On the Record with Sage Lewis, Composer
A multimedia composer from Minneapolis specializing in film, Sage Lewis, OC ’04, graduated with a BA in Music Composition before completing his studies at California Institute of the Arts with an MFA. Though based in Los Angeles, his work has been screened at festivals diverse as Cannes, the Havana Film Festival, SXSW and others. The Sundance Film Composer Fellow’s recent compositions have included the scores for Logan Kibens’ film Operator, starring Martin Starr and Mae Whitman, and Flaherty Pictures’ virtual reality film The Surrogate, which was nominated for SXSW’s Interactive Innovation Award in AR/ VR. His ability to integrate visual media with orchestral and electronic soundscapes has made him a prized figure on the Los Angeles composition scene. Lewis spoke with the Review over the phone about his time at Oberlin, his experience with Cuba and his recent work.
You can find Sage online at sagelewismusic.com, and his soundtrack for Operator at http://radi.al/OperatorSDTK.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What about your time at Oberlin inspired you to compose music for film?
I always knew that I wanted to write music. … But when I got [to Oberlin], I didn’t really know exactly what kind of music I wanted to write, and it was really cool getting classical training in orchestral music, ‘cause they’re really, really great fundamental skills and I learned a lot, and got great experience writing for [an orchestra] and conducting and doing string quartets and all that stuff. I really fell in love with that kind of music while I was there. However, as much as I enjoyed it and benefited from it, it wasn’t my most true expression, aesthetically, of what I wanted to create musically. So, I then left and wasn’t really excited to enter the world of contemporary classical music, or to get a PhD and become a professor in music composition, which is somewhat what the Conservatory prepares people for. So, I decided to move to LA and I went to CalArts, and I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, but I knew that I wanted to be a composer in a collaborative medium where I was working with theater and with film, and things like that. Being at Oberlin, I did get the chance to collaborate a lot with people from the arts school. I got married to my girlfriend at the time at Oberlin, who — her name’s Aleigh Lewis — she was an art major, and did video art as her concentration. So that was how we first bonded, over a music and video art collaboration, working together and talking about it, being inspired by it, stuff like that. So, I [was] definitely… opened to a lot of great types of working while I was at Oberlin.
What was your relationship with studio art at the school?
Before I came to Oberlin, I was kind of [equally an] original artist, equally a musician, and it was really hard to have to choose one. But when I got to Oberlin, I realized that I had to choose one … so I chose music. I knew in my heart that that was my best art form. I still wanted to learn more about visual art, take advantage of the art school and everything there, and so I was recommended this class called The Nature of the Abstract with John Pearson. … I think it was four credits, and it was only half a semester. It was a module class. And it was a really intensive studio art class. … It has you produce an insane amount of work — large-scale work. … Really, it’s about getting big ideas out, lots of them, on a really rapid basis, and having this huge creative output. That class was one of the coolest classes I’ve ever taken, and it’s not just about creating visual artwork, it’s just about being an artist, finding something inside you when you don’t think there’s anything left, creatively. … My music classes were really great too. Randy Coleman, who was my teacher and my composition advisor, he had a really cool thing we did in the very beginning of the composition program where you have to write a piece a day for, I think it’s like 15 or 20 days straight, every single day you have to write a piece of music. … You just have to basically learn technique and how to start coming up with ideas. Even if you want to or not, or if you have them or not. And that’s something I have to do in my career now, because you get … something thrown at you, sometimes you only have a day or two, it’s a completely unreasonable amount of time to do the work that they’re asking you to do, and you have other stuff going on in your life or in your work, and you have to make this person happy who’s hiring you to write this piece of music… And so those skills that I got at Oberlin were important because that was the beginning of learning how to form those types of techniques.
Do the visuals of the film inform the score that you write for it?
Yeah, that’s why I think chose film composing of all the paths that a composer can take, because I need that visual element, I thrive off it. There’s something that makes sense to me about visual art. And since film is so visual, I get inspired by the cinematography and whatever it is I’m looking at, and I basically consider myself a translator of taking visual ideas and turning them into musical ideas and then making those two go together in a very natural and integrated way.
So, since I can’t really produce… I just don’t have the time or place to produce visual art anymore, but I still satisfy that part of my personality by writing music to visual. And it’s not always films; like, sometimes I score branded content. I’ve been lucky to work for this company in New York called Maiyet which makes their fashion… they make these beautiful little online marketing videos that show the process of where these clothes are made around the world … and it’s just a little piece of eye candy, and they ask me to create a little piece of ear candy to go with it. … That’s my favorite, in a lot of ways, my favorite type of work… and it’s one of my best skills, just understanding visual art and then bringing that into the musical space.
What is the music scene like in Cuba, and how does it compare to that of Los Angeles?
Well, they’re very similar in the sense that they have a happening scene with a lot of people who are very passionate about it, but other than that, they’re very different. … There’s a lot of money that goes into film [in Los Angeles], and there’s a lot of money that comes out of film … where in Cuba, there’s a lot of people making film … supported by the government, which it’s not here. … They believe film is important for their culture, and it represents their culture, and it’s a way for Cubans to also reflect on their culture. It was started right after the Cuban revolution; it was important to Fidel Castro and Che Guavara and all the revolutionaries to use film as a vehicle for social change and make it accessible to all Cubans. So they would have these filmmaker brigades that would go out into the … countryside and mountains, and they would have these mobile movie theaters, projectors with big screens, and they would set them up and they’d show people movies for the first time in their lives. There’s a political slant; movies back from the beginning all the way to today have somewhat of a political message to them. The government funds a certain type of film with a political message. Sometimes that’s really great, and sometimes it’s also not great because there’s censorship. And then their movies don’t really make that much money, and they’re not necessarily supposed to make money. They also host the Havana Film Festival, which … has become the most important film festival in Spanish-speaking cinema. They get people from all over Spain and Argentina, all over Latin America, Mexico — places where they have pretty thriving film industries. … There’s a lot of really cool parties and conferences and stuff like that. I’ve had a project that was in the Havana Film Festival, and I’m going out for it next month, taking a bunch of filmmakers from LA.
You’ve worked a lot in the social side of the film scene; what did your work with the Sundance Institute involve?
They have these labs where they invite directors, screenwriters, producers and then composers, to go to Sundance — the composers one is actually at Skywalker Ranch … they brought in an orchestra from the Bay Area to record the sessions, and we got to record in the most state-of-the-art recording facilities in, like, the whole world, probably, and then they had all these well-known composers and directors come in and mentor us… it was a really, really intensive professional development experience and it was also great because then you get to develop a relationship with the Sundance Institute … they have events in LA that I get to go to on a regular basis and keep building relationships within the larger community of Sundance filmmakers. So, that was a really extraordinary experience to have.
Could you speak to what it was like working on Operator?
There was a very compressed timeline, and I knew there could potentially be a lot of music in this movie, so I didn’t want to have it all be rushed and not be my best work. So, I started writing the music early, which normally, composers wait until they have a finished edit. But [the director] would string some scenes together and send them my way and I’d start coming up with some ideas for music, so I was always just one step behind the editor. Then, as they locked the film edit, I already had a whole bunch of music ideas ready, and they sent it to me and I finished it off — it was a three or four month process. It’s a 90-minute film and there’s 60 minutes of music in it, so it’s … this epic music film, which was really cool for me because … Music became one of the lead storytelling devices within the film. … A robo-voice is one of the main characters, … and it doesn’t have a body, it’s not a real person. … So, music is one of those ways that can flesh this character out that you’re hearing in a subliminal way, and you’re feeling this character, and they just don’t have a body.
How is the process of creating virtual reality films different from regular film?
Virtual reality is really interesting because it’s a whole new field … so, each project … they’re trying to pioneer something new and show a proof of concept rather than any sort of finished masterpiece. It’s like the way film was [in] 1910 or so. … It’s also different because the paradigm is totally different in the sense that you’re on the inside looking out. [In] a regular film, you’re on the outside and you’re looking in, there’s this window that you’re looking through into this world. … A filmmaker can perfect that window, they can perfect everything about it; the timing of everything, the placement of everything, the framing of everything. Whereas in virtual reality, you can’t do that because there’s not one point of view, there’s infinite points of view, and you’re in the middle of the characters. You’re in their space, and you can’t hide that or deny it so you have to address it. … We did this piece called [The] Surrogate, which was a really cool piece, and it was telling a story. It was a short film, like a 15-minute film, and you’re in the film and you can move around and look at things from different perspectives. … It was hard because we finished this thing, and then people started experiencing it, were [pre-release] beta testing it — that’s the other thing, you have to do a lot of beta testing with stuff like that — and people weren’t paying attention to the story. … So we had to redesign the whole thing by making it so people could actually explore the space first, and once their curiosity was fulfilled about this space that they were in, that’s when the story happened. Then they actually would watch it. You have to consider people’s psychology, and everyone’s different. That’s how all of virtual reality has to address all of these things that we’re not used to addressing. … Everything’s still kind of in research development because people think that it’s gonna be the next big thing, and so right now they’re just trying to get a foothold … so that they can be in a good place once the medium actually hits the market and becomes something that everyone has access to and that everyone is using. Film is kind of the opposite in that it’s almost at the end of its trajectory. It’s not that people won’t be making film a hundred years from now, per say, but people are going to see movies less. I mean, it’s turning into more episodic, serial work. People don’t go to movies as much, and people don’t want to make movies as much because they want to make a TV series or they want to do virtual reality or they want to do something else.
Interview conducted by Christian Bolles, Arts Editor