That bond – between the 60-year-old African-American composer and the conductor/music director of the Quad City Symphony Orchestra – has remained strong for decades. It’s bringing Abels (who’s based in Los Angeles) back to Davenport on Dec. 3 to hear his new guitar concerto “Borders” under the baton of Smith.
The two have known each other since they were in elementary school together in Phoenix, Ariz. Abels has achieved great success in a variety of artistic fields, navigating between the worlds of concert and film music. He is best known for his scores to Jordan Peele films — including the Oscar-winning “Get Out” (2017) and “Us” (2019), for which Abels won the World Soundtrack Award, the Jerry Goldsmith Award, a Critics Choice nomination, an Image Award nomination, and multiple critics’ awards.
The hip-hop influenced score for “Us” was short-listed for an Oscar, and was named “Score of the Decade” by online publication The Wrap. Abels also wrote the score for Peele’s 2022 science-fiction film “Nope.”
Of Smith, Abels said Tuesday in a phone interview: “He’s been the longest advocate of my music I must say, and I’ve enjoyed a musical friendship that has intersected through our entire lives and it’s a beautiful thing. It’s really been a huge gift to my life.”
“He is just so communicative and direct and intensely knowledgeable and musical and just personable and funny and he’s a character, who completely owns who he is and makes everybody else wish that they were looking at life the way he does,” Abels said. “It’s remarkable.”
Both he and Smith started out playing piano (at age 7 and 8, before Smith switched to cello), and singing in the Phoenix Boys Choir (which Smith’s father founded and directed).
Smith actually conducted Abels’s first composition (for piano and orchestra), at a summer camp during high school in northern Arizona, where Abels played the piano part.
His first main orchestral piece was commissioned by Smith in 1990, for the Phoenix Youth Symphony, called “Global Warming” – but it’s not about climate change. It’s gone on to be played by 100 ensembles, including the QC Symphony in 2011, and in South Africa after the fall of apartheid.
“It’s really about the warming of international relations,” Abels (who studied composition at University of Southern California) said. “It’s about world music and how there are certain things in common of different types of world music. It’s colorful and it’s tuneful.”
In November 2021, the QCSO performed his lush musical illustration of “Frederick’s Fables” by Leo Lionni, narrated by Quad-City poet and author Shellie Moore Guy. In April 2021, the QCSO did Abels’ “Delights and Dances” (2007, rev. 2012), for string quartet and string orchestra. The QCSO commissioned his orchestral work “Liquify” in 2017, and co-commissioned “Borders” with an orchestra in Houston, Tex.
As a concert composer, Abels’s orchestral works have been performed by the Chicago Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, Atlanta Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, and many more.
“We went to music camp together. We have a lifelong, literally since 2nd grade relationship,” Smith said in November 2021. “I love his music, I love him. With kind of his more recent successes, his career has taken off.”
Reflecting refugee struggles
The new piece is inspired by the museum exhibit “Sahara: Acts of Memory,” by Amir Berbic depicting life in camp Sahara (named for its sand) that was created in Denmark for housing refugees of the Bosnian War in the 1990s, Abels said.
“Among the refugees were graphic artist Ismet Berbic and his family. The exhibit details the Berbics’ struggle to preserve individuality, family and cultural identity in the face of losing country and community,” he said.
QCSO soloist and guitarist Mak Grgic (a Slovenia native for whom the work was penned) is a friend of the Berbics, and experienced the Balkan war firsthand as a child, the composer noted.
“In the first movement of this concerto, the guitar is a protagonist that is repeatedly confined by sonic bars or walls created by the orchestra. The second movement depicts a child running, sometimes joyfully, but also sometimes in fear,” Abels said.
The pair went to see the “Sahara” exhibit — by Grgic’s friend Amir Berbic — in Pomona, Calif., in February 2022.
“I am beyond thrilled that we chose to present music as something that supersedes life’s obstacles, and that the Berbic family’s story of persistence and perseverance has been told so well,” the soloist said recently.
Grgic and Abels premiered “Borders” – which is 16 minutes long — with ROCO (the co-commissioning orchestra) in Houston, Tex., on the weekend of Sept. 23-25, 2022. With over 128 world premieres to date, ROCO is one of the most prolific commissioning organizations in the U.S., according to its website.
This is Abels’s first guitar concerto, and while he plays the instrument a little bit, he said when writing for Grgic, “I just have to imagine myself being like 8,000 times better than I am.”
“It’s always great to see somebody play something that you’ve tried, and do it really well,” Abels said, noting the guitarist gave him feedback and suggestions during the composition process. “There’s always a ‘wow’ factor in that.”
Writing a concerto is a bit like writing for a film, Abels said Tuesday.
“In the case of a guitar concerto, or any concerto, it’s really clear that there’s a protagonist like in a movie,” he said. “There’s a character and that character is the soloist and it’s understood that everybody’s there to hear the soloist and hear their story as it were and root for them and watch what they have to do.”
“I was helping tell his story in writing a piece that would feel personal to him, as well as giving him a chance to display his unbelievable ability,” Abels said of Grgic.
The composer also appreciates that World Relief Quad Cities will benefit from half the Dec. 3-4 QCSO ticket proceeds, for their work with local immigrants and refugees.
“I’m really glad because they are helping people who are in the situation that the piece was inspired by,” Abels said.
A happy ending in film
He was always interested in writing for film, among any medium in any genre. Jordan Peele found his music on YouTube, and was looking for a composer to reflect the Black experience, Abels said. There are very few African-American concert/film composers around.
“I was sent what was to be the Oscar-winning script for best original screenplay,” he said of “Get Out.” He called Peele “just as smart and funny as he seems in interviews and I just realized his script was brilliant and one of a kind and I knew that I would have done anything to work for him because he’s so talented.”
“Get Out” was Abels’s first film score, and since then, he’s written for 10 movies altogether. After “Get Out” opened in 2017, the legendary director Steven Spielberg told Peele: “Michael Abels — that guy is great. You’ve got to use him again. It’s like me and John Williams.”
“I’ve been doubling down on that since he said that,” Peele told the Los Angeles Times recently. “I knew he was capable of creating a chimera effect of music genre,” Peele told the L.A. Times, “to take what, to me, sounded like jazz and western score and sweeping Chinese epic — and combine it into this new flavor. That’s what I wanted to do with ‘Get Out’ and ‘Us.’ I wanted a new flavor of film. I wanted a new flavor of thriller.”
“His skill set is immense, and he has mastered many different genres of music,” Peele said of Abels in 2019, according to an NPR piece. “The best way for my movies to feel new and fresh is for the soundtrack to feel like something familiar, but also something that we’ve never heard before.”
For “Get Out,” Peele asked Abels to create a sound of “gospel horror.” So the composer wrote a choral piece for the opening titles, where African-American voices sing warnings to the main character in Swahili.
“Every film, the goal is for it is to have its own sonic imprint as the goal is to have its own visual look,” Abels said this week. “And because I’m the type of guy who likes taking music apart to see how it works, the idea that I put it together in some unique way is part of the fun.”
The composer was overjoyed to see “Get Out” (which grossed over $255 million on a $4.5 million budget) for the first time.
“It was a dream come true, I was really, really gratified,” Abels said. “I’ve been around long enough that I know that projects, creative projects can go south for any number of reasons. So I didn’t have any expectations that it would turn out to be ‘Get Out’ as we know it — a film that I think is going to be going to be studied in film school for a long time.”
“Jordan never thought the film would get released due to how controversial it is,” he added.
“We were all trying as hard as we possibly could to make the film as great as it could be. That’s what you do with any creative project and we thought it was wonderful. I thought it was like nothing else and very smart as well as appropriately scary.”
The composer is honored to have a close relationship with Peele.
“I feel like I know what kind of music Jordan likes and can get past ideas that I am pretty sure are not gonna be the sort of thing that he gravitates toward,” Abels said. “But he’s also someone who’s always pushing himself, he’s always writing new scripts with new characters and wants to do something unexpected and challenging for himself. So he expects and seeks the same of his collaborators.
“So each time is a different journey that relates to that story and what he’s trying to achieve at that time,” he said.
2023 Grammy nominations
In a timely twist of fate, both Mak Grgic and Michael Abels have Grammy Award nominations for new work, in the recently announced award announcement.
In the same category of Best Classical Instrumental Solo (out of five nominees), recordings of “Abels: Isolation Variation” by violinist Hilary Hahn, and “A Night In Upper Town — The Music Of Zoran Krajacic” by Grgić are both nominated.
In 2022, Grgić’s album “Mak | Bach” was nominated in the same Grammy category, best classical instrumental solo album. The 65th-annual Grammys will air live Feb. 5, 2023, from Los Angeles on CBS (and WHBF Local 4).
Grgic also performed on Sept. 11, 2022 for the QCSO’s chamber music “Up Close” series at Davenport’s Redstone Room.
For tickets to the QCSO Dec. 3-4 Masterworks (Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Davenport’s Adler Theatre and Sunday at 2 p.m. at Rock Island’s Centennial Hall), visit the orchestra website.
For more information on Abels, visit his website.