Sep 11

Student finds his soundtrack to success

The past few weeks of Grant Fonda’s life would not make for a very stirring motion picture.

Although Fonda participated in an international contest that tested his skill and resolve, there was no final scene of victory, only quiet affirmations. No triumphant hoisting of a trophy over his weary head, only subtler moments to be cherished and worthwhile lessons to be tucked away for a future date.

University of Missouri graduate student Grant Fonda recently traveled to Poland to compete in the Transatlantyk Instant Composition Contest.

The graduate student at the University of Missouri School of Music traveled to Poland earlier this month to compete in the Transatlantyk Instant Composition Contest, a compositional pressure cooker that tested his ability to write emotive music for motion pictures. Although Fonda did not achieve a level of glory worthy of having his own tale captured on celluloid, he came home with a better understanding of what it means to be part of the film industry.

Fonda applied to the competition — founded by Oscar-winning composer Jan Kaczmarek (“Finding Neverland”) — almost as an afterthought, engaging the process between finishing a commission and heading to his native California for vacation. In addition to submitting previously composed works, he was required to score two short film clips that were distinct but equally daunting. The first, a climactic scene from the 2009 film “Get Low,” included a stirring soliloquy from Oscar winner Robert Duvall; it was an “intense” and “delicate” moment with dialogue that needed to be preserved, not drowned out, he said. The second was from a “bizarre” French cartoon in which a young girl, among other things, falls into a bowl of alphabet soup and is attacked by zombies.

For the Duvall clip, he evoked themes of mystery and absolution through the use of unresolved dissonances, inverted chords and pedal tones; Fonda balanced “menacing” and “childlike” themes for the latter. For his work, he was selected as one of 30 participants, which meant trekking to Poland, watching a short film, and composing and performing an accompaniment before a panel of American and Polish judges on the spot.

Fonda was shown a five-plus-minute piece called “Walking,” produced by a Canadian travel commission decades ago; the work was bizarre and psychedelic, with no discernible plot or dialogue, he said. Immediately upon leaving the screening room, he sat at the piano and performed his level best. His strategy: attach a winning theme to the film’s central character and balance out its more extreme elements with a relatively accessible, melodic score. Ultimately, Fonda did not take his place among the 10 finalists. He received praise from the American panelists but was told the European judges wished he’d taken more risks; other contestants incorporated elements of prepared piano or relied on a more serial, clustered set of tones.

Although Fonda did not advance in the competition, his compositional sensibilities were advanced by encouraging, “invaluable” interactions with the likes of composers Christopher Young (“Spider-Man 3,” “The Grudge”), George S. Clinton (the “Austin Powers” films), Bruno Louchouarn (“Total Recall”) and producer Roy Conli (“Tangled,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”); these professionals offered lessons on life and art in master classes and specific feedback in personal conversations.

Among the comments Fonda received were praiseworthy pronouncements on his ability to convey mood and character and his capacity to musically captain viewers through a spectrum of emotions in a short period of time. Clinton remarked on his remarkable capacity for suggesting and creating color through orchestration. Additionally, he was told he had a fitting temperament for composition and was encouraged to stand up for his abilities, even while avoiding walking on others in collaboration. Ultimately, he was deeply encouraged by Young’s comments on the relationship between a composer’s maturity and the potency of his or her music.

“He said, ‘You’re not going to be able to evoke the right emotion for a romantic scene if you’ve never been married,’ ” Fonda recalled. “ ‘You’re not going to be able to evoke the right emotion for a funeral if you’ve never witnessed somebody close to you die.’ He said there’s just a certain advantage that being older in the industry has than being younger. … All this time I had been thinking,” as someone who’s closer to 30 than 20, “I’d missed my stride.”

Fonda said he’s likely to reapply next year — this year’s contest might not have provided a feel-good movie ending, but, as he exercises his talent and applies messages received an ocean away, there’s little doubt a sequel is in the works.

Reach Aarik Danielsen at 573-815-1731 or e-mail ajdanielsen@columbiatribune.com.
Copyright 2011 Columbia Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
This article was published on page C2 of the Sunday, August 28, 2011 edition of The Columbia Daily Tribune.

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