The CMJ jazz chart, which tracks airplay on college, NPR, and community radio stations, has embraced the new album by my band Chaise Lounge, Dot Dot Dot. We debuted at number 23 last week, and this week we were up to number 12! I don’t think we will be challenging Miley Cyrus’s place in the pop pantheon, but it is nice to know that there are spots win the world where people are listening to music like this.
Three weeks ago, I had no idea that a television show called Royal Pains existed. It is a dramedy on the USA Network, and it’s one of the highest-rated shows on cable! Shows how much I know. But I got a call from one of the producers, and for the past two weeks I have been engrossed in writing a song for a webisode starring and directed by actor Paulo Costanzo, who plays businessman Evan R. Lawson on the program.
This has been an extremely satisfying television experience. First of all, the producers are smart and effective—not something you can take for granted in any business. Secondly, the cast is amazingly down-to-earth. Many of them sang on this piece, even though none except Paulo and Reshma Shetty (who plays physician’s assistant Divya Katdare) are trained singers. Still, they gave some terrific performances. And it has been great fun collaborating with Paolo, who had a very strong vision for the webisode and the song. I’m used to being a lone wolf when I write, and it was refreshing to try to put myself inside someone else’s head and channel what they were hearing.
The recording sessions all took place at Soundtrack studios in NYC, where the engineers were super sharp and seemed truly hungry to work on music. It turns out that 99% of their work is “production work,” i.e., overdubbing (also called ADR), sound effects, etc. One of the engineers confided to me that the reason he got into audio engineering was to record music. Hmmm? I was under the impression that all audio engineers got into the business for that.
When giving me a tour of Soundtrack, the engineers were quick to point out the spaces that used to be big rooms for recording orchestras. Now they are cut up into small production rooms. Pity. Their “big” room is smaller than Studio A at Cue Recording in Falls Church, the studio where I spend so much time. Still, the recording experience was wonderful. I mixed down the song (with the help of one of my go-to guys at Cue), and they are going into production on their dream-sequence music video for the web. I can’t wait to see what it looks like when they are done!
Another benefit: Now I know about Royal Pains. It is an entertaining, mile-a-minute show. Beautifully shot. Strong acting. Intriguing story lines. I’m hooked.
I recently scored a feature-length documentary on post World War II printmaking in the American Midwest. Somehow, in my mind, Midwest printmaking meant clarinet. And that meant I got the pleasure of recording the principal clarinetist from the Kennedy Center’s opera orchestra, David Jones. What a delight it was working with such a talented multi-instrumentalist. We used clarinet, flute, tenor sax, and bass clarinet in the studio, and David managed to give me every tone color I needed. I could have dug through every synth patch I have to score this and never come up with what that David was able to give me in one beautiful recording session. The film, Midwest Matrix, directed by Susan Goldman, was screened last month in Milwaukee.
If you’re a composer, there is a moment when you are laying out ideas for the first movement of an orchestral piece that has serious consequences for all the following movements. You must decide whether you want to use a contrabassoon. Or a bass clarinet. Or a piano. Decisions like this can affect who will eventually play, or even look at, your piece.
I’m told there is nothing more infuriating to a conductor than finding out that the composer has written for contrabassoon for only one movement–and that the part is crucial to the overall feeling of the score. This means that the other movements will feature a fully paid contra player sitting on his hands in the woodwind section. For most of the orchestras that play my work, this is a couple hundred bucks that could be used for something else. I have learned my lesson: I don’t include a supplementary instrument in a piece unless I am going to use it throughout.
As for piano, I have found that most rehearsal halls for community orchestras do not have pianos, and that many concert halls have horrible pianos. Including piano in your score–no matter how Copland-y you are feeling–could preclude having the piece chosen for a performance. You are generally better off writing for marimba or harp.
I resisted using Sibelius notation software at first. I was very happy with my Judy Green score paper and Judy Green pencils. But the software has some features that help me keep music directors happy. Chief among them is the program’s strong preference for consistent orchestrations in a piece. If you try adding instruments midway through, you are asking for a world of trouble. Ten years of Sibelius–and even longer working with the conductors of academic, regional, and community orchestras–has made me a better, more consistent, and more user-friendly composer.