May 30, 2013

More Music, Beyond the Whale

By Mark MacNamara

Anton Sanko“I’m a very emotional person,” he said finally, “and music is just the best way to express myself. It’s always been that way. I suppose it works on a lizard-brain level.”

Composer Anton Sanko is on the line from Los Angeles. He is perhaps best known for his movie scores, which include The Possession, Rabbit Hole, and the HBO / Playtone popular series Big Love, starring Bill Paxton.

We called Sanko to inquire about whales and his Emmy-winning piece Whale Migration, which was written in 2010 for the PBS series Great Migrations. In early June, for the first time, the piece will be presented in a concert performance, played by the New Millennium Chamber Orchestra.

“This is more fleshed out. In the original, there are all kinds of structural limitations. Doing this kind of scoring is like doing cartoon music: You have to focus on what’s in the picture. So I tried to organize it better and make a complete statement and to suggest a flow with more of an arc.”

In his original approach to the piece, Sanko was strongly influenced by Paul Winter and his wonderfully evocative whale lullaby, notably featured in the 1978 album Common Ground. Indeed, one of Sanko’s mentors is guitarist Ralph Towner, a member of the Paul Winter consort in the late 1960s.

“Ralph has been a massive influence on me. He has such a great ability to make you feel very deeply and in terms of rhythm, harmony, melody, space, when to play and when to stop playing. He’s always thinking of music in new ways, there’s always something unexpected.”

As for the score for Great Migrations, Sanko notes that while the footage is extraordinary and the narrative spoken by Alex Baldwin compelling, it’s the music that relays the emotional cues.

“The music is telling you how to feel and as I composed it I was trying to imagine how the whales might be feeling during their odyssey. You see them tentatively circling one another in this very balletic way. They gave the impression of long lost friends being reunited. And at the same time you begin to realize the romantic nature of the scene — and the music. I was very influenced by some of the great scorers. John Barry, for example and Ennio Morricone.”

Beyond the Lizard Brain

Anton Sanko grew up in New York City, in an unusually artistic family. His parents are both artists and his brother was a child prodigy as a painter. While Anton had thought he might become an artist as well, he felt he couldn’t compete with his brother and so “lost my footing.” He then set out to find a separate identity and discovered music. It was the Concierto de Aranjuez that stole his heart. The piece, for guitar and orchestra, was written in 1939 by Joaquìn Rodrigo.

“That was very much a part of the attraction,” says Sanko, “that, along with John Barry and the Beatles. Those three influences, and then it was really a matter of always following my heart. To me that’s the bottom line. Whether you want to be a dental hygienist or an oil painter you must find your passion. In the end ,that’s all you have. That’s the pool that you draw from. And that’s what music is for me, and I’m still swimming in it: intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.

“I suppose music works on a lizard brain level. But also music is based on human speech. Pick any language and when someone is happy they’ll speak in major thirds. If they’re sad they’ll speak in minor thirds. It’s such a profound art form, and for me it’s become way of being in the stream of life ...”

On June 8, The New Millennium Chamber Orchestra will play a concert featuring, in addition to Whale Migration, Los Angeles composer Joachim Horsley’s Small Hours of the Pacific; Bay Area violinist and composer Trevor Lloyd’s jazz-inspired Spiderwalk for wind ensemble; Palo Alto-based composer Nancy Bloomer Deussen’s Central Coast Concerto, as well as Ralph Vaughan Williams' sumptuous Serenade to Music, featuring vocal soloists from the Palo Alto Chamber Chorale. The concert begins at 7:30 p.m. at the Trinity Presbyterian Church, in San Carlos. More information: www.nmchamberorchestra.org

Mark MacNamara (macnamband.com) is a journalist in San Francisco who has written for such publications as Salon.com, Vanity Fair, and The Stanford Social Innovation Review. He also wrote a recent piece for Nautilus, a science magazine, about Edward Elgar’s penchant for ciphers and riddles.