The hidden secret that makes a musical great

Orchestration is fun!

In light of recent posts, I know you’re probably asking, “What’s with all these theater posts, Kevin? Have you stopped doing all things musical?” Well, it is true that writing about music has gotten short shrift on this blog recently (I’m still writing for The Jazz Gallery, so check out their blog), but I’ve in no way hung up my music cleats this spring.

In addition to my regular composing, drumming, and teaching duties, I got to embark on a fun new project in March: teaching studio orchestration to undergrads of the Princeton Triangle Club.

Studio whah?

Oh. You don’t know what studio orchestration is. I see.

Well that’s ok. It’s just the SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF A BROADWAY MUSICAL OR BLOCKBUSTER FILM!

Well, I might be exaggerating on that point. But I will say that it is quite an underappreciated aspect of any film or musical. There are advantages to that of course. Nobody blamed the orchestrator for the flops of Spiderman: Turn off the Dark or The Lone Ranger. However, the orchestrations for a musical or movie score can have a vital subconscious impact on how you take in the whole work.

Oh. So I still haven’t told you what orchestrations are? Let’s rectify that.

The music you hear during a film or musical doesn’t magically stem from the mind of a single person. For various reasons, a team of musicians creates the score for a film or musical. In the case of film scoring, the reasons have mostly to do with time—composers usually have an extremely limited timeframe in which to complete the score. This means that the main composer will write what’s called a short score, where the all the melodies and harmonies of each scene are worked out, but not assigned to particular instruments of the orchestra. It is the job of the orchestrator (yes, that’s me and my students) to make those assignments. It’s as if the composer drew black and white outlines of figures and the orchestrator colors them in. This isn’t to say that film composers can’t orchestrate. Many composers like Howard Shore do like to orchestrate their own work when possible, and many others, including this year’s Oscar-winner Steven Price, begin their careers as orchestrators. Continue reading

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For Best Actor in an Historical Role

Art imitated life at last night’s Tony Awards, and no, it had nothing to do with Hugh Jackman being a kangaroo. Three out of the four winners for best lead actor honors—Bryan Cranston, Audra McDonald, and Jessie Mueller—not only portrayed real people (Lyndon Johnson, Billie Holliday, Carole King, respectively), but real people from recent historical memory. Most of us know what these figures looked and sounded like. It’s not like these actors brought long-lost figure to life in a way that we could only imagine.

I’m not here to comment on the relative merits of each actor’s performance (I’ve only seen Cranston’s as LBJ). Instead, I’m wondering why it’s easier to give a prize to an actor portraying a person that we’ve heard and seen, rather than a purely fictional one?

Depictions of contemporary public figures have recently been extremely well-represented in the Oscar lead actor and actress categories as well as the Tonys. Just in the past 10 years, actors have won the top Oscars for depictions of Ray Charles, June Carter Cash, Edith Piaf, Truman Capote, King George VI, Queen Elizabeth II, Harvey Milk, Margaret Thatcher, and Idi Amin. Playing this kind of role carries more weight with awards voters—all but two of the winners above have only won the top prize by playing these kinds of characters.

One potential reason for this trend is what I’ll call the Fantasy Baseball Quotient. As an audience, we usually only know the public personas of the characters portrayed on stage or screen, but not what happened when the cameras stopped rolling, or the stage lights went out. We get excited by the fact that we’re let into these people’s worlds, that we get to be acquaintances, not just a throng of fans. These performances allow us to fantasize about being a part of an important, historical moment. Continue reading

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A quick thought on NBC’s proposed “Music Man” TV special

The news has moved faster than Harold Hill running from Illinois: buoyed by the success of this past December’s Sound of Music TV special, NBC has not only planned a Peter Pan followup for this year, but a production of The Music Man as well, slated for December 2015. This has made quite a number of people, including myself, pretty happy, and as such, there has been plenty of fantasy casting.

These are wildly different casts that would result in wildly different productions. Yet it is interesting that both Mondello and Lyons would like to see African-American actors in the lead roles. The 1962 film version that so many (including me) grew up with has an all-white cast, and even the Broadway revival from the year 2000 featured white actors in those lead roles. The Music Man is very much etched in the American public consciousness as a fantasy of turn-of-the-century midwestern life, one that keeps minority characters singing songs like “Old Man River” below decks and out of view.

But while the musical does not explicitly deal with issues of race, the many conflicts that define the town’s social dynamic could be enhanced by setting the musical in a racially-divided town. Firstly, let’s imagine that Tommy Djilas, the miscreant from the wrong side of town, is black. He’s secretly seeing Zaneeta Shinn, the eldest daughter of the white mayor. Mayor Shinn’s distaste for her daughter’s secreat beau goes from being a punchline showing how out of touch he is to elucidating the complex racial dynamics in the town.

Secondly, let’s imagine librarian Marian Paroo is white, but is well-educated and has liberal social views, as was Miser Madison, the old man she befriended/benefactor of the River City library. Let’s also imagine Harold Hill is black, but speaks and dresses in a way that allows him to interact with whites more easily than other blacks. When Marian sees Harold Hill begin to unite the racially-divided town with the idea of a brass band, it appeals to her socially progressive views, giving her more motivation to rip the incriminating evidence out of the Indiana State Education Journal that reveals Hill as a fraud. Marian’s liberal social views also give greater motivation for her separation from and disdain for the high-class ladies of the town—the mayor’s wife and her friends.

Individual songs and even specific lines gain greater meaning in a mixed-race Music Man. “Shipoopi,” from the musical’s latter half, is basically an excuse for a big dance number (in the movie, it is given slightly more dramatic motivation by covering Harold Hill’s escape from the big ice cream social). While the original tune has some snatches of early Jazz and a Charleston-like tempo, this aspects could be heightened in a new orchestration, suggesting the song and dance’s African-American origins. The fact that the teens of River City are so into it while their parents are not show how musical styles like Swing and Rhythm & Blues were so popular among American teens due to their sense of the exotic, or “otherness.” Earlier in the musical, when African-American Harold Hill mentions both WC Handy and John Phillip Sousa in his pitch to lead a boy’s band, this line isn’t a reflection of his lack of musical training (who would group Handy and Sousa together?), but a truly subversive line that he sees music of black and white origins on more or less the same terms. It now suggests that while Hill is a huckster, his love for music is real, giving his conducting reverie in the second act more poignancy.

In his review of the original 1957 production, New York Times theater critic Brooks Atkinson wrote, “If Mark Twain could have collaborated with Vachel Lindsay, they might have devised a rhythmic lark like The Music Man, which is as American as apple pie and a Fourth of July oration.” Because of the Twain-like humor powering the show, it is not stretch to imagine Twain-like social commentary infiltrating it as well. A mixed-race cast is perhaps just what this new Music Man needs to keep it fresh, and not a dull rehash like the 2003 Disney made-for-TV version. A serious approach to dealing with racial issues in Music Man shouldn’t drive down ratings—the music will still be catchy and fun, the book snappy and barbed. This serious treatment of race sits below the surface, clear enough for a thoughtful viewer to catch, but not preachy in a way that would turn away someone watching for pure entertainment value.

I’d love to see Will Smith dust off his rap chops and take on numbers like “Trouble.” Maybe he’ll be paired with a big time Broadway voice like Kelli O’Hara, or maybe Anne Hathaway if NBC desperately wants higher ratings in the 18-35 demographic. While we’re at it, wouldn’t Donald Glover be a fun Marcellus Washburn?

By December 2015, NBC’s attempts of doing live musicals on air will have lost their novelty. If the network wants to keep the idea fresh and interesting, they should highly consider reimagining The Music Man to suit the social realities of our time, rather than continuing to whitewash the past.

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A World Jazz Day Freebie!

Today is UNESCO World Jazz Day! Woohoo! While there have been many celebratory concerts all over the world, there’s probably a good chance that your day has not been sufficiently jazzy. So to rectify that, listen to this brand new tune that I wrote called “Bones.”

The title refers to the old-school percussion instruments most commonly found in minstrel music (they’re a relative of the spoons and the washboard). While listening to recreated minstrel music in a folk music class taught by Peter Winkler that I’m TA-ing this semester, I thought about how the rhythms of the bones didn’t sound all that far removed from New Orleans second line snare playing, or Elvin Jones’s brush work. So if contemporary folk styles and post bop jazz have the same rhythmic roots, could a sprawling vehicle for contemporary improvisation be built on southern shape note hymn harmony? I decided to find out.

 

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What’s in a critic?

Last week, esteemed music writer Ted Gioia unleashed a screed on The Daily Beast about the nature of music criticism today. Gioia writes:

Imagine, for a moment, football commentators who refuse to explain formations and plays. Or a TV cooking show that never mentions the ingredients.

These examples may sound implausible, perhaps ridiculous. But something comparable is happening in the field of music journalism. One can read through a stack of music magazines and never find any in-depth discussion of music.  Technical knowledge of the art form has disappeared from its discourse. In short, music criticism has turned into lifestyle reporting.

It’s a fair point, and not an uncommon one (see n+1 magazine’s takedown of Pitchfork) but Gioia overlooks the fact that the issue of celebrity navel gazing masquerading as arts criticism is as old as criticism itself. If you go back to the earliest examples of British theater criticism in the late 18th century, the writers are definitely more interested in the spectacle of the gathering than what’s actually going on on stage.¹ However, Gioia’s article brings up an issue that’s at the heart of the meaning and purpose of arts criticism – is criticism a technical analysis of art, or is it about what the art means to the society at large? It’s great that Gioia’s piece has started a healthy debate on this topic on the interwebs.

Certainly the condemnations of Gioia’s piece have come hard and fast – it does indeed come off as pretentious and lumps really great cultural criticism (writers like Ann Powers and Jon Caramanica come to mind) in with cheap celebrity gossip pieces. But there have been plenty of people piggybacking on Gioia’s ideas. Matt Zoller Seitz, television critic for New York Magazine, wrote a piece on his blog about how writing about the form and construction of a film should be just as important as talking about the plot. Slate published a former Facebook post by sometime-Arcade Fire member and Oscar-nominated composer Owen Pallett that involved him analyzing Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” in a technical, music-theoretical manner in a way that was intended to be widely understandable.

As a music practitioner, I certainly appreciate Seitz’s argument and Pallett’s analysis. I would love critics to care enough to devote time and space to describe the inner workings of a piece I wrote, like how the form works, or how improvisation and pre-conceived material interact, or how the textures are constructed. But as a music listener and a regular reader of criticism, I feel that in-depth technical description of the type that Seitz and Pallet articulate isn’t particularly important, or rather, I don’t think that a good piece of criticism needs to focus on describing the sound and design of the music at the expense of everything else.

I feel that the most important role of a critic is to translate the feeling of experiencing a work of art, a point hammered home by film critic Bob Mondello during a class I took with him in undergrad. When I’m trying to review an album or a movie or a piece of theater, I think about what the performance made me feel and think about, and what aspects of the artwork elicited that response. For music, I don’t run to I-V-I or “sonata form” for an explanation, but more intuitive aspects, like tone-color and character. Certainly a magical moment like the deceptive cadence about 11 minutes into the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth can be explained away with Roman Numeral analysis and a Schenkerian graph, but I feel that the sense of that moment can be more adequately described in metaphorical language. In an ideal situation, the beauty of the critic’s description can elicit a similar emotion in the reader as the piece itself (theater critic Walter Kerr was a master at this. Ben Ratliff is quite good too). Sometimes, when a piece of art explicitly plays with form and technique (like say a Wes Anderson film), it’s great to have a vocabulary with which to discuss them in order to get to the crux of how the art works and affects the experiencer, but not all works require technical descriptions to describe their essence.

One’s experience of a piece of art, however, isn’t just mediated by the art itself. Certainly Kanye West’s outsized personality colors the way we experience his music, and it’s important for a critic to talk about things like that—to talk about the nature of celebrity and authenticity and class and so on. The problem is when a critic becomes so in love with their own social insight that they forget to differentiate between what the music makes them feel and what the extra-musical elements associated with it make them think. Reviews like this become pieces of hollow cultural punditry, rather than real arts criticism, which Gioia justly criticizes.

Nevertheless, Gioia’s doom and gloom take on the state of music criticism as a whole does a great disservice to modern readers. I feel that very few people would enjoy a Pitchfork-style review more obsessed with explicating the reason for an artist’s celebrity than describing the music more than a review that genuinely attempts to translate the experience of the music into words and bring the reader along for a ride. There have always been and always will be vapid criticism and click bait and tabloids, just as there have always been and always will be Kenneth Tynans and Ellen Willises and Pauline Kaels. The difference between good and bad criticism isn’t good technical description vs. a lack thereof, as Gioia or Seitz contend. The difference has to do with the writer—will they be vulnerable enough to be honest about their experience of the art and emotionally perceptive enough to describe it, or will they be more in love with their erudition and opt for cheap takedowns?

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1. I read reviews to that effect in a theater class in college, but can’t find links anywhere online. Just trust me on this, I guess.

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March 25, 2014 · 5:10 pm

A New Tune

Without going into too much detail, I present a brand new big band arrangement of “Where or When,” the lovely earworm from the Rodgers & Hart show Babes in Arms. Enjoy!

The track is performed by the Stony Brook University Blowage under the direction of Ray Anderson, and features Tzvia Pinkhasov on voice and Peter Gustafson on trombone.

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A new year’s catchup (and some thoughts on producing)

Like the poor old man from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, this blog ain’t dead yet.¹

Yes, posting has been quite sporadic. This year has been filled with much flux and change. There’s been the grad school application racket, the teaching of 40-plus students a week out of a big box store, the adjusting to life in the alternate universe known as Long Island.² But that certainly hasn’t meant that I’ve stopped writing.

For those who haven’t followed, I am now writing for Jazz Speaks, the official blog of The Jazz Gallery, whom I think is one of the most important venues for new improvised music in New York. They’ve been a real incubator for a lot of great young talent from across the aesthetic spectrum, helping musicians go from “talent deserving wider recognition” to actually getting that recognition. I interview a couple of musicians each month about their upcoming shows and current projects, attempting to illuminate the experience of being a maker of art in today’s highly-connected world. I just posted an interview with the clarinetist and composer Mike McGinnis today and he’s doing some fantastic work in the cracks between jazz and contemporary concert music. Update your bookmarks and keep your heads up for more in the new year.

Some of you may now be looking for a top 10 list, like what any self-respecting music writer puts out at this time of year. However, now that I am far away from the large giveaway stacks at NPR headquarters and the regular stream of promo CDs popping up at the Princeton Record Exchange, I don’t feel I’ve listened to enough new music to really make a list of albums that have honestly affected me in a major way this year. But as I’ve looked at the end-of-year lists and listened to some of the tracks and albums that have made their way to the top of the heap, I’ve heard something – perhaps a trend, perhaps something less than that – that has gotten me thinking:

What’s with all the gauzy production out there?

Gauzy production? What the hell does that mean anyway, Kevin?

Well first of all, production refers to how all the sound sources are mixed and organized in a recording. When a production is gauzy, all of the sounds are organized in a way that makes them seem cold and distant, that they aren’t vibrating in an actual space. Sometimes it means that there’s too much reverb, or that the reverb doesn’t mimic a real space. Let’s look at exhibit A in that department: “Don’t Swallow the Cap” by the National from their album Trouble Will Find Me.

Listen closely to both the piano sound and the pulsing strings that dart in and out. The low piano notes are suffused with high overtones, creating a very complex sound. You can only get this sound by micing the exact piano string very closely to pick up all those subtleties. However, in order to make that sound stand out in the thick mix, the recording engineer had to add artificial reverb and boost the overall level. So instead of emphasizing the unique color of that note, the production makes the piano seem artificial. We feel uneasy because we know that this sound could only be generated using a great deal of digital technology.

The string parts are recorded not with a full section, but with what sounds like a quartet (a whole section would probably be too expensive for an indie record like this, even one for a band as big as The National). While recording with a string quartet vs. a section can give a greater point to the sound, it seems the band wanted the sweep of a whole section, so they added a good deal of artificial reverb. However, the reverb doesn’t feel natural. The sound of the strings tends to decay quickly after each articulation, and then the tail of the note is held for longer than one would expect.

The effect of these production choices undermines what I think makes The National a good band. There are very few rock performers out there who are as technically proficient on their instruments as the members of The National are. For instance, guitarist Bryce Dessner can shred with the contemporary classical crowd (see his other group Clogs and his work with Bang on a Can/Steve Reich) and drummer Bryan Devendorf comes up with the most melodic, almost chamber music-like grooves in rock. They sound terrific live – go check out their Tiny Desk concert and performance at Bonnaroo from this past year. When I listen to the great songs of “Trouble Will Find Me” from the studio album, I feel I’m almost getting a really good midi mockup of the songs, rather than an immediate, messy, and human live performance.

Another way that production can feel gauzy is if all the instruments are mixed in a way that prevents their sounds from interacting with each other like they would in an acoustic space. To see this issue in action, let’s look at the song “Man” from Neko Case’s standout album from this year.

On the surface, Tucker Martine’s production on this track is virtuosic. The arrangement is just seething with energy from a full-bodied piano, a blazing distorted guitar, and Brian Blade’s ferocious drums. Yet even with all of this sound coming out of the speakers, each instrument seems to have its own frequency band. If you listen carefully, you can pick out what each instrument is doing quite easily. And when Neko comes in on the first verse, her voice superhumanly floats over the fray. Martine’s ability to somehow both overload the listener, yet make each part clear, is uncanny, but not always in a good way. Again, during the course of the song, one gets a sense that the particular blend of instrument levels is impossible to create in a real space. The drums reverberate differently from the guitar, which reverberates differently from Neko’s voice. With this production, it sounds like all the band members could be recording in different locations and just listening to each other over an internet connection. The effect is particularly noticeable on Brian Blade’s drums. The characteristic of Blade’s drumming that I love most is the warmth he is able to coax from his instruments; how he somehow is able to create this gorgeous halo of sound around everyone else he plays with. By regulating the drums and cymbals to a narrow band of sound, Martine saps Blade’s performance of its warmth, making it sadly anonymous.

These aren’t the only examples of gauzy production on highly-touted pop albums this year. It happens on Kanye’s Yeezus and Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City (though the production on Arcade Fire’s Reflektor is surprisingly less so, especially on the title track). Why is this the case?

Well I think part of it has to do with digital sound sources. No matter what you do to a digital synthesizer patch, it’s nearly impossible to make it sound organic and in a real space. There’s a reason why electronic music pioneers like Daria Semegen still work with analog instruments and composers like Steve Reich abandoned electronic instruments altogether.

But that’s not the only reason – there certainly aren’t very many digital sounds on Neko Case’s record, and only marginally more on The National’s. The other reason for this rise in gauzy production is a change in how we listen to music now. Despite the rise in vinyl sales, most listeners around the world don’t have fancy Hi-Fi systems. For most of us, we listen to music out of tinny earbuds and laptop speakers, or marginally-better car speakers. In order for us to get pulled in by a song, it needs to come screaming out of those inadequate speakers, pushing them as hard as they can go. If these speakers can’t do nuance, then why should there be any in production?

Case in point: let’s look at the waveform for The National’s “Don’t Swallow the Cap.”

Screen Shot 2013-12-17 at 6.25.23 PM

Sorry to pick on you guys…

It’s at almost the highest sound amplitude (volume) possible for the entire song. It makes for a good first impression, but it gets a bit overwhelming on subsequent listens, as the volume gets in the way of experiencing the lovely inner parts.

However, there are some musicians who are bucking that trend and making music where the production feels immediate, tactile, and very human. One of the best examples from this year I think is from jazz/folky/poppy singer-songwriter Rebecca Martin on her album Twain. With the sonic image of “Don’t Swallow the Cap” fresh in our minds, let’s take a look at the first track off Martin’s album, called “To Up and Go.”

Now that's better.

Now that’s better.

Just from looking at the waveform, we can see that the song is thinner and more delicate. But what you can’t tell from the waveform is how tactile Martin’s acoustic guitar and Larry Grenadier’s bass feel. Because the speakers aren’t overwhelmed by a huge amount of different instruments boosted too high in the mix, you can hear every plucked string, every decaying phrase as if you’re sitting right in front of them. The record was recorded in the living room of Martin’s friend Peter Rende and Rende does a phenomenal job of capturing the warmth and intimacy of that setting. Even when Dan Rieser’s drums are added to the mix, they don’t overwhelm the material – you can still hear each sweep of the brush on the snare drum head. Even with a set of only semi-decent headphones (I still use a pair of $30 Sennheisers from 2009), Martin’s songs feel natural and intimate, an oasis of calm in an over-saturated world.

So while I did love Trouble Will Find Me and The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight and Yeezus, I think the albums that I’m going to keep returning to are the ones like Twain that don’t feel bound by production trends. I’m going to return to the albums that know the ultimate timeless power of humans using voices and pieces of wood and metal and animal guts to make art in whatever room they may be in.

Here are some other lovely, organic-sounding records from this year (in no particular order):

Maria Schneider & Dawn Upshaw: Winter Morning Walks

Sam Amidon: Bright Sunny South

Amir ElSaffar: Alchemy

Stephan Crumb’s Rosetta Trio: Thwirl

The Claudia Quintet: September

Joe Fiedler’s Big Sackbut: Sackbut Stomp

Michael McGinnis +9: Road*Trip

Craig Taborn Trio: Chants

Sarah Jarosz: Bring Me Up from Bones

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1. Though the same can’t be said for one by a New York Times jazz columnist.

2. Seriously. Bob Moses designed it so it’s almost impossible to escape – traffic jams on the Belt, traffic jams on the Cross-Bronx, pokey train service…

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