Michael won an Emmy for the HBO animated classic How Do You Spell God? He's also scored various installments of the PBS series Nature, Nova and American Masters as well as the popular National Geographic documentary Air Force One; contributed clever, kid-friendly rock songs to the Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh television and movie phenomena; and even had his emotional and nostalgic orchestral piece, "The Shadows of October," chosen by Major League Baseball for its World Series broadcasts.
If you happened to miss any or all of those, you've undoubtedly heard Michael's work in one of the literally thousands of commercials he scored for clients like Apple, Coca-Cola, Disney and Nike. But he's not just a composer-for-hire: Michael is also building a significant discography 21 CDs to date as a solo recording artist, working in pop, jazz, classical, electronic and those fascinating, unclassifiable spaces in between. His most recent project, My Secret Heart (Narada), is an artful collection of piano-based compositions inspired by the groundbreaking, ambient-music experiments of Brian Eno and Harold Budd. Michael has just completed a new solo album, The Other Coast, scheduled for release later this year, which he describes as an evolution of the sound of My Secret Heart, featuring percussion and strings along with piano. He's currently working on a holiday-themed disc called Seasons of Light; judging from the rough mixes, it promises to be deeply stirring while sidestepping easy sentiment. Among Michael's collaborators on this project are the wonderfully expressive singers and serious cult stars Paul Buchanan (The Blue Nile) and Lori Carson (The Golden Palominos).
Michael manages to draw extraordinary performances from a wide range of artists who have joined him on his recording projects. On Songs Without Words, an album he produced for Windham Hill, Michael convinced several major songwriters and film/theatre composers to step out from behind the scenes and re-interpret their own work as instrumental solo-piano pieces. The resulting collection boasted a line-up of magical, one-of-a-kind tracks from such legends as Stephen Sondheim, Brian Wilson, Carole King, film composers Howard Shore and Michael Kamen, songwriter-to-the-stars Diane Warren and producer David Foster. It was a daunting task to assemble all this heavyweight talent for a single record, but that's business as usual for Michael, who can calmly juggle several amazing works-in-progress at once. Michael's fertile imagination and inquisitive mind are in full effect 24/7. He's not so much an impressively busy man as an artist possessed. It's been that way ever since the day a very young Michael Whalen walked into a movie theatre with his father, and then and there found his calling.
As he explains, "The musical turning point of my life was hearing John Williams' 1972 score to The Cowboys [one of the last of John Wayne's star vehicles, directed by Mark Rydell]. Even after so many years, I watch that movie with reverence and awe. Writing music for a genre like a western can be so full of cliches. His approach was so fresh while being true to the spirit and the needs of the film. The excitement and the themes of the movie made me listen to film music in a new way and piqued my interest even when I was just seven years old! At that moment, I decided I really had to do something that was involved with music and film. After hearing The Cowboys, all the great scores of the 1960's, 70s and 80s solidified my growing interest in this music into a passion."
Michael was born in New York City in 1965, where he lives and works today, but was raised in Washington D.C. As a boy, he studied percussion, then switched to piano and keyboards in high school. Even as a teenager, playing in "many different kinds of jazz and rock bands, orchestras and pick-up groups," Michael displayed the musical curiosity and breadth of vision that marks his work today: "All through high school and college, I was interested in a wide variety of musical styles. I felt that being a recording artist and performer in one style was too limiting for me."
He channeled his enthusiasm for music into hard work. During summer breaks from high school, Michael interned at suburban D.C. recording studios and found spots on sessions, sometimes in front of a mike as a player, other times behind the board. To finance his own basement studio as a college student, he "started writing music for local commercials in Washington D.C. Eventually it occurred to me that working in television, film and advertising could be an area where I wouldn't have to limit the stylistic scope of my music and maybe I could start applying my love of film music into a career." By 1989, Michael was back in New York City with several commercials under his belt and a thriving business of his own.
Key to Michael's success has been his love of collaboration with his fellow performers, filmmakers and the assorted creative thinkers who get involved in his projects. The film/television composer's task, he knows, is to embellish someone else's vision while trying to create something musically he can call his own. For Michael, "Scoring is about trust and relationships The process of going back and forth with a client is about communication. Sometimes clients come to the studio and we run cues and get feedback on the spot. I enjoy that the most, and I think that clients enjoy the process of being 'hands on' with me."
Collaboration is also essential to the more personal projects Michael is developing: his albums, his classical composing, and, especially, his boundary-pushing Music in the Dark series. A live event that he first produced in New York City in 2003, Music in the Dark is an improvised performance by Michael of acoustic and electronic music to accompany newly commissioned silent film shorts. The next installment is scheduled for April 2006. This is movie scoring at its most adventurous, a duet in real time between sound and image. On an altogether different front, he's started an artist development/mentoring company called InTune Creative to assist up-and-coming performers and composers with strategies for professional and musical growth. Michael has also found an easy way to communicate one-on-one with his listeners and admirers: A new monthly podcast, Music By Michael Whalen: inside the creative flow, downloadable from his website, is perhaps the most in-depth and intimate way to get to know Michael and his work.
But, as we said before, you probably know him already. It's Michael Whalen's music that often keeps you glued to your television set. That causes your heart to swell in a darkened movie theater. That draws you closer to the radio. Our world moves to his melodies. Stay tuned for much, much more.