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Caleb Sampson

     Caleb Sampson was so, so weary, after weeks of barely sleeping at all, as one kind of prescribed pill after another failed to provide any rest. He was severely depressed, and all the valiant efforts of doctors, friends, family, his father, Dick, and brother, Stephen, and his passionately devoted and heroic wife, Kathy Hickey, couldn't save him. Nor could the deep love of his year-and-a-half-old son, Oliver.

     I talked to him on the phone the night before, about how bad he was feeling. I was planning a visit to his Cambridge residence on June 8, the fatal day that my pal, Caleb Sampson, 45, committed suicide.

     If you are any kind of old-movie fan, than surely you're acquainted with Caleb's virtuoso work as the keyboardist for the Alloy Orchestra, that three-person band of unbridled joy (also ace percussionists, Ken Winokur and Terry Donahue) with their original scores to wake up, stir up, silent film classics. They've been in residence at the Coolidge Corner, the Somerville Theater, the MFA, offering their rousing accompaniments to such films as Metropolis, Man With a Movie Camera, Lonesome, and Steamboat Bill,Jr.

     (Whenever I've seen them play, there was inevitably a standing ovation at the end: and there was always Caleb, beaming as he modestly bowed, each time amazed anew at the audience's emotional response.)

     On his own, Caleb was an amazingly prolific composer. Someone told me, "It's impossible to watch Sesame Street two days in a row without running into Caleb's music." He wrote for HBO specials, for WGBH documentaries, and, in the last several years, he was employed as the in-house composer for the Cambridge-based documentarian, Errol Morris. He wrote the fabulous music for Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, bridging four disparate true-life looks at a lion tamer, a topiary gardener, a robot scientist, a mole rat expert. (For what it's worth, I wrote in the Phoenix that Fast,Cheap was "the Best Musical Score of 1997.")
I asked Morris (also my friend) to free-associate about Caleb: "He was an extraordinary, one-of-a-kind musical talent. If Philip Glass, with whom I also collaborated, is in a modernist mold, Caleb was a minimalist who was also an ironist in some real sense, bringing together klezmer, Viennese waltzes, techno-pop, circus music, but in his own completely unique way.

     "He was an excellent pianist, with whom, on cello, I played chamber music. And he was such a versatile composer and musician. He'd become a central part of what I do on film. The loss is incalculable. It was an amazing collaboration and friendship. Caleb was so much an inspiration to me."

     Prior to his death, Caleb completed work for Morris on a 30-minute TV film called Stairway to Heaven. Caleb's music-score salute to Temple Grandin, autistic college professor and expert on animal management, was described to me by the film's editor, Schuyler Cayton, as "a venture into ambient, pastoral, experimental music, breaking new ground."

     The beginnings: piano lessons of classical masters as a boy in Lewiston, Maine, where his father, Dick Sampson, was (and is) a mathematics professor at Bates College. Dick Sampson told me: "When he was in high school, I got Caleb to play, note for note, Oscar Peterson's version of Georgia on My Mind. It drove me crazy: the dexterity, just like Oscar Peterson."

     A graduate of Wesleyan, Caleb moved to Boston in the late 70s, and he was employed as a Xerox operator and as a lounge pianist and a jazz pianist. He began to develop a personal style - lyrical and romantic, of rhythmic subtlety - far beyond jazz. He drew on Japanese and African motifs, and got inspiration and theory from his classical training. Caleb's music was then, as it remained, deeply complex but, without compromises, somehow extremely accessible to audiences.

     In 1979, Caleb enrolled for a School of the Museum of Fine Arts course in animation. There he begat a new profession, writing music for the short films of his animation teacher and friend, Flip Johnson. Soon, he was the favorite composer for many Boston-based animators, including Lisa Crafts, Ken Brown, and Julie Zammarchi. He also wrote original music for Jane Gillooly's 1994 pro-choice documentary feature, Leona's Sister Gerri.

     And the Alloy Orchestra? They popped up at Boston's First Night, wearing space-age outfits and playing in the gazebo bandstand on the Common. At the 91-92 First Night, David Kleiler, then programmer of the Coolidge Corner Cinema, challenged them to score Fritz Lang's Metropolis for an upcoming screening. They had two weeks to do it.

     "Our Metropolis was purely a creative labor of love," Sampson would remember. "But the first night there were about 50 people and they stood up and cheered."

     The Coolidge Corner, where it all started, will be the site of a memorial service for Caleb to be held Saturday, June 27, at 11 A.M. The public is invited.

     How wonderful a composer was he?

     I recall being at Errol Morris's office one day and being shown some footage accompanied by possibly the most heavenly, other-century, otherworldly, score I'd ever heard. "Is it Mozart?" I asked eagerly. "Is it Hayden?"

     "No," Errol answered."The composer is Caleb."

(Boston Phoenix, June, 1998)


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