I recently had the privilege to interview Kurt Bestor. He is an Emmy-winning composer especially known for his Christmas music and non-denominational song, “Prayer of the Children.” He is also a composer for the 1993 movie, “Rigoletto.”
Welcome! Before we begin, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got started working on “Rigoletto”?
I had worked on several films for a company called Feature Films for Families as the composer tasked with scoring the movies. When the opportunity to do a musical film came from them, I jumped at the chance. They producers of the film told me I would be scoring the movie and also writing the songs with Sam Cardon and lyricist Michael McLean. We needed to do the songs ahead of time (before filming) in order for the actors to lip-sync to their tracks. (We added the orchestra later and just had scratch piano during the filming process.)
Are there any other artists you enjoy listening to? Who are some of the composers who have most influenced your own style?
I was influenced greatly by several composers, some from the past and some still living, among them, media composers Dave Grusin, John Williams, Bruce Broughton, and James Horner as well as classical composers Aaron Copland, Claude Debussy. Maurice Ravel, Ottorino Respighi.
The classical composers that really speak to me are the ones that “paint pictures” with their music which is why I gravitate to 20th century tonal composers and Impressionists.
Authors can be led by the Spirit of God to write certain words, painters to paint, sculptors to sculpt. Have you ever felt divine inspiration when composing music?
To be really honest, I have a hard time attaching an actual “Spirit” or being to the inspiration I have definitely received while writing. That said, when I am composing and arranging something that is emotional and meaningful, I will often feel “elevated” or “lighter than air” during the process. Time will pass so quickly that I forget to eat (which is unusual for me!) But, the feeling is a visceral one and hard to quantify what contributes to it.
Whatever it is, I’m glad I can connect to it occasionally.
Would you share an example of an obstacle you have overcome during the composition process?
Composing music always sounds so mystical and glamorous to non-composers, but I would say that there is a great deal of perspiration that precedes the inspiration.
Because of deadlines (under which I always seem to be working) I don’t have the luxury to wait for things to magically “appear.” I just dig in, solve my creative “Rubix Cube” and then the inspiration comes. When I DO occasionally hit a “wall” creatively, I have learned to get away from the piano or computer and go skiing, hiking, or just mow the lawn. That’s usually then when my brain relaxes enough to start the composing process.
Then, in the old days, I would scramble to find a napkin upon which to write the melody that popped into my head. These days, I just sing it into my iPhone so I don’t forget.
Where does “Prayer of the Children” rank on the list of your favorite compositions? As you look back on the legacy of this song and what you were going through when it was composed, what comes to mind at this stage in your life?
I wouldn’t consider Prayer of the Children as my FAVORITE composition, but certainly the most meaningful. When something creative comes out of your head, is suing or recorded, and then takes on a life of its own – that is something very special and it doesn’t happen very often. If one Googles the song, there are literally thousands of choirs, groups, and individuals that have sung the song for a myriad of special event and causes.
When I receive emails from conductors and singers, they usually tell me of a similar reaction felt by the audience and singers alike. Religious people often refer to the “spirit” while others just speak of an intense shared spirituality.
To me it doesn’t matter as much as people understanding why I wrote the song. I never tire of hearing the disparate interpretations of the song – be it Lexi Walker’s piano and string version, Sandra Turley’s boy soprano intro version, or even Three Dog Night’s A Cappella version sung as an encore at all their shows.
What is one of your interests outside of music?
Ten years ago, I discovered the sport of squash. I now start virtually every day by playing 90 minutes of this heart-pumping and calorie-burning racket sport.
What makes a good collaborator?
The best collaborators (and they are VERY hard to find) are the ones that don’t think that the only good ideas emanate from them. My favorite collaborations have happened with people that almost know what I am thinking before I say anything.
To watch Sam and I collaborate, for example, is probably pretty strange because we don’t even speak in complete sentences and we’re both running to the piano to vomit out a quick creative spasm only to shake our heads when it’s obviously not going to work. When we get on a roll, it’s incredibly energetic.
(Perhaps the best example of that was the “Innovators” album where we had no budget constraints and were told to just be as innovative musically as the people about whom we were composing.
What is Rigoletto about and what was your role with the movie?
In short, Rigoletto (not at all about the famous Opera) was about a young girl who was shy about expressing herself and using the beautiful voice she didn’t even know she had and the mysterious disfigured former opera star who privately brought the musician out in her. He was quite cantankerous and misunderstood by the townspeople who accused him of terrible things. Therein lies the conflict of the movie.
The musical selections, especially “Let Me In” and “Melody Within” speak very much to the message of the movie.
Would you walk us through the general process of writing music for Rigoletto (e.g., When did you and Sam Cardon find you worked best together? What did Michael McLean bring to the table when writing lyrics? Did you ever consult with cast or outside individuals to help you perfect a piece, etc.)?
While I scored the movie as I normally would, the songwriting was a different experience. However, the way Michael, Sam, and I would compose was quite seamless. In truth, Mike would usually write a portion of the melody with lyrics. Then we would all get together around his piano and extend, adapt, and change those melodies to what we all agreed sounded best. Often Sam and I would continue the song a little further into a bridge or transition which necessitated Mike reworking things on his own lyrically. It’s hard now to resurrect exactly how it all worked, but I do know that it was quite easy for the three of us to create as a group.
There was also one song that was contributed by composer Chance Thomas. I only adapted it slightly. Because of his LDS Church mission to Italy, he was asked to write an art song in Italian.
Other than that, Michael, Sam and I wrote all the songs and then I used the melodies to score the move later.
What are your thoughts about the vocal contributions of Joe Paur? Did you interact with him at all, and if so, what are some of the first memories that come to mind?
I have nothing but good memories about Joseph Paur. His brother Leo was the writer and director of the film and that sibling connection that he and Joe helped the film I think. Because they knew each other’s talents, strengths and weakness better than anyone else, the movie had a depth and authenticity that comes through.
As a singer, while Joe was very accomplished, I remember him being a little shy and unsure of himself in the recording studio. But, listening to him now, he certainly had no reason to feel that way. The movie predates the use of auto-tuning and digital “fixing” of vocals and he wanted to get things “just right” even if it took hours. I always appreciated that trait in him.
What would a Kurt Bestor magnum opus look like (e.g., what form would it take, with whom would you want to collaborate, etc.)? Do you anticipate ever having the time and resources to do this?
I have already composed a few works that approach “magnum opus” status, but they only had one or two performances. I am speaking of a work I did collaborating with poets Terry Tempest Williams and Susan Elizabeth Howe.
With Terry I did a piece called “Timpanogos: A Prayer for Mountain Grace” – a five-movement tone poem for Choir and Orchestra. Susan gave me the libretto for a piece titled “Utah: 5 Sacred Lessons,” which I turned into a piece for narrator and orchestra. Both pieces were premiered and later recorded by the Utah Symphony and Chorus in Abravanel Hall.
Another piece that was commissioned was a 5 movement tribute to John F Kennedy called “JFK: Rise, All, and Immortality,” which was premiered in Dallas at Daly Plaza where the assassination took place.
But, honestly, I hope the “Magnum Opus” designation happens after I die because I am always reaching for something deeper, more impactful, and musically “forward thinking.” It’s bit chasing the proverbial “pot of gold.” You never reach it, but the journey to find it is definitely worth the trip.