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A member of a musical dynasty writes a postcard about the past

Thomas Newman, whose father, uncles and siblings have composed for films, draws on his life for 'It Got Dark,' being performed by the Kronos Quartet and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

December 03, 2009|By Martha Groves
  • Thomas Newman visits a storm drain culvert while exploring Rustic Canyon, where he recorded the sounds used in "It Got Dark." The work also includes canyon residents' reminiscences.
Thomas Newman visits a storm drain culvert while exploring Rustic Canyon,… (Genaro Molina/Los Angeles…)

It was a remarkable backyard there in Pacific Palisades, the kind that produces enduring memories -- of sloshing in the culvert under Sunset Boulevard, chewing watercress plucked from the spring-fed creek, tramping through tangled woods away from watchful eyes. It made for a childhood that was part Norman Rockwell, part Robinson Crusoe.

For years, Thomas Newman, an admired composer of movie soundtracks, has collected ephemera from the places where he romped as a boy -- faded photos, vintage postcards, cartoons and other relics of the Uplifters, a spirited bunch of Los Angeles Athletic Club movers and shakers who bought land from the Methodists in the early 1900s and created a country compound in Rustic Canyon.


FOR THE RECORD:
Thomas Newman: An article in Thursday's Section A on film composer Thomas Newman's creation of "It Got Dark" said the piece would be performed by the Kronos Quartet and the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the baton of Leonard Slatkin. Slatkin is recovering from a heart attack, so John Adams was the conductor. In addition, the article said John R. Neill was the original illustrator of the "Oz" books. William Wallace Denslow illustrated "The Wizard of Oz," the first book in the series. Neill illustrated many of the subsequent books in the series. —

With microphone and recorder, Newman captured the trills of birds and insects and the gurgling of Rustic Creek.

Never far from his thoughts was the desire to create something musical from the memories, the images and the sounds.

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Nature has often served as a muse for composers. Vivaldi had four seasons. Beethoven had his Sixth Symphony, the "Pastoral." The Talking Heads had "(Nothing but) Flowers."

Newman looked to Rustic Canyon, with its sycamores, sagebrush and sumac, and to the beaches of Venice and Santa Monica, their erstwhile tourist attractions immortalized in postcards and photographs.

"They are little moments in time that are just forgotten," he says. "I wanted to put music up against the photos and other ephemera."

And so he has. His memories and collected "time capsules" have coalesced into "It Got Dark," a 20-minute concerto grosso incorporating sounds from the canyon and oral reminiscences of its residents. It will be performed tonight and Friday by the Kronos Quartet and the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Disney Hall.

Music was as pervasive a presence in Newman's childhood as the wildlife outside his window. From an early age, he sensed that he would not escape the call of music, although he was gripped by insecurities.

"After the music that had been created by my family, I thought there was no way I could stack up," says Newman, 54.

His father, the late Alfred Newman, was the longtime musical director of 20th Century Fox whose scores enlivened such classics as "Wuthering Heights," "The Seven-Year Itch" and "How the West Was Won." His uncles Emil and Lionel Newman were composers and conductors, as are his siblings, David and Maria Newman. Songwriter Randy Newman is his cousin.

Growing up in a musical household was "complex, wonderful and a little scary," Thomas Newman says. "You felt like you had a place but you had to earn it."

The Hollywood String Quartet occasionally performed at the family home on Thanksgiving. Family friends included Bernard Herrmann, a film composer who did memorable work for Alfred Hitchcock, and Ken Darby, who is credited with creating the sound of the Munchkins in "The Wizard of Oz."

Every weekend, Newman's mother, Martha, would herd her sons into the family's Ford Country Squire station wagon to get them to their violin lessons in the San Fernando Valley. Newman later studied composition and orchestration at USC and Yale University. During his senior year at Yale, he met composer Stephen Sondheim, who became an early mentor. By 27, Newman was composing the score for the movie "Reckless."

Since then he has written music for dozens of films, including "The Shawshank Redemption," "Revolutionary Road" and "Wall-E." He has earned Oscar nominations and won five Grammys and an Emmy.

He is known as a versatile talent who can move nimbly from drama to comedy to period pieces to animated features. Fond of experimentation, he incorporates aboriginal chants and the quirky sounds of the hurdy-gurdies, zithers and baritone ukuleles he collects. The result is distinctive, often haunting music that can be lush and melodic or stark and edgy, depending on the movie moment.

The opportunity for a change of pace presented itself last year when the Los Angeles Philharmonic began planning West Coast, Left Coast, a three-week series of concerts for Music Director Gustavo Dudamel's inaugural season. The idea of the series is to showcase music made in and influenced by California.

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