“When I first began to write music,” recalls Tasso Zapanti, sitting in the living room of his Bearsville house, “it was such a great satisfaction to put emotions into sound and then be able to play them back. It was the late 70s, early 80s, and technology was taking off, the early years of Apple, Commodore 68, Atari — they gave you the option to put the sound through synthesizers, record it, and play all the parts back immediately.”
Zapanti went from playing in high school bands to training in classical music at City College of New York, where he discovered that his forte was composing film scores. Having scored several films, including the docudrama Proud, which stars Ossie Davis, and Hangin’ With the Homeboys with John Leguizamo, he has lately turned to composing for dance. Zapanti’s recently released CD, Reflections Upon, demonstrates the lyricism and electronic inventiveness that his work is known for.
“Even when I played in punk and rock bands,” he says, “people said the music sounded like theme songs.” He started scoring student films in college and delighted in what he calls “expressing visuals with music.” College schoolmate Joseph B. Vásquez used Zapanti’s music for his films The Bronx War in 1989 and Hangin’ With the Homeboys, which won critical acclaim when it was released by New Line Cinema in 1991.
Proud tells the story of a black naval crew in World War II, when black servicemen were forbidden to fight on the front lines. Their ship was thrown into battle, and the sailors’ courageous actions were overlooked by history until 1994, when three crew members were finally honored for their service. Released to mixed critical reception in 2004, the film is shown widely each year during Black History Month in February, keeping Zapanti’s music in the ears of audience. He continues to receive royalties from cable TV and showings in Africa, Asia, and Europe.
Zapanti has enjoyed writing for dancers who choreograph pieces to his music and perform in Tribeca. “I would love to get my music in the repertory of a dance company,” he remarked. “I like being part of a collective. I like how it becomes more operatic. You can make a bigger statement.”
He finds Woodstock an ideal location for a musician with multidisciplinary leanings. “My wife and I chose to have a house in Woodstock because there are always photo exhibitions, art, classical music, rock, theater, dance. It constantly feeds my soul and inspiration.”
The Bearsville house, with its cathedral ceiling and expansive view of fields, has a grand piano in the living room. So does his one-bedroom apartment in New York City. “Every day I have to do music,” he says. “My mobile studio, the computer, moves around, but I need a piano to draft ideas. At times I call it a healthy addiction, but it also has to do with the artist’s fire burning within that needs to come out somehow. That energy’s constantly inside me — I have to create.”
If those sentiments have a Mediterranean ring, it’s because Zapanti was born in Greece and came to the U.S. at the age of 12. He grew up in the Greek community of Astoria, Queens. Although he doesn’t listen to Greek music these days, some people hear a Greek influence in his compositions. “There’s a progression of chords that comes naturally,” says Zapanti, who received an ASCAP/Gershwin award in composition, presented by Morton Gould, in the late 1980s.
Zapanti’s taste centers on classical music, and he cites Stravinsky as favorite. “He wrote a lot of ballet music, which evokes visuals. I like the sounds he created from the orchestra, how the instruments dance together.” He also likes Schönberg and expressiveness of Chopin, with his variations in tempo.
Among composers of film scores, Zapanti resonates with the Italian Ennio Morricone, who wrote the theme to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and the Greek Vangelis, whose score for Chariots of Fire won an Oscar. “Vangelis combines electronic textures with classical instruments — which is right where I am right now.”
The new CD begins with “A Night in New York,” originally entitled “Bearsville Blues,” since Zapanti wrote it while gazing out his upstate window. However, the rhythms seemed more suited to an urban ambiance, and a Youtube video uses the piece as a soundtrack to a tour of New York after dark, with Zapanti as tour guide.
Most tracks on the CD bring in professional musicians to supply instrumental riffs, including guitarist Spiros Exaras, who has backed up Mariah Carey, saxophonist Alex Foster (Mingus Big Band,
Saturday Night Live Band), and percussionist Steve Thornton (Miles Davis, Michael Jackson). A piece called “Nine White Horses” features velvety, wordless vocals by soprano Lorelei McBroom (Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart),
Zapanti is currently putting the finishing touches on his next album, “Elysium,” to be followed by “Cinematic Plateau,” a compilation of his music from several films. Another project in the works is writing music for a documentary produced by “Right To Be Free/Africa.” Zapanti and his wife, Jeannine, are sponsors of two African children, through a friend whose program is devoted to saving kids from slave labor. “He brought me to an award-winning actress in Ghana doing a documentary on slave labor,” says Zapanti. “Fishermen with families can’t support their kids and are having to sell kids to support the rest of the family. I’ll be doing the score for that film.”
As a follow-up to “A Night in New York,” he’s currently considering choreographers for a video in which dancers in white will perform a drama against a backdrop of nighttime New York.
Clearly, there are many ways to feed creative fire.
Tasso Zapanti’s CD Reflections Upon is available from iTunes, Amazon, CD Baby, Spotify, and Rhapsody.