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  • Writer's pictureBen

America (The Story Behind My Music)...

I've always loved America...the American dream...American history. I remember at the age of five, one of the first songs that I ever fell in love with was Neil Diamond's "America". Still love it to this day. I stand for the pledge of allegiance and the national anthem, and as an adult, I still get choked up when singing "The Star-Spangled Banner". One of my earliest film memories was seeing the Richard Donner directed SUPERMAN with Christopher Reeve as the iconic superhero who stood for “truth, justice and the American way”.

A big part of what I love so much about this country is that I saw the American dream lived out and exemplified by my dad and my grandmother. It's not something that you necessarily notice as a kid, but it's something that you appreciate as an adult when you're pushed out of the nest and into the real world.

I am the son of an Iranian immigrant who came to this country with not much more than a dream of a better life for his future family. On my mom's side, our lineage can be traced back to the building of "The Great Chain" and a voyage on the Mayflower. Even with two wonderful parents who love me and my sister very much, growing up wasn't easy. My parents divorced when I was one, and my sister and I were raised by a single mother. By American standards, we were very poor, and if it wasn't for a grandmother and father who loved us very much, and showed that love by financially providing a life we never would've had otherwise, I don't know where my sister and I would be.

My grandmother lived through The Great Depression and eventually became a registered nurse. She had a dream and desire to help people not just physically, but spiritually. Saving every penny she could, she worked very hard to start what would become one of the largest privately owned nursing agencies in the country...and not just any nursing agency, but a Christian nursing agency. She didn't let her gender dictate what she could and couldn't do. More than that, her gender was never her identity. She wasn't a business-woman...she strove to be the best in the business...period. I never once heard her lament about the difficulties of being a woman building a business in a man's world. She never segregated herself from anyone. She worked long and hard and lived a frugal life even though she didn't need to, but it enabled her to eventually buy her dream home and provide a life for me and my sister that we normally wouldn't have had.

My dad grew up in Iran. Thankfully, he immigrated to the United States and became a naturalized citizen before the ayatollahs took over his country of birth. I think his original plan was to make and save enough money to bring his parents over from Iran, but because of political turmoil that exists even to this day, that never happened, and I never met his parents. He apprenticed and learned a trade that almost no-one does any more...he fixes watches and clocks. Not long into his American journey, he got a business loan from my grandmother, and started his own clock shop. He was a one-man operation. day to day grunt work. Eventually, he was able to buy his own building to house his clock-shop and rent out the extra space to other tenants, so he became a landlord as well. During the holiday season, he would deliver grandfather clocks for a few hours before opening his shop at 9am and then deliver more grandfather clocks after he closed at 5pm. Twelve to sixteen hour days and he never complained. When I was in film school, he also became the actor for one of my short films. My dad loves John Wayne westerns, James Bond spy movies and American football. Outside of overhearing phone calls to his family back in Iran or visiting relatives in Chicago, I never heard him speak Farsi, Assyrian or Armenian, and he never taught us those languages. I grew up knowing nothing about Iran other than it was a country in the Middle East. He wasn’t born here, but he was as American as apple pie…the quintessential American. He became something out of nothing.

For me, it wasn’t until high school that the idea of “America” became something much more personal. I had an amazing high school history teacher (Mr. Cap) who literally brought history to life with his passion and exuberance. It was not hard to fall in love with and learn history as he taught it. Every class was like watching a play or an episode of television as he dramatized his lectures. I loved reading Thomas Paine and Alexis de Tocqueville...and learning about what led up to the writing of the Declaration of Independence and eventually the Constitution through the arguments laid out in the Federalist and anti-Federalist papers. For a theater competition, I even memorized the once famous "give me liberty or give me death" speech by Patrick Henry.

In learning about American history through Mr. Cap, I also had a couple of other great teachers in Mrs. Fischer and Mr. DeLuca who ignited my love for great American composers like Aaron Copland...George Gershwin...Samuel Barber...and of course, John Williams. Outside of Beethoven and Rachmaninoff, I could never really get into "classical" composers. I think some of that had to do with me being a visual person. The music of all the composers mentioned above immediately triggered my imagination and I could visualize dramatic scenes playing out to their music.

A passion for John Williams shepherded me into the discovery of other great film composers like Henry Mancini, Ennio Morricone, John Barry, Alan Silvestri, Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, Danny Elfman, Michael Kamen, Harold Faltermeyer and Hans Zimmer. The more I devoured film music, the more I realized why I loved it so combined two of my most valued senses...sight and sound.

In 1992, somehow, I was able to convince my grandmother to invest in my musical potential which allowed me to buy my first synthesizer…the Korg 01/W FD. It was more than just a synth…it was a workstation! It had a built in sequencer and the ability to save all my work to a 3 and a half inch floppy disk drive.

That same year, I had gotten my hands on a song book of popular songs from hit movies of the 80s. In that song book was one of my favorite movie themes from one of my all time favorite movies…the main theme to TOP GUN. I learned it and played it constantly. During the summer of 1993, while playing the theme, I started to improvise and riff. Eventually, I came up with the melody and chords that became the basis for my original piece “America”. In fact, when my wife recently first heard the piece, she told me that it reminded her of the TOP GUN anthem I wonder why!

I couldn't stop thinking about this new piece I had written, and I knew I had to turn it into something more than just a few chords and a melody on the piano. I had visions of a great Revolutionary War battle...the Colonial army and militia on one side...the British on the other. Freedom or tyranny? As the final charge takes place, the flag bearer dashes forward, waving high the 13-star American flag and rallying the troops to push forward...give me liberty or give me death!

I dug in deep and started to flesh out this idea by using the built in sequencer of the 01/W to create and arrange different parts…after all…I now had an orchestra at my fingertips. I had no idea what I was doing. Yes, I had piano lessons and I knew the basics of chords and theory, but I didn’t know orchestration or even what that word meant. Mr. DeLuca (one of my high school music teachers) tried to teach me orchestration while in high school, but I was too much of a punk kid to listen and learn. I knew nothing about the instruments that I was trying to emulate. The only orchestral education that I had was all the CDs of film music that I could get my hands on. John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Danny Elfman, Alan Silvestri and James Horner were my teachers. My mom always used to tell me “listen to the kind of music you want to write”. So I did just that. I immersed myself in John Williams’ score for SUPERMAN, JFK, MIDWAY, 1941, E.T. and INDIANA JONES and his commissioned work for NBC Nightly News and the Olympics…Jerry Goldsmith’s music from STAR TREK and RUDY……Danny Elfman’s score to BATMAN…Alan Silvestri’s scores for BACK TO THE FUTURE and THE ABYSS…James Horner’s scores for STAR TREK, GLORY, AMERICAN TALE, THE ROCKETEER and PATRIOT GAMES…I listened intently and I figured out how to arrange my own piece.

A couple years later, as a sophomore in college, I thought it would be fun to take a senior level musical orchestration class. In hindsight, that was a dumb idea for someone with a limited musical education. Up to that point, I had cheated my way through learning music, playing by ear and figuring things out when I heard them. In this class, all my classmates were music majors. The only bright spot in this story is the class project we had to do. We had to take a piece of music and arrange it for full orchestra. I decided to use my piece “America” for this project. I figured…hey…I already have it arranged, so most of my work is already done! Except, there was no easy way to get the midi notes out of the synth and onto a piece of paper, so I had to transcribe each part by going into the sequencer, looking at numerical midi data and figuring out which notes were what, and that was not fun at all. But all of that pain and agony soon faded once I head the orchestra play my piece for the first time…I got goosebumps!

Since then, I’ve always wanted to “redo” the piece and create a virtual orchestral mockup that sounded close to that time in 1995 when the orchestra played this piece. After 9/11, I did a somber “reprise” version of the piece with just strings playing the melody. Unfortunately, I sold my Korg 01/W but I upgraded to the Korg Triton and it had a really great “Camera Strings” patch that sounded really good.

Even though I still have the floppy discs, I don’t have the 01/W or the Triton synths any more, so I can’t access the midi data, nor do I have the transcription of all the parts that I wrote out for that class project, so the thought of “redoing” all that work from ear based off of the audio recording was quite daunting and I kept shoving it to the back burner.

About 5 years or so ago, I was able to purchase some music sample libraries from a company called CineSamples. Their orchestral libraries were so inspirational, I had to get them, and I did start the process of re-imaging the piece, but as it often does, life got in the way. Being a husband and father became the priority, so again, it was shoved aside.

Over the last few months, as the looming July birthdays of both my sons got closer and closer, and I hear them sing and play John Williams’ music all throughout the day, I saw my past self alive in them. A flood of emotion came running back, as I saw all the same joy and excitement that I had when I was there age. I was compelled to finish re-imagining this piece, if nothing more, but for them. If this is the only legacy that I can leave them, then that is enough.

Thank you for reading this and thank your your time.

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