A Q&A with 2019 Mid-Atlantic Emmy Award Winning Composer Sila Shaman

  1. You have had quite the musical journey in your career: Jazz, improv, film, theatre, dance, concert, experimental music! You are conquering all genres and fields and I am in awe. What were the biggest milestones of some of these fields?

    Exploring new sounds and amalgamating genres have always guided my musical path. I think it is no accident that jazz and improvised music have formed me as a composer and have been an anchor because the definition of “jazz” can be so wide and inclusive. Within that very widely cast artistic net, I feel the milestones are defined by the quality of the projects and people I get to collaborate with in each field. As a film composer, working with the wonderful team at History Making Productions on the documentary “Sisters in Freedom”, which won four 2019 Mid-Atlantic Emmy Awards, including best documentary and best score, was definitely a career highlight. Earlier, being a female band leader in NYC, getting to play and record with master jazz musicians like Rich Perry and Ari Hoenig elevated me as a composer and a pianist. My first jazz release with this group, “A New Abode”, was definitely a milestone for me and was chosen as an “Album of the Week” pick by NPR. Theater allows composers to interact directly with actors, and during the production of “Spin”, a musical satire I composed, I was lucky to work with the amazing David Ogden Stiers, from whom I learned much about the importance of tone and impact.

  2. People often get asked how their artistic roots affect their film music, but I wonder the opposite! How does your film music knowledge affect your creativity in jazz?

    Composing for film requires a lot of technical expertise and can almost be the opposite of improvised music in its extreme control of timing and precision. However, I feel spontaneity and control are only meaningful if they can be fused to the desired effect. To this end, just like I can build a film cue on an improvised percussion recording, my jazz compositions take a visual idea, mood, or story as their starting point. On the technical side, combining acoustic recordings with pitch and rhythm manipulations and effects, sampling, overdubbing, creating unique sounds and soundscapes from digital and analog sources and looping are all utilized in my latest jazz recordings, particularly “Brief West Coast Tour” and “They Come Out at Night”. The tools that I have learned as a film composer are now an indispensable part of my jazz language.

  3. You turned the pandemic into pure creativity, and created “Transmission”, one of the most artistic, unique and well-thought out pieces that was inspired by COVID-19. It’s an experience that exists as an album and a film and it involves so many different components, such as soundscapes and dialogues from the pandemic, as well as historical and scientific data. We would love to know more about the inspiration, planning and execution behind this grand project!

    As soon as the pandemic hit, I knew that as a composer I had to translate this unique and challenging experience into some sort of aural piece. I sent out requests to friends and colleagues for audio and video recordings of their daily experiences during the quarantine. I got snippets from all over the world from Japan to France to my home country Turkey, people recording the silence, singing, playing what they felt on a musical instrument, recording their thoughts and feelings in isolation, the sounds of nature and animals that they normally don’t get to hear… In the meantime, I kept a record of the daily cheer for the pandemic workers here in NYC and asked two of my friends to do so from different locations in the city. This went on for over 6 months. As the recordings accumulated, I realized this would not be a single piece but an album project and a pretty monumental one at that. Fall of 2020, Corvallis International Piano Festival reached out to ask if I would record a virtual piano performance for their Wider Visions series. It was perfect timing, as it meant I could put together everything I had been working on as a film project as well. It also allowed me to collaborate on a professional level with my husband who is an epidemiologist and leads the team at Columbia University that modeled Covid-19. So, I combined all the audio and video I had collected, interviews with him about the virus and its transmission and my own solo piano performances into not only compositional pieces but also visual essays. It was great to have a deadline for the festival, and as a historian friend of mine put it “Transmission” now stands as “a time capsule” of the early pandemic.

  4. As a resident of NY, you often collaborate with other incredible artists and have your music performed and premiered! One that really grabbed my attention was your work with Rastro Dance Company! I find it incredibly powerful that a Turkish artist can write music about Venezuela and have a dance company premiere it in the US. Can you tell us more about how you incorporate other cultures into your work?

    We can’t help being influenced by the soundscape that surrounds us. I am from Turkey. I have lived in various cities in Europe and the US and am now back in NYC for over a decade. The sounds of the city are universal – language and music from so many places in the world, sights and sounds that represent an amazing variety of cultures. There are certainly projects where we have to immerse ourselves in a certain style or the music of a culture but mostly, I am inspired by the people I work with. And I am sure even though I don’t overtly think about it, my Turkish roots seep into my music in subtle ways, such as my love of odd time signatures and certain modes. When I first got together with choreographer Julieta Valero to compose for Rastro Dance Company, we didn’t have a specific direction in mind. I could see she was in a lot of pain because of how the upheaval in her home country, Venezuela, was affecting the friends and family she had left behind. I put a microphone in front of her and asked her to just express what she felt. She didn’t want to talk but instead let out this incredibly sad, gut-wrenching scream. That and watching her dance were the seeds of the music I wrote, even though it is a piece about Venezuela, for me it is a piece about experiencing Julieta’s grief as well.

  5. Rumor has it that you are the living proof of how rewarding the AWFC directory can be. We would love to know the story! 

    Yes! I have been on the AWFC directory pretty much since its inception and in 2018 got an email from a director looking for a composer for a documentary. She said she wanted a female composer based on the East Coast and used the AWFC directory at the recommendation of a colleague which led her to my website. The subsequent demo I sent her cinched the job but without the directory she would have never found me. This ended up being the feature documentary “Sisters in Freedom” which I mentioned before, not only a great project to have worked on but also one that led to other collaborations with the director, editor, and the sound designer of the film.

    Check out Sila’s AWFC profile.

    Interview by Esin Aydingoz

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