The Sonic Storyteller

Kathryn Bostic weaves tapestries of sound for theater, concerts, films and television

The art of making music for concerts, theater, television, and film is complex: it’s a matter of capturing a mood and setting the right tone for emotional context. But to Tufts alumna Kathryn Bostic, whose recent composition The August Wilson Symphony premiered with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra this past January based on her collaboration with the renowned playwright August Wilson, it boils down to a simple concept: sonic storytelling.

Bostic, who guest-taught courses on tonal theory, analog and digital notation, and composition during a short residency at Tufts in the spring, grew up with a composer and concert pianist mother, a music-loving father, and music of all genres and styles at home. She began playing the piano as a small child, and was writing, singing, and playing her own songs by the time she was eight.

“I remember being very engaged with telling little stories, creating little vignettes and skits with music. It was just a natural way of being,” said Bostic. Her brother often joined her. “It was like a conversation,” she said.

Bostic went on to study at Tufts as a music major with the celebrated composer T.J. Anderson and attend the New England Conservatory. “It was an environment that gave me a sense that the sky’s the limit,” Bostic said. “You can create your life without any sense of restraint, because the resources there are fantastic.”

Bostic grew close with her fellow music majors at Tufts, who would check in on her while she practiced, and connected strongly with a professor of African American studies. “She had such a depth to her, such a way of making you feel exalted, like you were special,” said Bostic. “She made me understand that I have the right to question everything. I think that’s one of the biggest gifts I’ve taken from Tufts—to dig a little deeper.”

After graduating from Tufts, Bostic toured and recorded as a session singer, and also performed at many jazz festivals and other venues. When not singing, composing was her musical home, for theater—including shows on Broadway—film, and television.

“I was open to where it all was going to lead,” Bostic said. A striking example of that was when she worked on a public service announcement spot with a director named Justin Simien. He later approached her to join him on another project, which turned out to be the hit film Dear White People. “It had a nice musical range—classical, jazz, R&B, hip-hop—the whole spectrum. It was very appealing,” Bostic said.

Bostic, who has won the Sundance Institute Time Warner Fellowship, the BMI Conducting Fellowship, and other honors, belongs to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences and is vice president of the Alliance for Women Film Composers.

She’s always happy to give technical and practical advice to aspiring composers. “Often, when people think of being a composer, they think of something quite lofty or intimidating. I want to demystify that process,” Bostic said.

During her residency, she told students to “listen to everything, not just film composers, but all different genres, to build a wide-ranging musical vocabulary.” Playing an instrument helps, too—“you definitely need the foundation, the basics of music,” she said. A key, she added, is to focus on building themes, and working with those themes to convey a story—sonic storytelling.

In the composing process, it’s also important to draw on other people. “With everything being so accessible and at your fingertips, at times there isn’t an understanding of the importance of community,” Bostic said. “Physically hang out with your friends, talk to playwrights and directors, choreographers and dancers.” Think outside the box, she urged. “Create something unlike what you might have perceived, be a little outside your comfort zone so you can grow and create a different kind of self-expression,” she said.

Above all, Bostic advised being open to whatever life may bring you, and to cultivate “self-embrace and self-worthiness,” she said. “We’re very socialized to meet these milestones of approval and success. It’s a very linear trajectory, but life is not linear. There is no need for such harsh judgment about the process of living and pursuing what your dreams are, because it’s always going to inform you in some way of what works and doesn’t work for you.”

Bostic’s residency benefited students greatly, said music department chairman and professor David Locke. “Black women are not very prominent in the film and music industry, or the theater composing industry,” Locke said. “The fact that she was standing in front of the class as a successful professional black woman, talking about her life and overall trajectory—students paid attention to that.”

How to follow in her footprints? It’s simple, Bostic said. “Start the journey and put one foot in front of the other. You don’t have to know everything right away. Embrace that.”

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