Alex Goldstein was never an athlete, but sports has certainly shaped his life. The Naples resident, 61, has been writing and composing tunes for nearly 40 years that have accompanied figure skaters, gymnasts and synchronized swimmers to the podium during both national and international sporting events.
Starting Sunday, 15 athletes from six countries will try to skate towards Olympic gold in Vancouver to melodies either composed by Goldstein’s Sportmusic.com especially for them or arranged from works as diverse as Mozart’s Requiem and Australian aboriginal drum music.
Watching Goldstein work with his music is much like observing a skilled piano composer — a high-tech, 21st-century one whose fingers move across a computer keyboard and tap over a mouse instead of a grand piano. Each element that makes up his music shows up on a large screen in a graphic pattern that, to most outsiders’ eyes, is nothing more than a series of peaks and dips. But when he presses “play,” the music booms out of the speakers — loud, clear, powerful — as if there was an entire orchestra crammed in his 9-foot by 18-foot North Naples studio.
Strict rules for figure skating competitions require Goldstein to solve certain problems when he’s composing music for skaters. He recently composed a piece based on Mozart’s Requiem, but had to strip out all vocals — Olympic rules dictate all music to be wordless — yet create a powerful tune that would fit Japan’s Miki Ando’s performance in Vancouver.
The result is mind-boggling and beautiful, at the same time Mozart’s and Goldstein’s, an amazing symphony that was all created on a computer, using millions of digital sound bites downloaded from several sound libraries.
As most artists do, Goldstein likes to surprise his audience. No music genre is off-limits for him, he says, and he often uses folk sounds and beats from cultures that have nothing to do with the national team he’s composing for. Russian figure skaters, for instance, will perform to Australian aboriginal drum music sounds during the Olympic games. Sports, although indirectly, have definitely shaped Goldstein’s life.
Born in the Soviet Union during Stalin’s last years in power, he’s the son of a professional musician, and grew up a stone’s throw away from the famed Bolshoi theater in Moscow. As a child, says Goldstein, he rubbed elbows with conductors, members of the orchestra and dancers — what he affectionately calls ”the Bolshoi family.” And with a background such as his, an education in something other than music was not an option. He learned to play piano and French horn, and studied both composing and directing.
After graduating from the Gnessin Academy of Music in 1971, the then-23-year-old started working as a music composer for the Soviet movie industry. One of the scriptwriters, impressed by Goldstein’s abilities, introduced him to skating, gymnastics and synchronized swimming coaches, and his career took off. In only a few years Goldstein was promoted to official music composer for the Russian national skating team; by the time the 1980 summer Olympics opened in Moscow, he was writing music for the gymnastics team.
As the world around the USSR changed at a fast and steady pace, the world of music composing was changing, too.
“It was the time when we went from using the live piano player to using music on tapes, and I was the one to make this transition for the Russian team,” he says proudly.
In a sport that is characterized by very strict rules — the athletes have to perform a predetermined number and type of moves and positions — there is little space for personal expression and artistic diversity, but that’s what athletes strive for. Goldstein’s music, handcrafted to their needs, is what gives them a little more room to distinguish themselves.
Although part of his job is to study what the skaters are already capable of, it is also important, Goldstein says, to imagine what they will be able to do at the time of their performance, six months to a year after he’s done composing their pieces.
In the past, Goldstein had to travel extensively to watch the athletes practice and get an idea of what they were going to do during their performance. There was a time, in an era when most Russians were not allowed to travel internationally, when working with the Soviet national team and following them was Goldstein’s window on the world.
Today he’s a successful business owner and an acclaimed composer, and thanks to the Internet and self-broadcasting platforms such as YouTube, he now can study his customer’s skill level and moves without ever moving from his chair.
And Goldstein’s staying home during the Vancouver Olympics.
“You can see it better on TV,” he explains with a chuckle.
He’ll cheer the athletes he’s composed for from his living room, hoping that his music will point them towards victory.