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From his bio, Stephen James Taylor sounds like any busy composer for film and television.
He wrote the scores for two Sundance movies this year and has composed music for numerous movies, TV series and Disney theme-park attractions. He was commissioned to write an orchestral suite for the Opening Ceremonies of the 1996 Olympics and recently released his first album.
But in the midst of all that, the 61-year-old Taylor has been on a long, strange trip down what he describes as a "rabbit hole," investigating the sonic phenomenon known as microtonality, whose guru has Mormon roots in Mexico.
In a documentary about his exploration, Taylor credits "sonic sorcerer" Erv Wilson, a music theorist the composer met decades ago, for turning his knowledge of music upside down. Wilson is credited with discovering musical frequencies that exist outside the conventional 12-note scale predominant in Western culture.
"What he showed me … blasted open a portal to a new universe," Taylor says in the documentary "Surfing the Sonic Sky," which can be seen at http://www.thesonicsky.com.
Wilson, who Taylor says was born to Mormon parents in Chihuahua, Mexico, in 1928, "works with numbers to uncover musical notes you can't find on a regular instrument like piano because the new notes would literally fall between the cracks." Wilson invented an 810-key piano along with many other instruments, based on 3-D models he made from diagrams of mathematical computations that show the relationships between musical notes.
What Taylor learned in his study with Wilson is outlined in "Surfing the Sonic Sky." And you can hear it in his new album, "Embrace It All." But it also informs the music he wrote for two movies playing at Sundance this year: the competition drama "Southside With You," which imagines the first date between President Barack Obama and his future wife, Michelle Robinson; and the documentary "Maya Angelou And Still I Rise."
This isn't his first Sundance. He composed the scores for "To Sleep With Anger," a 1990 film starring Danny Glover and directed by Charles Burnett; and the 2000 festival's "Blessed Art Thou," written and directed by Tim Disney, whose grandfather Roy O. Disney co-founded the Walt Disney Company.
In an interview from his home in Los Angeles, Taylor said writing the score for the Angelou documentary was the more challenging project, and not just because he was working on the music before the movie was done.
"It was more difficult than I thought," he said. "She's a complex person."
Taylor said the score had to encompass elements of religion, jazz and blues while respecting the poet's intellect. "I had to kind of create … an eclectic style that reflected her personality."
Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack, co-directors of the Maya Angelou film, the first documentary made about the poet, author and activist who died in 2014, said they chose Taylor because of his diverse musical style and storytelling experience. The film explores parts of her life that are not well-known, including the years she lived in Africa, the three men who were pivotal in her life and her passion for music.
"Stephen has a very eclectic range," said Hercules. The documentary "covers such a wide part of history, so many styles of music were needed."
For example, the guitar is Taylor's main instrument, and one that is central to Angelou's life and times, said Coburn Whack, who interviewed Angelou extensively for a series that aired on Oprah Radio from 2006 to 2010. Angelou loved country music from the time she was a child.
"The twanging of the guitar that is relevant in the film really said a whole lot about the culture" in which Angelou grew up, Coburn Whack said. "Guitar at the time was really a workman's instrument."
The music Taylor composed for "Southside With You" was just as pivotal but for different reasons, said director Richard Tanne.
"The move at times strives for a kind of poetic tone and he's one of the composers out there that's capable of finding that poetic tone through music," he said.
Tanne said he was inspired to make "Southside," his first film, after reading about the Obamas' historic first date. He said it just "felt like a movie."
"There's something special about how Barack and Michelle look at each other. To me, that connection always felt authentic and vibrant and the fact that they're now the president and first lady makes it all the more fascinating," he said.
Tanne is a fan of director Charles Burnett, who has worked with Taylor on a number of films. After interviewing Taylor, he said he knew he was the right composer for his film about the nation's first black president and first lady. Taylor's score, he said, "came from a deep and authentic" place.
"It was very important to me to have an African-American composer who might be able to infuse the music with that kind of cultural nuance and legacy," Tanne said. "But mostly it was about the sounds he creates, which are just kind of beautiful and unique."
What's next for Taylor? He's working on music that will play in the lobby of a museum, and his own film about physics, "an unknown something about quantum mechanics." He's going down another rabbit hole to determine whether this discovery is really something new. And he's certain a microtonal musical lexicon will be just right.
"Maya Angelou And Still I Rise"
Screenings • Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2 p.m., the MARC, Park City; Wednesday, Jan. 27, 6:30 p.m., Redstone Cinema 1, Park City; Friday, Jan. 29, 3 p.m., Broadway Centre Cinema 6, Salt Lake City; and Saturday, Jan. 30, 9 p.m., Yarrow Hotel, Park City.
"Southside With You"
Screenings • Sunday, Jan. 24, 12:15 p.m., Eccles Theatre, Park City; Monday, Jan. 25, 6:30 p.m., Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, Salt Lake City; Tuesday, Jan. 26, 9:30 p.m., Redstone Cinema 1, Park City; Thursday, Jan. 28, 5:45 p.m., the MARC, Park City; Friday, Jan. 29, 6 p.m., Yarrow Hotel Theatre, Park City; and Saturday, Jan. 30, noon, Sundance Mountain Resort Screening Room, Sundance Resort.