Interview with Starr Parodi

Beginning in the Middle Ages and starting off its particular run at Laguna Beach’s Pageant of the Masters in 1932, the peculiarly magical act of tableaux vivant has found flesh and blood humans meshing into statues and paintings for the ultimate act of becoming one with art. But essential to the Pageant in truly making this form live and breathe, all as painted and costumed volunteer performers don’t bat an eyelash, is the equally vital art of music. From Frida Kahlo to Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, one particularly strong and stylistically diverse melodic voice belongs to Starr Parodi. 

Composer Starr Parodi prepares for The Pageant of the Masters

With her own colorful past alongside Arsenio Hall, the Transformers and James Bond, Parodi has filled in the melodic imagination of pop culture.  But it’s in the company of esteemed masterpieces old and relatively new where she truly gets to show off her vibrantly diverse talents, from Americana to worlds of ethnic colors and channelings of song and dance. Each segment she scores in this cultural travelogue not only describes the Pageant’s astonishing illusions of museum pieces, but the personal story of the art’s creators, all to the dulcet tones of a live narrator and the nightly live performance of a pit orchestra. It’s a stunning coup de théâtre that’s truly one of the LA region’s most wonderous events. Now after a pandemic year, it’s back in both unmoving flesh and energetically limber recreations on and off stage to tell the story of this America’s art – often from those this country has painted into a corner. Once again, Parodi’s Pageant music puts us into the act of creation while inspiring the audience’s imaginations at culture come alive.

Tell us about your musical background and what led you to composing?

My early teenage years were full of angst as so many teenagers are, and the music I listened to seemed to express all my feelings in a way I couldn’t put into words but soothed my soul. I started playing piano relatively late (around 14), and dove in, practicing 7-8 hours a day. I had a piano teacher, Howard Richman who did something that was really life changing. I was playing a Haydn Sonata and was frustrated playing it (I had been practicing everything else but that!). Sensing that I needed some inspiration (my sobbing may have given him a clue) he quietly took a score pad and wrote a poem on it, put it in front of me and said, “Play that.” I pulled it together, closed my eyes, visualized the words of his poem, what they were saying — and started to improvise. I was hooked and I realized later that was kind of my first introduction to scoring to a picture (although the picture was in my mind.) I started playing in bands, mostly jazz and R & B/Soul bands, and toured with several artists. I was asked to play in the original “Arsenio Hall Show” late night band, which was a dream gig and so much fun! During that time, when I wasn’t playing, I worked as an orchestrator and ghost writer for one of the top composers, who really brought me into the world of scoring several network shows a week. That challenged me and gave me marvelous opportunities to work with an orchestra every week. Again, another life changing experience. Once I started writing to picture, the world really opened up and I fell in love with the marriage of the two, and how the sum of music and story together can be so powerful.

Beyond films, was art an influence on the musical direction your life took?

My mom loved paintings and we always had a deep appreciation for art in our home. I didn’t really know the deep and unusual stories behind some of the art I saw in books until I started writing music for the orchestra at the Laguna Pageant of the Masters  – and composing for some of the back stories of these famous artists, sculptors, painters has been totally fascinating.

Starr at the BMI Conducting Workshop alongside Jerry Goldsmith

What was it like to study under Jerry Goldsmith at his BMI program? What did he think of the idea of female composers, and what were the biggest things you took away from that experience?

I’ve been a member of BMI since I was a teenager, and I was always interested in conducting and really wanted to conduct my own scores but felt intimidated sometimes to do it. BMI’s Doreen Ringer Ross and maestro Lucas Richman put together a conducting program to help and inspire composers who also wanted to conduct. I was so fortunate to be invited to take part in the first class of 10, along with 9 other composers including Chris Lennertz, Stewart Copeland, David Schwartz, Mark McKenzie and Murielle Hamilton. In that class there was never any gender talk, I never felt unequal in any way, we were all there to learn and be inspired. Jerry Goldsmith was our guest teacher and to meet him and be able to study with him was such a gift. One thing I remember very clearly was him talking about his schedule for writing, how he approached this, and realizing how important it is to stick to a schedule, and to also make time to take care of yourself and have to relax and revive.

Arsenio with Starr and The Posse

Tell us about playing keyboards for Arsenio Hall’s house band “The Posse” on this talk show.

Well this, as I mentioned earlier, was really a dream. None of us knew it would become a hit show and how iconic it would be. Arsenio really wanted to bring people of all races together and this was reflected in everything about the show, including all the people behind the scenes and our band “The Posse.” I could tell you stories for days about experiences there. It was filmed on Stage 29 of the Paramount Lot and ran for 5 1/2 years, 5 days/nights a week. We played with almost every major and up and coming artist at the time. We did shows around the country, at the Hollywood Bowl, played at the Kennedy Center at the inaugural ball for Bill Clinton’s Inauguration, through the LA riots of 1992 with no audience in attendance. I remember one time during a commercial break jamming around on the song “Superstition” on a clav sound, and Stevie Wonder and Whitney Houston coming out and singing it with me and the band, and it turning into a big on camera jam – totally spontaneous. These kinds of things would happen all the time. I got to have dinner once with Rosa Parks & Muhammad Ali , ROSA PARKS & MUHAMMAD ALI! and chat with my heroes like Maya Angelou, eat and hang out with Patti LaBelle who would always make us the most delicious food in the green room. John Singleton was an intern on the show at one time as well. There are times where there is magic all around you and you don’t realize it because you’re in it, but I think we all knew what was happening was pretty special.

Jeff and Starr

Could you talk about your artistic collaboration with your husband Jeff Eden Fair, particularly when it comes to scoring film trailers as well as composing the United Artists logo music?

Jeff & I met when I was doing my first tour playing with R&B saxophonist George Howard, opening for Whitney Houston on her first tour. Jeff was working on George’s record and me in his live band, so our relationship has always included music. We started writing together early on, and when a mutual friend asked us to score a film trailer for his friend, we were not at all familiar with the genre but dove in, started studying and listening to everything we could and loved it.  Film Trailers were like mini films and allowed us to explore & write so many different styles of music in a very highly produced way with budgets that allowed us to work with orchestras and to be able to hire the best musicians. 

At one point we were scoring about 3 trailers a week. We started working directly for the studio at both MGM & then New Line and scored all their trailers for about 8 or 9 years, hundreds of them. We also worked for Paramount, Universal, Warner Bros. and others, and as well as writing, we did some consulting with bands when they were getting ready to redo themes for films as well. Some of the highlights we worked on were the Bond Films. Producing, arranging and coming up with ideas for updating the Bond theme was so much fun and we were given such freedom to explore many ideas. The studio really loved our concept and basically what we ended up recording was only the 2ndversion we had shared with the studio. Our version of the theme was used in “Goldeneye,” “Tomorrow Never Dies,” “Die Another Day” and “The World Is Not Enough” trailers. In addition to other versions of the theme, we ended up on the Album “The Best of Bond” 40th anniversary collection, which was a gold record, so that was very exciting! United Artists was part of MGM at the time and they were looking to update their logo and we were asked to do this. Their instructions were that they wanted the logo to reflect the past, present and future of UA – all in 14 seconds! We recorded this on the Sony stage with Shawn Murphy engineering and an 80-piece orchestra .

Jeff & I have continued to collaborate on so many projects together, TV series, films, orchestral writing, and also co-producing my solo piano records together. He lends such an intuitive and thoughtful ear to my work as an instrumental artist, and I never feel judged by him but always know he will be honest with me. On “Transformers,” we had Grammy nominated Canadian Pop singer Josh Ramsey from the group “Mariana’s Trench” sing the theme and I think he did a really great job.

How was it to score Hasbro character animation with “Transformers: Rescue Bots” and “G.I. Joe: Renegades?”

These shows were really my first experiences scoring an animated series and I worked on both of them with executive producer Jeff Kline who always does really high-quality work. On both TRB & “GI Joe: Renegades,” one of the most enjoyable things musically was working on the Main Title themes and creating a sound palette for each show – completely different musical vibes but both were hybrid orchestral/synth. Animation is such an interesting process because it has a very different timeline from other forms of scoring, starting the musical discovery process with the animatics and voice actors recordings long before there is completed picture.

William Sidney Mount’s “The Power of Music”

How did Pageant of the Masters come your way, and what did you think of the opportunity to do “live” scoring for living works of classic art?

A wonderful violinist who I have worked with for years, Bob Peterson, is the Concertmaster for the Pageant of the Masters. He had put the orchestras together and played on many of our film trailer sessions and he introduced Jeff & I to the director of the Pageant 13 years ago. I was familiar with the Pageant because of growing up in Southern California, I went to see it as a child and always thought it was amazing.  Also, the fact that they have a live orchestra playing every night, seven nights a week, for most of the summer is extraordinary and really indicated to me that they really value live music. It’s a wonderful opportunity to write for this very unique and inspiring production every year!

Everet­t Shinn’s “The Vaudeville Act”

How is a typical show put together, and how much is the music a consideration to what art is re-enacted or how it’s staged? 

The director Dee Challis, and writer, Dan Duling usually start putting the show together for the next year, almost before the summer is over! It takes that long to put it all together, choose the art, write the scripts, create the props & costumes and get the cast together.  Choosing the theme for the show as well as the art to be recreated definitely comes first, and the music is there to support the art and the story. If they are doing any kind of live scenes or dancing, they need to have a demo mockup of the music to work on the staging with. Also, there are many times where they will create short films that the music is played live to, and usually they will need a mockup for their film editing process. They usually have one “builder” where they put the stage set together in front of the audience to show how the piece is both staged and created. This is a huge audience favorite and sometimes they don’t even realize they are looking at real people frozen in the scenes… until they move!

How are the paintings “timed” to a live orchestra and how do you work in tandem with the narration?

The orchestra and the music are actually timed to the paintings and narration. The narrator reads live every night and the narration is written in on the score. This allows the narrator to create his own nuance of pace that ebbs and flows with the music. There is someone in the booth who reads the music score with the narrator to make sure he knows the musical cues of where to come in, since this timing is so important. In scoring the music, I think of the narrations like I would scoring under dialogue of a film. We are given a demo of the narrator reading the script a few different ways, and sometimes we will make cuts in the timing of it as we are writing the music, to create a brief pause or even speed up of the narration if the music calls for it. 

LUIS JIMÉNEZ “statue” of “Vaquero

Does the form that the art takes, be it sculpture or painting, effect the music?

Everything affects the music but it’s mostly the story, the colors, and the period when the art was created.

What’s particularly fun about the Pageant is that the living art also surrounds the stage, and also becomes like a musical at points. What’s the challenge and charm of breaking that fourth wall?

There are many times when the Pageant literally surrounds the audience with actors, as in having a parade march right through the audience, dancers coming off the stage and appearing in the audience, and many other examples of breaking the fourth wall and bringing the audience into the story. The Pageant has such an interesting and fun way of combining tableaux vivants, dance, acting, singing and making it all relevant to the theme chosen for each year’s show. Musically there is really no added challenge to this for a composer, but the staging of this interaction is quite a feat to pull off, especially when it involves animals (like horses and other large beasts!). Conceptually Dee and Dan have such an amazing and unique creative vision and there’s always something new and fresh each year.

What are some of the favorite Pageants and particular “art” scores you’ve done since joining that stand out, and why?

That’s a difficult question – after scoring 13 years of art there I have fallen in love with so many things about the pieces I’ve worked on.  Sometimes it’s the broad ideas that are portrayed in a painting and other times it’s the brilliant nuances I’m attracted to. One of the unique things about the show is that the audience really gets a feeling for the philosophical and/or spiritual message that the artist is intending for their work in ways that can be much different than can be felt by just a casual viewing of the art. 

Artist Frida Kahlo

The first year I scored music for the Pageant, the theme for the show was “The Muse” and this is what introduced me to the art and life of Frida Kahlo. What I loved about her story was that she was the muse for Diego Rivera, and yet her own unique artistic brilliance and independence shone through at a time when not many women were being recognized. Musically her art was so wonderful to write for because there was vibrant colors, there was pain, there was nature, there were philosophical questions, all which we tried to reflect in the music. Another of my favorite artists to write for was The Swedish artist Carl Larsson. While he was the antithesis of Frida Kahlo in so many ways, his art embodies a certain joy and sense of wonder.

Most of the music is written in suites that contain 3 to 8 pieces of music with the main pieces accompanying the living art, and then there’s transition pieces and vignettes with short films and some live stage productions. I have emotionally connected with so many pieces of art because of writing for this show and getting to hear the intriguing back stories of how the art came about as well as the artists lives. 

Starr’s “Heart of Frida” album

One year the Pageant broke with the tradition of staging Leonardo da Vinci’s portrayal of The Last Supper” to end the show, which always is accompanied by the Jules Massenet piece, “The Meditation of Thais”, and they staged Salvador Dali’s portrayal of the Last Supper, a very different but incredibly beautiful take on the subject. The director wanted us to write an original piece of music for this and we wrote a piece called “Hope”, which is still one of my favorite pieces that we have written, so much so that I recorded a solo piano version of it on my “Heart of Frida” solo piano album.

My dad also lived in Mexico for a good portion of his life and was a contemporary of Frida & Diego. I was inspired for the album by imagining Frida’s daily routine and many of her circumstances, and also how strong and powerful her unique voice as a woman was. Most of my piano recordings start out as improvisations and this was no exception, the music just started flowing out. Mexico City has a European feeling to it, and I felt the mix of neo-classical approach with the inspiration of both Frida, my dad and thinking about the Mexican landscape in the 1st half of the 20th Century was really my inspiration for the album. In this recording I also did solo piano renditions/improvisations of a couple of pieces I wrote for the Pageant (“Overture of Color” and “Hope”).

The actual statue of Edmond Lewis’ “The Death of Cleopatra”

Given what’s happening in this country, how did you want to approach the theme of what constitutes “American” art, especially in regard to diversity and female empowerment?

I was so thrilled to be able to write a suite this year honoring the American sculptor Edmonia Lewis who was bi-racial. She was born in 1844 of a mother from the Chippewa Tribe and a father from the West Indies and she was an orphan at age 9. She ended up living out her childhood with her tribal relatives and nature was her playground. She attended Oberlin College in Ohio, which was one of the first colleges to admit African Americans and women, but while there she was falsely accused of a crime and assaulted and ended up leaving the States and moving to Europe to join a community of female American sculptors in Rome. We wrote music for several of her pieces including “The Death of Cleopatra” and “The Marriage of Hiawatha”

Maxine Albro’s “California”

Though there’s a theme to the show, each painting has its own style, from classically influenced music from the masters to festive Latin rhythm and jazz for Edward Hopper. How do you choose what goes with each painting, and did you have any particular favorites to look at, and score?

We discuss each painting with the director and writer (who’s also an art historian) and do some research on our own as well to get a sense of what might be appropriate. Paintings surprisingly have their own tempo and rhythm, almost like a scene in a motion picture and usually that’s apparent when first studying the artwork.  Many times the period of the painting and the country of origin & subject matter play a role in determining the style, instrumentation & pace of the music, but sometimes we also like to play against the obvious direction the painting may give at first impression.

Starr alongside The Alliance for Women Film Composers

Tell us about your own efforts to promote female composers.

I was the President of the Alliance for Women Film Composers from March 2019-March 2021 and during that time was honored to advocate for women media composers all over the world.  There’s so much to say about this and so many facets of this subject and I encourage readers to go to the Alliance website theawfc.com  to read more about our work. We have started an amazing and highly sought-after mentorship program, started a UK Chapter, grown our membership to over 550, hosted events at film festivals and put together many educational and networking panels as well as doing a lot of behind the scenes work with studios, Guilds and collaborations and partnerships with other creator rights groups. We have really created a sense of community, and one of the most significant things the Alliance has done is to create a directory of women composers that is fully searchable and used by many studios and directors to find their next composer.

Isolde and Starr

Your daughter Isolde is also a very talented singer and musician. What’s it like to work with her, and what have you learned from the experience?

Working with Isolde and seeing her grow as an artist and musician is one of the biggest joys of my life. The way she expresses herself is so uniquely her own and her dedication is an inspiration to me.  I have had the opportunity to work with her on a couple of really fun projects. It all started when she was 13 and wrote the song  “To All the Little Girls” ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XkS2Sl1klXQ) which was about girls knowing that they are valuable and powerful and deserving of opportunity. Jeff and I wrote a string arrangement for this which was played by the girls in her string class from music school, recorded by Oscar winning filmmaker Terry Sanders, and the video was very popular and moving because of all the young girls taking part. We were asked to perform the song at Lincoln Center as part of the “Women in the World Summit” hosted by Scarlett Johansson and the NY Times with a group of girls and Isolde singing and playing the piano. It was so special to work with her on this and I remember looking over at her onstage as I was conducting and she was playing, and she gave me a big smile – it was a very special moment. We also worked on a song called “Rise” which I co- wrote with Isolde and we performed that at Lincoln Center with a full orchestra as part of Amy Andersson’s project – “Women Warriors: The Voices of Change.” We also did an unplugged version with just piano, violin and voice as part of the 2021 She Rocks Awards. Again, very special experiences with her!

The Pageant has mostly avoided controversial art, art without human figures or art that’s of-the-moment. Would you like to see the event push those boundaries, and if so, how do you think that could push your scoring into new dimensions?

Because the pageant is all about living pictures (tableaux vivant) they do look for art that has human figures in it, although they have many times stretched the boundaries in incredible ways, with staging the almost impossible positioning of some of the pieces in what looks like mid air.  I have worked on art that is cubist in nature with human figures as well and they have managed to pull this off too. They are so creative in how they pick and portray their stories – I am always blown away. Many of the back stories of the art are controversial in nature and they never shy away from these. That being said, I love that they don’t dive into and make the show about current politics which can be so divisive and take the focus off the actual art. The painting/sculptures/mini films and scenes for the Pageant that I have scored over the years have always pushed me to give my all to the music, I don’t know of any other way to be. 

In a way, do you see your work for the Pageant as scoring a succession of mini films, a stage show or a concert?

Really all three because the Pageant truly is a mix of these 3 elements, but not a static mix, a dynamic mix, changing from scene to scene. The musicians in the orchestra are incredibly talented and versatile and make everything seem like a concert!

What’s coming up for you?

I’m currently working on scoring two television series right now – one for Apple TV and one for HBO MAX, and also working on a new neo-classical piano album, my 4th as a solo artist. 

Now that the Pageant is back, and full-on film production and scoring at that, what do you think are the biggest lessons you and the Pageant have learned during the pandemic, especially when it comes to the vitality of the arts and music?

I can’t speak for the Pageant, only for myself, but I can say that a lot has been learned in terms of what we had and took for granted as normal before Covid. Hopefully conditions will continue to improve but with a greater appreciation for the arts and for each other.

The Pageant of the Masters’ new show “Made in America” is now playing through September 3rd at the Festival of the Arts at Laguna Beach in California. For more information and to buy tickets, go to:

Visit Starr Parodi’s website at:

https://www.starrparodi.com

Special thanks to Victoria Elder

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