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Comic book superhero movies have taken a few BOOMs, POWs and BLAMMOs in recent months, with the new "Ant-Man," "Shazam" and "Flash" movies all disappointing in various ways. So why not pull an Avengers and go back in time, and revisit one of the best comic book movies in recent memory: Marvel Studios' "Black Panther."
Indeed, for their latest live-scored screenings, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra will head to the Marvel Cinematic Universe with 2018's smash hit "Black Panther" – a true cultural moment of a movie that still stands tall amongst the best of the MCU as well as still the only MCU movie to earn a Best Picture nomination. And while it may have come up short in the Academy's top category, Ryan Coogler's blockbuster did end up winning three Oscars on the night – including one for Ludwig Goransson's original score that the MSO will perform Friday, Saturday and Sunday night alongside the exhilarating film. (And alongside talking drum superstar Massamba Diop, who actually played on the original film's score and even appeared on screen in the "Black Panther" sequel last year.)
To learn more about this Marvel-ous film screening and concert combo taking the stage and screen this weekend, OnMilwaukee sat down with MSO percussionist Chris Riggs to talk about playing a part in one of the biggest blockbusters ever, the best Marvel movies, the film score that actually made him interested in classical music and the time he played the typewriter in concert. Oh, and that time John Williams was his conductor. Yes, THAT John Williams.
OnMilwaukee: What’s it like playing alongside such a massive cultural phenomenon like “Black Panther”?
Chris Riggs: It’s going to be pretty cool. With these movie scores, percussion is pretty heavy and a pretty integral part, so we get pretty busy back there. We pretty much take up an entire row behind the orchestra, playing all sorts of toms and xylophone and all sorts of different drums.
Speaking of different drums, the talking drum plays a big part in the “Black Panther” score – and you’ve got Massamba Diop, a world-renowned expert on the instrument, coming in to play this weekend. What’s it like to perform next to him?
We haven’t started yet, but I think it’s going to be pretty incredible. I have relatively little experience with West African drumming, and he’s been doing that his whole life, so he brings a really unique experience to the table. I can’t wait.
What are some other interesting percussion aspects to “Black Panther”?
Well, if you compare it to some of the other soundtracks or styles of music, if you think about western classical music, I would consider percussion to be a lot more of coloration of the music going on. With the “Black Panther” score, it’s almost like the percussion is like a canvas that you hear the melodies on top of. There’s a lot of background drumming throughout most of it, with the melody sitting on top of that. So it’s kind of a different characteristic of the percussion in this movie score.
What is your favorite Marvel movie?
I’m pretty into the Avengers – all the different characters, Groot. He’s probably my guy: Groot.
What do you think it is about superhero movies that really speaks to people?
Maybe it’s the superpower element of it. We all wish we had a superpower sometimes to get through life. Maybe that’s a part of it: this optimism that’s kind of underlying in a lot of these superhero movies that maybe you can change the world.
If you had to choose one movie score, what is your favorite?
The one that jumps out at me, and one of the reasons why I fell in love with music, was Hans Zimmer and “Gladiator.” That’s also very percussion-heavy and pretty intense – but yeah, that’s one of the reasons why I got into classic music.
I have to tangent for a second, because I learned something about you right before this: You did a performance using a typewriter.
How does one Typewriter Concerto?
(Laughs) It’s pretty clever. It’s a short little concerto – only two and a half minutes long – and it’s kind of a gimmicky piece, but it’s fun. Play a couple of keys along with a violin melody and then you have a little bell when you slide. It’s a cute little piece.
Are there typewriters made for that kind of piece? What’s the science?
You have to get the real thing, an authentic typewriter. We had a couple in the studio, and I had to mess with them because they were a little old and didn’t work very well. And you have to find the right keys, too, because some keys get stuck and some don’t.
So each keyboard is its own particular instrument in a way.
Yeah, you could say that, for sure. Each one has its own sound. F and G were the two keys that I found, and those were the ones that I played on this particular typewriter.
Do different keys make different sounds?
No. The way it’s written out is just rhythms basically. For one particular typewriter, it’s going to be pretty much the same sound no matter which key you type. It was just hoping that they didn’t get stuck; that was the main stressor of that experience.
I hear you played alongside John Williams, with him conducting?
Yes indeed – just a few weeks ago with the New York Philharmonic. It was for their gala performance, so we did a few of their greatest hits. He didn’t conduct the whole program but he conducted “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and the Imperial March from “Star Wars.” The other conductor there was Ken-David Masur, who is our music director at the Milwaukee Symphony.
What is it like being a part of an orchestra being conducted by John Williams?
He was one of the people that made me love classical music and one of the reasons why I got into classical music. Probably my first classical music CD was one of his greatest hits CDs. So to come full circle and to perform under his baton was pretty monumental to me.
Do conductors have personalities, and if so, did you get any of John Williams’ personality at the performance?
I kind of thought that he would be pretty passive – that hearing his music performed so much that he’d be like, “Yeah, OK, sounds great, let’s go on.” But he was actually very particular with all the different articulations and sounds; there was nothing that he would let slide. It was great.
If people have never done an MSO live movie experience like this, why should people check this out?
I think it’s the live music element of it. When you go to a movie theater, it’s very produced and everything’s just right. I think everything is going to be pretty tight this weekend too, but there’s just that element of live performance that’s really special.
There has been a shift in soundtracks and scores that unfortunately a lot of producers are using electronics and MIDI sounds that are very high-quality – most people don’t know that it’s just MIDI sounds and not live music. So I think that too is a really special element that we’re doing: It IS live music and it’s real people performing, which I think brings it to another level that isn’t just computerized.
The MSO's performance of Marvel Studios' "Black Panther" will take place on Friday, June 23 and Saturday, June 24 at 7:30 p.m. as well as Sunday, June 25 at 2:30 p.m. For information and for tickets, you don't have to journey all the way to Wakanda; just head over to mso.org!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.