I recently spoke with composer Grant Fonda about his work on the documentary The House Rob Built, which chronicles the life and career of Rob Selvig, the legendary coach of the University of Montana’s Lady Grizz basketball team. Underfunded and supplanted by men’s athletics, the Lady Griz flourished under the new Title IX rules that provided identical funding, scholarships and facilities for women’s sports at colleges. Selvig’s uncompromising style of leadership took the team from its humble roots, playing in front of empty bleachers, to a premier women’s basketball program west of the Rockies.

Los Angeles-based composer Grant Fonda has collaborated with numerous creative teams on a variety of critically acclaimed projects, including the critically acclaimed The Dating Project (directed by Jonathan Cipiti, 2018), the award-winning Down The Fence (Netflix, directed by MJ Isakson, 2017), and the multi-award-winning Pray : Patrick Payton’s story. Grant has worked in the music departments of award-winning composers Thomas Newman and Haytor Pereira on Spectrum, Finding Dory, Spy Bridge and Minions. He also worked with the late James Horner on Titanic Live! and with John Debney on the live show at Disneyland’s California Adventure.

Enjoy my conversation with the Grant Foundation about the house Rob built.

How did you begin your career as a composer?

I’ve been into music for as long as I can remember. My grandfather was a classically trained pianist and always encouraged me to study music, even before I started taking lessons. He and my parents encouraged my creativity and allowed me to pursue my passions. I’ve always been attracted to music and I’ve always been into making my own songs. One teacher after another went on the witness stand: Hey, Grant, you’re really good at this. You have to think of writing as a career. In a way, you could say that I eventually gave up my career as a music teacher and started composing.

What was your starting point in composing the house that Rob built?

As is often the case in this field, it all started with a relationship. I was the composer of Jonathan Chipity’s Date and Prayer project: The Story of Patrick Payton, both produced by Family Theatre under the direction of producer Megan Harrington. John and Megan were eager to get the team together for the house Rob had built, so I got the first call! Needless to say, I was thrilled.

It may seem wrong, but when you wrote this music, were you thinking first about music about basketball and second about man, or first about man and then about basketball? Or was it an equal trade-off between the two?

Without a doubt, Rob as an individual, the team as a unit and the individual team members are always at the forefront of the story of basketball itself. I always thought about the intensity of basketball, but directors John Chipity and Megan Harrington were quick to remind me that the story is about the heart, not the game. The heart, legacy and connection needed to be translated for the public without being lost.

What did you decide about the instruments of the orchestra? I hear a lot of strings, but I know there’s more to it than that.

You’re right, the string quartet is the basis of the score. The only other truly orchestral instrument on the palette was the felt piano, but the nyckelharpa (Swedish keyboard violin) and the voice of the stunning Hannah Rose Lewis were also part of the soundscape. You could also say it’s an orchestra of synthesizers – I wanted the synthetic part of the sound universe to be both organic and avant-garde, but with a retro touch at times.

What made you decide to mix the real sounds of basketballs into the music? It seems to me that this solution will work very well or not at all (I thought it worked very well).

Thank you. That’s amazing. One of the things that kept coming up during our one-off session was the need to capture the intensity of women’s basketball, but there wasn’t much sound design to help us, as reconstruction usually went hand in hand with dubbing and the sound quality of the archival footage was noisy. I had the idea that it would be interesting to try and blur the lines between sound design and score by incorporating sounds from the courtroom, but I knew it would be a hard sell if it wasn’t executed perfectly. She needed to feel organic without being a camper. John and Megan loved the pitch of a single signal, so these original sounds became the basis for the percussion portion of the score.

Are there any other atypical sounds mixed into the score that we should keep in mind?

Nyckelharpa is a nice ear candy on this bill! We had so much fun filming, and part of me would have loved to use it more often. The way Malachi Bandy (our nyckelharpa player) delivers his performances is stunning and really exaggerates the feeling of nostalgia and longing for folk music.

How long have you been working on this case? Was it a close call with the directors?

I worked closely with John and Megan during the writing process, partly because I only had 21 days to write the full score and then about a week to record and mix it. I think I spent as much time on the phone as I did writing! As excellent coaches, John and Megan went out every day to see how they could inspire me, give me thoughtful feedback, and push me to take each line’s story to the next level. Sometimes solitude is a composer’s saving grace when he’s being creative, but in this case, working with the crew sublimated the film’s story.

Does the pandemic affect assessment/admission?

Fortunately, this was not the case (we enrolled in the fall of 2019), but we almost had to postpone the admissions session because my wife was starting our daughter’s pre-selection the day before the session! I’ll never forget to call John Chipity and tell him… I know it’s not the call you want to get on record day, but I think we’re having a baby tomorrow instead of recording strings. Fortunately, our beautiful daughter arrived about two weeks later and the session went as planned.

Do you have a favorite part of the soundtrack?

I love the Title IX cue for its unusual textures and Hannah’s masterful vocal performance, but my favorite cue in the film has to be Strong, who appears in the final scenes of the film. This is one of the first videos I saw, but some of the most recent ones I’ve written. To write it well, I knew I had to draw from other parts of the story and also prepare emotionally for the task as the different parts of the story come together to conclude the piece. The resulting signal of nearly nine minutes is one of the highest and deepest I’ve ever composed, and I can still feel a lump in my throat a year and a half later when I see/hear it.

Is there anything special that you hope viewers will take away from watching the documentary and hearing this music?

I hope people are reminded that inspiration can come from the most unlikely places and unexpected circumstances. I hope they will remember that unity can be found and flourish in diversity. And I hope those who watch and listen will be inspired to invest in the next generation to build things beyond their wildest imagination.

I want to thank Grant Fonda for taking the time to tell me about the house Rob built.

See also :

Interview with the composer

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