Thursday, February 12, 2009

Head's In The Music

As I reported in my last blog, these days my head is deeply sunk into music. Mostly my own, of course, because that's my passion. But having listened to The Planets with score in hand -- "Ahhh, so THAT'S where all those 50s sci fi movie composers got their ideas!" -- it gave me confidence that I could start trying to get down onto paper the orchestral music that has been haunting the symphony hall in my head.

Or, to put it in Southern terms, "They done flung a cravin' on me."

[That comes from the punchline of a joke by the old cajun comedian Jerry Clower concerning a country bumpkin character named New Gene. New Gene was eating mustard sardines on the wooden steps of the general store and he had it all on his face, in his eyebrows, etc. And the observer says something like, "Hoo-weee! New Gene has done flung a cravin' on me." It's funny when Clower says it.]
I actually finished writing out the Adagio movement for the Antarctic Suite. (I call it Adagio because it's slow. And it was also the simplest piece with only four major instruments. Alto Flute, piano, violin section, French horns.)

I also watched American Idol. I'll comment on this year's kids in a later post.

And I saw songwriting great Steve Dorff sing at Kulak's last Thursday. Not only did I see him, but I was on camera three. (And, for the record, it was tough going. I can tell I'm out of shape and feeling a bit weak. By the end of the night, I could barely stand. I think everyone thought I was going to pass out there in the doorway. But it's good physical therapy for me.)

Monday night, Jim and I were invited by the Academy for New Musical Theatre to attend a demonstration evening for a program they've come up with where producers propose a project, writers are assigned to outline and pitch ideas, which are then culled by the producers. The ideas are then developed into 15 minute presentations -- a couple of songs and some dialogue, and the process continues though readings and, finally, productions.

I heard some very clever songs and was impressed with the structure and idea of the program. (For instance, this very large outdoor theatre in Wisconsin had contacted them with a very specific parameter. They like to put on big, funny Wisconsin-themed shows during tourist season. The audience is mostly campers, meaning families. So, something like "Cheeseheads from Outer Space" goes over big. The team assigned to this project decided on a cow theme and demonstrated some hilarious songs, Gary Larson-style, where the cows are doing what people would do -- go on talk shows, wonder about the great barn in the sky, etc.)

I worry, though, that writers of contemporary musical theatre are so focused on sounding like "musical theatre" that they're not writing from their own personal, inner musical voice. Everything these days sounds to me like it all descended from European operetta. American music, anyone? (One piece, called "Windjammers," did try to do this using songs from American seamen, but that's a whole different thing. It was intentionally historical.)

On Wednesday night, I once again helped facilitate the Songwriter Workshop at Kulak's. Leader Marc Platt (who writes and records a song every time his wife goes out shopping) regaled us with tales of his low level job at Rhino Records back in the early 80s. He was the one who got the jail-cell demo recordings of songs written and sung by mass murderer Charles Manson -- and who subsequently spent 45 minutes on the phone with him.

Last week, I was paired with a lovely and very talented newcomer named Jennifer Quiroz. We wrote a song called "I've Never Been In Love." (These are one-night assignments. The structure of the workshop is that we get paired with someone and then we have to write a song in about 90 minutes. The point is that the best way to learn how to write a song is to write a song. Learning songwriting by lecture is like learning swimming by reading a book.)

Last night, I got to work with a young woman whose name I don't know how to spell, but it's pronounced "May-laan." She is from Hawaii and has been in town, working at a recording studio -- smart girl! We were assigned to write a song for the "American Idol" competition.

Bereft of ideas, I popped open a book Marc had thrust into our hands -- "Here. Use this as an inspiration." It was a mystery novel. So, I opened to the first page I came to and started reading the paragraph. It was a description of an overweight girl. So, I rhymed it and said, "There. That's our opening verse."

And that's how songs get done when the clock is ticking. Who knows where the song will end up, but "May-laan" had a beautiful voice and a nice melodic gift. We didn't make a whole song, but we got a nice start to one. And both of us learned from the experience, just as Jennifer and I had the week before.

Okay, it's time to tackle the more difficult movement of the Antarctic Suite. I had labeled it the Landscape Movement. The demos are almost done and I'll be syncing them to some video from our trip soon. But everything takes so much time. And I'm still hungry to learn more about arranging and orchestrating.

The cravin' has been flung and I must answer the call.

(BTW, go to Marc Platt's MySpace page and click on the track "The Revolution Starts Right Here." I love this song).
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The Steve Show #screamcry

My first show since my surgery. With Blake Zolfo.