The Power of Music

Happy New Year 2016! I’m sure many of my regular followers of this blog were probably beginning to think I’d abandoned it. I haven’t, but, I admit, blogging on a regular basis is not the easiest thing, especially when you want the content to be fresh and engaging (and when your family grows to include two energetic, curious, fast-running grandkids).

It’s been over a year since my last new post. I know I owe you all my “part 2” blog about the experience of conducting during THE SIMPSONS TAKE THE BOWL. I will get that done soon.

I’m motivated to write this after my annual tradition of watching the Kennedy Center Honors. I have loved this ceremony for  years. So many great performances and so many great reactions from the honorees.

If you’ve never seen the ceremony, just a brief bit of background: five people are chosen to receive the honor each year, and it’s all about the performing arts – music (performance and composition), film and theatre (acting and directing), dance (dancing and choreography). The honorees get to sit in the audience as a presenter speaks directly to them, usually praising or thanking them for their body of work, followed by a short biographical film, and then some live performances highlighting their accomplishments over the years.

This year’s honorees were: Rita Moreno (acting), George Lucas (film directing and writing), Cicely Tyson (acting), Seiji Ozawa (orchestral conducting), and Carole King (singer-songwriter).

This year, there was a lot of social media buzz after Aretha Franklin’s performance of Carole King, Gerry Goffin, and Jerry Wexler’s “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman”, and every word of it was well-deserved (Google it – you’ll see what I mean). But it wasn’t just Aretha’s performance that drove me to write this.

All five of the presentations during the ceremony had strong, moving, and impactful music – and four out of the five reminded me that the careers of these people had a direct influence over my musical path.


First, Rita Moreno as Anita in “West Side Story”. I first heard the music from WSS when I was thirteen years old. Back then, I was able to buy a piano/vocal book of the entire score of the Broadway version for just $9.50. I still have that score to this day. I listened to my vinyl album of that music (mainly the motion picture soundtrack, but eventually the Broadway cast album) ad nauseum – couldn’t get enough of Bernstein’s jazzy riffs (no pun intended). Forty-four years later, I can’t imagine how many times I have listened to that music in its myriad forms and arrangements – tens of thousands probably – and I’m nowhere near tired of it. I even got to conduct performances of the full Broadway version at my alma mater, Hollywood High School, in the late 70s (high school, yes, but Hollywood High shows were a cut above, easily equal to semi-pro stagings).

SIDEBAR: The theatre director at Hollywood High back in those days was a fine fellow named Jerry Melton. At first, we had a teacher/student relationship that later evolved into director/conductor as I led about half-a-dozen musicals (including “Gypsy”, “Evita”, “A Chorus Line”, and “42nd Street”) at my old stomping grounds. His daughter, Mary, like the rest of Jerry’s family, was very involved in the goings-on in the auditorium. She was about eight or nine years old when we first met. Mary’s all grown up now and she is the Editor-in-Chief for Los Angeles Magazine (she’s done OK, I guess). Click here to read a great article she wrote for the magazine about life with her good old dad and the high standards of theatre (both musical and non) at HHS back in the glory days.


Next came George Lucas and, of course, the music of “Star Wars”. John Williams’s music reintroduced the symphonic style to the world of film scores and made me want to work in film music if this was going to be the direction scores would be taking in the future.


While my friends in high school were musically interested in the latest pop and rock music of the mid-70s, I discovered Seiji Ozawa one Friday evening while channel surfing (across all 8 channels we had to choose from back then). Here was this exotic looking Japanese conductor leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Mahler’s 1st Symphony – it was my first time watching Ozawa, and my first listening to Mahler 1. It was transformative. Ozawa had long, flowing black hair (most conductors had white hair), wore a turtleneck shirt under his tuxedo jacket, wore beads around his neck, and waved his hands with more sweep and expression and romance than I had ever seen by any other conductor. Then after watching a while, I noticed something unusual – he had a music stand in front of him, and the score to the work was on the stand, but the score was shut and he never opened it. Now, many conductors would conduct from memory, not needing the score, but they would not have the music on the stand. Heck, they wouldn’t even have the stand – didn’t need it. But this little bit of theatricality added another layer of mystique to Ozawa’s performances. As I followed his career over the years, I saw that this was not a one-time thing. The orchestra librarian would walk out before each work, place the score on the stand, and make sure it was shut, showing just the cover. Ozawa was my first and most enduring classical music hero. To this day I want to grow up to be him.


And then, Carole King. Most casual fans know her from her singer-songwriter days in the 70s that started with “Tapestry”, the album that made her a superstar performer in her own right. But for many years before that album, she was a songwriter working in the Brill Building on Broadway in New York, churning out hits for solo acts and vocal groups of the 50s and 60s. She wrote most her of hits with Gerry Goffin (she the music, he the lyrics) including “Oh! Carol”, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”, “The Loco-Motion”, “Take Good Care Of My Baby”, “Up On The Roof”, and “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman”. Of course, I discovered her through the “Tapestry” album which sparked in me a desire to learn how to play pop-style piano. I was never going to be a classical pianist (didn’t have the discipline to practice) but I sat for hours and hours learning how to read and play chords from lead sheets so that I could accompany the singers in junior high and high school who would sing these songs. Another great page in my musical lesson book and another vinyl album nearly worn to dust.

All of the music mentioned above was highlighted during the Kennedy Center ceremony, and though Cicely Tyson didn’t have any influence on my music choices in my life, during her part of the show, there was a stirring rendition of “Blessed Assurance” lead by CeCe Winans, Terrance Blanchard, and a student choir from Ms. Tyson’s own performing and fine arts public school.

The music throughout the night brought people to their feet and brought tears of joy to many (President Obama and myself included). I’ve often said that music is the closest thing to actual magic that there is on earth. Think about it – organized sound (with or without words to accompany) floating unseen through the air, has the ability to stir memory, arouse emotion, and build a lump in the throat.

I have been privileged for many, many years to make music and to receive music in  my life, both as a student and as a professional.

May 2016, and for many years beyond, bring you the gladness, the jubilance, and the delight of music in your lives.

The Simpsons Take The Bowl – Part 1

Right around August 1st, 2014 Alf called me to say that he had been asked by Al Jean to participate in the upcoming THE SIMPSONS TAKE THE BOWL concert being planned for The Hollywood Bowl to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the show. The producers wanted Alf to conduct some of his music and they wanted to bounce various ideas around to pick which music they would use. By this time it had already been announced in the press that various cast members and guest stars would be singing in the show with The Hollywood Bowl Orchestra conducted by Thomas Wilkins. Alf was being invited to present some of his music in a segment paying tribute to his musical legacy on the show.

Alf called to tell me about it and to ask for my input on possible cues or songs that he could conduct. We talked through a few possibilities and Alf said he would sleep on them and decide soon. Then on August 7th, I got a very unexpected call from Alf. He said that after giving the invitation thoughtful consideration, he was going to bow out of conducting at the concert.

A few years back, Alf came down with a case of “frozen shoulder“, a mysterious ailment that orthopedic doctors don’t fully understand. The main symptom is exactly what it sounds like – your shoulder locks up, limiting range of motion in the arm to around 20% of normal. No one seems to know exactly what causes it and there is no cure other than time for it to “thaw”. Thawing can take 18-24 months. While Alf’s shoulder isn’t “frozen” any more, it hasn’t fully “thawed” either. As a result, he hasn’t been conducting at scoring sessions these past few years. Orchestrator Dell Hake has been handling that job beautifully and Alf has moved into the control room, listening to takes and giving notes as we record the sessions. Alf felt that a week of conducting that would include rehearsals and performances was just a bit much given his shoulder condition. He asked Al Jean to keep the tribute segment in the program and recommended that I conduct the orchestra in his place. Al ran the request up the chain of command, everyone approved, and I got the gig.

Oh. My. God.

Alf was vary aware of my conducting education and ambition. I was so honored that he would entrust me with this once-in-a-lifetime privilege. We talked some more and settled on a medley of some of his well-known themes combined with instrumental arrangements of some of his songs from various musical episodes. I assembled a medley that would run about six-and-a-half minutes. Alf and Al approved the music and next came working out the preparation of the score with the music library and the music supervisor for the show, Jim Dooley.

Some of the music we selected dated back to the third season of the show, but our fabulous music library – JoAnn kane Music Service – has everything saved and stored at their facility and they were able to pull all the scores I needed, convert the older, hand-written ones to a digital format, and combine them with the newer, already digital scores into one, fantastic, beautiful score.

The first rehearsal was scheduled for Sunday, September 7th starting at 7:30PM. This would be a “walk-through” rehearsal for the purpose of everyone learning their entrances and exits, running through the dialogue, and learning the choreography for the “Do the Bartman” finalé – no orchestra, no singing during this rehearsal. The rehearsal ran longer than expected and we finished around 11:00PM. On my way home I received an email from Al Jean saying that the medley needed to be cut in half. I was very surprised and a bit heartbroken that such a change would be made before I even had a chance to rehearse it with the orchestra, but the medley wasn’t the only casualty. Jokes and dialog got cut, some animation specially created for the concert got cut, one of Beverly D’Angelo’s and one of John Lovitz’s songs got cut. The changes made for a more fast-paced, vaudeville-style musical review show.

So Monday morning I started re-editing the medley and sending it off for approval. Once approved, all the orchestra parts had to be revised to reflect the new version. Then I arrived back at the Bowl on Wednesday evening, September 10th to lead my first rehearsal. The medley was scheduled for the second half of the second half of the show, so I had quite a bit of time to cool my heels and wait my turn. Finally, around 9:20PM, Master of Ceremonies Hank Azaria introduced me, I walked onto the legendary Bowl stage, and performed the small comedy bit that had been written for me. I was supposed to walk onto the stage in regular street clothes, looking a bit bewildered at what I was doing there. Then a couple of the Duff Girl Dancers ripped off my street clothes revealing my fancy tux underneath, magically transforming me into a ready-to-go conductor. Our costume designer for the show, Kathryn McRitchie had worked for a couple of weeks preparing the breakaway clothes and fitting it perfectly over my tux so that I didn’t look too “puffy” in the over-sized shirt and pants. They ripped away perfectly and the bit went exactly as planned – and then it was cut for time. I felt so bad for Kathryn after all the work she did, but she was very well represented with all her other costumes in the show.

My first rehearsal was amazing. It was everything I could have ever hoped for leading the world-class group of musicians that they are. For those of you not familiar with The Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, in its current incarnation it is an orchestra made up primarily of studio musicians whose day job is working on the movies, TV shows, and records that you all know and love. The orchestra was formed in 1991 to play the weekend “pops” concerts leaving the “legit” classical concerts during the week to the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Conducting Alf Medley from Selman

The rehearsal went off without a hitch thanks to the combined efforts of JoAnn Kane’s people and Stephen Biagini’s crew with the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s library services. Amazing. Without their help, I would have spent all my rehearsal time telling the orchestra what cuts had been made. I am totally indebted to them for their über-professional work.

We ended rehearsal on time, then went home to have Thursday off before one last rehearsal on Friday afternoon, just a few hours before the first performance on Friday evening. All the details on the weekend coming soon … stay tuned.

A Dream is About to Come True

Regular readers of this blog may remember my post from November, 2011 which tells how I got started in music as a child and my ambition to conduct professionally. Well, you can file this post under “Good Things Come To Those Who Wait” (and learn, and show up for work on time, and do their jobs correctly.)

I will be conducting The Hollywood Bowl Orchestra for a small but important portion of THE SIMPSONS TAKE THE BOWL on September 12-13-14, 2014. While, of course, much of the music to be performed those evenings was composed by Alf Clausen, my part of the concert will be devoted exclusively to Alf and his contributions to the musical legacy of THE SIMPSONS.

Alf asked me to do this for him. Honored, humbled, and excited are three words that come to mind to describe how I feel about this privilege, and they are woefully lacking in descriptive power. I cannot thank Alf enough for this opportunity and for the trust he has placed in my hands to represent him and his music.

It goes without saying that my whole musical life has lead up to these three nights. It also goes without saying that any further details about the shows have to go without saying – I wouldn’t want to spoil any surprises!

I can’t believe I’ll be musically representing the greatest cartoon of the past 25 years at the same historic venue where cartoon greats Bugs Bunny and Tom & Jerry have conducted before me!

So spread the word and if you are in the Los Angeles area any of those three nights, please come to one of the concerts and tweet me @mxedtr to let me know you’re there.

Of course, I’ll be documenting the experience as much as I can and will post a long, gushing, self-congratulatory blog when it’s all in the rear-view mirror.


Simpsons Marathon Starts Today

It’s so exciting to see so many people so excited for the marathon.

To any of you new to the blog, thank you for finding me. To my readers who have been missing my posts of late, I can only say I’m sorry for the small trickle of words this past year, but I attribute it to a combination of being very busy with the show from February to May – we scored and aired 12 shows in 11 weeks owing to the Olympics, Grammys, and Oscars all preempting us – and needing a little blog break after producing many more posts than I thought I had in me.

I awoke this morning to a Twitter feed ablaze with posts mentioning and celebrating the marathon. I also found a twitter link to this article from NPR’s Deceptive Cadence blog. What an honor and thrill to know that NPR is reading my blog! Many, many thanks to NPR and to the readers who have found their way here thanks to the article.

Sidebar: The official Twitter account for the marathon is @EverySimpsons and my account is @mxedtr. I’ll be live-tweeting here and there throughout the 12-day event (can’t possibly be there the ENTIRE time, but I’ll be adding anecdotes when I can).

This post has to be a brief one this time around because I’m getting ready for tomorrow’s scoring session for SABF20 CLOWN IN THE DUMPS, our Season 26 premier episode which is set to air on Sunday, September 28, 2014 on FOX.

I’m also working on The Simpsons Take the Bowl concert performance. I can’t reveal any details now, but to be sure, there WILL be a blog post (or two) about it when it’s over. If you are in the Los Angeles area on September 12-13-14, 2014 try to attend the live concert. It will be a pretty amazing night of music, guest stars, and Simpsons-style fun.

Enjoy the marathon!

BMI Conductors’ Workshop

THE SIMPSONS is currently on post-production hiatus until mid-August, so I get to work on other projects during the summer. For the past fifteen summers (and now a sixteenth this year) I have been the music editor for the BMI Conductors’ Workshop. The photo above is from the 2012 workshop.

BMI & ASCAP are the two performing rights societies in the U.S.A. that represent composers (film composers, song writers, lyricists, etc.) and their primary function is to collect performance fees from the major studios, TV networks, restaurants, elevators, any place where copyrighted music is played publicly. Then, in turn, they distribute those fees to their composer members in the form of royalties. In the world of TV scoring, this is the largest source of income for composers. They are paid a fixed fee (an ever-shrinking fixed fee) for composing the music, but when it plays on TV in first-run and in subsequent syndicated reruns, they receive additional royalty payments based on the number of minutes of music played. The royalty pay scales vary depending on a number of factors – network TV music pays more than cable TV; if a cue is “featured”, meaning that the music is the focal point of the scene (a dance scene, a live singer, etc.) it pays more than if the music were underscore. If you are an up-and-coming composer and want to learn more, click here to visit the BMI website or click here to visit the ASCAP website.

Besides collecting and distributing money, BMI & ASCAP offer their members all types of advice, classes, and workshops to help them advance their careers. Since 1998 BMI has offered its film composers the opportunity to learn orchestral conducting. This is a valuable skill for a film composer as many composers conduct their own music at the recording session, but many younger (and some veteran) composers have never stood on the podium in front of a symphony-sized orchestra. It can be a very daunting experience. Every year, BMI selects eight (it used to be ten, but they scaled back to give more personal instruction) composers to participate in the conductors’ workshop where they learn all the basics of conducting. Over the two-week course they start out conducting just a pianist. Then session by session, they lead larger and larger groups culminating with a final big session with a 40-piece orchestra. As I write this post, I am sitting on the Warner Bros. Eastwood Scoring Stage listening to and working with this year’s crop of students as they lead a fabulous studio orchestra.

The teacher of the workshop for all sixteen years of its existence is Lucas Richman. Lucas is currently Music Director for both the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra in Tennessee and the Bangor Symphony Orchestra in Maine. Two years from now he will be conducting full-time in Bangor. He’s a great teacher, inventive composer in his own right, and conductor extraordinaire who spent many years conducting film scores in Hollywood (“The Village”, “Se7en”, “As Good As It Gets” to name a few) before taking the job in Knoxville in 2003. I’m proud to call him a colleague and a friend. Read more about Lucas by clicking here.

The composer-students get to conduct all types of orchestral works ranging from chamber works by Copland and Mascagni to larger symphonic works by Beethoven and Rossini all the way up to big film scores by Jerry Goldsmith and Alan Silvestri.

I always have a lot of fun being a part of the workshop every year because I get to wear the dual hats of music editor and conductor. I coordinate all the film score cues by preparing the picture, the click tracks, and the Auricle programming. Lucas does all the conducting coaching and teaching, and I’m able to lend the perspective of a music editor with formal conducting training. It’s been a wonderful and fun opportunity for me to meet new composers and hear more fantastic live music played by the greatest musicians working today.

I took some photos during this year’s workshop for you to enjoy. Scroll down and click on any photo to see a larger view and to browse through the collection.

New episodes of THE SIMPSONS are scheduled to return in late September and I’m due back at the first music spotting of the 25th season in mid-August. I’ll be posting more musical musings between now and then.

Jonathan Coulton Vs. FOX

This story is about 2 weeks old now, so that means it’s time for me to weigh in.

As I was reading my Twitter feed back on Jan 25, I came across this tweet from my buddies @Simpsonology:

I hadn’t heard what the brouhaha was all about, so I read the article. If you haven’t read the article (or don’t care to), the gist is that in 2005 Mr. Coulton produced and performed a “cover” of Sir-Mix-a-Lot’s big hit “Baby Got Back” which the FOX show GLEE apparently used in a recent episode without seeking Mr. Coulton’s permission or paying him any royalties (I am confident that FOX did obtain the proper licenses and paid the appropriate fees to Sir-Mix-a-Lot). A “cover” is a different version of a song than the one produced and recorded by the original artist. So the question is, is FOX (or GLEE) in violation of any copyright laws and do they owe Mr. Coulton anything (e.g., money, credit, an apology)?

Before you read any further, remember that I am NOT an attorney specializing in music or any kind of intellectual property rights. You are NOT authorized to go into court and say, “Chris Ledesma said I could!” I am just a humble music editor who has been around these issues for the past 25+ years and have learned a great deal just by keeping my ears open and my mouth shut.

The cut-to-the-chase answer to the above question is “no”. Of course it goes deeper than that, but basically, “no”. Mr. Coulton’s version of “Baby Got Back” cannot be protected by copyright because Sir-Mix-a-Lot holds the original copyright of the work. “Cover” versions of songs currently under copyright may not be copyrighted. U.S. copyright law allows Mr. Coulton to record his own “cover” version without permission but he must pay a royalty to Sir-Mix-a-Lot. If “Baby Got Back” had been written over 100 years ago and had fallen into the public domain, then Mr. Coulton would be allowed to copyright his “cover” version. He could not claim authorship of the work, but he can be credited as the creator and copyright holder of the “cover” version or arrangement. I deal with this issue multiple times each year when working on THE SIMPSONS. For example, any time we do a public domain piece of music by, say, Beethoven, or Mozart, or Scott Joplin, when we record our own version for use in the show, Alf Clausen receives credit as an arranger and FOX owns the version and its recording (version is the intellectual property, recording is the physical recording on disc, tape or digital media) and copyrights both. Then both Alf and FOX receive royalties from ASCAP whenever that episode plays on TV. If we record a “cover” of a copyrighted work (e.g., “Theme from ‘Bonanza'”, or “O Fortuna”, or “Rhapsody in Blue”) then FOX must obtain permission to use the work, pay a license fee to use the work, and neither FOX nor Alf will receive any royalty for the work. To add a layer of complexity, FOX does own the recording of the “cover”. The recording is protected by the overall copyright of the episode. This means that no one may use our recording of the “cover”, but if someone wants to record their own version, it can be the same as the FOX “cover” because the arrangement cannot be copyrighted. Whew! Are you still with me?

You might ask, “Why can FOX copyright their “cover” and Jonathan Coulton can’t copyright his?” Because FOX’s copyright is actually of all the content – the character design , the script, the music, and all the sound recordings, etc. – in an episode. FOX cannot claim authorship of a piece of music in a SIMPSONS episode if that piece is already protected by someone else’s copyright, but FOX owns and copyrights all recordings made for the show. Now, this does give Mr. Coulton one small possibility for damages. The article suggests that FOX may have used Mr. Coulton’s recording in the GLEE episode. That’s a no-no. Mr. Coulton has the right to copyright his recording of “Baby Got Back”. If he were to sell this recording, he would receive all proceeds from the recording, but still pay a royalty to Sir-Mix-a-Lot. If GLEE re-created Mr. Coulton’s version by making their own recording (just like we do often on THE SIMPSONS), then Mr. Coulton is out of luck. But if GLEE used Mr. Coulton’s recording without permission they would be in violation of the copyright of the recording. Audio forensics are being performed on the soundtrack of the GLEE episode to try and figure out what’s what. I’ll be following the story to see what the final outcome is.


A Little More About Les Misérables

I just wanted to post a quick follow-up to my previous post after finding a couple of behind-the-scenes featurettes on YouTube. I’ll make it quick, I promise.

I captured a few images from the videos to illustrate some of the points I made in the other post. First, we have this, a shot of the off-stage pianist/accompanist encased in her little soundproof box. The box allowed the pianist to play and move without fear of the sounds being captured by the on-set microphones that were recording the cast’s singing. D’oh! There’s more to read…