Spike Lee’s longtime collaborator talks about using new instruments in his latest score, honoring Black veterans, and representation in film composing.
Terence Blanchard has been a fixture in the decades-long filmography of Spike Lee since performing for some of the tracks on Do the Right Thing; with few exceptions, he’s composed nearly every Spike Lee movie since 1991’s Jungle Fever. An acclaimed jazz trumpeter and recording artist long before he crossed paths with Lee, Blanchard has scored more than forty films, many of them with Spike. In 2018, he finally nabbed his first Oscar nomination for his work on Spike’s incendiary cop drama BlackKklansman.
In an age where film composition feels increasingly homogenous, there’s something of the old-school composer still in Blanchard’s veins, making his musical efforts stand out from an increasingly samey musical film landscape. His latest collaboration with Spike, the straight-to-Netflix Vietnam war epic Da 5 Bloods, sees him in his characteristic romanticism, with sweeping horns and strings overlaying the tale of four Black Vietnam vets coming back to the country they fought in to steal the fortunes America denied them.
But he’s playing with new toys this time around, most notably the duduk, a reeded instrument from Armenia which has become shorthand for the exoticism of the Middle East and East Asia in the last couple decades of film scoring. In conjunction with his assertive orchestral work, it becomes a notable point of musical conversation between our African-American protagonists and the slowly-recovering country to which they’re returning.
In the wake of the film’s release on Netflix, The Spool sat down with Blanchard to talk about working with Spike for thirty-plus years, learning to work with the duduk, the appeal of scoring for war films, and the ongoing challenges Black composers have to face in breaking out into a film-composing world that’s still largely white.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
THE SPOOL: I think in different circumstances, Da 5 Bloods would obviously be playing theaters, but now it’s on Netflix, which I think is a very curious situation, because there is greater accessibility, especially with the timing of everything that’s going on right now. How do you feel about the release of Da 5 Bloods on Netflix?
TERENCE BLANCHARD: I think it’s a really great thing, especially where we are right now, in this world, you know. We basically have a captive audience. And I know a lot of people have been having cabin fever and been going through a lot of stressful times. So I love the idea of having quick access to film, like Da 5 Bloods, where you can sit at home with the family and enjoy it.
And of course, you’ve been working with Spike for 30-odd years now. What’s your dynamic as collaborators — has it evolved over the years?
TB: It’s evolved subtly, in that we’re both always trying to get better at what it is that we do. From the early days, what spike has done cinematically to where he is now, man, it’s amazing to witness his growth. And I feel the same way with my contributions to the films all along the way because I’ve just tried to constantly get better at writing, get better at my orchestrations, get better at choice selections and stuff like that. But we don’t really have a lot of conversations about that stuff. We just realize we both have a serious passion for making films.
I’ve read in other interviews around this film in particular that your dynamic with Spike tends to be about trying to figure out what you haven’t done before and doing new things. When it came to Da 5 Bloods, what new things did you want to try out?
TB: Mostly, it’s the introduction of the duduk [an Armenian double-reeded woodwind instrument] in the film, to have that color along with the orchestra. Spike always wants to have orchestra if we can afford it. And he’s one of the few directors that will go out and fight to try to find some money to score his films with a full orchestra. But the duduk was a new instrument, a new sound, a new texture, a new color that, obviously, you could tell he fell in love with.
Especially in that first act of the film, I was struck by how sparse the score is, or at least how sparsely it’s used. You really don’t hear it until the Bloods actually get to Vietnam and get to the jungle, except for those big Vietnam flashback sequences. How much of that was a conversation that you guys had in terms of pulling back when you were going to use the score?
TB: That’s a Spike Lee style. He has his own cinematic vision. And that’s what I mean by that; there are times where there may be scenes where you think music could go, then, you know, there may be a camera push or things like that. But that’s not what Spike hears, you know? Sometimes he wants things to be done in silence. So we always have conversations about that during the spotting session, and I always try to go, “Are you sure?” [laugh] Just to make sure! “No, no, no, no, no, no, I’m not gonna have music [he says], let’s just move on to the next scene.” So that’s basically part of his vision. He’s always been that way. And he hasn’t deterred from that. I think it’s one of the things that makes it a little unique.
[Spike Lee is] one of the few directors that will go out and fight to try to find some money to score his films with a full orchestra.
You can tell the signposts of a Spike Lee movie right away; even in Bloods, just with that almost educational sense to where he wants you steeped in both the cinematic and the world history of the events that he’s soaked into. To what extent did you have to research the history of Vietnam and some of the cinematic influences Spike is going for, like Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Vietnam war films? How much does that play into your scoring process?
TB: You know, Spike is just a couple of years older than me. We both have been people who try to stay socially conscious and try to stay aware. So when we’re talking about these topics in the films, there’s not a lot of research that has to go on. Because generally, we’re both on the same page with that. Maybe for this, just learning how to write for duduk and understanding more about that and trying to find a color that can best represent Vietnam, or closely represent Vietnam was the thing that I had to really research.
Talk to me about that. What was your process for learning how to score for duduk? What were the challenges there?
TB: The first challenge was to realize that it doesn’t have a wide range. Because you can hear it. And with great players, you kind of forget, because that’s what they do. That’s the whole idea about being great, you surpass the limitations of anything that you’re dealing with. And you know what, Pedro [Eustache], man, he would come in and constantly make you forget that the thing only has maybe an octave and a half register or something like that. It’s not that wide.
But that was the first thing that I had to learn. It reminded me of writing voice for opera because sometimes voices don’t have wide ranges, like a cello or violin or something like that. So, you have to learn how to stay within those limitations, and then the intervallic relationship becomes much more important. Instead of making wide jumps, you learn how to manipulate the melodic phrases by making smaller jumps. And then at a time when you need a little more dramatic emphasis, you can make a slightly wider jump and it becomes a huge thing.
What about incorporating it with the rest of the orchestra? Was there a sense that there are these limitations on duduk that you had to compensate for with the rest of the instruments?
TB: Obviously, you don’t want to have brass playing full-out. But, you know, we use it as a color. And like I said, Pedro was amazing, and he came in and his tone on the instrument [was excellent]. And the beautiful thing is that we didn’t record it with a live orchestra. So it allowed us to sit him in the middle of the room, and then capture all of that room tone.
As someone who has been listening to your scores for years, it feels at once of a piece with your body of work and that you’re, as always, experimenting. But I also love you returning to war film mode because you’ve scored for war films for both Spike and elsewhere. There’s Miracle at St. Anna, there’s Red Tails. Is there a mindset you have to get into to score for war films?
TB: I don’t know. You know, I get emotionally involved at the notion of people sacrificing the ultimate for people they don’t know. I think that’s more what it is. To be a soldier is an amazing, honorable profession in my mind, and I think these guys don’t get enough thanks. We’re not thanking them enough for their sacrifice. And the thing about all of these African-American soldiers is that they’re on the front lines, man, they’re giving their lives for us and coming home and still having to fight for their rights. It’s an emotional thing for me. And given the fact that I’m a brass player too, you know, I get a chance to write for brass section and percussion. And there’s something about the combination of all of those things, the heroism of these guys that I find emotionally moving.
And when you do score for war films, one thing that strikes me is the mournfulness in a lot of the tracks; even in the big Vietnam battle sequence, there isn’t this sense of like rum-tee-tum excitement. You’re not trying to get the audience excited; thee’s more of a romanticism to it.
TB: Well, you have to, because that’s an expected response to those scenes. I started with Miracle at St. Anna actually; Spike was the one who really opened my eyes to that. And when it came time to do Da 5 Bloods, that first battle scene, again, I kept thinking about these guys on a mission — more than likely they were the ones on the front line. They were doing their thing. And we needed to say thank you, and pay homage to them. So I’m always trying to do that in the scores for these films. I’m always trying to say thank you and tell them how much I appreciate this.
I think an added challenge for you, especially scoring for Spike Lee films, is that Spike also loves using source tracks and blending your orchestral score with the sound of the times. In Bloods, it feels like your score is almost in conversation with Marvin Gaye — beginning with “Inner City Blues”, that beautiful vocal-only version of “What’s Going On?”, and so on. How much did Marvin’s sound play into how you scored?
TB: It played a huge role because I knew that emotionally, Marvin Gaye’s music was gonna cover a certain emotional realm if you will. And I figured that there’s no need for me to try to go down that road, I should probably go in the opposite direction and think more along the lines of a more universal approach. To broaden out the experience of the score and make sure that it’s something that could stand the test of time and people come back to it years later and really enjoy it like it was.
And of course, there are sonic signposts — Wagner plays in an unexpected place. But also, you don’t hear the typical source tracks that you hear in Vietnam movies. There’s no Creedence, there’s no Hendrix, but it feels suffused with that new sound that feels still innately tied to the Vietnam War.
TB: I think that’s been great about doing these war movies with Spike, because of exactly what you just said. “What’s Going On?” was an expected piece of music to hear by African American soldiers. That is part of their experience. So, in bringing that experience to the screen, we’re bringing something a little different than what most people have experienced in the past.
That’s one thing I love about Spike’s movies: it feels like there’s a reclamation that happens where when he dips into a new genre, whether it’s a heist movie with Inside Man or something else, you’re upsetting these codes of filmmaking that had been set by white filmmakers throughout the history of cinema and you get to put your stamp on it. How does that feel getting to reclaim these kinds of genres?
TB: It’s an incredibly satisfying feeling, to know that you’re part of something like that. For me, what I hope to see is the recognition of how many of the stories like that that can be told by so many other different types of people. That’s the thing I think Hollywood hasn’t fully embraced yet, you know? But hopefully, they will, because there are so many different approaches to the storytelling process. It’s a thing that I look forward to because I’m always fascinated about living inside the unknown and experiencing new things.
Speaking of which, you’re in an interesting position because you’ve existed for so long as a Black composer, which is a very rare thing in a very white-dominated industry, much like the rest of Hollywood. Where do you feel the state of film composing is in terms of representation? I feel like there are starting to be a lot more Black composers, and even Black female composers are coming in and starting to get their feet wet and getting the recognition that they deserve.
TB: It was interesting, man, with the Oscar run [for BlackKklansman] last year, because I ran into actually one of my students, Kris Bowers, who’s a young African-American composer [for Green Book]. And we were doing some roundtables with a bunch of other composers. And one of the things that we kept saying was, it was great for Kris and myself to be there, but there weren’t any women there. So I think we still got work to do, as far as that’s concerned. It’s great to see some people get opportunities. But, you know, we can’t just rely on that. We have to constantly stay vigilant, man, because complacency is the enemy of change. And I think we can never become comfortable with saying, “okay, this is what we are.” No, no, no; we always have to pay attention to what’s going on and try to make sure that we’re giving every single person who has the talent the availability and the opportunity to create in this world.
We have to constantly stay vigilant, man, because complacency is the enemy of change.
Now, I’ll leave you with one last question about a personal project of yours: Tell me about Fire Shut Up In My Bones, because I really want to hear about that.
TB: Fire Shut Up In My Bones is the second opera that I got a chance to write. I was commissioned by Opera Theatre, St. Louis. And that’s been a totally different world, and it’s one that I’m so thankful for because I’ve been enjoying it so much and loving so much being a part of it. It’s an opera that’s based on the autobiography of Charles M. Blow from when he was growing up in Gibsland, Louisiana. And it chronicles his life as a kid growing up to the time that he goes to college, and him dealing with sexuality, and how he was mistreated and sexually abused by a family member. It’s a very powerful story.
But seeing these things set to stage is such an emotional experience because, in film, the film is shot, edited, cut down, and then it’s sent to me. With an opera, it’s totally the reverse, you know? I’m sitting in a room with a libretto and I’m creating a sonic palette for scenes and trying to musically give you a sense of what’s going on. And then all of a sudden, you hand this to a director, and then actors start to move on to the stage singing. It’s a very bizarre thing, man. But it’s a very powerful thing when it comes together.
Right now it’s set to premiere next year, right? I know everything’s in flux right now [with coronavirus shutting down major performance venues across the country].
TB: I know. We were set to be on the stage at the Metropolitan Opera, in New York next year. [General Manager of the Met] Peter Gelb called me up and told me he wanted to present the opera. But let’s see what happens. I know they still want to do it. It’s just a matter of scheduling.