Black Magic Piano “In The Morning” Release

Editor Carrie Seitzinger, Music, October 28th, 2016

"...singing creates the opportunity for the phoenix to rise from the ashes."

Black Magic Piano Edward Symes filmmaker
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The first single, “In the Morning,” from the visual film, Black Magic Piano, is released here on NAILED.

This multimedia project was inspired by a giant grand piano in a small studio apartment in Greenwich Village. Documentary filmmaker Teddy Symes, a neophyte piano player, wrote 14 songs in the course of a single month. With the help of husband and wife duo, Doran Danoff (professional composer and musician) and Elizabeth Wilkinson (modern dancer and choreographer), Symes and company spent six long years invoking the piano’s “black magic,” piecing together a new kind of artistic medium.

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NAILED: What part of your personal life experience informed the music and individual songs?

FILMMAKER EDWARD SYMES: The music is both autobiographical and what I refer to as more documentary-like. I wrote the songs after spending about a year on the road traveling around the U.S. as a political documentary filmmaker living in a dozen states following the Obama 2008 Campaign ending at Grant Park in Chicago on Election Night. I moved back to New York and was staying in the apartment of artist Sara Genn in the village. That neighborhood was really vibrant with music — it was a real eclectic mix. The apartment was a fourth floor walk-up on Thompson and Houston. A black grand piano that once lived at the Rainbow Room took up the entire kitchen area. I sat down every morning at the piano, poured some coffee, and played until something came to me. At night I went to the Rabbit Club on MacDougal. Yes, there was even a Creperie there too. I recorded a dozen rough demos of the songs about 2-3 weeks into the sublet. The songs came fast and then I tracked down Doran. He was playing around that neighborhood at the time (Cafe Vivaldi, The Bitter End, The Living Room, and that whole alleyway of bars with pianos in them). Doran was writing his own stuff, composing for films, getting a Masters in music composition at NYU, and his girlfriend (and now wife) Elizabeth Wilkinson was producing large scale modern dance productions with Doran.

NAILED: Do any of the songs speak to a specific moment in your own life where something meaningful but trying changed things around or within you? Something that was particularly difficult at the time, but that led to the bare honest emotion in this art?

SYMES: I have been making films for roughly ten years but Black Magic Piano was unlike anything I ever tried before or even knew was possible. I guess documentary filmmaking gives you a lot of confidence that starting the process will ultimately lead you somewhere if you keep your eyes and ears open. As for “change,” I think I felt an array of emotions around the film because I couldn’t help but internalize the love story, the isolation, and narrative of Black Magic Piano as my own at some point. There were no set designers or crew to this film. It was shot in and around Frontrunner Gallery in TriBeCa, my artist loft studio in East Williamsburg, and all around the city. This really helped bring a reality to the film that hopefully resonates.

The difficulty came from lack of resources to make the film on some levels but also because we were making it up as we went along. The idea was to not make a music video. Early on Doran and I didn’t want dialogue or narration. The idea was almost rock opera but with more of an angle towards theater influences like Robert Wilson and Philip Glass with Einstein on the Beach or Tom Waits writing the music for The Black Rider written by William Burroughs. But the piano was simple and felt like a place to be bare and really drill to the core of how sometimes the salvation is in the act of creation. The process of writing it out, creating, and singing creates the opportunity for the phoenix to rise from the ashes. That was a difficult time but the mindset was always open and exploring.

NAILED: What shaped the narrative arc of this visual album?

SYMES: The narrative came pretty slowly. I started a serious production practice when I rented my first art studio for 275 dollars a month in a basement studio in Tribeca/Chinatown. That was my introduction to the building of 59 Franklin Street where I would later start Frontrunner Gallery. Then I moved to an office on Broadway and White Street just to get a window. I shared a small loft space with a DJ and music producer. Black Magic Piano was shot and partly edited there. Later, I moved to Franklin and Broadway around Cortlandt Alley and had a storefront gallery and office studio in the back.

NAILED: Did the music come first and then a story crystallized around it? How so? Or was there a story in your mind that whispered its influence through the composition of the songs and then got fleshed out through the choreography and directing the actors?

SYMES: The bulk of the filming and improvising of the narrative came during that period. I was learning a lot during those years of 2010-2012 about having a creative life, collaborating with others, living, surviving really. So, McNair, the main character in Black Magic Piano is really doing the same thing. He arrives in NYC and has probably a pretty common experience for those in the creative community. It is his reaction to the experience that is unique. Sometimes you make some nice work but get kicked to the curb. That’s the breaks. New York is all about surviving as an artist at this point. So, I really mined the history and traditions of those artists that inspire me with their careers. Doran kept me on character as well with the singing. He said, remember that this is the same character singing these songs.

NAILED: What larger issues does Black Magic Piano take on? What bigger picture topics does it deal with?

SYMES: This film addresses themes of love, isolation, inspiration, creation, criticism, and resilience. Hopefully it speaks to a reality today.

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Carrie Seitzinger

Carrie Seitzinger is Editor-in-Cheif and Co-Publisher of NAILED. She is the author of the book, Fall Ill Medicine, which was named a 2013 Finalist for the Oregon Book Award. Seitzinger is also Co-Publisher of Small Doggies Press.
Learn more about her at her official site.