Last week I produced a string quartet recording in Tel Aviv…from my home near Washington DC. I’d written the quartet as a sort of reverse overture for an upcoming film, An Open Door. The score will be for full orchestra, but this condensed ten-minute work contains all the major themes. Of course the compositional trick was to write idiomatic string parts for melodies that I’ve imagined for French horn or oboe, along with a full string section, brass, woodwinds, percussion section, etc. The practical trick—a kind of 21st century magic—was to oversee the recording without actually being there.
The onsite engineer and I managed the second trick via Facetime on our phones. Barack gave me a quick tour of the space and of each microphone he was using. I met the members of the quartet, with first violinist, Hagai Shaham translating between Hebrew and English. Maybe you have worked this way before, but it was my first experience with virtual audio production, and I’m now hooked. Though I unfortunately wasn’t able to travel to the session due to other obligations, I was able to get the performance I was hoping for from the quartet. Futurists have been predicting the advent of videophones since I was a little kid. I can’t believe the future is finally here.
As a rule, film music doesn’t make particularly good concert music. There are exceptions, of course—much of Bernard Herrmann’s work translates beautifully to the concert hall—but mostly, nah. And conversely, not much serious concert music makes for a workable film score. So I usually try to keep these two areas of endeavor separate in my own work. But I am headed into a ticklish situation in this regard. Director Sonny Izon will be traveling to Israel shortly to record a string quartet version of my theme for his next documentary, An Open Door. Part of the film involves a luthier in Jerusalem named Amnon Weinstein who restores violins that were played by European Jews in the camps and ghettos of the Holocaust. With his craft, he seeks to give these lost legions back their voices. Sonny will record the theme in Israel using these instruments, and later on I’ll also help make a live recording of the same music at a concentration camp in Germany. Writing this music, writing an interesting string quartet that can possibly work as part of a film score, has been a puzzle for me to solve, but one well worth the artistic risk.
When I was a kid, I loathed the sweet, syrupy sound of Nelson Riddle’s Frank Sinatra arrangements. But one of the perks of growing up is that you get to change your mind about things, and this is one area where I have realized Nelson was right and I was wrong. Next week, I will be recording a few lush string arrangements for vocalist Dick Kaufmann, and I noticed while I was arranging these tunes how indebted I am to Riddle’s classic work. Writing the string parts for “Stars Fell on Alabama,” “What the World Needs Now,” and “I Get a Kick Out of You” was a textural challenge. Those swooping violin lines and close harmonies on top of a simple 2-beat rhythm section take an enormous amount of time to get just right—unless maybe you are Nelson Riddle. But I am happy to be here in his shadow.
I swim every day. And I’m sure every day it looks exactly the same to the lifeguard, yet each time it’s a drastically different experience for me. The details of a stroke change in minuscule ways: where your hand enters the water, how much your body rotates on its axis, how high your elbow stays on the recovery, etc. But I can always tell instantly whether my workout is flowing or not. It’s the same with the piano. Every day, I play the same scales that I have played for fifty years. Some days they feel great. Some days I could swear that I had never seen a piano before. But to the casual set of ears off in the kitchen, I sound exactly the same. The difference between a good-feeling warm up and a miserable one is basically inaudible. As musicians, we choose to live in a world where we grade ourselves harshly on the smallest things. It is a special interior hell, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I feel lucky to have an inner sense governing the tiny but all-important gradations in performance. And, unlike with swimming, where I sincerely doubt that I will ever equal my teenage times, we actually can practice music and get better our whole lives. As Pablo Casals famously said when asked why he continued to practice at age 92, “I think I’m starting to see an improvement.”