Interview with Robert Dennis, composer of "Milk" (Sesame Street, 1975)

(Reprinted from old DTM; originally posted January 2007.)

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With the mass reissue of so many old TV shows on DVD and the unbelievable number of nostalgic postings on YouTube, our generation gets to enjoy having easy digital access to precious analog moments of our youth – moments that we heard or watched with no expectation of ever being able to see or hear them again. It is a historical moment that is unprecedented and will not be repeated.

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"Milk" is one of the most strange and powerful episodes to come out of the Children's Television Workshop. It is impossible to imagine this film being made now. Here's the pitch:

Yeah… Jim. Look, I thought we would show how milk gets made with no script and no dialogue. Yeah. Let's just go shoot footage of farmers and the milk truck, maybe throw in a crying baby and some weird, monotone music crafted by some composer who likes jazzy stuff played by a chamber ensemble. Sunny day? Nah. Let's not make it cheerful or happy. We should make it gloomy and unsettling. Oh, and Jim? To do it right, we need some crane shots, a huge decal for the truck, and about four and a half minutes running time.

Every time I watched Sesame Street I prayed that this skit would be on. It is not an exaggeration to say that the score to "Milk" was a major formative influence. I wept copiously when viewing it on YouTube for the first time in over 20 years, and the comments section indicates that I was far from the only one to have an intense relationship to this short film. One of the comments named the composer of this fabulous music and linked to an impressive bio:

Robert Dennis's commissions and performances include pieces composed for the Denver Project, the New York City Opera, I Cantori, Cerddorion, the Jubal Trio, the American Brass Quintet, Calliope, the New York Women's Chorus, the Baird Trio, and the Lincoln Center Institute. His music for orchestra has been performed by the Cleveland, Chicago and Louisville Orchestras. Mr. Dennis has also composed extensively for theater and film, including scores for productions at (among others) the Arena Stage, the Guthrie Theater and Circle in the Square. His most recent theater music was a score for a production of Brecht's The Good Person of Setzuan, performed by the Juilliard Drama Division. Three of his eight scores composed for Pilobolus were performed on the PBS series "Dance in America." Man in the Moon, a CD of Mr.  Dennis's works composed for the Western Wind Vocal Ensemble has recently been recorded and released by the group.

For more about Robert Dennis and his current projects, read this interview. For Do The Math, Dennis graciously consented to being interviewed specifically about "Milk" and Sesame Street.

Ethan Iverson: Who are the musicians on "Milk?"

Robert Dennis: The musicians on the session were Paul Dunkel (flute), Leslie Scott (bass clarinet), and Leslie Miller (vocal). Dunkel is still an active flutist and conductor; Scott is a busy freelance woodwind "doubler" – I've worked with both of them for years. Leslie Miller was a very happy choice and her contribution was so important; at the time she was one of the most successful commercial singers in New York. She knew immediately what was needed and did it without much explanation from me.

EI: Who composed the lyrics?

RD: I did the lyrics (such as they are). The director wanted my phrase "cool and white" changed to "warm and white" – a definite improvement.

EI: The clip is very long by today's standards. Was the music composed before or after the completed short? How long did it take you to write?

RD: The film came first, then the score – after watching the film a few times in a screening room, I worked with time-sheets. (No VCR's back then!) I had a two or three week deadline to do "Milk," plus "Elk Feeding," "Sheep Feeding," and "Cow Feeding," three other Sesame Street films – using the same instrument combination minus the voice.

EI: The style of the score and the use of a Rhodes suggests you are familiar with jazz; have you played jazz professionally?

RD: No, I'm not a jazz musician – just influenced by it from time to time (who isn't?!).

EI: Where was the score to "Milk" recorded, and how long did it take to track?

RD: "Milk" and the three other short films were recorded at Chelsea Sound, which was a very nice inexpensive studio on West 14th St. in New York – sadly long gone. The music was all done in a three hour session; that's why you get good people! I should also mention the recording engineer Jonathan Thayer – with whom I worked for years.

EI: What other Sesame Street shorts did you compose the music for?

RD: I wrote and performed the music for the ten "Mad Painter" films with Paul Benedict as the hapless character who paints numbers wherever he can. I used a "tack" piano that was the former property of the Roxy theatre. The ten pieces were thematically related but composed, not improvised. Along with "Milk," they played for years.

EI: There are no credits available for "Milk" that I have found. Do you remember the year?... 

RD: February, 1975.

EI: ...the director and the producer of the film?

RD: Fred Wardenburg was both.

EI: ...the location of the film?

RD: I remember some mention of the film being shot somewhere in Pennsylvania, but am not really sure.

EI: Whose idea was it for the short?

RD: I wasn't in on any of the initial process.

EI: Was there any sort of response or discussion about "Milk" within CTW that would be interesting to recount?

RD: I only heard indirectly that the CTW people were pleased with "Milk," which was no doubt why they used it for years. I've never had any communication with them regarding "Milk," or anything else. We called them the "WPA" back then, since they tried to give work to everybody and not use any one talent overmuch.

EI: Have you been asked much about "Milk" before?

RD: Until a month ago, when it showed up on YouTube, no one had ever asked me about "Milk." One never knows! I have always liked it, though, and I still have the score and the recording.

EI: Oh yes – is the title of your score indeed "Milk"?

RD: While it says "Milk Crisis" on YouTube, "Milk" is the only title I knew.

07/14/2010