Interview: Composer David Benjamin Steinberg of “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures”

Posted on February 16, 2016 at 2:32 pm

David Benjamin Steinberg is a composer who recently created the score for a documentary about photographer Robert Mapplethorpe called “Mapplethorpe: Look At The Pictures.” In an interview, he talked about finding sounds that would complement the striking images in the film.

The directors, Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey had been working on it and doing interviews for almost two years when I saw the first rough cut, which was in the spring of last year and the cut was long, it was like three hours when I saw it and eventually the film would be half as long as that. So I came on two years into their work and then started talking to the directors about what the score approach might be conceptually. We started sending each other ideas back and forth on MP3s and stuff like that. It sort of evolved as the edits got closer.

There were a few storylines that they wanted me to emphasize. There is a motif that goes through the film that sort of always reconnects to this sort of bittersweet piano and that cue accompanies sections where they have to deal with Robert’s relationship with his family, with his father. And then there was also a motif that the directors wanted to convey which was this idea that Robert, who would die very young at 42, that he was in a race against time to do as much work as he could before he died and a race against time to become famous. He was really ambitious, really really ambitious and liked making a lot of money and liked being famous and worked hard to be famous. So there is also this idea of this clock ticking motif — not literally but there is this undercurrent of a race against time. So that was one of the motifs and then another motif sort of evolves which ended up actually being Mozart’s Requiem which connected Robert’s upbringing in the Catholic church and how that played into his work and influenced his work. Ultimately that was a motif that was Mozart’s last symphony and ended up being sort of representing in the film when Robert dies and that is also a recurring theme that is woven through the score.

Patti Smith, who was Robert’s girlfriend in the late 60’s and 70’s, wrote a really great book called the Just Kids. I love her writing and that was really the first research that I did. They actually talked about the music that they used to sit around listening to in their loft in the Village and that started me thinking about what the tone might be even before the directors were giving me more specific ideas about what they thought the score should be.

Most of Robert’s adult life he was in New York City during the 70s and 80s and they wanted to convey the idea that New York was this percolating hotbed of creativity, almost as if there were vibes coming in from all over the place and that New York was really the center, the hub of creativity in that era. There was actually conversation about the idea that the score might sound as if in places when we’re changing the dial on the on a radio station and sort of sequencing the textures were coming in that felt like they were staticky influences. So a lot of the score is textural and ambience, and then as we fine-tuned it, it became wanting to drive the film a little bit more and we ended up focusing on some cues that help to create momentum and keep the film energetic and moving forward.

Steinberg also wrote scores for a documentary about Britney Spears and Carrie Fisher’s one-woman show.

I think I’ve done 20 documentaries and I don’t know that there is a typical sort of scenario. With the Carrie Fisher documentary, my job was to score what was happening in her autobiographical one-woman play, so that was dictated by the material. In the Britney Spears documentary there were like a dozen of her tracks in there, which was kind of nice because I like the balance in that film of score to her tracks. A lot of it was kind of chill pop music, a lot of it was kind of percussive and driving but there was a fair share of ambience stuff in that film as well. Her personality obviously comes through in those pop tunes that we’re familiar with so my job was to just be the fabric that sort of gets things going in between the pop songs.

And he has written music for television series, including the opening jingles. We shared reminiscences of some of our favorite classic television jingles from the days when the jingle was a full-length song.

I love “The Munsters” and “The Adams family.” And “Bonanza.” And I love the “Twilight Zone” theme and the score in the series which I came to find out as an adult was scored by Bernard Herrmann who is one of my heroes. Actually Bernard Herrmann even did some work on “Lost In Space.” I heard some of those scores when I was in New York at the Museum of Radio and Television and it’s kind of amazing to hear his score over the pretty cheesy “Lost In Space” but he was a working guy and I think in the 60s he was picking those kinds of gigs and was doing great work. I have done themes for 30 TV series and when I started doing them I don’t remember, some of them were like close to a minute long and then they got shorter and shorter and now it’s not uncommon for me to do a theme that’s just 7 to 10 seconds. What’s definitely nice about themes is that typically there is no narration.

Steinberg’s first instrument was drums. He played in bands and was a session musician before turning to composing.

I played through my teens and 20s in bands playing drums and then I was making my living really as a session drummer in a way and at the time when there were like these amazing drummers in LA in the session and I started to wonder how I was going to compete with guys like that that were just so unbelievable and that’s when I started thinking about shifting my focus to more writing. One of the big influences on me was Stewart Copeland, the drummer from The Police, who scored “Rumble Fish,” and that score just really knocked me out. That film was a big influence on me with the way that he used he used loops and how he really came up with his own vocabulary, lots of drums but really interesting textures. I still love that score.

Coming up, Steinberg has a new season of “Million Dollar Listing” and a documentary set in Iraq. “That was interesting because I got to use a palette I don’t typically do, with a lot of heavy stringed instruments and I had to really stock up on my sample library.”

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