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.

Rita-Moreno_West_S_2484070b

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.

Star-Wars-In-Concert_Bild-1_klein

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.

3-Ozawa

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.

Tapestry

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 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.