Phantasmagoria

Christopher Cox and Tosca String Quartet recording. photo: Dave Kelly

Christopher Cox’s piece “Fantasy in D Flat Major” has for four years been a muse for every script I’ve written. It’s helped me form idiosyncratic quirks for characters on the page and allowed me to visualize the world these characters inhabit.

Chris and I were introduced by Vic Moyers (of Reversal Films) while I was at the UT film school and Chris was a at Berklee School of Music in Boston. Vic and I were working on our thesis film Paper Balls when he suggested Chris could compose a score for it. For this 8-minute short, we were bootstrapping even more than we were for Echotone. Funds were very low, so Chris had to rely on distant phone calls and a small collection of cinematic references to work with. Still, he composed a beautiful and elegiac score that fit the film like a glove.


Tosca String Quartet at the Church House. photo: Dave Kelly

During the visit up to Boston, Chris and I became good friends, talking excitedly into the night about influences ranging from Mingus to Kandinsky. It was inspiring to witness someone so skilled within their own craft drawn on influences outside of the music world.

07 Fantasy in D-flat Major

So, when he sent me the demo recording of “Fantasy in D Flat Major” in 2005, I immediately started using it as a backdrop for nascent scenes in half-formed scripts. I played it on repeat and it provided moments in time for stories that I couldn’t yet fathom: A lovely young blonde woman walking through downtown Austin the springtime, oblivious to the fact that the State of Texas is executing an innocent man on death row at that very moment.  In another scene from a different story, a young thespian is haunted by the death of his brother, who, for his role as Billy the Kid, is the talk of the town before tragedy strikes. While walking downtown, he sees a spectral image of his brother floating high in the air, above the buildings.

These images and moments seemed to come out of nowhere and were directly fueled by Chris’ music.


Christopher Cox listening to the mix. photo: Dave Kelly

When I tried to explain to Chris what the music did for me over the years, and how he could expand on it for future scores, I said, “I think nostalgic is the key word.” He said, “Yeah, but all music like this is nostalgic and melancholy.” One of the many moments that showed me the power of collaboration, of bringing together and sustaining a group of artists and creative producers that can challenge each other and pick up where the others’ skill set tapers off. This is precisely what Reversal Films is doing in Austin, TX. While the organization is only two years in, Echotone is proof that grassroots filmmaking is possible and, hopefully, sustainable. Time will tell.

Fast forward to Echotone’s production and you’ll find Robert Garza (Director of Photography) and me up at dawn day after day, waiting for the city to wake up. Workers riding the service elevator before the rest of the city begins to stir, a jarring boom, and the sunrise cuts through the porta-potties. Then the cranes dance and the condo work begins for the day, one of many to come. I knew the depiction of Austin’s development, at once hopeful, beautiful, and threatening, had to feel like a symphony. It had to feel like the band getting together: buzz saw guitars, hammer snares, and industrial air conditioner bass drums. Finally I saw a scene in which “Fantasy” could be tangible.


Ink on a page. photo: Dave Kelly

A few days ago, after months of planning, it all came together. Chris gathered some of the best classical players in Austin. We all met at David Boyle’s Church House Studio , a renovated church deep in the East Side. Grant Johnson donated his time as the engineer with David Hixon (Echotone’s sound recordist) assisting. All through the day, it went down, in sections. The Tosca Strings came first, followed by contrabass, bassoon, oboe, clarinet, flute, French and English horns, and, to fulfill the glissando that rockets the camera up 50 stories, a lovely harp.


Grant Johnson behind the mixing board. photo: Dave Kelly

A few of us went to the Longbranch Inn afterwards for celebratory beers, knowing this was an important brick in the giant wall. We are nearing completion.

And, while it hasn’t been properly mixed yet, I can only describe “Phantasmagoria” (the piece’s new name) as sublime.