January 20, 2022

Miriam Cutler, Sound to Sound


The Messenger’s ubiquitous critic speaks with award-winning composer, Miriam Cutler.


Miriam Cutler, Sound to Sound

Miriam Cutler composed the musical score for the film Kings Point that is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Short Documentary.

It’s always good to be in demand. The saying goes that “all work and no play, makes Jack a dull boy.” With Miriam Cutler, nothing could be further from the truth. With a career spanning 20 years, Cutler is one of the hardest working composers today with her films making noise at Sundance and the Oscars. The Messenger was fortunate enough to gain some insight into the mind of the person behind the score.

American Promise won the Sundance Special Documentary Jury Prize and Kings Point is nominated for an Academy Award along with Ethel being shortlisted. Do you just not like vacation time? How does it feel to have such a groundswell of recognition for your work?

It’s very interesting that you say that. We composers spend so much time working alone in our studios, in our own heads, that we often aren’t out front with the films. Usually I’m on tight schedules with looming deadlines, so I’m used to working very long hours to deliver on time, which keeps me from getting out much. Projects often overlap, and so I don’t have the opportunity to celebrate much of my finished work. That’s one reason I love going to Sundance every time I have a film there. It’s fun to socialize and experience the work with my colleagues, audiences, and press – to see how the film and music play in the real world. These experiences help me stay connected to my filmmaking goals and stay excited about the work I do. In short, yes it feels wonderful to have my work recognized.

American Promise and Ethel focus on the family dynamic even though they appear to be on opposite ends of the spectrum. Do you feel there is a paradigm shift between families of different classes or time periods?

Of course, every family has it’s own special dynamics and ecology. There are many universally shared features within the core unit, but there are many varied external factors affecting us. Ethel is the story of an iconic family that exists on the world stage, affecting and being affected by historical events. American Promise is the story of two families and their relationship to institutions of American life: economic, cultural, educational, and how these factors are affected by race. All the same, each family in these films must deal with how to best prepare their children to respond to events and take their place in the world. I think part of my job as a composer is to discover the universal aspects of a story and connect those to emotions that can be expressed musically to engage the audience in a personal way.

Your profile more than speaks for itself, obviously. Many composers toggle between genres. What draws you to mostly documentary work?

When I was young, I discovered I had a passion for social justice work. In college I was involved in many projects along these lines -- rape crisis work, prisoner rights, white-collar crime investigations -- and I pursued that line of work after college. But all the while, I was performing in bands and having some degree of success locally. I finally realized my passion for music was stronger than anything and so I left my day job as a researcher/activist to pursue music with all my heart. One thing led to another, and I found myself scoring all kinds of projects from corporate videos, a circus, to low budget features. I was making a living in music, but something was still missing for me.

In 1997, my goals crystalized when I scored a film for Arthur Dong called Licensed to Kill. Working on this groundbreaking doc which went into prisons to examine why some men believe they have the right to kill gay men, made me realize that I could be a composer, and satisfy my desire to work for change. The film won two awards at Sundance that year. I was very encouraged and began to focus on working with documentary filmmakers who shared my passion for doing meaningful work. Creating music for documentary films fulfills my artistic goals and feeds my soul. I’ve been at it ever since.

Is there a particular thought process you go through in composing for a documentary? I find it interesting that you’re composing someone’s singular vision while working on your own. How do you marry the two?

Generally, I try to start each project with a completely open mind and prefer to be involved as early as possible so that I can be part of the editing and evolution of the film. I believe this is the most productive way to integrate the music into the storytelling and my take on the material with the filmmaker’s vision. My process is fairly consistent but is informed by the collaboration style of different filmmakers and subject matter of each film. The collaboration evolves into the scoring process.

Your question is interesting, because sometimes it is a real challenge to sublimate my own strong feelings about a subject which the director may not share. That said, I always understand that my role is to serve their vision, so if I do have a different take on something, I work very hard to find the common ground and apply my input in a productive way. There is also the possibility that the director may choose to engage with my differing viewpoint and incorporate it in the film.

Now for an off-kilter question. You’ve been a horn player for The Mystic Knights of Oingo Boingo and have co-produced albums for Nina Simone, Joe Williams and Shirley Horn. Those highlights seem light years away from composing let alone from each other. There have to be incredible stories there; what were those experiences like?

I have enjoyed a very long career in music and have had the opportunity to evolve in a somewhat linear way musically, while always searching for something, not knowing quite what. It all began with being a songwriter from a very early age, then getting hooked on folk dancing and playing in ethnic ensembles during college.

Within a couple of years I co-founded Alice Stone, a ragtime band which evolved to feature my original songs and arrangements. We were one of the first to put out an indie record in the 1970s that included some of my songs. I was spotted by a friend of Danny Elfman’s and recruited by the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo who were looking for female musicians. We played early jazz, Indonesian Gamelon, African Balafons, and early rock.

From there, I started my own originals band, and later a working swing band, Swingstreet, for which I produced a record, while at the same time writing, recording and placing some of my songs in movies.

Swingstreet initiated the music program at the famous Vine St. Bar and Grill in Hollywood. We played there four nights a week for two years. Then I suggested to the owner that we book some other acts and he agreed. I booked that room for about five years starting with Mose Allison and Etta James. We booked most of the living legends from Little Esther, Big Joe Turner, George Shearing, Carmen McRae, Joe Williams, Nina Simone, Eartha Kitt, Betty Carter, Anita O’day, Phil Woods, Johhny Otis, Odetta, Linda Hopkins, Billy Eckstein, Houston Persons and Etta Jones, Jon Hendricks, Annie Ross, The Persuasions, and on and on. There’s a list on my website of more. For a time, Vine St. Bar and Grill was a premier jazz club in LA.

We were approached by Polygram/Verve to produce some live albums, which were among the first digitally recorded. It was an amazing time and I co-produced two Joe Williams albums, Marlena Shaw, Nina Simone, and Shirley Horn. Meanwhile, I was approached at one of my swing gigs to score a small film. The minute I put music to picture, I was hooked. Soon after, I began focusing on getting film scoring gigs.

I must also mention that my music career coincided with the evolution of technology that made home recording studios affordable, and later offered all the advantages of digital recording. It was because of this that I was able to pursue my interest in film scoring. Yes—I am also a gear geek.

We have Oingo Boingo and Nina Simone. Who else would you site as influences?

Laura Nyro was a huge influence on my passion to create music. Joni Mitchell, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Oliver Nelson, Nino Rota, Bernard Herrmann, Eric Satie, Gershwin, Elmer Bernstein, Leonard Bernstein, Prokofiev, Debussy….can’t get enough of any of these……and African music, Balkan music, Middle Eastern music….I love it all. I’m embarrassed to say I’ve only recently started listening to John Adams—wow!! But in my defense, I will continue to discover more amazing musical influences as long as I live.

What’s next?

I just returned from Sundance where American Promise premiered and was awarded a Special Documentary Jury Prize. I look forward to watching that film get out into the world. A short doc called Kings Point [that] I scored is nominated for an Oscar, so that will be really exciting. I’m currently working on a wonderful film about helping children deal with grief, and another which enlists comedy to explore chaos theory.

And so, the adventure continues….