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.”
I recently completed a challenging commission. Maestro Pat Miles asked me to write a fanfare for his student orchestra at the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point. The occasion is his upcoming retirement after umpty-ump years of teaching horn players and building the orchestral program into its current formidable state. (Pat plans to stay on as conductor of the Central Wisconsin Symphony Orchestra.) It is hard for me to write music without having a picture in my head, and I had a tough time envisioning what a retirement looks like. But then I remembered the large photo of Maestro Miles that hangs in the Central Wisconsin Symphony Orchestra concert hall along with portraits of some of the section leaders. He’s wearing a proper tuxedo with tails, carrying a baton, and perched on the ultra-light racing bicycle he rides as a serious racer. That image of Pat is all I needed. Like that photograph, music can be deeply serious and light-hearted at the same time. The two-minute piece is scheduled for premiere in May. You can download the score and an MP3 of the synth track here.
Young composers often ask me how to break into writing for film and television. One kind of work I advise them to pursue is a type I still enjoy doing myself: “industrials,” or non-broadcast films for corporate or nonprofit clients. I recently scored a piece on ethics for the Educational Testing Service; an exhibit piece for the Roosevelt Institute in Hyde Park, New York; and a labor of love by the director Cressandra Thibodeaux about a pair of art patrons in Houston, Texas.
The quality of these films is often very high. The directors are often very good. And, surprisingly, the music budget is sometimes bigger than it is on broadcast TV shows, which means more leeway to hire musicians for recording sessions. The trick to writing a successful score for these films is staying out of the way of the words. The right score will generally not have a prominent melody. It will be all about texture and pace. Films like these are a great training ground for any composer.