Sound Tracks by the El Tracks

Like an opera, Alan Rudolph’s film The Secret Lives of Dentists has a musical theme for each of its major characters. “When you see David Hurst [played by Campbell Scott], for example, you’ll often hear nonlyricized vocal pieces,” says composer Gary DeMichele. The voice in those pieces–lilting above strings, piano, and percussion–belongs to DeMichele, who wrote the character themes and all the other original music for the film in the cluttered dining room of his north-side apartment, a graystone backing up to the el. It’s the fifth film he’s scored since he and actor-director Scott teamed up in the mid-90s. “I did the first three in here,” DeMichele says, pointing through the doorway of an even more claustrophobic bedroom. The graystone, owned by one of his brothers and shared with another, in a neighborhood where their family has lived and worked for three generations, has been fertile ground for DeMichele, even if he has to record between trains. But he’s getting ready to leave it. As a percussionist and pianist, he’s been scratching out a living in Chicago since he graduated from Wisconsin’s Lawrence University 20 years ago. Now, prodded by his brother’s decision to sell the building and hoping to do more film, he’s planning a move. He’ll decide within the next two months either to go to New York, where Scott is based, or Los Angeles, where the weather would be kinder.

The weather is a real factor. Born with two dislocated hips, DeMichele is “living on top” of joints that are like “tires running on their rims.” After three hip surgeries–and three more stemming from an abdominal infection–in the last seven years, he’s walking slowly, with a cane and jolts of chronic pain (sometimes pianissimo, sometimes forte). Growing up in Bannockburn, DeMichele was drawn to percussion in part for its adolescent social perks, but mostly because “there was a physicality to it that was emancipating to me.” He went to Triton Junior College for a year to study with vibist Shelly Elias, then transferred to the conservatory at Lawrence, where he got a degree in percussion performance. That’s where he met Scott, son of George C. and Lawrence grad Colleen Dewhurst.

After graduation, DeMichele took himself in and out of the family auto-parts business and spent one summer doing a graduate seminar in composition and arranging at Eastman. He played for dance classes at Columbia College and for some local theaters and did “the myriad things you need to do to survive as a musician”–teaching, performing at weddings and clubs (with his jazz group Quartastrophe or his pop band the Crayons). Then he cut back on the tuxedo gigs. “I love playing out,” he says, “but I phased myself out of jobbing because the logistics of me hauling around a drum set and keyboard to weddings became daunting.” When Scott came to town to direct Snakebit at Remains Theatre in ’93, DeMichele dropped in to renew their acquaintance. A couple of weeks later Scott asked him to work on a project he was putting together back at Lawrence–a musical adaptation of a 16th-century play. A year after that Scott called again with another proposition: he wanted DeMichele to compose for a film he was making with Stanley Tucci.

The film was Big Night. “They sent me a script,” DeMichele says. “It was great–lean and well written, an honest representation of brothers in business together. My grandfather is Italian; it resonated.” In what has become his routine (and in contrast to the “locked reel” method of Hollywood composers who start work when the film is finished), he began working on it right away, trying “to write pieces that extract the essence of the script” and to come up with something that might work for the opening. He visits the set for each film because it “puts a fire under you.” Later, as rough cuts come in, he composes for specific scenes. Thanks to the advent of MIDI technology, he’s able to flood the director with musical ideas, which are then combined with “source music”–previously existing songs–to make up the film’s sound track. The dicey part, the thing “you never say,” is the worry that “on certain aspects of the score, you just might not deliver.” But when things are going right, the score becomes subtly, “inextricably linked with the scene” and “the scene becomes something greater than its parts.”

“There’s a long-distance-runner aspect to it,” he says. “You’re a little frenzied until the thing’s over. Then you come out of the clouds and go see the movie.” DeMichele was pleased to find a lot of his work in the final version of Dentists. Like his music for Big Night–as rich and inventive as the food in that film–the wide-ranging Dentists’s score has drawn favorable notice from critics. His most recent collaboration with Scott, Off the Map, won the best-of-fest award at the Taos Film Festival; set for release in November, it’ll have a screening at the Chicago International Film Festival next month. “If you have a vehicle for your skills, that’s the real blessing,” DeMichele says. “Between films you sit tapping your foot, waiting. You are still essentially freelance. If you’re lucky, the numbers go up, but the scenario is the same.” So what kind of theme would he write for himself? The question’s simplistic: real people are more complicated than characters in movies, he says. But before he backs away, he makes a stab at it: “I guess it would be like most people: happy-sad.”

Quick Takes

It was Jane Addams’s birthday last Saturday, and there was cake and punch and an open house showing off the darkroom (along with the ceramics studio and gallery) at the new Jane Addams Hull House Center for Arts and Culture at 1136 W. Wilson. The center’s legendary former photography guru Richard Stromberg now runs his program at the Chicago Photography Center, 3301 N. Lincoln, but–no problem. Hull House Center’s classes will be taught by its new director, documentary photographer and longtime instructor Peter Chechopoulos, who isn’t worried about competition from Truman College either, though it’s right across the street….Blame construction problems for the delayed opening of the revamped Pheasant Run main stage, says Paul Botts of the Noble Fool Theater Company, which was scheduled to raise the curtain on Don’t Drink the Water there October 3. That production will now close the season, Botts says, and the main stage will open with The Swordsmen Holiday Spectacular!…We noted the signs last spring, but this week it became official: Leslie B. Dunner, former head of the Annapolis Symphony and a popular conductor for ballet, has been named Joffrey Ballet’s first music director and principal conductor; the Chicago Sinfonietta will be the company’s official orchestra.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.