Elton Bradman: Playing for the Song

by Ross Jackson
Elton Bradman
Elton Bradman

Elton Bradman is a lifelong musician who’s having fun and learning a ton as a sound designer/composer for theater. Currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area, he is a music journalist who composes for dance/theater/visual media and plays music for childbirth (labor and delivery), birthdays and birth celebrations, initiations/coming of age rituals, graduations, weddings, yoga classes, funerals, and grief workshops.

Most people know Elton as a bass player, percussionist, drummer, and longtime editor at Bass Player magazine. www.adifferenttrip.com

How has being as a person of color harmed and/or helped your career?
My career as a sound designer is just beginning… let’s touch base in a few years! But I’m grateful that my parents encouraged me to attend historically black Florida A&M University, where I met the great choreographer and dancer Paloma McGregor. Her sister, director Patricia McGregor, changed my life when she gave me my first composing gig in 2013.

How has your race/ethnicity influenced your career journey?
I’m accustomed to being the darkest person in the room, and I’ve been many people’s “first black person,” so I’m always aware of the folks who paved the way for me and how I present myself professionally. As someone who grew up in communal spaces with people from South and Central America, Asia, Europe, and the U.S., I thrive in diverse, collaborative settings.

What would you like for people of color considering (or in the early stages of) a theater career to know?  
You will be held to a higher standard than others, your ideas and work may be dismissed quickly, you will have to prove yourself—repeatedly—and you will be battling old preconceptions that have nothing to do with you. But I’m sure you already knew that!

Can you offer any advice as to how they can navigate these challenges?
There are so many variables, but perhaps these practical tips can make a difference: Overprepare. Know your technology. Be organized. Show up early. Come with strong ideas, but be flexible. Start by doing more listening than talking. Pay attention to everything going on around you, including personal dynamics. Develop camaraderie with other theater folks of color. Be open to being inspired by the director, the cast, your fellow designers, the theater… everything. Pay attention to every detail, but remember that it ain’t life and death! Laugh, learn, and take the long view.

Who was it that helped formulate who you are as a person of color trying to express your art in a white-dominated field?
I’ve been inspired by working alongside two exemplary non-white sound designers, Keith Obadike and Sharath Patel. The deep influences of Miles Davis, Prince, and Herbie Hancock—as well as the legacies of black composers like Olly Wilson, Oliver Nelson, Undine Smith Moore, Stanley Clarke, Terence Blanchard, Henry Threadgill, and Jonathan Bailey Holland—are never far from my mind. But as someone who’s been a roadie for swordsmen from the Burmese border, a cook for a Miami Beach ashram, a kirtan bassist in South Africa and Australia, a producer of folk-music sessions in China, a drummer for a Polish reggae band with a French lead singer, a studio musician on a Grammy-nominated album of Sanskrit chants, and a musical midwife for childbirth and for the dying, I don’t really consider any field “white dominated”—I just go for it!

Elton Bradman working away in tech.

How did you find your way to sound design?
In 2013, I was working toward an MFA in music and sound design for visual media, with an emphasis on film scoring, at Academy of Art University in San Francisco. Patricia got in touch and asked me to work alongside sound designer Will McCandless for her production of A Winter’s Tale at California Shakespeare Theater. I’m glad she did!

Where are you from and how has that influenced your work?
My work is certainly affected by the Caribbean and South American flavors of my hometown, Miami; attending boarding schools near Lynchburg, Tennessee and in Uttar Pradesh, India; growing up with hippies of all stripes; my classmates and professors at FAMU; graduate studies at Academy of Art University; and living in the Bay Area and New York City.

I’m quite comfortable using “ethnic” and “unusual” colors, as well as “odd” time signatures (and yes, I use air quotes around those terms), but my choices totally depend on the play and the director. That said, I do sometimes compose from the bottom up (I am a bass player, after all!), I love skillful stylistic blends, and I enjoy balancing the naturally occurring rhythmic aspects of my raw materials with appropriate and interesting harmony and melody.

Black sound designers are few and far between. Can you talk about how the perspective of Black designers (or designers of color) influences the work?
There’s probably an astounding variety of perspectives possible in a group as broad as “designers of color.” But growing up as a Hare Krishna in the ’80s, attending a predominantly black college in the Afrocentric ’90s, being married to a Polish/Roma musician, and living in Brooklyn and Oakland have definitely brought a wide, warm, “Global South” palette of influences to my outlook and music.

Do you believe that theater can be an effective means of protest?
To some, the word “protest” connotes short-term action, but if you consider that theater can illuminate previously dark corners of audience members’ consciousness, then yes… theater can be an effective means of protesting small-mindedness.

Do you have a favorite type of production you like to work on?
I’m excited to work on any production that involves a confident and flexible director, talented designers who enjoy collaboration, a badass stage-management team, a cast that has the magic, and a theater with all the goods. Basically, just like the production of Skeleton Crew you recently stage-managed at the Geffen Playhouse.

How has your background as a musician prepared you to embrace your path in design?
As a bass player and drummer, I place a premium on “playing for the song”—embracing my role in an ensemble and prioritizing the music itself over showboating—so I lean quite naturally into the collaborative aspect of theater production. I'm also a big fan of “beginner’s mind,” which helps me enjoy the journey despite the fact that I have so much to learn.