Thursday, March 20, 2014

Four Scores and Seven Weeks Ago .....

I've been a bit obsessed with analyzing orchestral scores lately (one of the reasons a blog post didn't happen in February). I love to grab a pile of scores from the shelf, sharpen the pencils, and immerse my left brain in some mental calisthenics. My latest venture focused on one film composer, John Williams. I'm sure many of you are thinking, "Cool Lou, I love John Williams", well ..... truth be told, I don't. Mr. Williams is an incredibly talented and effective composer who isn't really my cup of tea. It's not about his level of talent, it’s about having different sensibilities. "So you may be asking - you're not much of a fan, but you are spending hours analyzing his work?"


During the early years of my music development, I mainlined heavy doses of 20th century icons like Bartok and Stravinsky. I worshiped them really, not just the compositions, but the orchestrations too. I could get lost in any movement of their masterpieces for days. At this age I was a bit black and white when it came to what I liked, and what I believed had value for my growth as a composer. One can then imagine my horror when my orchestration teacher told me that he and I would be studying Aaron Copland's Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo. "Frickin' cowboy music!!!" "All that Americana crap??" I was not enthused, but like most folks at that age, I would soon find out how wrong my opinions really were.

It is true that Copland's music goes hand-in-hand with the wide open spaces of the American west. That doesn't mean it's overly simplistic and without wonderful intricacies. Once I was forced to really look behind the curtain, I could really see his genius. I discovered techniques and some gorgeous instrument pairings that I use to this day. They may have been used in a context that evokes the imagery of Americana, however their use isn't limited to that context. Techniques can be incorporated without echoing the source so don't dismiss music that is 180 degrees from your own. The artists that differ greatly from your style can be a wonderful resource for expanding your musical identity. Thankfully this is a lesson I learned early on.

Here, in all its glory, is Copland's Rodeo and some of the selections of John Williams bountiful catalogue I've been studying.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Lust at First Listen

All too often these days we hear a piece of music and make a binary decision. It's either love at first sight or a complete strike out. We rarely take the time to allow a song or a symphony to grow on us. Yes I know you were afforded way too many chances to become acquainted with "Blurred Lines", but that's not what I'm talking about. Sometimes you have to listen to an album and let it get its hooks in you. Over the years there have been albums that did not excite me at all upon first listen. Yet after giving them a chance to marinate in my psyche they become some of my favorites.

This aural abandonment often occurs when an artist tries something new. Our ears have expectations, and when we are presented with a different sonic experience the reaction can be dismissive. Kinda like a drunk frat boy hitting on Angelina Jolie ....  ain't gonna happen. Two releases from last year are great examples, Daft Punk's Random Access Memories, and Arcade Fire's Reflektor.

As a fan of Daft Punk, once you heard "Get Lucky" you couldn't wait to hear the album. Your ears were eagerly awaiting an amazing groove-fest yet were greeted by a far more eclectic body of work. There were a few a disco-grooved cuts like "Give Life Back to Music" and "Giorgio by Moroder", however cuts like "Instant Crush" and the very cinematic "Motherboard" challenge your preconceived notions of what Daft Punk is about. "Touch" featuring the miniature 70's powerhouse Paul Williams is a real stretch, but I love it. There is a portrayal of loneliness both in the performance and in the arrangement that is not a staple of the Daft Punk catalog. It seems as if their experiences in scoring the film Tron:Legacy, really influenced this album.

Arcade Fire ditched many of the odd instruments they purchased at a yard sale some years ago and allowed James Murphy to add a dance-electro coating to their creamy indie rock center. It's an interesting and somewhat unpredictable evolution for them. There isn't that much for the fan of their previous work to hang onto, other than lyrics and the unique voice of Win Butler. Many of the songs are long, like Floyd long .... Plenty of atmospheric sound-scapes and synthesizers. Some are easier to like such as the groovy "Reflektor" and the more indie sounding cut "We Exist". I think overall it's a great album that challenges your ears.

Artistic growth isn't the only impediment you may find to connecting with a piece of music. Sometimes it's as simple as you not being in the right place mentally to really absorb and enjoy what is being offered. Perhaps you're on a real 20th century minimalist kick, Phillip Glass, John Adams, etc... the offerings of Drake or Rihanna will have a hard time finding a home in your heart.

I'm sure you have your own list of works that entered one ear and escaped through the other never to be listened to again. I would encourage you to give them another chance. I don't guarantee success though, upon a second listen you still may not like the above albums. I have never found a place in my ear for either Pet Sounds or The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Both are greatly celebrated works, but neither will ever be on my turntable or playlist ...... or will they?

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Tales from the mosh pit .......

I can only assume it was the warm summer's night that caused that mosh pit to be so sweaty. It wasn't a huge crowd, but one with enough intensity that I swear the man-made beach barge we were on started to rock .... and I don't mean figuratively. The headlining act had just started their opening number with everything I expected from my mental checklist:

Great drummer, check.
Guitarist armed with a Les Paul and a Marshall, check.
Slammin' bass player, check.
Two saxophonists that appear to be no older than 14, um OK.
and of course, the Trombonist ..... Trombonist ???

This my friends is what a show with Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews looks like. A musical gumbo of New Orleans funk, R&B, and some good old distortion. Like many NOLA artists, Shorty picked up an instrument at a very young age. He became a force on both trombone and trumpet, but settled on the larger piece of plumbing. Although his early years were spent on the streets playing the traditional jazz you would expect from a young trombonist, he didn't follow the usual career path. His 2010 release "Backatown" marks the creation of the aforementioned blend that is Shorty's sound. He has released 2 more albums since, 2011's "For True" and "Say That to Say This" just a few months ago. The man's resume also includes appearances as a guest artist with Lenny Kravitz, U2, and the Zac Brown Band.

If New York is my wife, then New Orleans would be my mistress, and Shorty is one of many reasons my fidelity is soiled. His music draws from his city's heritage and creates something familiar yet completely fresh. So enough of my babble and onto the music ..... I suggest a location where you can turn it up, perhaps to eleven.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

No, it's not like driving a train ..... tips for the conductor.

My first opportunity to conduct a recording session arrived like most opportunities, without warning. This was one of my first orchestrating gigs and the composer informed me he would conduct the session. On the car ride to the studio, he revealed that he may have consumed one too many Valium and perhaps I was the more lucid choice to conduct the 40 piece ensemble. Now, I wasn't particularly nervous about the reception of my orchestration, however this was a different situation. I had obviously spent some time with the minute long composition so I had a feel for it, but there was one catch. We were recording a slow and emotional piece without a click track, and the only visual hit point was about 54 seconds in. There were no punches or streamers (like mile markers so you know where you are) to guide me, so the success of my conducting debut came down to some luck. We ended up doing quite a few takes to nail it but the musicians were very supportive and spared me the New York jaded attitude. We got a great take with the correct timings and all was well. Afterwords a few of the players told me they really wanted to do a great job, simply because of my positive attitude towards the session. Treating musicians with respect goes a long way. I'm guessing they've had one too many Toscanini wannabes walk onto the podium and showcase what they were working on in therapy. Those players comments have stuck with me for over 20 years and have influenced how I run my sessions even now. I tend to keep the attitude light so humor is a mainstay, however I do take both myself and the music seriously. After all our goal is a great performance so I will break out the whip when needed, but respectfully.

Jocularity alone is not enough to lead a session successfully, so here are a few other tips that have served me well over hundreds of recording sessions:

1. Raise the height of every music stand before the players arrive: At first glance you may not see the wisdom in this practice. Often musicians are sight reading the music so ideally the conductor and the sheet music should both be in the line of sight of the instrumentalists. However the conductor podium tends to be much higher than floor level and music stands are always placed in their lowest position. So if you don't raise them everyone's face is buried in the stand and not looking your way.

2. Diplomacy: Someone in the 2nd Violin section is consistently out of tune on a particular note, and you know exactly who it is. I don't recommend calling that person out. I will spread the blame a little and say, "2nd Violins, we seem to have a disagreement about where that A is in bar 15".

3. Cracking the Whip: I've done many a 9:30 or 10 am sessions. This is a time period musicians are biologically opposed to. Take that, and add less than challenging music, and it's nap time. Keep an ear out for uninspired performances when recording fairly simple stuff. If you're working with first call players, it's not that unusual at an early hour of the day that boredom sets in. In this situation, I usually tell everyone to stop sleepwalking and give a little something to the performance.

4. Rehearsal skills: GET SOME!! I have been a spectator to a few sessions wherein just playing the whole piece over and over was considered rehearsing. If there is a specific passage that needs work, focus on that. "I'd like to hear trumpets from bar 16 to 20, the rhythm isn't tight in bar 19". I'll even repeat a single bar over and over, maybe start with a slower tempo and increase as we start to fix the errors.

5. Be clear and concise: You should have an idea of what you want from the performance before the sessions even starts. This way any questions can be dealt with quickly. Keep the answers short and to the point. Remember time is money so knowing what you want and communicating it well is important. There will always be things that may cause a session take longer than planned, you shouldn't be one of them. A Trombonist once told me "Man for your sessions, I can put the money in the meter and know I'll be out before the hour runs out".

Here's a great glimpse into a symphonic rehearsal with Leopold Stokowski, he's a pinch more serious than I would be.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The satirical music of Tom Lehrer

There would be no Weird Al Yankovic, Garfunkel and Oats, or South Park musical numbers without Tom Lehrer. Surprisingly most of you reading this have never heard of him. For my money he was the greatest musical satirist of the 20th century. At first glance, Tom Lehrer would seem an unlikely candidate for this mantle. His Harvard mathematics degrees, faculty position at MIT, or the stint at the NSA aren't normally found on the resumes of most comics. If you think about it, he's the perfect candidate. It takes a logical mind to see the hypocrisy, the ridiculousness, and all the humorous faults of the human condition. As if all these accomplishments weren't enough, Lehrer claims to have invented the "Jell-O shot" while in the Army. 

Few subjects were off limits for him. He tackled race in "National Brotherhood Week", religion in "Vatican Rag", nuclear proliferation in "Who's Next", and American militarism in "Send The Marines". He didn't always choose political subjects, some of his songs were just meant to be fun. "The Elements" is a Walter White periodic table lyric on Gilbert and Sullivan's "Major General's Song". "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park" is a dark comedic waltz. "The Masochism Tango" is an ode to S&M (yes kinky sex did exist in the 50's kids). In the quite clever "I Got it from Agnes", he sings about the "carnal flu" without ever mentioning any STD. When you take a step back and ponder what was culturally taboo at this time, his work is even more amazing. In many ways he was an Ivy league musical version of Lenny Bruce without the profanity. In the later era of his career he wrote some fantastic songs for PBS's The Electric Company including "L-Y" and "Silent E". If you were of that age in the 70's, you will be transported back in front of your old console TV while wearing your PJ's as soon as you hear them. 

Then like a song and dance Salinger, he completely disappeared as a musical entity. It appears he just got bored, wanted to focus on teaching mathematics and musical theater. He is still alive at age 85 and I imagine still making some lucky folks laugh. The rest of us will have to be content with the brilliant collection of work he has graced us with. 

Although most of his material is eligible for an AARP card, it still has teeth as a commentary on our society. Now I can't guarantee his material still offends, but I wouldn't blast this playlist in the office.

"You can't be satirical and not be offensive to somebody" ~ Tom Lehrer

Friday, September 20, 2013

Artist as muse

There are countless ways I foster my inspiration. One of my favorites is through other artists. Not just from the work, but from listening to their insights on what they create. Music is my religion and from time to time I like a good "fire and brimstone" sermon to flick the switch on a few dormant brain cells. This is not exclusive to artists I really love. Just because someone's work doesn't resonate with me doesn't mean a technique or viewpoint of theirs wouldn't be an asset in my own creations. I highly recommend scouring YouTube and the web at large for insights from all types of artists to expand your own creative horizons.

One artist I am a fan of is Daniel Lanios. He is one of the most talented producers music has seen in the last 35 years. During his career he has worked with Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and created iconic recordings with both U2 and Peter Gabriel. He released many of his own albums and scored several films including the highly acclaimed Slingblade. I stumbled across this interview a few days ago and could not wait to share it. I hope you find it as rich a resource as I have. For those of you that aren't musicians, it's an interesting peek behind the curtain of creativity. Consider yourself forewarned though, there will be naked women involved in the interview.

What I found most striking about this interview is how many "Big Picture" career pointers he touched upon during the 40 minute conversation. Here are the points that struck me:

  • How to build a career: just work with as many people as possible 
  • Making connections: you have no idea who will introduce you to Brian Eno
  • Your studio is a laboratory: don't rely on past successes, move forward, experiment
  • Realize your weaknesses, educate yourself: you will create more when those holes are filled
  • Preparation: never walk into any situation blind if at all possible
  • Idea Orphanage: from beats, to hooks, to lyrics - a good home will come to those ideas
  • Strive for originality: for Lanios it's the reason he wakes up in the morning
  • Soundtrack music as a supportive element: a great way to learn musical restraint 

Friday, September 13, 2013

Chavela Vargas

For many of us the mere mention of Mexican music evokes some negative emotions. We're just trying to enjoy our sizzling fajitas and table-side guacamole in peace, yet an uninvited serenade of Mariachi gives us the heartburn we hoped to avoid. Thankfully Mexico has a rich musical catalog far beyond Mariachi. I would like to introduce you to whom I believe is the soul of Mexican music, singer Chavela Vargas.

The long life Vargas led reads like a great novel. She was born in Costa Rica in 1919, yet became the voice of Mexico. She often dressed as a man and smoked cigars. Traveled in artistic circles with the likes of artist Diego Rivera and singer Jose Jimenez. She claims to have had an affair with Rivera's wife, the great Frida Kahlo. She disappeared from performing in the late 70's due to her alcohol addiction, but then returned in the early 90's. She died at age 93 in 2012.

Much of her music focused on the Ranchera genre, which is a vocal accompanied by a guitar. Simple, but not simplistic. In the early years, her voice was smooth and sinful like a fine Bordeaux, but as life took it's toll it evolved into a bottom shelf Rusty Nail, (that's Scotch & Drambuie for you teetotalers). Her later work is incredibly haunting. When she sings a song at 88 she once performed at 30, it now carries all the baggage of an artists life. Even if you barely managed a C in your high school Spanish class, you'll understand the song's message. I chose to start and end the playlist with the tragic folk song La Llorona. Take note to the drastically different moods between the early and later performances.

So as Summer disappears I'll open a Corona, close my eyes, and let her music transport me to some small village in the Yucatan. I hope her music will transport you too.