Recently, we got to take a quick break from the process of creating UPTOWN OPERA, and had the pleasure of interviewing the Composer and Music Director, Phil Maniaci. This is part one of our two part conversation with him.
Genesis Ensemble: How did you come to be in Chicago?
Phil Maniaci: I was born at Edgewater Hospital, a few blocks away from where our opera is set.
GE: When did you start writing music?
PM: Around 9 years old. I grew up hearing all these great songs my parents played in the house on the piano (in my mom’s or uncle’s case) or on the stereo (in my dad’s case) or in the car – The Beatles, The Stones, The Beach Boys, The Kinks, Jimi Hendrix, Chopin, Jean-Pierre Rampal, Tchaikovsky, Steely Dan, Carole King, Chicago, David Bowie, Elton John, The Police – I heard all of this stuff and kinda just got the bug. I figured “Man, I want to do that. I want to make someone feel the way these songs make me feel!” In the beginning, it must’ve been very interesting for my mom, who was home most of the time when I was. I think I played the same things over and over, put them on my little reel-to-reel my step dad gave me until I found a new thing, and then that would be in rotation for the next week.
Like, constantly, when I wasn’t practicing.
GE: How many instruments do you play?
PM: I sing and play piano, organ, bass guitar, string bass, guitar, harmonica and Blue Man Zither – a strange, cool, electric instrument we use in the Blue Man show.
GE: Which is your favorite instrument and why?
PM: Probably the zither, because I haven’t completely figured it out yet!
GE: What is it like operating your own music production company, Central Park Sounds?
PM: I think of that old Army Commercial: “It’s the toughest job you’ll ever love.” It’s the hardest and most fun job I ever had. There are some difficult clients who don’t know what the hell they want, which can be a little frustrating. 80% of people have some sort of intimate relationship with music because of just simply liking/loving it. But the problem is this doesn’t give them any of the vocabulary necessary to describe things in musical terms. This is the double-edged sword for me.
I hate talking about music - other than when I’m in the room with the people I’m producing it with.
And sometimes the music budgets for some of the TV and video projects I do aren’t the best. I scored a film for a friend (pretty much for free) and spent a lot of time and energy on it only to find out a year later that it won’t be released. So there are challenges and let-downs.
And then, once in a while, it all comes together like magic. The creatives tell me what they want in language that I can use. We agree on a fair price. I hand it in. They’re happy. The client is happy. And they pay on time. This is rare, but it’s great when it happens.
GE: Where do you draw inspiration from when composing music?
PM: I have a great circle of friends with great taste in music and great record collections. My girl friend has really great taste in music and a really good feel for what is right for a project. If I don’t get enough direction, she’s helped me get unstuck on more than one occasion. My friend, film-maker Joe Losurdo, used to own a record shop and has a massive collection of vinyl. He helped me gather the material for the opera to cull from. I didn’t know much about bluegrass and Appalachian music. But he had these great records I ripped to mp3s and just started listening to and shared with my musicians and our cast.
GE: Do you consider Chicago home?
PM: I grew up in Park Ridge (once we left the city proper - when I was little) which is just a few blocks outside of city limits. So Chicago is part of who I am on a very genetic level. My friends and I would go into the city to places like Medusa’s on the weekends and get drunk, take psychedelics, chase girls and do all that typical, mid-80s-suburban-pseudo-
counter-culture Chicago teenager stuff…wear black…you know. So I had a pretty typically local upbringing for the education I had and the scene I was in. Chicago was the backdrop for all of that.
GE: What fascinates you about Uptown Chicago in 1957?
PM: I never knew about the “hillbilly migration” that happened here from the 30s – 70s that gave Uptown its bad reputation until I started reading about it for this project. I’m amazed by how an industrial and urban place like 1957 Chicago could still have an enclave of these wild people who did things their own way.