A Q&A with cellist, composer, arranger and music contractor Buffi Jacobs

  1. Your solo debut album “Solitary Contemplations” releases this year, please tell us about the process of creating this album and how long it took you to complete it?

    Solitary Contemplations” is a collection of solo cello compositions mostly composed or arranged during the pandemic. I had moved to New York City one month before the shutdown. I didn’t really know many people in NYC yet, so I spent a lot of my time alone during the pandemic. At first, like so many others, I spent a lot of time on the couch watching the news and Netflix. After a certain point, I shifted my perspective and started looking at our isolation period as a “gift” of sorts. For many years, I have been meaning to learn things like home recording, Ableton Live, projection mapping, coding, graphic design, etc. but life got in the way and those things were always pushed to the back burner. Changing my perspective a bit and viewing my isolation time as more of a gift of time rather than all the negatives that most of us were feeling, was the key. So, I learned how to record myself at home. I finally got around to learning how to automate the looper state in Ableton and began composing solo composition. “Solitary Contemplations” was born from that. It started with this piece called “Anxiety”. I picked up my cello one day (after almost a month of not playing) from the cello stand where my cello was all lonely and detuned from peg slips, etc. I was so lazy and depressed that I didn’t even bother to tune the cello. I started messing around and playing the cello exactly as it was and “Anxiety” was born. Half was inspired by all the true crime shows I had been watching and the other half was a musical illustration of my feelings that I was able to express in a way that I had not been able to before for some reason. By nature, I’m more of a collaborator and enjoy working with others but during the pandemic, when we were all isolated. I took advantage of that opportunity to finally explore solo composition. I had always dreaded solo opportunities, but this time, new skills allowed me to collaborate with myself. I really dove into that headspace and spent hours upon hours watching tutorials learning how to do Ableton looping automation, taking zoom lessons on learning Ableton Live with friends, and learning how to record myself and mix properly. Down the rabbit hole I went.

    My life changed. Instead of waking up and turning on the news, I began the day with a cup of coffee and sketching out musical ideas using Logic and Ableton. Pretty soon those sketches became a collection of works that I decided later to release as my first solo album “Solitary Contemplations”. I’m still working on it, but I should be finished with it soon. Hoping to release it later this fall.

  2. You are New York City based and you sub on Broadway, tell us a little more about your work on Broadway. How is it different from being a composer and what are the lessons you have learnt from being a Broadway musician that make you a better composer?

    I started touring with Hamilton in 2018 and left the tour in June of 2022. I started subbing on Broadway and have been doing that regularly since. Being a sub means you have to learn a lot of different shows which means you get to work on books that may be completely different styles, orchestrators, composers, etc. Broadway musicals and TV/film music are really not that far apart in essentials. It’s all about the storytelling. Most TV/film scores don’t rely as heavily on melodic content, but the underscoring is quite similar. Both shouldn’t cover the dialogue and should be a supportive role of the story telling. Its use is to illustrate or inspire the mood of the moment. The compositional process and consideration is also very similar where much thought has been given to the orchestration and the overall dynamic. For example, the vocal range of the singer/actor/speaker can easily be covered if you choose to use instruments that occupy the same range. Also, if it’s a quiet moment, you wouldn’t want to use a large orchestration at a loud dynamic. That just wouldn’t make any sense at all and the music would be clobbering and too distracting. So, when composing underscoring elements in either genre, a lot of thought is given to how the music can best assist, support, or transition the storytelling in the moment. On occasion, I will be called in to workshop a show. Sometimes, it is very early on in the process and we won’t have parts written yet. At that point, we are expected to come in and contribute parts to the already existing music. This works almost in the same way as someone who contracts me to add strings on one of their songs or recordings. Whenever I am introduced into a situation like that, sometimes I get the opportunity to have a conversation with the composer, producer, etc. that would include questions such as “what would you like me to add? Where would you like us to play? Do you want featured string parts? Or do you want supportive string parts?” It’s very helpful to have a meeting of the minds, however, we do not always get the luxury of time to have these conversations. If there is a tight timeline, you just might be on your own. In my experience, it is always helpful to begin as though you are only there to be a supportive role. Observation is key! Being aware of the plot, lyrics, who else is playing at the time, vocal range, etc. Having had the opportunity to participate in a few Broadway musical workshops has really been helpful in supplying me with efficiency workflow tricks, enhanced my skills in observation, learning how to develop a customized non-music language with non- music schooled personnel to achieve storytelling goals, and to not get so attached to what I have written and be more open to change and trying new ideas. Oh, and lastly, it’s very important to not try and do everything yourself! You need a team of creatives that you respect and trust! Otherwise, you may lose your mind trying to get it done all by yourself. Broadway is very much all about teamwork! Being a part of that musical environment has given me so much to observe and absorb. It has definitely been a huge influence on my composing and writing process.

  3. Since your primary instrument is cello and it informs your voice as a composer, is there any score or composer that you admire and has influenced your work immensely?

    One of my favorite scores is Amie Doherty’s “Undone” (Amazon original series). I listen to this score album often. Aside from the brilliance of her compositions, the sound mix is pretty captivating as well. I discovered Amie’s score while listening to a podcast called “The Annotator”. It is a podcast where composers share their thoughts and stories about their original scores. Her fusion of string instruments, piano, vocals, bells, native instruments, and reverbs make for interesting textures, dynamics and creates this wonderful mystical feel. The entire score is a small chamber ensemble of atmospheric sounds and instruments where each has its feature and illustrative property. Listening to that score always transports me to a place of inspiration and wonder. Daniel Hart is another composer that has been a huge influence on me as a composer and a musician. I have had the pleasure of working with him many times in the studio playing on a few of his scores and on his indie rock arrangements for other artists. His scores are always a masterclass in emotional storytelling and instrumental fusion. I feel like his composition process for each cue is so personal and individualized for that specific moment of feeling. One of his pieces could come out of a bass riff, another one a rhythmic riff, could be a sound sample, could be a melody. The process is sometimes enigmatic, but the end result is the feeling you should be experiencing in that moment.

    I also really enjoy Siddhartha Khosla’s score for “Only Murders in the Building” (especially the Main Title Theme) and how it captures such a New York City vibe and pace. It’s one of my favorite things to listen to while strolling around New York City!

    Michael Giacchino’s “Lost” score. I can never get through “There’s No Place Like Home” without ugly crying. The evolution of the orchestration and that melody…it is so hard to put into words but that particular cue it gets me in the feels every single time! The “Lost” score feels like maybe it was heavily influenced by one of my all-time favorites, Jerry Goldsmith. I had the opportunity to read a lot of his scores such as “Planet of The Apes”, “First Knight”, and “Rudy” at the Mancini Institute back in the late 90’s early 2000’s. His orchestration choices and use of a wide and unique variety of percussion instruments were so progressive! It created distinctive atmospheric underscoring that perfectly coupled with the sparse dialogue in the original “The Planet of The Apes” movies. I feel that “Lost” and the original “Planet of The Apes” scores are quite similar in this way.

    Check out the AWFC profile for Buffi

    Interview by Rivita Goyle

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