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.