Acclaimed composer and singer/songwriter Kathryn Bostic has spent her career creating compelling scores for some of the most lauded projects of stage and screen. Recently, she composed the music for Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, for which she earned a 2020 Primetime Emmy® nomination for Outstanding Music Composition.
Bostic previously scored Ava DuVernay’s 2012 Sundance-winner Middle of Nowhere, Justin Simien’s award-winning movie Dear White People and Chinonye Chukwu’s 2019 Sundance Grand Jury-winner Clemency.
She was the first African-American woman to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences® and served as vice president of the Alliance for Women Film Composers from 2016 to 2018.
We reached out to Bostic to discuss her recent Emmy nomination and the role musicians play in today’s ever-changing world!
SSM: I want to congratulate you on your 2020 Emmy nomination for Toni Morrison: The Pieces I am! For the film, you performed your Oscar 2020 Shortlist original song ‘High Above the Water.’ For the film Clemency, you performed your original song ’Slow Train.’ What importance do you put on including an original song when creating a score? Is it something that you go into the project thinking about or does it develop naturally?
KB: It happened organically and was a “gift” because I don’t assume that, because I’m writing the score for a film, I also will be writing songs for it as well. In both films I was asked to write the songs to maintain the tone and sonic palette that I had created in the score. There are some of my vocal textures in both scores so the songwriting and performing was an extension of that.
SSM: You spoke in a previous interview about the director and producer, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, and editor, Johanna Giebelhaus, giving you free rein with creating the score. Can you speak about the level of importance this type of trust goes into the creative process for composers?
KB: Trust is extremely important because it frees up inhibitions that might obstruct the flow of the collaborative process. Ultimately the director needs to feel assured that they are going to get a score that will be effective and powerful to further enhance and define their film. This requires a lot of trust and communication because the process can be full of a lot of twists and turns before the right tone and sound for the film are developed.
So there has to be a trust in this unfolding and sometimes you don’t have a lot of time to find this, so trust is imperative. We found the tone immediately with the Toni Morrison film because we were all operating on a very high level of reverence, openness and divination in the amazing energy field of Toni Morrison! I mean, she is a force so all you have to do is tap into that and you strike gold!
SSM: How much of that freedom lent to crafting an organic score for this documentary?
KB: The entire score and song were crafted from that place of freedom. Once the director and producers saw and heard how my sketches and themes were simpatico with what they needed, they trusted the unfolding of that and gave me a lot of room to experience and create this. The music “wrote itself” as a result.
SSM: You grew up in a musical home. Is there a specific moment that made you decide to craft a career in composing?
KB: Music was and is always about storytelling and for me the way in which it made me feel growing up and experiencing this in my home while my mother practiced piano and composed had an impact on me on a sensory level. I don’t know that I ever actually formalized my appreciation for writing music by calling it “composing”, I just always enjoyed the places listening to music and writing music would take me. So I think it was a natural fit that I compose and perform music.
SSM: I’ve heard you speak about the importance of authenticity. How do you remain true to yourself as a woman working in a male-dominated field?
KB: I’ve always focused on the craft, the gift of being able to create music. My authenticity is in that creativity and that’s what resonates with people I collaborate with. I am starting to see more women composers and more racial diversity in hiring but there’s still a long way to go.
The talent and resources are certainly available. The perception and action have to shift to reflect a much more truthful and universal outreach that reflects ALL people, not just recycle constructed narratives that maintain the status quo.
SSM: You have been the recipient of many honors, including the Sundance Fellowship for Film Scoring, BMI Conducting Fellowship, Sundance/Skywalker Documentary Film Scoring and hosted Masterclasses for Columbia University and the Chicago Film Office. What importance do you place on seasoned composers sharing their knowledge to burgeoning students of film scoring?
KB: I think it’s really important to share what I can that may inspire someone to stay the course with whatever they are passionate about. That’s essentially what I’ve been doing as a film composer , a singer, a creator of music. I think it’s important to share with students that everyone’s path is different insofar as how they achieve success in their career, and that life is not linear, it is an unfolding of experiences and choices.
So there’s a practical overview I like to share as well as a philosophical one. When I was a student it was invaluable to hear from successful musicians and composers who were on the leading edge of their craft as well as down to earth, who had the same vulnerability as I might have and hear how they worked through these moments.
SSM: Recently, you wrote and performed ‘Safely Home,’ which is a beautiful song of encouragement and hope. What part do you think musicians play with healing during times of uncertainty?
KB: Thank you, I wrote that song when I needed to feel that way, so that song “wrote itself” as well. Music touches people and the emotional connection is visceral and powerful. You can hear a piece of music and not know or understand the language it’s being performed in or the instruments that are playing but you can be moved in ways that can immediately change and heal your mind and mood.
Musicians are the ambassadors of the heart and soul. What an incredible gift!! It truly is a universal language. Music has been and continues to be a great teacher and force in my life.
Soundtrack Available Now: [Download/Listen]