Composing a Life of Music
Cal Scott B.A. ’72
Composer Cal Scott leaned in, listening intently to documentary filmmaker Harry Dawson describe the themes and emotional tones of his movie.
Weaving oral histories with narrative, the film would portray the struggles and triumphs of the Paskenta Band of Nomlaki Indians, who were driven from their home in California’s Sacramento River Valley in the 1860s.
Scott composed a suite of six original pieces of music conveying broad themes like family, work, and hardship, which Dawson used for inspiration while editing Paskenta: Nomlaqa Bõda. Later, Scott tweaked the music to match individual scenes.
“A film score should evoke a strong emotional connection with the audience,” says Scott. “One key scene showed the Nomlaki on a forced relocation walk, similar to the Cherokee Trail of Tears. I created an orchestral piece with dark-sounding motifs and a heavy rhythmic nature to represent that march.”
Scott has composed music for other film and TV projects, including more than 50 documentaries and specials for PBS. He’s scored animation programs; children’s videos; park and museum projects; and TV commercials, specials, and series themes, including Oregon Experience for Oregon Public Broadcasting.
An avid Oregonian, Scott’s roots reach back at least four generations. His great-great-grandfather, Bynon Pengra, who arrived in a covered wagon, served as Oregon’s surveyor general during the late 1860s and early 1870s.
Scott studied trumpet at Lewis & Clark during high school, then enrolled as a psychology major, planning to work as a counselor or social worker. Every summer, he volunteered with the nonprofit Portland Youth Advocates, helping kids involved with drugs and other risky activities. He taught math, music, and life skills in the program’s alternative high school for two years after he graduated.
As an undergraduate, he played folk guitar at campus events and peace rallies, and later snagged a regular Tuesday night spot at the popular downtown Portland bar Frankenstein’s. “Once I started playing music professionally,” he says, “I never looked back.”
Those local connections led to his first composing gig on a short film about autism. In most instances, Scott enters film projects at the final rough-cut stage, carefully writing music to match the mood, tempo, and timing of scenes. “Scoring a film is very exacting and mathematical,” he says.
Over the years, Scott has also performed as a solo artist and with other musicians. In 1991, he joined the Trail Band as part of a historic stage play commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Oregon Trail. He says the eight-piece band is still going strong. He’s also performed and recorded with master Irish fiddler Kevin Burke. For fun, he sometimes gets together with The Sceptres, the rock-and-roll band he started at age 14. Now, he hosts a singer-songwriter circle every other month in Portland with Richard Moore B.S. ’71—an event he says has garnered “quite a following.”
An accomplished singer-songwriter himself, Scott won first place in the Great American Song Contest for “Paid Too Much for the Diamond,” a song on his latest CD, Carved Wood Box. The lyrics were inspired by the romantic troubles his nephew was experiencing. “Songwriters are like poets,” he says. “Sometimes the lyrics arrive intact as a whole, sometimes as a seed that needs nurturing.”
Now semiretired, Scott performs about three times a month, continues to write film music, and spends more time with his wife, Sue Ambler Scott B.S. ’71, M.Ed. ’79, a retired educator.å
Reflecting on his music career, Scott says he’s grateful. “Drawing audiences into the action and emotion of a film is very satisfying,” he says. “Songwriting is absolute unfettered joy.” —by Pattie Pace