the feeling of gratitude. It kind of felt like I was able to play and meditate on the feeling of appreciation, or gratitude of my family.
As you traced your family history and its impact on your creative career, I thought about how you’ve scored a few period pieces — Green Book, When They See Us, Mrs. America and Bridgerton. Does that kind of project appeal to you because you can take a historical and bring it into the present through music?
That’s interesting. I feel like in general, it’s really just kind of happened that way, where these projects have come my way. I do think that it’s opened up a really interesting approach for me, like how do you make this feel present while at the same time honoring the past? It speaks a lot to how much of a student in general. I think that that’s just the way that I’ve approached things. Before I take a step forward, I’m usually looking back pretty intensely. With this concerto, for example, before I wrote a single note, I studied eight concertos pretty intensely and then tried to forget them as much as I could, once I started to write my own. I feel like it’s trying to figure out what elements of this time period do we want to feel or honor or be inspired by? And then how much do we want to just react to what feels right to the picture?
You’ve worked with a lot of great directors, including Ava DuVernay, who is an executive producer on this project. Did she have any notes or suggestions for you while you worked on this?
She actually came onto the project much later, right around when we went to Sundance, so she wasn’t involved in the actual making of it. But I do think that a lot of those relationships are really helpful, because directors are always focusing on the emotion and my job is trying to figure out how to translate that into music. There are directors that feel very nervous about talking to a composer and not knowing how to speak music essentially. I really love trying to help bridge that gap, because I feel like that’s where a lot of magic is: in that translation. That’s the fun of the process for me, trying to take the emotion that’s being talked about and then interpreting that musically.