“High Above the Water” may have just “come to” composer Kathryn Bostic, but she knew exactly what it meant.
“I envisioned this vibrant quality and energy — I wanted the movie to end on this powerful note of joy, of celebration. The director also asked that it be something celebratory,” she said of working with filmmaker Timothy Greenfield-Sanders on the documentary “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am.” Morrison, of course, was the Pulitzer- and Nobel Prize-winning author of “Beloved,” “Song of Solomon” and “The Bluest Eye,” among others.
“I started to write something that was more of an anthem and was almost done with it, and then around two days before I was supposed to present the first sketch to Timothy, I was struck early in the morning with this song, ‘High Above the Water,’” Bostic explained. “It’s about celebrating the inner space that can transform you and help you transcend from places that are stressful or distract you from feeling peaceful or strong.
“That second verse: ‘There’s a crack in the wall / of shiny things / for the broken and the blind / the one-eyed man is king.’ I wanted to describe how the shiny objects in our life, the things that we’re beholden to, can distract us from a higher place of self-awareness.”
The Oscar-shortlisted song is a rousing gospel number straight out of a revival tent. The message isn’t sectarian but spiritual.
“I didn’t want to proselytize but I wanted there to be a feeling of release and transcendence,” Bostic said. “I wanted it to be simple backbeat with those chords that remind me of an old call-and-response feel that people can join into. Keep it real simple. Foot stomps and clapping. A celebratory call to arms, if you will.”
The lyrical ideas were carefully chosen, starting with the title.
“It’s a strong tradition in African American folklore to talk about flight to freedom. When Toni Morrison spoke of her book ‘The Song of Solomon,’ she spoke of African slaves who ‘flew’ to freedom. They had been enslaved on these Southern plantations and during the Middle Passage; many were able to ‘fly’ back home. She had a lovely way of talking about flight, the ability to transform and transcend circumstances that are horrific.”
Bostic has composed for stage and screen, including for the current Alfre Woodard prison drama “Clemency” (featuring Bostic’s sultry blues song “Slow Train”). Her collaborators have included David Byrne, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Nas and August Wilson. She worked with Wilson on multiple stage productions, scored a PBS special on the playwright and composed “The August Wilson Symphony” in his honor. In 2016, she became the first female African American score composer to be named to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
“I have so many influences for the scores and the songs,” she said. “The essence of a lot of it has a soulful Americana — I mean real earthy and soul-stirring sensibility. I grew up listening to everything. My mother played her own compositions, Chopin, Bartók, Duke Ellington. Then my brother would come home and play Milton Nascimento and James Brown, Roberta Flack, Aretha Franklin, McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, Miles Davis. Then my mother would play Rachmaninoff.”
Indeed, her “Pieces I Am” score has hints of the upbeat gospel of “High Above the Water” but also touches on decades of jazz and blues as it accompanies the story of a landmark American writer who lived from 1931 to August 2019.
“Toni Morrison is a force,” Bostic said. “She has an incredible quote from ‘Song of Solomon’: ‘If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.’ I’m so struck by the symbolism of that quote and the power of it. Yielding to a sense of immense fate and a trust and a desire to transcend circumstances that are disabling.”
The academy isn’t the only body to recognize Bostic’s work on “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am.” The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra has commissioned her to expand some of her cues for the film for a Feb. 29 premiere performance.
“I didn’t write an orchestral score for the documentary because it didn’t have that kind of feel to me — nor did they have that kind of budget. But I’ve expanded them and written a short portrait, a cinematic journey with orchestra,” Bostic said.
Perhaps the most sought-after stamp of approval came from the author herself, who saw the film and heard the music before her death.
“She told the director she really liked [the score] and, more important, she really liked the film,” said Bostic, noting how private Morrison was, and how significant it was that the author allowed the filmmakers to paint her cinematic picture.
“Her words to him after she watched it were, ‘I like her.’ "