Spencer Beatty’s life changed forever late one night in August 2010, when he was stationed in Kabul, Afghanistan.
“I was looking at the moon wondering if I could ever get my life back together,” the 51-year-old Army Major recalled recently of his fourth deployment during the global War on Terror. “And that is when it happened. Orchestra music came pouring in as if the night sky had a song to sing. That was the beginning of 45 days of intensive composing as the music continued to flow. By the time I returned home a couple months later, I was back on the road to being me again.”
More than 11 years later, the Coal Valley man — who will retire in March after 20-plus years in the Army — is working with Quad Cities musician Mason Moss to bring together a small orchestra for a recording project that will capture Beatty’s digital compositions properly.
“Coming home from combat in one piece is a journey that never really ends,” Beatty wrote for his Kickstarter fundraising page on the project. “You will never really return as the same person whom your family and friends knew and loved. Even if you are blessed with quick physical recovery, the unseen wounds can send you on a downward path for the rest of your life.
“This project is a unique story of how one soldier discovered the power of music to stay afloat in the raging sea of inner struggles,” Beatty said. “I really believed that I had no future because nothing that used to be ‘me’ was really me anymore.”
A doctor working for U.S. forces in Kabul, in 2010, diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder, the result partly of being deployed overseas seven of the past nine years, separated from his family.
“Great,” Beatty recalled, “as if I needed anyone to tell me.” But, he said, “I felt slightly less alone when a medical professional put it down on paper. Turns out, I was really not alone in the universe that night…It was around midnight and I was walking along a sidewalk inside the Kabul Air Base while staring at the full moon. Then, it just happened…
“The world around me seemed to open up with orchestral music that only I could hear. It was as if the moonlight now had its own film score,” Beatty said, noting he played trombone and guitar when he was in school, but never wrote such music, until working with composing software on his laptop.
“Now, when I was much younger, I would often hear orchestrated music in my head when surrounded by nature and this drove me to study music in hopes that someday I could capture these moments on paper,” he said. “Life had other plans along the way, but now it was time.
“I downloaded a scoring app on my dusty laptop and spent the next month and half performing my duties by day and scoring music that never seemed to stop at night,” Beatty recalled of that burst of creativity in 2010. “I maybe slept one or two hours per night, but I never felt more energized.
“I was scheduled to return home at the end of those 45 days and whatever happed to me during those sleepless nights, I was much more the person my family knew and loved than I had been,” he said of his wife Lori (who works as a nurse), and two sons, born in 1993 and 1998.
In the last several years, Beatty has produced digital versions of those seven compositions (about 35 minutes altogether) using sampled instrument sounds. “However, the tracks keep gnawing at me because the way they are supposed to sound can only be accomplished by real musicians working together,” he said.
“I am lucky now to be surrounded by incredible talent near me,” Beatty said of Mason Moss (Moss Music Services), Justin Farley (Skylark Studios), and a host of young and talented symphonic musicians that will be contracted to bring this project together. Four of the pieces will be recorded.
Farley, owner of Skylark Studios (4401 7th Ave., Rock Island), referred him to pianist/arranger Mason Moss of Milan over six months ago.
“I’ve used Skylark as rehearsal space and recording space before,” Moss said this week. Beatty has digital MIDI tracks on computer that he’d like arranged for a live orchestra to record, to be about 30 musicians.
The score has been written in notation software, but Moss has to clean things up – edit, add dynamics and articulation for the players. He will contract musicians for the project and use Skylark for the recording space.
It will feature a full complement of strings, brass, woodwinds, percussion and keyboard. If the $10,000 Kickstarter campaign gets funded by Feb. 14 (its deadline date), Moss hopes to have it ready to record in April.
He started his own music-service business about a year ago, offering piano accompaniment, music direction, recorded accompaniment tracks, track production, and instrumental arrangements for shows (like the monthly Tubbs & Moss at the Spotlight Theatre, and the New Year’s Eve Neil Diamond tribute at Circa ’21).
“Very unique and expressive”
Moss said Beatty’s music is fabulous.
“I really think it’s a nice blend of what I would consider contemporary orchestral music – semi-film score,” he said. “It’s very flowing at times, very moving at times. The instrumentation that he chooses to use is very unique, expressive, and I think the emotions he was feeling and interpreting at the time, come out very well through his writing and orchestrations.”
“Spencer is really unique – it’s so expressive,” Moss said. “Especially for someone who has no formal training in composition or film scoring. It just blows my mind, the subtlety and nuance you’re able to pull out. That’s why I was so excited to work with him. I get the same way, when I hear things, I interpret them and want to bring them out.”
“No formal training, but you gathered that, if you want snow, celesta is my instrument,” Moss told Beatty.
Beatty said his act of writing was more transcribing what was in his head.
“I could just hear it as if it was recorded, but only I could hear it,” he said. “It’s a little like writing a diary. Once you start to put the words on paper, things inside of you come to the front. I found myself getting really involved with a few of the segments that I didn’t expect.”
Beatty said having live musicians play it will breathe much more life into the music. The general orchestration is for standard chamber orchestra, Moss said – with some special percussive sounds like timpani, celesta, a thunder sheet and glass harmonica.
Moss has recorded at Skylark with some independent projects, and rehearsed the Neil Diamond band there. He usually records his accompaniment tracks from home.
“I love the acoustics here,” Moss said of the former church with high ceilings.
“The acoustics here are wonderful. These tall ceilings will bring out the best in the bass voices, and I’ve come to know Justin as an extraordinary talent in himself,” Beatty said. “He really gets it. If you tell him what you’re going for, he gets it.”
Beatty has been driven by music since he was a kid. “When you’ve got something that sounds great, you want people to hear it,” he said. “The more you bring it to life, the more you bring out parts of yourself. It’s difficult to describe; it’s even more difficult to share with others, unless they hear a real production – which is ultimately what the Kickstarter campaign is about.”
A native of Lincoln, Neb., he said an uncle played French horn, was a mentor to Beatty, so he wanted to play French horn. The school band director made him play trombone.
When he was 7, his mother put on an Elton John 8-track in the car, and he heard the song “Sixty Years On.” “I just remember it was pure hypnosis,” Beatty recalled of the orchestral arrangement. “It was like getting woken up out of a dream; I didn’t even know where I was. A fire ignited inside of me at that moment.”
“I’ve kind of been a little obsessed ever since then,” he said.
A family military history
Beatty has military service in his family – his grandfather served in World War II; he had an uncle in Vietnam; his father was in the Navy stateside. Beatty’s older son is a Navy pilot in Florida.
He majored in elementary education at University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Beatty worked as a teacher in Tennessee, and enlisted in the Army in August 2001. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he was first deployed to Iraq in December 2001 – the first of four deployments.
“If you and your family apart for a year, you change in your own ways,” he said, noting he was married 10 years before joining the Army.
He’s worked since 2010 at Rock Island Arsenal, mainly in logistics planning. After retiring in March, Beatty hopes to pursue a career in writing and do more with his music.
When he was in Afghanistan, he worked on a laptop with a music scoring program that allowed him to sample the instrumental sounds, and create his original pieces.
“You could hear the violin play back or the trumpet play back,” Beatty said. “I would describe it as sculpting. There’s this block of wood in my head; I know what the sculpture’s supposed to look like. I have to chip, chip, chip, and sand and chip, and sand. It takes quite a while to put a piece together. But no matter what it takes to get it out of you, is worth it, because it’s just in there pinging around your head, driving you crazy.”
The software that allows you to play back as you’re writing is invaluable, Moss said.
Beatty said the digital tracks are literally perfect, but mechanical sounding. “In order for things to breathe and have life, you need someone directing people, and even if a note is a quarter-second different, there’s breathing that’s happening.”
Scratching the writing itch
He’s found getting away from his regimented Army schedule has given him more energy to pursue music and composing.
“The itch that I always wanted to scratch was becoming more nagging,” Beatty said. “Also, you get more reflective – when you look back at your career; the kids are older; you’ve been married a while. Retirement is a time when you reflect on a lot.”
The Army taught him to become a good team player, and putting together an orchestra is the ultimate team sport, working toward a singular goal.
“If you let someone else insert their expertise and experience, you discover things you never thought were possible,” Beatty said. “It has an energy of its own, and I’m a firm believer in allowing that energy. When I met Mason, right away I knew that this was somebody – in terms of what we look for in music – who was very similar. I’m looking forward to working with him more.”
Since the Kickstarter launched, some of his veteran buddies have reached out, and shared similar struggles.
“I came to find out they were expressing things, were almost like words out of my mouth,” Beatty said. “The loss of self over separations. Even the loss of some cognitive ability due to long-term stress. They said they’ve experienced the power of music – allowed the roots beneath the ground to grow back into the soil again, and some healing to take place.”
“I had become very cold,” Beatty said of his deployments. “I had turned parts of my authentic self down, so I could be the machine that I needed to be to keep grinding through these experiences. What do I need to do to stay alive at this moment, to keep somebody else alive at this moment?”
He appreciated he was still here, and he felt some force on the other end looking out for him. “There was a period of time, I had a hard time speaking, finding words. My sentences were broken; I would get lost mid-sentence, trying to think of what I was supposed to say next.”
“It was after this – the color and flourish of all the music,” Beatty said of regaining his voice. “When I was able to pour that all out through music, I’ve been able to speak much better.”
Expressing through music helped him in his literal speech.
“It helped to open my heart, so I had less speech issues,” Beatty said. “I’m still not the person I was. I used to be very articulate. I’m much better writing. Before, my moods and emotions were unpredictable. I could be perfectly happy one second and turn a table over the next second.”
“An amazing place”
“The Quad Cities is an amazing place, and I’ve lived in a lot of places,” he said. “Big, small, other countries. I’d never expected the Quad Cities to be the kind of place, and it’s really why I wanted to do this project. I could have done it years ago, but there’s something about this community that makes me want to really make this happen now.”
Kickstarter requires the funds to be raised within one month and if they don’t reach the goal, they don’t get any of the money. Beatty thinks his luck is better with a shorter time frame.
The costs will cover use of Skylark, copyist duties, music arranging, hiring musicians, recording, mixing and mastering. In addition to a CD, Beatty is not sure whether they could have a live performance of the orchestra in public.
“We’re gonna look at whatever life that this can have besides just being a CD recording and a one-time thing,” Moss said. “If people had the demand to hear it live, we would bring that ability out.”
“We have the musicians in and around the area,” he said.
One of the things Beatty tried to feature in the Kickstarter video was to showcase the QC’s bountiful artistic talent. Many people know the area’s manufacturing heritage, but they don’t think of music, he said. “I think that’s a huge mistake; I think the Quad Cities is such a gem,” Beatty said.
To hear music samples and donate to the campaign, click HERE.