Of Note Notre Dame junior Alex Mansour adds to impressive resume with ‘Sorin’ score
Musician and composer Alex Mansour’s latest work is an exercise in subtlety.
A junior at the University of Notre Dame, his score for “Sorin: A Notre Dame Story,” the one-man play about University founder Rev. Edward Sorin, C.S.C., slowly materializes at key moments in the 90-minute play before quickly dissolving — like a phantom mist.
It’s a departure from his previous work for the University and evidence of his versatility as a multi-talented musician — in additional to classical cello, he plays jazz piano and guitar — and composer.
Both his theme for “Boldly Notre Dame,” the University’s capital campaign, and his work for the new video board at Notre Dame Stadium reference “The Notre Dame Victory March” to sentimental and dramatic effect, respectively.
The latter, marked by triumphant drums and horns, accompanies a regular highlight reel that plays before the start of the each home game.
But his work for “Sorin” is effective precisely because it is subtle.
Never ostentatious, the score quietly complements actor and Notre Dame alumnus Matthew Goodrich’s sturdy portrayal of the French-born Father Sorin, a man of great vision whose passion for his work often vexed his more conservative superiors.
The score also belies Mansour’s status as a relative beginner in the world of theater music — despite years of experience scoring student and independent films.
The play tells the story of the University and its quixotic founder simply, with a handful of carefully selected props — a desk, a pair of wire-rimmed glasses, a few pieces of clothing — and a variety of images projected onto three panels at the back of the stage.
Composed digitally from sound samples, the music gently underscores the action at several key moments in the play, including:
- Father Sorin’s arrival in South Bend and his first glimpse of St. Mary’s Lake.
- Completion of the original Main Building, which later burned in a fire.
- The first gilding of the Dome on the new Main Building.
- The closing video montage showing the growth of the University over the past 175 years.
In composing it, Mansour — in collaboration with director and Notre Dame alumnus Patrick Vassel and sound designer Maddison Staff, a Notre Dame senior majoring in film, television, and theatre and biological sciences — took inspiration from a number of sources, including Father Sorin himself.
“It echoes Father Sorin’s story in the sense that, he’s not a simple man, but one that definitely is motived by faith, by goodness, by charity, by service, and those are simple virtues in a sense,” Mansour said. “He’s just trying to do good in the world.”
He also leaned on some basic principles of film scoring gleaned from the work of renowned film composers Randy Newman (“Toy Story,” “Seabiscuit,” “Meet the Parents”) and John Williams (“Superman,” “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones”).
“If you ask someone to sing a movie melody, often it’s going to be something John Williams wrote that comes down to five notes or less, just in different variations or something like that,” he said, adding, “Simplicity is very important in creating thematic, melodic material … because people respond to things they can remember, things that are catchy.”
“We kind of discovered that when it came to musical scoring, less is more,” Vassel said.
In that regard, he said, Mansour “was a really terrific collaborator without any ego to it, allowing us to be really purposeful when we did use a musical idea.”
A synthetic hum, similar to that of a softly vibrating wine glass, underlies the score, which quickly but softly swells to include piano, horns and strings.
But the hum — nearly imperceptible at times — is the foundation.
“One of the things that he created for us was this really simple drone underscoring,” Vassel said. “Honestly, it’s so subtle in some places that you don’t even realize it’s there.”
Mansour’s fascination with music began at an early age.
Raised by musical parents outside of Los Angeles, he started playing piano by ear at the age of 3 and later picked up guitar and cello.
“My parents are both musical, but not professionally. My dad’s an attorney and my mom’s a therapist,” he said. “But both my sister and I were born with a musical aptitude.”
Like lots of kids, he went through a phase where he wanted to be a rock guitarist — “I loved AC/DC and Queen and things like that,” he said — but his parents disapproved, so he agreed to six years of classical guitar instead with the knowledge that “a lot of great rock guitarists have a background in classical guitar.”
By the time he arrived at Notre Dame in 2015, he had been playing music for 15 years, and he quickly became a go-to composer for University projects, from the “Boldly” theme to the video board to, now, “Sorin.”
It was through his work with the Office of Development on “Boldly” that he was introduced to Vassel in June.
“I guess they were pleased enough to recommend that I work with Patrick,” he said of the development staff, including Jim Small, associate vice president of storytelling and engagement for the University.
“Alex is a once-in-a-generation talent that we've been fortunate to work with since his freshman year at Notre Dame.”
“Alex is a once-in-a-generation talent that we've been fortunate to work with since his freshman year at Notre Dame,” Small said. “It was the obvious choice to ask him to work with our team in creating the score for our one-man play: ‘Sorin: A Notre Dame Story.’”
His resume certainly warranted it.
In addition to his previous work for the University, Mansour has arranged and played for Arturo Sandoval’s new Christmas album; appeared on NPR’s “From the Top”; premiered works at the Atlantic Music Festival; and been selected for the New York String Orchestra Seminar, among other honors and achievements.
The two met inside the Patricia George Decio Theatre at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center to discuss the play on the same day that Mansour filmed several outdoor scenes for the “Boldly” campaign.
Afterward, Mansour composed a theme — a short musical piece embodying the tone and themes of the play — based on the script.
“That was something that was just a free piece inspired by ideas they were going for, which was about faith and leadership, inspiring music but also emotional music and personal to Father Sorin,” Mansour said. “And they really liked that.”
“I listened to it, and I listened to it again,” Vassel recalled. “And I emailed Maddison (the sound designer) and said, ‘I might be crazy, but this might be perfect.’”
They continued to refine the material remotely over the summer and then back on campus in August with the rest of the creative team, including playwright Christina Telesca Gorman, a 1991 Notre Dame graduate, and projection designer Ryan Belock, a 2011 Notre Dame graduate.
Finally, the Wednesday before the first home football game in September, the play premiered to a sold-out crowd.
Mansour was there.
“I had not seen it in its entirety, so when I did see it in its entirety, I thoroughly enjoyed it,” he said. “And I thought the music, when it was used, was effective.”
“It was never something we wanted to hit people over the head with,” Vassel said of the music, noting the danger of relying too heavily on the score — and not enough on the script, performance and imagery — to establish the emotional tone of the play.
“We wanted to be careful because theater and film are very different experiences, and in either one, in any context, music is going to inform the experience and inform what the audience perceives to be the emotional intent of the story,” Vassel said. “So there was a lot of back and forth about how much we really wanted to give that to people, how much we wanted to use music to point people in that direction.”
After several successful performances on campus, the play hits the road soon with performances in the Midwest, South, Southeast and West, including Chicago and Miami, Palm Beach and Naples, Florida.
For Mansour, meanwhile, it’s on to the next endeavor.
He recently performed his junior honors recital. He is preparing to compose his senior thesis — an orchestral work for the Notre Dame Symphony Orchestra (NDSO). And he has been asked to help orchestrate a television project for Netflix-DreamWorks.
But that’s far from it.
He also gigs locally at weddings and other events and performs with the NDSO — in addition to his regular studies under Dutch cellist Katinka Kleijn, adjunct assistant professor of music, artist-in-residence and a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
The future beyond Notre Dame is less clear.
“I’m going to London next semester, which will be very enjoyable and very eye-opening,” Mansour said. “I’ll be taking lessons with the Royal Academy of Music, hopefully, so to get exposed to the conservatory atmosphere will be important.”
After that, he said, “It’s a choice of whether I want to go to grad school and then, even within grad school, if I want to study composition versus film scoring.”
Growing up in the shadow of Hollywood, film scoring has a particular appeal, he said, though “when I look at people who are doing it successfully and the sort of work I would love to do, which is emotional movies, dramas, they’re often in their late 30s at the youngest, which makes me think it could take considerable time to break into the industry.”
Another option: become an assistant to a composer.
“I think my portfolio’s at a point now where I can start reaching out to composers and asking, ‘Can I get you coffee? Can I shadow you? Can I make copies for you?’” he said. “And a lot of people have really good situations built where they can potentially be paid; it can be a real job.”
Ideally, those mundane tasks lead to actual composing, he said, “and from there you do the best you can and word spreads.”
Vassel, currently the associate and supervising director of “Hamilton” on Broadway, in Chicago and on national tour, is already a fan.
“Alex is so reliable, so collaborative, so smart in terms of where he fits and how he can be a full member of our creative team,” Vassel said. “I’d love the chance to work with him again.”