Ebenezer Eferobor (Photo by Chris Meyer/Indiana University)
Noni Ford speaks with composer, Jon Vickers Scoring Award winner, and former IU Cinema projectionist Ebenezer Eferobor about his new score for the Ozu classic Dragnet Girl, why he thinks like an athlete rather than a musician when he is composing, and more.
Ahead of the world premiere of his original score at IU Cinema for 1933’s silent film Dragnet Girl, I had the chance to ask composer and Jon Vickers Scoring Award winner Ebenezer Eferobor some questions about his creative process, advice for those in the field, and favorite pieces of music. It was a joy to hear more about his approach to the project as well as the discipline and focus he gives to his art.
Noni Ford (NF): How did you approach composing Dragnet Girl?
Ebenezer Eferobor (EE): First, thank you for this opportunity. It is truly an honor to speak with you. When I was first notified that I had been awarded this commission, one of the first things I did was get in touch with my Theory and Composition mentor Christian Erickson from my time in Sheridan, WY. I did that because he spent a lot of time with me, mentored me through a lot of situations, and is very much a part of my success. I believe it is important to reflect on your journey before taking on certain types of challenges. I have written music before, but not the size of 100 minutes non-stop. I honestly thought I wasn’t ready, and I still feel like changing some things in the score. Like seriously, how do you write 100 minutes of non-stop music? I spent the first couple of months just exploring and doing some self-analysis because clearly I did not get here by mistake. However, I needed to know for myself the qualities that I possess, which has brought me to this moment in history. No one, that I know of, in my lineage has done something like this, so I needed to change my frame of vision.
I remember that the reason I got here in the first place was because I had a certain knack for routines and disciplined work. Some of that mentality comes from my time playing sports. I always viewed myself as a kid who was willing to show up early every day and put in the work until I convinced the coach that I was good enough to play with the big boys. I never felt entitled to a place on the team, but focused on how I could improve so I could convince the coach that my spot was on the field. With this kind of attitude, I would practice every day, six days a week, double sessions every other day, early mornings and evenings before and after school. This practice built a certain lifestyle of mental toughness, street mentality, and consistent routine. Even today, I never know if I am good enough, but I always know that if given a chance to work on something, it doesn’t matter what it is, I know I can do an excellent job.
So, I combined my street mentality with a consistent writing schedule, and that was how I composed the score for Dragnet Girl. I was writing six days a week most of the time for about 11 months, and some of that music did not even make it into the score. I had my peaks and valleys, but this was the structure that I had to set for myself if I was going to have any chance of successfully completing this project. I had to think about it like an athlete, not as a musician.
NF: Did your research on the film change your composition process for this project?
EE: This is such a good question. [laughs] I am laughing because I remember the first thematic materials that I shared with [Jacobs School of Music professor] Larry Groupé and his comments about them. You can imagine, they never made it into the score. So yes, my research definitely changed my composition process, not the framework, but particularly the thematic toolkit that was going to serve as the building blocks for the project.
NF: What drew you initially to composing music?
EE: Cece Winans, Tramaine Hawkins, and Westlife. In the beginning, I remember saying that I wanted to be a producer, amongst other things, but I did not know what that meant. It just sounded cool. I would listen to songs on the radio and try to replicate what the singer was doing, or listen to a record on a CD player and try to figure out how to make those same sounds on the keyboard in church. Those were my foundations in composing because I would take what they were doing in a song and try to apply it to another song, or I would figure out a way to change it up and do something completely new but related to that idea I heard. It was simply about the process of creating something and seeing it being performed in church or at a gig.
The first time I heard Tramaine Hawkins, it was like lightning had struck me. I could not believe what I just heard. Two of my favorite songs as a child were “Piano and I” by Alicia Keys and “Alabaster Box” by Cece Winans. I can still see my oldest sister making breakfast at 5:30 am and I would wake up to that song playing on the boombox like my alarm clock every day. That sound is true to me and I am grateful. “Piano and I” was another lightbulb moment for me. I had never heard someone capture a moment through a microphone and a pair of headphones. I think part of it was that combination of classical music with gospel or hip-hop; it was magical. Alicia Keys is still one my favorites because of her persona and overall musicality in creating some of the best music I ever heard.
NF: What do you consider the most challenging aspect of composing?
EE: In my humble opinion, the most challenging aspect of composing is consistency without judgement. One of the things I constantly have to remind myself about is self-worth and self-love, without which it is very difficult to see value in the daily practice of musicmaking. In my experience, I like to see growth over a period of time rather than flashes of brilliance that are inconsistent. So when I started to write the music for Dragnet Girl, I was prepared from a standpoint of disciplined and consistent practice of musicmaking regardless of the daily output. If I showed up at 4 am in the morning, I had already won that day.
Publicity still for Dragnet Girl
NF: Do you have any interest in composing another contemporary or historical silent film?
EE: I would certainly consider it because I love learning and the art of storytelling.
NF: What advice would you give to young, aspiring composers?
EE: Well, I think I am young and aspiring. [laughs] One thing I have found to be true is something I heard from Mr. Denzel Washington on a video: “Without commitment, you’ll never start, but more importantly, without consistency, you’ll never finish.” To put it another way, finishing is a skill. Also, don’t be too precious with your music — I learned that from Mr. Rick Marvin. These two things, coupled with other basic things like being a good person and surrounding oneself with good people, are some of the most recurrent themes that continue to come back time and again.
NF: If you have a favorite piece of music you constantly return to for inspiration, please describe it and tell me more about what you enjoy about the piece.
EE: Well, this is an unfair question because there’s so much music out there. [laughs] Right now, I would say a few pieces that I come back to are: “Adagio for Strings,” Samuel Barber; “Rainy Night in Tallinn,” Ludwig Göransson; “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,” Henryk Górecki; and “Enigma Variations Op 36: Var. 9 and 12,” Edward Elgar. All of these works have one thing in common, and it is that they do a good job of guiding the listener through a narrative using beautiful thematic writing and development, colorful orchestration, melodic contour, and balance. So, whenever I need to be reminded of what it feels like to be lost inside of a story, I listen to these simple yet powerful works.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Ebenezer’s new score for Yasujirō Ozu’s silent proto-noir Dragnet Girl will premiere on November 4 with live orchestration as part of the Jon Vickers Scoring Award program. With this year marking the film’s 90th anniversary as well as the 120th anniversary of Ozu’s birth and the 60th anniversary of his death, you don’t want to miss this incredibly special event!