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Michael Abels playing-it-forward in Hollywood
By Lapacazo Sandoval, Contributing Writer
Published December 3, 2020

Michael Abels (Photo by Eric Schwabelt)

Michael Abels is best-known for his scores for the Oscar-winning film “GET OUT,” and for Jordan Peele’s “US” —spearheads—COMPOSERS DIVERSITY COLLECTIVE.

While reading the November issue of Forbes, I discovered a new social media app called LUNCH CLUB.  It’s an AI super-connector that makes introductions for 1:1 video meetings to advance your career. During one of the first LunchClub meetings, I met composer Matthew Wang who told me about the Composers Diversity Collective which was co-started by Michael Abels who is best known for his scores for Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning film “Get Out,” and “Us,” 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 the Oscar and was even named “Score of the Decade” by online publication The Wrap.

How a concert composer went to scoring an Oscar award-winning movie is the stuff of Hollywood legend but it was the inspiration behind Michael Abels co-starting the Composers Diversity Collective, an advocacy group created to increase the visibility of composers of color in film, game, and streaming media.

Abels could have kept moving forward in the game without ever looking back to help other composers of color, he could have but he didn’t and I strongly feel that the global creative community is that much luckier that this man has a heart.

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Abels has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, Meet The Composer, and the Sphinx Organization, among others. His orchestral works have been performed by the Chicago Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Atlanta Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and many more. As guest conductor of GET OUT IN CONCERT, Abels has led orchestras like the National Symphony and the San Francisco Symphony. Several of his orchestral works have been recorded by the Chicago Sinfonietta on the Cedille label, including Delights & Dances and Global Warming.

Abels upcoming projects include the ballet for concert band FALLING SKY for Butler University, AT WAR WITH OURSELVES for the Kronos Quartet, and the Hugh Jackman film BAD EDUCATION for HBO.

Here is what orchestral composer, film composer, and co-creator of the Composers Diversity Collective, Michael Abels had to share about playing-it-forward in Hollywood.

THE LOS ANGELES SENTINEL: I am so pleased to be speaking with you, Mr. Abels. I was chatting with composer Matthew Wang, and he told me about the Composers Diversity Collective which you co-founded and I was just blown away.

MICHAEL ABELS: (laughing) Thank you. Matthew is a great and active member of our group.

LAS: Why did you co-create this groovy organization? As a screenwriter with a script in development, with my writing partner, Art Shrian, who is Indian, I am delighted that your organization exists.

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MA: Thank you. For your readers that might not have thought about people who write music for media before because it’s not a thing. We are artists but we are always in the background so people first have to understand that there is a whole industry of people who are artists. Musicians that write music for films, and games, and streaming. It’s that instrumental music, usually not vocal that helps tell the story.

LAS: Would you say there is a need for more composers of color?

D’Anthoni Wooten, Shirley Song, Joy Ngiaw, Tanglene Bolton, Raashi Kulkarni, Jongnic Bontemps, Amritha Vaz, Chanda Dancy, Brian Davidson (Skydance), Sandro Morales Santoro, Matthew Wang, Kevin Smithers, Juan Andrés Matos, DeAndre James Allen-Toole. Vidjay Beerepoot, Scott Tang, Dallin Burns, Michael Abels, Timo Chen, Stanley A. Smith, George Shaw, Wei-San Hsu, Sid De La Cruz, Steven Buckner, Omar El-Deeb, Julian Montgomery. (Photo Credit the Composers Diversity Collective)

MA: There is a huge need that goes with all sorts of different stories. For every story, there is music that goes with it that helps tell the story. However, like in many aspects of our society, representation is not as inclusive as it might be and that is many of the reasons that inclusion is a challenge in other aspects of our society. But besides all of the usual reasons that might be true, with music we tend to think of as a musician doing a certain kind of music.

And that is often based on what ethnic background they are from. While we question why people should be limited by their ethnic backgrounds by things they do in their lives, but we often don’t even consider that the bias we have about a musical genre and that it would be something that we would question. When an artist steps outside the music that they are known for and does some other style of music we are usually surprised. Those of us that are musicians feel that it should not be as surprising as it is to people.

LAS: That’s beyond true, which is one of the reasons that I feel that it’s important to let all kinds of creative people know about the Composers Diversity Collective.

MA: Thank you.

LAS: You are welcome.

MA: Our group exists so that people in the industry that at least know that there are people that write music for film and television know that we exist.

LAS: Amen.

MA: We write music that is maybe authentic to our cultures because some of us grew up in those cultures and can write the music of a different style that is based on us knowing about that music first hand. But can also write any other kind of music and that we should not be typecast just based on our ethnicity, gender, etc.

LAS: Let me repeat what I feel is important which is “but can also write any other kind of music and that we should not be typecast just based on our ethnicity, gender, etc.” Hollywood is masterful at typecasting.

MA: The group came to be when people of color in the industry that’s not heavily integrated tend to notice each other.

LAS: (laughing) Yes, color does pop in a mostly White room.

MA: I had the great fortune of scoring Jordan Peele’s [Oscar-winning film] ‘GET OUT.’

LAS: Creepy music that made me want to get out and stay out!

MA: (laughing) Thank you. The success of that suddenly gave me a much higher profile than I had before. I’d meet other composers [of color] and we say we should hang out and then young [composers of color] wrote to me, asking me about my work on ‘GET OUT,’ sharing that I was a role model for them. When we finally decided to hang out 50 people showed up.

LAS: Nice.

MA: So, I realized that it just illustrated what a need there was for a people of color [POC] to actively organize to be seen in our industry behind the camera.

LAS: Well, Hollywood executives love writing and servicing press releases about their diversity initiatives. Now that they know that you exist no excuses.

Michael Abels (Photo by Todd Rosenberg)

MA: So, if people in Hollywood are looking to be more diverse and most people in Hollywood are, we are here to say — here we are! If you want a more diverse list talk to us and we will fill out your contacts with composers of every ethnicity and gender. And if you want to exercise your diversity muscle we are here to help train you and to make that easier.

LAS: I am loving the Composers Diversity Collective more and more! What was the first instrument that you mastered?

MA: (laughing) Well, I have never mastered an instrument. I am still learning. I’m a pianist. I was attracted to music in the crib. I studied for many years and I was ok but I could tell right around that age that you have to start practicing four to eight hours a day, I knew it wasn’t for me. But I was always fascinated about writing music.

LAS: Lucky us. Lucky Jordan Peele.

MA: In the [movie] THE SOUND OF MUSIC there is the song “Do-Re-Mi” [a show tune from the 1959 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical] there was one word for every note by mixing it up, like this, and I thought what a fun game. You could make music be anything you want. It’s like Lego blocks with music. Our earliest impressions inform us and that’s one that’s been [important to me].

LAS: At what age did you start to write music?

MA: I started to write music at eight-years-old. By the time that I was 13, I figured out how to stick through an idea and see it through to the end and I’ve been hooked ever since.

LAS: When did you get your first break to compose music for the film industry before ‘GET OUT?’

MA: Well (dramatic pause coupled with laughter). So ‘GET OUT’ was the first film that I ever scored.

LAS: Say what now?

MA: (laughing) I went to USC (University of Southern California) and I scored some television and radio commercials. Also, some student films and I always wanted to do that but I never had any traction in the industry. It seemed like I could not convince anyone to let me do what I wanted to do, to follow my dreams. But I also loved writing music for the concert hall and I wrote some orchestral music that was played around the country and that’s what I was doing for a long time. I was also teaching. Some of my orchestral music is on YouTube and I had dozens of views and one of those views happened to be Jordan Peele who was looking for someone to write in a very avant-garde 20th-century dissent, a frightening way for orchestra but who also understood the Black experience. So, when you think about that — he was kind of looking for me.

Michael Abels (Photo by Eric Schwabelt)

LAS: Brother — you nailed that! Glad he found you, seriously.

MA: [Jordan Peele] is a visionary and is unashamed to hire people that maybe don’t have the credit list on IMDB that others have, I had zero, but he had the post-production supervisor hunt me down, and after I got over believing that I was being punked, we connected. They sent me the script to GET OUT.

LAS: This Hollywood story just gets better and better.

MA: (laughing) I got sent what would become the Oscar-winning script for Best Screenplay [2018 Oscar winner for, writer-director Jordan Peele] in the mail, cold.

LAS: In the mail, cold. I love it. I know you meant email but mail is much more dramatic. Did you realize how good the film was on the page?

MA: Yes. I realized how great it was the moment that I read it. And Jordan [Peele] is every bit as funny and smart as he comes across.

LAS: So it was a match of talent and wits.

MA: I told him that I wanted him to be successful and that I would do anything he wanted. If you think that I can help you, I will do whatever you want.

LAS: Now, here is where the story turns. Jordan Peele helped you and you co-created the Composers Diversity Collective which will help more and more. Thank you for giving caring about more than just yourself.

LAS: How can developing composers of color become a member of the Composers Diversity Collective?

MA: We’ve made the process easy. It’s all on the website.

LAS: Do you hear that composers of color? Michael Abels has stepped up to help you now go forth and do the same thing.

To learn more about Composers Diversity Collective go to

https://www.composersdiversitycollective.org 
To learn more about Mr. Abels go to https://michaelabels.com

To learn more about Matthew Wang  www.mattwmusic.com

To learn more about Lunch Club ( https://lunchclub.ai ).

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Categories: Entertainment | Movies | News (Entertainment) | TV
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