“Fail your way to the top” is a concept championed by the corporate world in recent years. But that philosophy applies to the arts, too, and is one that local musician and filmmaker Danny Asis says he lives by. “My mentality, with music, with films, is just ‘put it out.’ When it’s over, then on to the next. I’m not scared to put anything out there, because I’ve failed so many times, and I needed those failures. They’re what brought me to where I am now.”
Asis grew up in Flushing, Queens. Currently a resident of Rosendale, he came to New Paltz a decade or so ago when he moved up from the city to attend SUNY New Paltz and stayed. “This area is so amazing; I just fell in love with it. There are so many creative people in all of the Hudson Valley, but especially New Paltz. I grew up in the city and was around creativity all my life, but there’s literally something magical about this area.”
Three weeks after graduating from the college, where he majored in radio and television production, Asis signed on as guitarist for the Lara Hope-fronted rock ‘n’ roll/punk band, “Tiger Piss.” The band did pretty well for themselves, making a name on the local scene, recording two EPs and one full-length record and doing ten national tours in their years together. “Being on the road was an awesome experience,” Asis says, “and I would never take that back, but I always had the dream of scoring films.”
Besides, piano is where his heart is. “That’s my real passion. I played guitar in a band, but when I play piano, there’s something there that feels otherworldly. I don’t know what it is, but it’s emotional to me.”
College was never in his original plans, Asis says; he only enrolled after striking a deal with his mom to finish school before pursuing anything in music. That was a good call in more than one way, as it turned out, because attending SUNY New Paltz led to a pivotal connection with media professor, Gregory Bray, who is also a filmmaker.
Years later, Bray contacted his former student to ask if “Tiger Piss” would appear in a film he was making locally. The band appeared in the opening scene of the movie, but Asis kept in touch with the director throughout the filming. “And when he had a soft showing of the edited movie for audience feedback, the first thing he [Bray] said was that there was no score for the film yet. I went home and messaged him, ‘Do you have anyone doing this? I’d like to do it…’ Six days later, he messaged back, ‘yeah.’ So that was a pinnacle point in my life.”
Asis says he knew he had the musical confidence to do the scoring, but wasn’t sure he had the technical skills. “I got to the studio, and literally didn’t know how to turn on the program. After the first week, I was so close to quitting, thinking, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing.’ Even though I went to school and knew layering and Pro Tools, it was a lot of pressure.”
After a few months of working 12- to 14-hours at a time in the studio, Asis taught himself how to use the equipment. Liner Notes was released in 2016, chronicling the story of a young barista who upon her father’s death convinces his former guitarist — a middle-aged math teacher who left the music scene years earlier — to take a road trip with her to her father’s gravesite. The film was an official selection at the Woodstock Film Festival, an Audience Award finalist at the Hoboken Film Festival and may currently be viewed on Amazon Prime.
Asis, who doesn’t read music, composed the music for Liner Notes and played all the instruments on the score. Since then, he’s been composing for his own films. “I knew I wanted to score films and didn’t want to wait around to be asked, so I started making my own,” he says.
The music is often worked on in partnership with cellist Joshua Kopit. Asis collaborates on the filmmaking with another former student of Professor Bray’s, cinematographer and director Allyson Ferrara. “I’d known Allyson as an acquaintance for years, and we basically started making short films together here and there; we each have our strengths.” The two also make music videos for local bands.
Last year Ferrara came up with the idea to create a New Paltz-based film festival for short films, to create a forum for local filmmakers to showcase their work. She and Asis took the idea to Theresa Fall, event organizer at Water Street Market, and last August “A Night of New Paltz Shorts” was featured in the Monday night outdoor summer movie series in the courtyard.
The evening presented two hours of films as short as one minute in length up to 20 minutes long. “Hundreds of people showed up… there was literally not enough room for everyone,” says Asis. “I was told it was the best turnout of the entire series. It made us feel great, and we got a lot of ‘thank yous’ from the local filmmakers. You can put films out on social media, but where else can you show them like this? When we started, we were worried that we wouldn’t have enough content for the whole night, but we ended up with over eight hours of submissions.”
The event will return to New Paltz in 2019, but at a different time of year and at a venue still to-be-determined. “We’d like to find something indoors,” says Asis, “so it can’t get rained out. And we’d like to involve SUNY film students, so we want to wait until September, since a lot of students go home for the summer.” The event will also be renamed the New Paltz Short Film Festival, and eventually, perhaps, simply “The New Paltz Film Festival,” opening it up to features and documentaries, as well.
Last year Asis scored the music for an off-Broadway play, Glory Be Columbia, based on America’s oldest surviving passenger steamer, the S.S. Columbia. The Detroit-based vessel has been a preservation project for years, with the eventual plan to convert it to a floating mobile museum going up and down the Hudson. The play was co-written by Aaron Asis, Danny’s older brother and a visual artist who does installations influenced by urban phenomena. Currently the two are working on a documentary about abandoned urban places, with Danny doing the scoring.
Another ongoing project is a short film that may or may not end up serving as inspiration for the co-playwright of Glory Be Columbia, Justin Rivers, to base a stage musical on. But even if that doesn’t happen, says Asis, “Worse comes to worst, I’ll still end up with a cool movie.”
Ferrara will direct the film that Asis is co-writing with a partner. Utilizing local talent is a big part of what he enjoys about the filmmaking process, he says. “The thing I’m excited about is just involving everyone and working with a lot of fun, amazing and very professional people. It’s been three years now since I ‘got on this train,’ and I love it.”