Family lore holds it all started with an “instrument petting zoo.”
“A small chamber group will perform a piece geared toward children, and then afterward, they will sit in the lobby and let the children run their hands on the instruments and sometimes make a sound,” Elise Seifert explains of the concept with a grin. “I barely remember, but I made a note on a bassoon.”
Two decades later, Seifert’s composition, “Bassembly,” is performed in woodwind circles all over—including the International Double Reed Society Conference of 2017. Her piece for bassoon and electronics was inspired by Seifert’s bassoon instructor at UNCG, who mentioned casually there was a piece of music for disassembling a bassoon whilst performed.
“My first thought was whether there was a piece where the bassoon was assembled? No obvious one came to mind so I wrote one.” Seifert notes matter-of-factly. For a couple of years, the idea of turning reed-making sounds into a beat had been percolating in the back of her head. So she sampled and looped the process.
“There’s scraping and cutting, there are some machines that take off a very thin amount with each stroke but are not automated,” she explains. “You have to slide back-and-forth, and it makes a ginormous clunking sound. Reed-making is definitely a craft—the old-world sense of craft, passed down from teacher to student.”
Meanwhile the performer is assembling a bassoon while playing it. Readers can listen to “Bassembly” at soundcloud.com/eliseseifert/bassembly.
As a living composer, Seifert’s music is considered “new music,” but for laypeople (like myself) it sure sounds like classical music. “A lot of people understand what I mean when I say the word ‘classical,’” Seifert acknowledges. “It’s a similar audience, it’s performed by similar instruments, orchestras, chamber ensembles, pianos . . . it has a more complex harmonic and melodic structure than pop music.”
But she isn’t a dead white guy with a wig, which is the other connotation people have for classical music. Actually, she’s very much alive, and her dream as a composer is not to play harpsichord with a candelabra sitting on it, but rather to compose film scores. That dream is taking her to Los Angeles at summer’s end. In some ways it’s an old story: talented young person, loading up the car, heading to the land of the great golden West, with dreams in the pocket in search of their fortune.
“[Film music] is the way most people are informed of what an orchestra sounds like—and I want to be part of that. I want to help people understand what classical and orchestral music can sound like,” Seifert explains. She points to John Williams’ work (“Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones,” “E.T.”) as inspiration. “He still writes all of his own music with paper and pencil, and orchestrates. I look up to him because he made film music recognizable.”
Though Seifert’s journey started with a note on the bassoon at chamber music group, it followed a path of public school band classes, piano lessons and parents who supported a budding interest in music. Band class was where a lot of pieces came together: finally learning to play bassoon, the instrument she met at the petting zoo, and discovering the excitement of creating music with others.
“I started taking theory lessons in high school and transcribed a couple of pieces for marching band,” Seifert says, and points out they weren’t brilliant pieces, but what she learned in the process was invaluable.
Along the way, the penny dropped and she realized a passion for scoring films. One of the first CDs she ever bought for herself was the soundtrack for “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.”
“It is the first film score I distinctly remember as I came out of the theater—I could hum along the melody,” Seifert recalls with a smile. Nevertheless, it’s probably the late Jóhann Jóhannsson (“Theory of Everything”), who comes closest to her own work and aspirations.
“He’s one of those composers who does a completely different sound for each movie he works on, but he uses a lot of electronics and percussion,” she explains. “I like that he continues to put out albums and create concert music in addition to his film scores, all of which have their own stories. . . . I balance the film scoring and concert music. As I get to know more performers, I write more pieces and a wider range of concert music. Then the performers can help me record film scores and continue to network.”
The system seems to work. She just finished scoring the pilot for an animated children’s show about animal communication, and in early summer she is headed to Florida to record two new pieces.
“I get most of my ideas from specific people that I am working with,” she details, “their feelings toward their instrument or what hasn’t been done in their own instrumental genre.”
A conversation with a base clarinetist, who always thought of the base clarinet as “a slimy great big fish,” inspired another composition set to be recorded in Florida this summer. “So I interpreted as a wriggling up-and-down melody and a little bit of a gritty sound,” Seifert describes. “And the piece is called ‘Snakehead,’ which is a big ugly fish.”
Seifert’s most recently recorded piece, “This Hour” (soundcloud.com/eliseseifert/this-hour) is written for piano and whistler. It is the perfect example of her philosophy of composing.
“I worked on stage crew while at UNCG, and one of my friends likes to whistle while he works,” she says with a grin. “[He] can whistle the saxophone repertoire he’s learning, orchestra music and jazz classics. He always joked about having a ‘concerto for whistler’ and after sitting down at the piano we figured out he has a three octave whistling range.”
Just for a point of reference, it makes Axl Rose’s opening to “Patience” look like kindergarten playtime. All of this is in addition to short independent films she already has under her belt. As well Seifert keeps up a pretty relentless pace working a day job, volunteering at WHQR and composing constantly. Her output is nothing short of inspiring, but it is not a surprise.
Despite not having a job waiting for her in Los Angeles, her big leap to California is planned for the end of the summer. “The reason I’m doing this is I’m young enough to start building up my network out there and I feel like Los Angeles is the best place for me to grow as a film composer.”
She pauses for a moment, trying to articulate the next piece.
“It’s very easy nowadays to find cheap beats online to put in your film. But if you use a living composer, I integrate melodic character themes and change my music to interact with the action of emotion happening on screen. I want to fit the director’s vision and I can do that better than a quick Google search.”
Readers can enjoy Seifert’s work now and remember her name. Someday she is going to walk across the stage at the Oscars, and she will get there the old-fashioned way: hard work and determination, both of which she has in abundance.