Sonic Activism & Voter Suppression, an Interview with Gil Talmi on “ALL IN: The Fight for Democracy”

“I see activism as a way of life, not a one-time event that allows us to feel good about ourselves for a day or two. It is the daily commitment to stay active and take continuous action wherever and whenever we can.” — Gil Talmi

Over the past year, American social consciousness has become increasingly attuned to systemic racism and human rights inequalities. In June, 2020, people gathered across the country in organized marches and protests of outcry over the murder of George Floyd. As Ibram X. Kendi notes in his 2016 book Stamped from the Beginning, inequality and suppression of non-white voices goes back to America’s inception.

While much has changed in the last year, with universities and businesses and activist groups carving out more space for people of color in leadership, or by diversifying programming, much work remains.

Rather than parsing out in this introduction what that change might look like or how it comes about, I’d like to introduce the Emmy-nominated film composer and music producer Gil Talmi. Gil, together with Andrew Gross of Konsonant Music, scored the 2020 documentary ALL IN: The Fight for Democracy, which explores the history of voter suppression in America. In my interview with Gil below, we discuss ALL IN, healthy activism, and the role of the arts in social change.

Gil Talmi, picture courtesy of Lumos PR

ALL IN was nominated for a Critics’ Choice Documentary Award, and is shortlisted for an Oscar for Documentary Feature and Original Song. Andrew Gross has also been nominated for a Guild of Music Supervisors Award for the documentary’s hit “Turntables” by Janelle Monae. Andrew served as the music supervisor, and Gil the composer and music producer for the film.

Konsonant Music is an award-winning music studio based in L.A. and NYC, providing original music, supervision, and other sound services for film and television. Some of their other projects include Building the American Dream (on PBS), Jacinta, The Great Hack (Netflix), and The Memory of Fish.

For resources related to voting and taking action, check out the ALL IN website for a comprehensive list. I’ve included several resources at the end of this interview as well.

Andrew Cheek: First, could you describe your work on the recent documentary ALL IN: The Fight for Democracy?

Gil Talmi: I was brought in as the composer for the film and Andrew Gross, co-founder, creative director and music supervisor at Konsonant Music was brought in as the film’s music supervisor.

AC: How did you go about translating the message of the documentary into sound, or into an emotional quality? What’s that process like?

GT: For me the scoring process starts with emotion. We are in the storytelling business and storytelling is about connection, resonance and eliciting some kind of emotional response that invites one to care for the story. So I think about what I feel when I watch the film in its purest, rawest form — not from an intellectual perspective, but what do I actually feel?

In my process, I am first of all a human being, then an artist, or a composer. When a film resonates with me on that human level, that resonance then gets translated into a musical language. The color and shape of that language can be expressed in so many different ways. The emotion of loneliness and loss can be transmuted into a solitary cello, or a cold and empty sounding ambient synth texture, or the silence between the notes of a small humming vocal section in a large reverberating cathedral. The tools of expression vary but the underlying inspiration is always the emotion that a scene elicits in me and the desire to share that emotion with the audience in its purest, cleanest form; manipulating the least amount possible unless the film specifically calls for it.

AC: What are some of the ways you maintain the balance, especially in more message-forward films, between education and entertainment in music? Of course, music’s meaning is less tangible or defined than words, but in terms of tone, or across a whole score.

GT: I don’t necessarily see it as either this or that. I see it more on a spectrum of education and entertainment. If the music is not ‘entertaining’ in some shape or form, you risk losing the audience. Music in film, especially in documentaries, has a unique challenge of serving a scene without overtly calling attention to itself.

At the same time, in a film like ALL IN, the music needs to also help convey a large amount of information. Some scenes call for some energy and propulsion in the music, to help us move forward through parts that may be perceived as ‘too dry or data-driven.’

At the end of the day, for a film score to be effective the ‘intelligence’ of the educational musical parts and the ‘ear candy’ of the more entertaining parts go hand in hand to keep the audience, well… all in!

AC: How do you think art exists as an agent of change in the world?

GT: In our fast paced, information-overloaded society, it is very easy to become jaded or numb to the world around us. There is just so much happening, including immense suffering worldwide that is simply hard to digest. Staying open to the possibility of change may be one of our greatest challenges: sometimes becoming cynical, skeptical or completely shutting down seems easier. But in that latter approach, all we are really doing is kicking the can down the road until it rolls back in front of our own front door one day and then we can no longer ignore it.

So art as an agent of change has to cut through the dense wall of human apathy. While the craft and artistry continue to morph throughout the ages, from prehistoric cave paintings to current mind-blowing CGI, the underlying message remains the same: ‘Look, this is who we are… this is where we are… all of us, together… this is our story.’ For me the through line is the ongoing invitation to stay awake to what is: the joy, the suffering, the celebration and the heartbreak of our shared experience.

Over the years, the colors may have gotten brighter, the sounds may have gotten louder but the process of continuously wanting to witness our own experience for better or for worse has remained the same. As artists who believe in creating positive change, this is our north star: to resist our society’s ongoing seduction to tune out, check out and go unconscious. Instead we continue to shine a much-needed light wherever and whenever possible.

Andrew Gross, ALL IN music supervisor, was nominated for a Guild of Music Supervisors Awards for “Turntables” by Janelle Monae

AC: What would you say is the main message or core value you sought to convey in ALL IN: The Fight for Democracy?

GT: My goal for every film I work on is to enhance the film’s main message. In ALL IN, directors Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortés, along with editor Nancy Novack and the rest of the incredible team did an amazing job bringing to light the history of voter suppression in the US and the tireless and inspiring fight of Stacey Abrams to put an end to these inequities in our system for once and for all.

AC: Is there anything interesting you’ve learned that you’d like to share, while working on this documentary?

GT: As much as I have always been a big admirer of Stacey Abrams, this documentary made me appreciate her even more. The challenges she has faced both individually and in the realms of politics and social change are simply breathtaking. The film does a tremendous job sharing a dizzying amount of critical information in a way that can be easily understood and processed, and felt on a visceral level.

As a white cisgender heterosexual male, I am continuously shocked by how little I actually know, even in areas where I was raised to believe that I was an expert, simply because of my privilege. ALL IN does a brilliant job in going deep into the monster of systemic racism throughout the history of the United States. I have read countless articles and books, listened to numerous podcasts etc. but the film was able to capture this vast amount of information and place it on a timeline that I was able to absorb. It allowed me to clearly see the breadth of it all: slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, voter suppression, gerrymandering… the entire corrupt and sickening system that has held our Black brothers and sisters back since the inception of this country!

AC: For people at home reading looking to get involved, or who already engage, what have you noticed are especially impactful forms of activism?

GT: I believe that all activism is impactful as we are slowly but surely raising our collective consciousness and awareness around the issues that really matter.

I would say do something… anything is better than nothing. I see activism as a way of life, not a one-time event that allows us to feel good about ourselves for a day or two. It is the daily commitment to stay active and take continuous action wherever and whenever we can. Of course we do it because it helps others in need but this can become patronizing and self-serving if we are not careful. When we realize that we are all in this together — a deep spark of activism is discovered, born out of wholehearted empathy and compassion — not born out of pity that looks down on others in need while elevating ourselves.

It is the realization that until all of us are free of suffering, none of us truly can be. It comes from seeing others eye to eye, as equals deserving happiness, safety and good health because it is their birthright. It comes from the realization that helping each other is our duty if we are ever to live in a better world: we are all the adults… it’s up to us!

Once we understand this, the motivation to get involved arises naturally as well as the curiosity of how one can best be of service. We each have an individual calling: to save the environment, fight racism, tackle addiction, further education, advocate for animals or further global healthcare and nutrition. It’s a vast landscape that requires all hands on deck.

AC: There can be a slowness to change and progress. What keeps you motivated or inspires you when you’re low; why, essentially, do you do what you do, is that spark?

GT: Yes… change and progress are not only slow but they tend to be nonlinear as well. One step forward, two steps back. We zigzag our way towards positive change. I believe that it’s a lifelong dance that is more about the commitment to the process itself, rather than a one-time arrival at some magical point of completion.

I think we share common ground in our low points. We all share a fundamental desire to be happy and free of suffering. So for me, if I can channel my own life experiences into helping others, musically or otherwise, then my own struggles have not been in vain. This allows me to continuously reframe my own existence from victimhood to responsibility and compassionate action.

So the spark for me lies in the essence of this understanding: that I have a choice in what I do with this precious gift called life, not because everything is always perfect, but despite the fact that it never is.

End Notes / Resources

Writer, runner, music enthusiast. Exploring connections between creativity + art, lifestyle, and entrepreneurship through a series of interviews.