You never know where your next idea will come from. Not long ago, my jazz band, Chaise Lounge, was playing at the funky and highly regarded venue The Rooster’s Wife in Aberdeen, North Carolina. Much of the charm of this theater comes from its owner, Janet Kenworthy, who lodges and feeds touring bands with exquisite Southern hospitality. After sound check, Janet gave us directions to her house: “Walk out this door, turn right on High Street, then walk up to Blue Street and it’s right there.” “OK,” I repeated, “You’re at the corner of High and Blue.” There was a weird silence in the air, and after the perfect pause, our bass player, Pete Ostle, said meaningfully, “Man, I’ve been there.”
How could this not be the next song in what singer Marilyn Older refers to as our “scorned-woman-slumped-over-bar catalog”? When we got home, I put pencil to staff paper and came up with a new song named after the intersection—and the mental state. Here’s a video of us performing it last week at our favorite DC supper club, The Hamilton: “The Corner of High and Blue.”
For the past few months I have been producing bits and pieces of country artist John Lilly’s State Song Project. He has written songs about twelve U.S. states and gotten a patchwork of grants and Kickstarter funds to cover the cost of recording and producing them. His songs seem to me to be the direct descendants of Hank Williams songs: forthright, tuneful, and lyrically solid. Last month we recorded “Mississippi” with the Chaise Lounge rhythm section, a blistering horn section, and three gospel backup singers. Next up will be his anthem to his home state, “The Hills of West Virginia.” When I first heard this song, it reminded me of a rather formal composition that might have been performed in a park gazebo in 1910. John was amazingly agreeable to my suggestion to orchestrate the piece for cornet, French horn, euphonium, tuba, background singers and a rhythm section of frailing banjo, guitar, and double bass. In a few weeks, we’ll go into the studio—and 100+ years back in time.
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.