Q&A: Damein Wash, Composer

UPDATE 11/16/23: Another screening of The Crisis with a performance of Damein Wash’s score by a live ensemble will be held at the Strand Theatre in Vicksburg Friday, Nov. 17 at 7 p.m. Admission is free. To RSVP, click here.

On Saturday, June 17, as part of its ongoing celebration of its 50th anniversary, the Mississippi Film Office, along with OxFilm and the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, will present a special screening of The Crisis at the Two Mississippi Museums in Jackson. The Crisis is a 1916 silent film that was shot in Vicksburg and is the oldest surviving film made in Mississippi.

The screening will feature a live ensemble performing a new original score for the film written by Oxford composer Damein Wash. It will also feature a presentation by Civil War historian Jeff Giambrone. For more details, click here.

We recently spoke with Wash about how this unique project came about and what inspired him when writing his score for The Crisis.

Damein Wash

What’s your background and what led you to composing?

I grew up in Hickory, Mississippi, and of course I was in band and choir in high school. But even before that, I was around music and making it from infancy, certainly in the Black church, where those things are handed down. As a matter of fact, I wrote my dissertation on “Glory, Hallelujah, Since I Laid My Burdens Down.” The church was my first experience with singing and making music. I studied clarinet and saxophone in band and was in the choir and all the ensembles that you can think of. I did everything musical that our school offered. I really took to it. I’ve always been able to sing on pitch. Though I also play piano and compose now, I’ve always been a singer first.

After high school I decided I wanted to go on to teach choir. I had the most wonderful choir teacher, and when you really admire a person, you want to do the same thing. I followed in her footsteps and studied choral music education, and I taught choir for five years. But even as I was going into college, I was writing music. I started arranging hymns and things like that for choir. I had written a couple of band pieces by the end of high school. When I first started taking theory in junior college—I went to East Central Community College—I started really writing to please my theory teacher, mostly for piano and solo instrument, or for voice. And I always loved that. I always wanted to write and be able to hand my music off and have people play it. But those opportunities were few and far between.

After I started teaching, I came to Oxford and went to Ole Miss and really jumped into it. After those five years of teaching, I realized I loved composition and music theory, so I resigned from teaching, and I saw some opportunities to write music for film. In 2013, I got work from a producer singing a song, and it ended up in a Hallmark film. That sort of catapulted me into that world of making music on commission for different projects. The next thing I did was I arranged a set of spirituals for Sony for their archives. I got the gig from the same guy that had me sing. He told them to give me a call because they wanted some spirituals from Mississippi. And man, those things just skyrocketed. They ended up in some really cool places, and I was like, I love this work. And the whole time, I’m getting emails from friends who are studying film and I’m writing things for them. I did things like a student horror film, a couple of documentaries. Ole Miss hired me to score their James Meredith film. I got to rearrange the song “Oxford Town” for that, which was really cool. And I just kept getting gigs like that, the whole time teaching and performing and doing as much other work as I could. Most recently, I finished my Master’s in music theory at Ole Miss.

How did you get involved with writing a score for The Crisis?

I have a really good relationship with the Oxford Film Festival. As a matter of fact, a couple of my earlier tunes that I’d written ended up in the festival. One was this pop tune that I had written, more of an R&B song from 2013 called “So Long.” It was my first little hit, as it were. The video for that ended up at the festival. A couple of years later, I had another video in the festival. And this was also in the same sort of vein of R&B. Last year I submitted an orchestral work. I had ten musicians record a piece I had written, and I fashioned a video around it and submitted that to the film festival. So that’s how they knew I composed. The following year I got a call from festival director Matt Wymer who presented this project to write a score for The Crisis.

What do you think is the importance of a score to a film?

It not only complements the visuals but it also helps tell the story. It shouldn’t take center stage but serve to enhance the work. In scoring The Crisis, it’s a silent film, so there were some moments that I felt should stay silent. But a great score helps to support the ideas and story and in some ways helps to move the action along.

What were your inspirations for scoring The Crisis?

I ended up using five different themes in the score. One was inspired directly by Ole Miss. I used parts of “Dixie,” which of course they don’t play anymore but it still was when I first came to Oxford and it would have been known during the film’s era. There’s this one fanciful arrangement where it’s tied in to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It was a good thing because you had the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which is very northern, and then “Dixie,” which is very southern. Throughout the piece you hear themes of both of those tunes. So that’s one inspiration that Oxford gave me, this dichotomy between the North and South.

Another inspiration was the black culture aspect of the film. There’s this one moment in the film where they’re at a slave auction and I used this very old gospel sort of technique that is based on call and response. I arranged that, and you’ll rarely find it in music notation because it was mostly handed down orally. And I’m proud to say that I was able to capture a little bit of that. Because it’s something that was near and dear to me, and it also, I think, really makes that moment heartbreaking. That is what spirituals, and later the blues were born out of, that sort of intense sadness, gravity and anger that the institution of slavery elicited.

But another aspect of the film is the fanciful romance that happens between the two main characters. And for that I pulled from my own experiences, and immediately thought of Gone with the Wind. So there was a little bit of that flavor in there too. And the other was ragtime, the music of the film’s era. Being here so close to Memphis, I pulled out an old W.C. Handy tune, an arrangement of sort of these rag times out of Memphis. It’s pretty much verbatim, but I sort of chop it up in certain spots. So that was another influence.

There’s this one moment when there’s the great debate between the two candidates, Lincoln and Douglas. I pulled from like the CNN debate type music. (laughs) There’s a couple times when I genuinely had fun playing with the themes. I also pulled from folk tunes of the time. I tried to fashion melodies after folk tunes that would have been played at these really high-end gatherings like you see in the film.

There’s some really interesting stuff that if you allow yourself to just really pick apart what you’re hearing, you’ll hear these influences in a lot of different spots. Also, I should mention there’s an actual hymn that is featured prominently in the film. It’s one of the main character’s favorites. I found that hymn and there’s several arrangements of it. There’s a couple times that only the strings play it, and there’s another time when the piano plays it alone.

What were the biggest challenges with doing this project?

When I was pitched the idea, I honestly didn’t have enough time to get all the work in. I worked my butt off to make the time constraints. I probably would have preferred to stretch it out over a few months to really dive into it, but I condensed it into one month. But luckily for me, that’s sort of how music in film goes, particularly for the typical scores for silent films of the era: there’s a blueprint. If it’s a sad part, you hear the sad music. If it’s romantic, romantic music, you know? That aspect honestly made me be able to make the time frame. There was a huge time constraint. So that was the biggest challenge.

And then, once I got that together, I had to make sure that I had players that in a short amount of time that could work up the music. Luckily, we’re right here at the university so I was able to pick up a few professors, master’s students and other really, really talented folks to bring the music to life.

What were your first impressions of the film when you started the project?  

At its core it’s this tale that is as old as time. You have this conflict between the North and South, and this romance that doesn’t go down between the southern belle and this northern statesman because they’re from different worlds. It’s a trope, it’s basically Romeo and Juliet. But that made it easier to write for. I didn’t really get as much into the nitty gritty of this film until I started writing and watching.

Did you find it surprising that basically an anti-slavery film was made in Mississippi in 1916?

I was curious about that from the beginning. Was it completely made public that the film was being made here and the nature of it? Most of it was filmed in Vicksburg, so I imagine it probably was. It is very interesting that they were able to pull that off. But the film still sort of portrays that bygone romantic version of the South, too, which we all know from Gone with the Wind. Which I absolutely love by the way, I love the music, the storyline, the acting, I love everything about it. So, I already had an affinity for this type of film because I remember sitting down and watching Gone with the Wind with my whole family when it was split into parts on broadcast TV.