Anatomy of a Scene: Darius Holbert on An American Requiem: Elegy for the West


Darius Holbert is a widely acclaimed composer known for his work on Grey’s Anatomy, Better Call Saul, and American Horror Story. Holbert recently released his latest concert work titled, An American Requiem: Elegy for the West. An artistic commentary on our current social climate, An American Requiem offers Holbert’s musical vision of a ‘societal death and rebirth’ which is exhibited through his take on the venerable Requiem funeral mass music that is typically performed by traditional Catholic church communities.

PH: Which movement was your favorite to work on in An American Requiem; Elegy for the West?

Darius Holbert: Wow, that’s a tricky question. We recorded only the first three of fifteen total movements for this EP.  As far as the three initially recorded, I think I probably gravitate most towards “Graduale,” but it’s hard to say.  Some days it will be “Kyrie” and other days “Introitus.” If we’re talking about which movement I enjoyed writing the most from all fifteen movements, that’s extremely hard to say; it’s like picking your favorite child.

PH: Describe this movement and the significance it has to the rest of An American Requiem?

Darius Holbert: Let’s talk about the “Graduale” movement – it is probably the best example of what I set about to write: a relatively complex piece that is still approachable and works as a standalone composition. To my mind, much of contemporary classical music (while valuable in its own right, and of which I am a big fan) has become increasingly insular and academic. I wanted to write something that would allow casual listeners to be able to enjoy the work without a degree in Schenkerian analysis of serialist matrices. Since much of the broader audience for classical music found their way to appreciating the genre through the great film scores of the past, and since composing for film is my day job so to speak, all of “An American Requiem” is unabashedly cinematic.

PH: What tools, plugins, or instruments did you use in your production of this movement?

Darius Holbert: As with any larger piece made up of multiple movements, the tools varied pretty widely. All movements started in Logic either from MIDI or audio sources. Since we recorded in the middle of a pandemic, a lot of the orchestral elements remained MIDI mockups. I use a pretty wide array of different plugins from Spitfire, Cinesamples, IK Multimedia, NI, 8Dio, etc. I used a number of live instruments as well in the early stages, especially if it was a solo instrument. There are a good number of odd percussion elements in the work as well – a train whistle, a baseball into a glove, and others that I played live too. 

PH: What technical challenges did you encounter while working on this movement?

Darius Holbert: I think the biggest issue was that it was recorded primarily during the covid lockdown. Typically for something like this, we’d get an orchestra and a chorus together in a room and hash it all out. If I’d get too many side-eyes from the sopranos for writing their parts too high, or a particular run was impossible for a soprano sax to play fluidly, we’d fix it in the room. But that wasn’t an option for this. I worked with a brilliant vocal contractor, Andrew Schultz, who has excellent connections in the Los Angeles vocal world, and we hired six ultra-talented singers, each with a little recording rig in their homes – some in a home studio, some just in a back closet. They sang to the mocked-up tracks, with a guide vocal and the part score to read and then sent me multiple passes. I flew the passes into the sessions and was floored at how amazing it all sounded. We were able to cobble together an entire choir from 6 people singing by themselves in their own houses. I’m still blown away at the talent of these singers and how well it worked.

A number of technical challenges will arise in the next phase of the work. The idea is that the piece will be performed with the visual component; the films will be projected during the performance. The next phase is to find performance groups interested in the premiere of the complete multimedia work as well as labels interested in recording the full piece along with producing 12 new dovetailed films. The response so far has been amazing and we’re talking to a number of interested groups, which is really exciting. 

PH: What was the dialogue like between you and the six acclaimed filmmakers that you worked with, regarding this movement?

Darius Holbert: I was lucky enough to work with a handful of super-talented filmmakers from around the globe, but the filmmaker who worked on this particular film is an animator friend of mine originally from Brazil who lives and works primarily in Los Angeles: Tarik Castilho. He’s a tremendously gifted artist with an imaginative eye, so I essentially sent him the piece and said “go to work!” I wanted to be as hands-off as I could be with these films; to let each artist do their thing. I tried to give minimal notes, if any at all. It was such a great exercise for me, since in my work I’m always writing to picture, and this was the complete opposite: having the visual component be dictated by the music. It was really fun. We sent the films around the film festival circuit this year and managed to garner a number of nominations and wins including the 2022 International Music Video Award, which is so cool.

PH: Can you talk about how you set up this movement? What was the pre-production involved? How did it come about? 

Darius Holbert: The impetus for this particular movement came out of a piece I had written earlier for a modern dance company in NYC. We ended up going a different way for that commissioned music, so this idea never got used. As it is in the Requiem, it doesn’t bear many similarities to the original piece now (the first piece never had a vocal element, for example), but that’s where the seed came from. The orchestration was tricky since there are multiple keyboard parts – piano, Rhodes, MIDI upright sample – so I and my orchestrator, Walter Trapp had to figure out how many players would need to share how many keyboards. I think it worked out well.

PH: Was there another direction you initially wanted to go with for An American Requiem; Elegy for the West? 

Darius Holbert: Not really – I’ve always wanted to add my take on the vaunted musical Requiem mass. I grew up studying the big ones from Mozart, Brahms, Fauré, and love the more contemporary adjacent entries from Britten, Brubeck, even Irakere’s Misa Negra. Since I work writing music to visuals that are always structured to fit someone else’s vision, I was conscious during the entire writing process that I was writing music that sounded like ME, and I wanted to make sure it was exactly what I wanted to be writing. It was a solitary experience outside of my typical process, but extremely rewarding. It is at times refreshing to create without much concern for collaboration or audience.

I’ve been working on this piece on and off for the past 5-6 years in-between scoring films and tv, but I really focused in on it during the early months of the pandemic.  It’s my response to feeling hopeless about climate catastrophe, social justice collapse, leadership failures, and global health cataclysms. There has of course been a ton of rewriting and editing since starting this project, but I think the end product is exactly what I set about to write. I’m more proud of this work than anything I’ve written to date.  

You can hear the EP and watch all three films here.


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