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. Tickets can be purchased by clicking here.

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.

Music Ville

During summer hiatus I received an email from Film Roman with a link to a video file and a request for me to watch the video, to make some musical suggestions, and to polish and edit the temp music track. When I opened the file, the entire sequence was still in the animatic stage, but I immediately recognized what it was that we were doing and I was very excited to get to work on this new project.

Sidebar: I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned what an animatic is. The simplest explanation is that it’s a film (or digital video these days) version of the storyboard. What’s a storyboard? OK, animation fans & geeks can skip ahead … for the rest of you, a storyboard of each episode is created before full animation begins. The storyboard resembles a comic book version of the episode, with the images roughly drawn in pencil and the dialog and action taken from the script and written into the drawings.

With the storyboard the director, writers and animators, Al Jean & Matt Groening can get a feel for the look of the episode before full blown animation. Once the storyboard is approved, then the images are cleaned up and filmed (or videoed) with the actual dialog from the actors’ recording put in as well as some temporary sound effects and music. Sometimes, there might even be some rough animation thrown into an animatic so that everyone can visualize a particularly tricky or complex sequence. Based on the animatic screening, rewriting and editing begins and then color animation commences.

When I saw the animatic, I immediately recognized that we were doing a large-scale parody of a Disney “Silly Symphony” cartoon from 1935 entitled “Music Land”. The Disney cartoon was a reimagined telling of the “Romeo and Juliet” tale through music. Instead of the Montagues and the Capulets, our star-crossed lovers are a violin from the Land of Symphony (Juliet) and a saxophone from the Isle of Jazz (Romeo). The entire story is told through music with no dialog and minimal sound effects. It’s a very clever take on the Shakespeare play with beautiful animation and blending of music that was still five years ahead of Fantasia at the time of release.

Our version would be similar, but not a love story. Rather, it’s a story of censorship versus freedom of expression. “Music Ville” is ruled by Mr. Burns the Bassoon and he demands that only classical music be played. Lisa the Baritone Saxophone promotes musical diversity, especially where her beloved jazz is concerned. Her “crime” gets her and her entire family – Bart the Trumpet, Marge the Trombone, Homer the Tuba, and Maggie the French Horn – arrested and chained to the wall in a dungeon where they are forced to listen to classical music until Lisa & Bart break into a joyous jazz improvisational duet which breaks their chains. All the other types of music in Music Ville overthrow Burns and all the instruments of the land celebrate with a rousing, jazzy version of The Simpsons theme to close out the sequence.

Before coming to work on THE SIMPSONS 25 years ago, I was (and still am) a huge fan of the art of animation. Around the age of 15 I discovered that the classic “cartoons” of Disney, Warner Bros., and MGM were also great works of art. As a hobby I started reading books about animation technique, the artists who created the amazing characters and backgrounds and special effects, and the histories of the various studios that produced them. Two of the best books I can recommend on the subject are “Of Mice and Magic” by Leonard Maltin and “The Illusion of Life” by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston.

Of course the names that received the big credit up front at the beginning of each cartoon – Walt Disney, Fred Quimby, Leon Schlesinger – were not the artists doing the work, but the figureheads who ran the animation departments at each of the studios. In fairness, Walt Disney did have some drawing talent and was certainly the driving creative force behind everything that came from his studio, but he was never a top animator at his own studio for any of the shorts or features he produced.

The “Silly Symphony” series from the Disney Studios were the first cartoons to be filmed in Technicolor and the first to integrate music into the story-telling process, not just adding plunks and booms to emphasize slapstick action. “Music Land”, directed by Wilfred Jackson, used music as the sole sound for telling the story. Not just long stretches of classical and jazz music, but clever solo violin and saxophone sounds to emulate spoken words coming from the main characters.

Our version, “Music Ville”, directed by Mark Kirkland, also uses wall-to-wall music, a handful of sound effects, and no dialog to tell the story. It also very cleverly casts the citizens of Springfield as their appropriate musical instrument alter egos – Apu the Sitar, Barney the Tubby Drunk Tuba, Disco Stu the DJ, Cletus’s family as a hillbilly jug band, Willie as Bagpipes, Sideshow Mel as a Slidewhistle, etc.

Here are a few of the images I saw when I first opened that animatic video this past summer and saw those characters for the first time…

I was so excited to see this work-in-progress and appreciated its own artistic statement as well as the homage to the Disney short. I did my usual re-editing of the existing music track plus made a few suggestions of my own to make Mr. Burns the Bassoon more menacing. The picture went back and forth between me and Film Roman a couple more times and then I didn’t hear anything more until early October when I was sent the color animation. Seeing the finished animation in full color and high definition was so gratifying and sensational. I immediately emailed Al Jean congratulating him and the team for producing this stand-out sequence. Then I followed up with the usual important question: “Is this locked?” The answer, of course, was “no”. But, there were only two very minor tweaks and then it was locked for good.

Time to loop Alf Clausen into the conversation. Well, actually, I wish Alf had been looped in long before. I have mentioned elsewhere on this blog that we do things a little backward most of the time here on THE SIMPSONS when it comes to music. All those classic cartoons from Warners and Disney and MGM had their musical score composed and recorded before animation so that the timing of the picture to the music was spot on and so that some of the characters’ emotions were motivated by the music. But remember, those classic cartoons were produced one at a time, with many weeks of work going into them, so they had the luxury of a longer schedule. We produce 22 episodes per year, so our schedule is very compressed. So, instead of Alf composing and recording the music based on the storyboards so that the music could be included in the animatic, it was all done with temp music – first edited by Film Roman, then by yours truly. I filled Alf in on all the particulars and advised him that if we could fit it in, it would be in all of our best interests to start recording the music ASAP and to not wait for the scoring session for that episode. That turned out to be a good idea.

It ended up that we recorded over 40 different bits of music over 3 different scoring sessions for “Music Ville” ranging from 30-second passages of Mozart and Grieg, to 15-second stretches of original jazz music by Alf, down to 1 second bursts of brass, bagpipes, drums, accordion, sleigh bells, and other assorted musical sounds. On the final of those 3 sessions, we spent nearly 3 hours of recording and playback time on just “Music Ville” before we could move on to the rest of the score for episode SABF02!

Once again, I took over the timing and editing (on paper) of the classical music that would be in “Music Ville”. We used Mozart’s 28th Symphony, and a passage from Grieg’s “Peer Gynt” (a favorite of Matt Groening’s and used at his request). I cut an existing recording of these pieces into the picture, then told Alf what bars and what tempo to use so that they would sync to picture properly. Alf went off and composed some new jazz tunes plus the various solo instruments that would “over-lay” the jazz (the sitar, the tuba, etc.).

We were even able to sneak in a motif we have used in the past on the show known as “Release the Hounds”. Whenever Burns sets his hounds on any intruders, this music plays during the ensuing chase. In “Music Ville” the hounds are a pack of angry vibraphones, so Alf used his motif with the orchestra as usual but with vibraphones leading the way as they chase Lisa into a dark alley.

All in all, I am very proud of “Music Ville” and the part I had in helping shape it. I even got a nice congratulatory shout-out from our Director Emeritus, David Silverman.

Also, David tweeted out some of his original model sketches for “Music Ville”. What a treat that he shared these!

As I wrap up this post, I leave you with both cartoons for your enjoyment. First, “Music Land”, then “Music Ville”. I hope you enjoy them and can appreciate them for the wonderful works they are. Kudos to everyone involved from 1935 to 2013!

The (Nearly) Annual Halloween Party

Here are some  photos and a video taken by me at our Season 25 kick-off party celebrating Tree House of Horror XXIV.

One other quick note, I told you in my last post that we were working on another big  musical sequence – probably the biggest in the history of the show. As I write this post, the composing, recording and editing of that sequence is all finished. Dubbing starts tomorrow (11/18/13) and finishes on Tuesday (11/19/13). It will air as the Main Title for episode SABF02 on Sunday, November 24, 2013 on FOX. I’m very excited for you to hear and see it and for me to tell you about its creation in a future post.

As always, thanks for stopping by!

(click on any photo to enlarge it in your browser)

Tree House of Horror XXIV

Longtime fans of THE SIMPSONS will probably remember that “Tree House of Horror” was the first episode Alf Clausen scored back in 1990. After Richard Gibbs had scored the first 13 episodes of the series, the producers wanted to make a musical change and went on a search for a new composer. After trying three other composers, Alf was given his “shot” at becoming the new composer. He was assigned the first-ever Halloween episode. The episode was, of course, unlike any of the others that had come before and would require three different scores for the three different stories being told. It would also require a slightly larger orchestra than we had used up to that point, and a 6-hour recording session instead of the standard 3-hour session. The producers agreed to everything and Alf went on to compose and record one of the iconic scores in the show’s history. Alf was awarded the permanent role of composer. 23 years, 23 “Tree Houses”, and 514 episodes later, we’ve added another chapter in the long musical history of the show.

In the last couple of years, the show has invited other artists to produce, design, or animate a couch gag for our Main Title sequence. For “Tree House of Horror XXIV” feature film director Guillermo del Toro (“Pacific Rim”, “Pan’s Labyrinth”) joined our list of guest artists. While everyone has been calling this a special “couch gag”, it really is a full-blown Main Title sequence PLUS the couch gag. It is a total reimagining of our full-length HD Main Title dressed up with classic horror/sci-fi/fantasy characters from movie and television history.

As for the music for this fantastic Main Title, it traveled an interesting road to the final version. Back in late June of this year, I received an email from Animation Co-Producer Richard Chung telling me that the del Toro Main Title would be part of a surprise screening at Comic Con 2013 and my job was to edit a temporary score for the clip. The cut I was sent had temp music already in it, mostly pulled from the movies “Frankenweenie” and “Beetlejuice”. I got a list of all the specific cues that had been used, then went to work reworking, re-timing, and generally polishing the existing temp music. I thought the temp score created at Film Roman was quite good, it just need a little “smoothing around the edges”.

I sent my version back to Film Roman and got positive feedback. Then it was forwarded over to Al Jean and he approved it as well. Job done – so I thought. A couple of days later I hear from Supervising Producer Larina Adamson that FOX says we cannot use the temp score with the “Frankenweenie” and “Beetlejuice” music in it because they were not going to license the music. At first I was rather surprised by this because it was a “temp score” for a “work in progress” that was being screened for what was essentially a private audience at Comic Con. If you live in Southern California, you have most likely attended – or been invited to – a test screening of a movie still in the editing stage. At these screenings it is explained to the audience that the film is being shown in a unfinished form, with some scenes possibly missing, most visual effects either missing or still in their temporary form, and with a temporary music score. It has been a common practice in Hollywood for many years now to use any music the director or film editor or music editor wants to put into the film as temp for test screenings. Everybody does it, so everybody gets away with using this music for free during the test screening process. Once the movie is final and released to the paying public, all music is paid for, either by hiring a composer and musicians or licensing existing music or both.

I couldn’t understand why FOX wasn’t treating this Comic Con screening the same way that they treated a test screening. But the more I thought about it, the more I understood it. This wasn’t a test screening where opinions were being sought. At Comic Con people were going to have cell phones with still and video cameras and would posting photos and video clips on social media. FOX just didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes so the Main Title got bounced back to me with instructions to dump the entire temp score and to replace it with music from our vast library of Clausen-composed Simpsons cues.

First I had a long conversation with Al Jean telling him that while I’d be happy to redo the score and would give it my best effort, I firmly asserted that the new score might not be as powerful and dramatic as the first temp score. Those scores from “Frankenweenie” and “Beetlejuice” were recorded with 90+ piece orchestras and choirs and had long melodic development. Our orchestra is about one-third the size and many of our cues are under 15 seconds long – this Main Title is 2:45, and would be the longest single musical sequence in the history of the show. Al said he understood, and trusted my judgment to produce a good temp score. Off to work I went.

In the end, I used snippets from eleven different scores going back twelve years in our show’s history. I submitted the new temp to Al, he had two small changes that I addressed, and that was that. That was the version of the temp score that the Comic Con audience heard on Saturday, July 20, 2013. Job done – so I thought.

Fast forward to music spotting for the final version of “Tree House of Horror XXIV” on August 22, 2013. At the session, I was fully prepared to discuss how Alf would now write a totally original score for the sequence, but instead Al Jean told me that he and everyone else really liked the temp and that they wanted Alf to recreate the temp with a few slight modifications.

SIDEBAR: The “temp score” in film & TV is a huge blessing and curse in our business. Ever since CDs and digital media made it very easy to put any music a director or producer’s heart desires into a soundtrack, they just grab anything by John Williams or Hans Zimmer or The Beatles or Lady Gaga and drop it in to a scene to “see how it plays”. When it plays great is when the problems begin. In the case of using an existing score, the composer hired to write the new score has now had a huge amount of their creativity stripped from them. Their job is now to compose something in the style of the temp that treads a delicate line between originality and plagiarism. In the case of using a song from a popular band or artist, the licensing of the song or artist may be cost prohibitive or simply unavailable because some artists don’t license their music for any reason. As a music editor, I’m often called upon to create a temp score and it always puts me in an awkward position. On the one hand, I am tasked with doing the best job possible, essentially “scoring” the film with existing cues – my main job is to please the producer or director in charge. On the other hand, the better the job I do at creating the temp score, the harder it becomes for the composer to lend his or her own voice to their score. The composer often ends up being a musical mimic, rather than an original contributor to the final product. There’s no good solution to this problem – it’s just the way things are done these days.

At least Alf was being asked to mimic himself in scoring the del Toro Main Title. So now I had to go back to my original edit of the temp score for Comic Con and reverse-engineer it. You see, when I was editing it, I did it all purely by sound. That means I listened to various cues, chose the ones that I thought would work for each scene in the sequence, then edited the music as need be to make it fit and highlight various moments. While I do all this with the greatest regard and respect for the music, I didn’t edit the temp score by referring to the printed music scores. Now I had to go back through the archives, pull the printed scores for each bit that I used, and try to figure out what I did editorially and translate it to bars and beats so that the score could be recreated on paper for our orchestra to record. That was a big task that took a few days, but I was able to do it. Alf & orchestrator Dell Hake then organized everything – which included writing a few new bits that Al Jean wanted to change from my temp score – and we broke it all down into 14 separate cues to be recorded then stitched together into one, seamless finished product.

All in all, I’m very proud of the final result. It plays beautifully, hit’s all the emotional notes perfectly, and sounds like it was recorded by a 90+ piece orchestra.

There’s no time for the music department to rest. No sooner did we finish this longest-most-complex-musical-sequence-ever than another, equally-complex-and-exciting-musical-sequence was presented to us. We’re working on it now and I’ll tell you all about it in the near future. Mark your calendars to watch for it when it airs on FOX on Sunday, November 24, 2013 (schedule subject to change).

Starting Season 25 (whodathunkit?)

Simpsons fans were treated to the start of our 25th season this past Sunday, September 29, 2013 but we folks in the music dept. were back at it starting on August 14. Of course, those of us fortunate enough to work on the music for the show enjoy having summer off – and I certainly did enjoy time spent travelling with my family this summer – but it’s nice to get back to work and a familiar routine and hearing some fabulous music performed by some of the greatest musicians in the world.

We kicked off the new season with episode RABF20 “HOMƎRLAND”. Written by Stephanie Gillis, it’s a parody of the popular, Emmy Award-winning Showtime series “Homeland”. The first cue of the episode is my edited version of the actual “Homeland” theme by Sean Callery, but for the rest of the episode Alf crafted his own take on Sean’s theme and that motif is woven throughout the rest of the episode. Alf is right at home writing and arranging jazz music – it really is his forté – and the musicians are always happy to sink their teeth into some great jazz charts. In addition to Alf’s original theme, he also arranged and recorded music by two legendary jazz artists: we covered Thelonious Monk’s “Straight, No Chaser” and “Terminal 7” by Tomasz Stanko.

If you’d like to listen to the originals, here they are:

“Straight, No Chaser” [audio https://sites.google.com/site/simpmx500mp3/audio/Straight%20No%20Chaser%20-Thelonious%20Monk.mp3]

“Terminal 7” [audio https://sites.google.com/site/simpmx500mp3/audio/tomasz%20stanko%20quintet%20-%20terminal%207.mp3]

I’ve already received a few inquiries about where to find and download Alf’s cues from this episode. Alas, as I have explained in other posts and comment replies on this blog, the only cues from the show that are currently commercially available are the ones that were released on our three CDs “Songs in the Key of Springfield”, “Go Simpsonic with The Simpsons”, and “Testify”. Until FOX can figure out a way to pay all the musicians and composers and publishers involved with the music from our show, don’t hold your breath for individual downloads from iTunes or the like. Maybe someday, but not just yet.

Kristen Wiig guest starred in “HOMƎRLAND” doing her very funny take on the Carrie character from “Homeland”. Another nice performance for our show where a guest star gets to play a part and not just do a quick, one-line “walk-on”.

For our first Main Title sequence of season 25, Lisa gets to play a different instrument in the band room: a harp. During music spotting a few seasons back, Alf suggested to Al Jean that Lisa could play a different instrument in the Main Title now and then. Al thought that was a clever idea and had Lisa animated playing a trumpet. Everyone really enjoyed it, but Al said we probably wouldn’t be doing that again because is was quite expensive to animate. Apparently, the scene was animated with all the elements in a single shot – Lisa, the other students, the band room, etc. It was quite time and labor intensive to re-create that scene. I asked Al why not animate a template background of the students and band room without Lisa in it so that she could be animated separately and then composite her into the background? That way, if we wanted to have Lisa play a different instrument, the crew over at Film Roman would only have to animate Lisa and her instrument and drop her in over the background. This is the same process we use each week for the “fly-by” when a different character or object flies by “THE SIMPSONS” title at the very start of the show. Al said he would think about it. Voila! A few weeks later, we’re at music spotting and there’s Lisa playing a tuba in the Main Title. Since then, Lisa has played classical violin, bluegrass fiddle, and now harp. I have no idea what’s next, but it’s always a pleasant surprise.

Lisa’s harp playing was provided by our magnificent harpist, Gayle Levant. Gayle has worked in Hollywood for many years and you have probably heard her playing on 9 out of 10 movie scores you’ve heard in the last 40 years. For an in-depth interview with photos (including one taken with Alf) click here for a PDF.

Late in the episode, there’s even music from The Grateful Dead. “Shakedown Street” is used as psychological torture against Homer, further solidifying the notion (at least amongst non-fans) that “Dead” music is reaaaaallllly boring.

Once again, my classical music training did not go to waste – at the very end of the episode, when Annie takes her mood-stabilizing meds, the world turns all unicorns and rainbows to the music of Beethoven’s First Symphony, Second Movement. Al wanted some soothing classical music for the scene, but was firm that he did NOT want to use the opening strains of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony (The “Pastoral”) as we have used that motif on more than one occasion in the past. I told him I’d find him a more obscure but suitable substitute.

Finally, there was a surprise ending for us on the scoring stage the day we recorded the music for this episode. We were recording the music on a Sunday afternoon – rather unusual for us, but that’s the way the schedule worked out – so Al Jean dropped by the stage with his wife and daughter and some family friends of theirs – also unusual as we have recorded music for more than 530 episodes and a producer has stopped by the scoring session probably fewer than 25 times. They all sat in the booth and enjoyed the music, marveling at how it sounded and the kids ooh-ing and ahh-ing at all the cool knobs and buttons on the recording console. The original musical plan for this show was to start Act 4 (the final scene of the show when Burns and the other SNPP workers have to go through the new security check point) with one more iteration of Alf’s “HOMƎRLAND” theme that would end as the End Credits started, at which time we would switch to our usual “Simpsons” End Credit theme music. But when Al heard Alf’s “HOMƎRLAND” theme, he really loved it and thought it should be used for Act 4 as planned, and then continue all the way through the End Credits up to the start of the Gracie Films logo. We immediately went into a mode lovingly known in our business as “open chart surgery”. Alf and conductor/orchestrator Dell hake started figuring out musically how to extend the 18 second cue into a 58 second cue. They put their heads together, figuring out which bars to repeat, which instruments would play in some bars while “laying out” of other bars. Meanwhile, I’m calculating the timing. Each bar of the original cue had been timed to fit the original 18 second length. Now we were slightly more than tripling the bar count by repeating certain sections, but you can see that 3 x 18 = less than 58, so a little more adjusting had to be made – the tempo was slowed down slightly and a few beats were added. And there we had it! A new End Credits cue that sounded perfect and as if it had been planned that way all along.

It’s truly and blessing and a curse to have a producer show up on the scoring stage (and in this case not just any producer). One the one hand, we really enjoy our autonomy, not having to answer to anyone asking questions or making musical suggestions. We get our recording done quite efficiently week in and week out. On the other hand, what we were able to accomplish on the scoring stage by rewriting and re-timing the End Credits cue could not have been accomplished on the dubbing stage. The live performance had great nuance and variety and an emotional build from start to finish. The final trumpet solo even added a few improvised notes. I couldn’t have just “looped” the 18 second version 3 times and expect the same musical results. An edited version would have sounded repetitive and emotionless. Al’s suggestion was great; Alf’s, Dell’s, and my reworking of the cue was expertly crafted; the musicians’ performance brought it all to life. A day’s work well done.

Tree House of Horror XXIV airs tomorrow night (Sunday, October 6, 2013) on FOX and I’m anxious to tell you about that episode and in particular about working on the Guillermo del Toro Main Title.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Before we dig into this post, let me send a personal message out there to all my readers.

If you’re a regular reader since the beginning, you know that I’m not only lucky enough to work on one of the greatest television shows in history, but I’m also a grandfather to one of the cutest little girls in history. OK, maybe that’s stretching it a bit, but I’m prejudiced. Anyway, my granddaughter Abigail almost didn’t make it into this world to become so cute. She was born as what’s known as a “micro-preemie” and wasn’t given great odds of survival. Well, she beat the odds and will celebrate her 3rd birthday in a few weeks. If all my readers and Twitter followers donated just $1 or $2 each to The March of Dimes, I would be be very grateful and you would help ensure that future micro-preemies could get the same level of medical care that Abby received – care that certainly saved her life.

To donate, visit my donation page by clicking here and consider giving up one cup of coffee this week or one song download. We’re trying to raise as much money as we can by Saturday, May 11, 2013. Check out this little video that tells Abby’s story in just over two minutes, then continue on with our regularly scheduled programming. Thank you so much!

This post is for music geeks. You’ve been warned.

In the episode that aired this past Sunday – RABF11 “Pulpit Friction” I once again was able to put on my classically-trained-in-music hat. There is a scene in the episode that used “The Sorcerer’s Aprrentice” as temp music for the scene. Al Jean liked the way it played and he wanted to use that work in the final version of the show.

It fell to me to find a copy of the score and then “mark it up” so that it could be orchestrated and copied. “Mark it up” means to pick and choose the bars that we’ll use to fit the scene. It always sounds better to do the music editing on paper and have the orchestra play the edited score rather than have the work played in its entirety and then edit it Pro Tools. Playing the edited score always sounds more natural and “un-edited” (except to the music geek who realizes that bars are missing or have been repeated).

I start my process by finding a recording of the work and editing the track in Pro Tools by cutting it, looping it, speeding it up or slowing it down – whatever is necessary to have the music “hit” all the right “spots” in the cue. The final edited track sounds awful but I never worry about that because I know the final recorded version will wash away all sins. I send the edited version set to the picture to Alf Clausen & Al Jean for their thoughts. If they have notes, I tweak and we go back & forth until I get approval.

Next, I “mark up” the score according to the editing choices I’ve made. I take a PDF of the score pages and cross out the bars we’re not going to use, indicate where the music will start and stop, indicate cuts and jumps in the music (e.g. “go from bar 25 to 45”), etc. If you’d like to see my marked-up score click this link: Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Then this score goes out to Alf & orchestrator Dell Hake. The toughest part preparing these classical cues is that often they were written for large orchestras of 75 or more players, often with six french horns or two bassoons, or 4 trumpets. We record with an orchestra of 35 players, with only two each of trumpets, french horns, and trombones, and only one each of the woodwinds (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon), and our entire string section is smaller than just the violin section of most orchestras. Whittling down a large orchestra score to be played by a group one-half or one-third the size than originally intended is an art form unto itself. Then when it’s recorded, mixer Rick Riccio performs his own magic with microphone choice and placement, digital reverb, and equalization to make the group sound larger than it really is.

Here is my original edited track, complete with click track, that was the basis for the mark-up and orchestration. You may notice that the click “drifts” away from the orchestra from time to time. This is OK, because I knew that when we recorded it, the orchestra would follow the click and would be spot-on the timings.

We spent the better part of the first hour recording this cue at the scoring session, but it was well worth it when you hear the final result. FOX has been kind enough to post it on their YouTube site so that we can all enjoy it together.

I hope this post wasn’t too geeky for you, but this part of the job is one my favorites … one that lets me be more musician than editor.

My Own “10 Songs” List

The recent article at Vulture.com naming the show’s ten-best songs (as picked by our writing staff) motivated me to make my my own list.

Before I share my list with you, here are the criteria I set for myself when picking the songs:

  • The songs would be original compositions. Some of the comments on the Vulture article asked why “Luke Be a Jedi Tonight” or “Talkin’ Softball” were not on the list. I don’t know about the writers, but I wanted my choices to be from songs written expressly for the show, not existing songs with new lyrics.
  • I had direct involvement in producing the song by conducting/coaching the singing. In the very early years of the show, Alf and I were not involved in the creation of songs like the ones written for “Streetcar” or “Baby on Board”.
  • I just plain like the song. These songs still bring back fond memories of working on them and make me smile when I listen to them.

I am not proclaiming these the “ten best Simpsons songs ever”; they’re not even necessarily my ten favorite songs. These are ten songs with special significance during my years working on the show.

OK, here we go…in alphabetical order so as to not give any one song more importance than another:

1) “America’s Back” sung by The Dixie Chicks; music and lyrics by Reid Harrison

I was never much of a country music fan until my wife and daughters started listening to it in the early 2000s. Then I discovered The Dixie Chicks and was blown away by their musicality. I was very excited when I heard they were coming on the show and that a special song was being written for them. Directing them was a personal thrill and one of the true perks of having my job.

2) “Bagged Me A Homer” sung by Lurlene Lumpkin (Beverly D’Angelo); music and lyrics by   Beverly D’Angelo

Right off the bat I break my own rule! Beverly D’Angelo wrote and recorded her vocals for this song without any input from me or Alf, but Alf wrote the great arrangement of the country band backing this track. This song never fails to please me because I really enjoy all the clever baseball double-entendres. I also remember being pretty impressed with Beverly’s singing ability. Shades of “Coal Miner’s Daughter”.

3) “Canyonero” sung by Hank Williams, Jr; music by Alf Clausen, lyrics by Donick Cary

What a great homage to all those muscle truck ads and what a “get” to have Hank Williams, Jr. singing the jingle for us. He had a real hard time with “squirrel-squashin’, dear-smackin’ drivin’ machine!” but you could never tell from the final take. He was a great sport and fun to work with.

4) “Happy Just the Way We Are” sung by the entire cast; music by Alf Clausen, lyrics by Al Jean & Mike Reiss

This was our first time doing a full-fledged musical episode. What about “A Streetcar named Marge” you ask? Well, that was a show-within-a-show. Our characters didn’t break into song to move the story forward. We had done many musical theater-type songs before this episode, but this was the first that presented an entire episode in the style of a Broadway musical.

Bonus material! On the day before we recorded the cast singing for “Simpsoncalifragilisticexpiala(AnnoyedGrunt)cious” my then twelve- and nine-year-old daughters had just brought home their best school report cards to date. I decided to take a hand-held audio cassette recorder with me to the session and ask a favor of our cast. I asked each of them to record a congratulatory message in character to my girls. They were happy to oblige. My daughters still get a kick out of this and they have played it for many of their friends over the years. Their friends think my daughters have a pretty cool dad.

5) “Scorpio” sung by Sally Stevens; music by Alf Clausen, lyrics by Ken Keeler

This song comes from one of the show’s most beloved episodes with one of its most beloved characters, Hank Scorpio. This was performed by the amazing Sally Stevens doing a great Shirley Bassey/Goldfinger impersonation. Did any of you think of this song when Ms. Bassey made her surprise appearance on the Oscar telecast this year?

6) “Testify” sung by Bart Simpson (Nancy Cartwright) and the cast; music by Alf Clausen, lyrics by Frank Mula

[audio https://sites.google.com/site/simpmx500mp3/audio/Testify.mp3]

All I can say is this in one kick-ass chart! Horns blazing, Hammond B-3 organ whirling, Nancy Cartwright belting it out and loving every minute of it. When I recorded her singing, she had the most fun I think she’s ever had doing a song and she didn’t want the session to end. Before composing for THE SIMPSONS, Alf used to be the music director for “The Donny & Marie Show”. This type of arrangement was right in his wheelhouse and he did not disappoint. This is one track I never tire of.

7) “They’ll Never Stop The Simpsons” sung by Dan Castellaneta; music by Alf Clausen, lyrics by Dan Castellaneta & Deb Lacusta

A take off on Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, we have another great track from Alf that has all the essence and flavor of the original while deftly avoiding a lawsuit. Dan’s reading (singing) of “What else do I have to say?!” is the best moment in this song for me. You should have seen his head-banging when he performed that line. Fabulous.

8) “We Do” sung by the entire cast; music by Alf Clausen, lyrics by John Swartzwelder

This song stands out for me as a unique musical contribution to the show. I don’t think there is a song anywhere else in the 24+ seasons of the show quite like it. This also has one of my thumbprints all over it. When I was directing the cast to sing “Who makes Steve Guttenberg a star?” we would check playbacks and it was hard to hear the “G” at the end of Guttenberg. So after many attempts without much success, I had them sing that final “G” as its own syllable – “Gut-ten-ber-guh”. You can clearly hear it on the track. Looking back, maybe it was a bit over-the-top, but you cannot mistake the name in the song.

9) “We Love to Smoke” sung by Patty & Selma Bouvier (Julie Kavner); music by Alf Clausen, lyrics by Al Jean & Mike Reiss

A song that, sadly, hit the cutting room floor. This was a take off on “I Love to Laugh” from “Mary Poppins”. As sometimes happens in our biz, there just wasn’t room for it in the final cut of “Simpsoncalifragilisticexpiali(Annoyed Grunt)cious”. What I’ve posted here is the pre-record version that was used for animation. The song was cut before post-production so we never put the full orchestra version behind it. Poor Julie had to do numerous takes of this while coughing and wheezing her way through each one. She could barely speak when we were done. I would have kept this song in the show instead of “A Boozehound Named Barney”.

10) “We Put the Spring in Springfield” sung by the entire cast; music by Alf Clausen, lyrics by Ken Keeler

One of the best songs ever written for the show, this song won Alf the first of his two EMMY Awards for Best Song. It also had the most singing parts of any song to date. This was recorded LONG before the days of Pro Tools and digital editing. It was all captured on 24-track tape, and all the multiple takes had to be stitched together by me by “bouncing” (recording from one tape deck to another) all the tracks one at a time. Also, the cast did not sing this in a group recording. Each cast member sang their part individually. Of course, Dan, Nancy, Hank, and Harry each had multiple parts to sing. It was a huge accomplishment, one of my proudest moments in the show’s history.

Bonus material #2! A “song”, by definition, has music and words – it is sung (please stop calling any piece of music you hear a “song”). Since this is my “10 Songs” list, and I make the rules, I can bend them to my will! That’s how I roll! I leave you with a snippet of one of my (and quite possibly your) favorite cues from the show. Not a song, but I couldn’t leave it out of this post.