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A trusty maxim in the field of film composers states that one shouldn’t judge the artist by the filmography — or at least not only by that measure. Many famed Hollywood-linked composers have spent time and energy working on concert music and other creative, not-necessarily-commercial projects, including the late, great film music legend Elmer Bernstein, who lived for years in Santa Barbara.
Another Santa Barbaran, Brad Fiedel, who moved here with his family in 1996, had a stellar run in the film music world with high-profile movies such as the Arnold Schwarzenegger action vehicles Terminator and True Lies. But it’s a whole other story — or set of stories — when it comes to Fiedel’s highly personal new project, a long-labored-over musical called Full Circle. It finally had its premiere with an elaborate audio version released on Soundcloud for all to hear on June 24.
Fiedel’s story incorporates aspects of his own father’s life that cleverly weaves teen angst, Jewish mysticism, and apparitional memories of the Holocaust into a tapestry of infectious songs with a cohesive dramatic thread. The cast includes Mia Burridge, Ken Ryals, Ann Dusenberry (Fiedel’s wife), and Dan Gunther. Music, lyrics, and book are by Fiedel, who recently found the concentrated time to complete his musical thanks to the order to shelter-in-place.
What brought you to Santa Barbara? Have remote technologies allowed you to work from your 805 home?
We moved up from L.A. full time in 1996. I maintained studios in both places for a while. In the ’90s, when I was doing a lot of Hollywood projects, the remote technology was not that developed. I remember running downtown to the Greyhound station to pick up the latest video sent on the bus from the editing room in Burbank. The technology is amazing now. I’ve been focused on developing my own projects for quite a while, so that’s been easier.
Full Circle is a fascinating piece that manages to cover various terrain — from a troubled teenager self-isolating in an N.Y.C. apartment (eerily prescient, that touch) to storylines on Jewish mysticism and the Holocaust. What was the original impetus for the story, and how did it develop?
Having lived in New York and Los Angeles, I was always haunted by the fact that I often had to close off my heart just to get from one place to another. This is particularly relevant now. There’s so much pain and injustice that’s existed for so long, partially perpetuated, I believe, because so many of us have learned to turn off our empathy to “get through the day.”
I wanted to explore what would it be like if we didn’t have those filters. I explored this through Sarah, the heroine of the story; she has no filters to block others’ thoughts and feelings. Her empathy has become so extreme that she feels everyone’s pain so intensely she can’t go out anymore. My grandfather escaped from eastern Europe at an early age, and he plays the violin, so elements of his life were an early inspiration for part of the story. How trauma can be passed down through generations was also something on my mind. Sarah’s estranged grandfather enters the story, bringing with him the mystery of his past.
Sarah and her grandpa are able to help each other deal with their respective challenges as they face their quest together. This all sounds pretty heavy, so I do want to mention that there is also comic relief and a romance.
The pandemic has been devastating for performers who rely on live performance, whereas writers, composers, painters, and others who often work in solitude have at least been able to continue their work. Has an upside of this period been the chance to really focus on something personal such as this as-yet staged musical?
Absolutely. Full Circle is a project that I started over 10 years ago. [Because of] one thing and another, I hadn’t finished it. Over the years, I had recorded the songs, dialogue, and narration with a great cast and solo piano accompaniment. When the pandemic hit, I had the idea of creating a version that could be released in audio form for people to experience in the safety of their homes. With a lot of time on my hands, I was able to finally focus on what was necessary to complete the project including orchestrating the music, editing, and mixing this version of the show.
After your rich life as a film composer, were you drawn to musical theater and other media to seek more personal creative modes of expression?
During my career as a film composer, I learned a lot working with amazing writers and directors, from Arthur Miller to James Cameron. It was a wonderful opportunity to make my contribution to the stories they wanted to tell.
After over 20 years, I came to a time when I wanted to create the stories and see what came out of me as an artist without someone else’s images to work with. I have always loved stage musicals, and writing the book, music, and lyrics for Full Circle has been my chance to take a very personal dive into that area.
Full Circle falls in line with what is happening in theater at the moment, using Zoom and other online strategies to stay artistically active. Do you see that as an incidental positive for an innovative approach, such as your audio version of your musical?
It is very difficult and expensive to get a film made or bring a musical to the stage. There are so many talented people out there creating work that is never experienced by the public. I think that this may be a perfect time for people to come up with innovative ways to get their creations to the public, and these new avenues can continue even when theaters do open up.
It’s actually very old school. It harkens back to the old days of radio theater when people gathered around the radio using their imaginations to complete the experience. It may be a challenge for some in our over-stimulated world, but I think many will enjoy this kind of presentation.
You were anticipating an orchestral performance of your classic Terminator score at Royal Albert Hall this spring. Is that something that will be happening in the future? Are events such as that rewarding for you?
Terminator Live is a performance of my score to the picture by the wonderful Avex ensemble. They had several very successful shows in Japan right before everything shut down. I’m sure that eventually they will do it again at various venues. It is rewarding to see the excitement generated by this kind of event.
Also, it’s very gratifying in this age of social media to hear directly from the fans how much film music has meant to them in their lives. Frankly, it was a pleasant surprise to find out how many people really listen.
What is on the horizon for you? Is this a moment when your imagination is the limit?
Yes, and sometimes my imagination can get me in deeper than I realize. At the moment, my goal is to share Full Circle with as many people as possible. Then I will work on dreaming up my next project. I’m hoping to find some great folks to collaborate with on the next one — even if it has to be on Zoom.