A couple of years ago today, on my wider-Internet-world blog, I posted some brief thoughts about a writing project that was just coming to fruition. Facebook, of course, in its algorithmic wisdom, reminded me of this today, so I thought I'd pass along the link. If I try and describe it here, in any more detail, it'll constitute spoilers, so ... feel free to go here to find out the big secret!
[Ed. note: here's a post that appeared last week on my blog "Editorial License", which is linked in the footer of this website. It ran as part of the "31-Day Blog Challenge", a series of writing prompts designed to jumpstart a blog -- which the HammertonMusic blog could sorely use, but only a few prompts have to do with music, and fewer still with music composition and arranging! But you take what you can get.]
31 DAY BLOG CHALLENGE, DAY 5: “My Guilty Pleasure”
If you’ve been paying proper attention to the "Editorial License" blog, in the five-plus years it’s existed, you know that I’m an utter, squealing geek when it comes to two subjects.
One is the universe according to George Lucas.
When “Star Wars” hit theaters in May 1977 … it became an almost-instant genuine cultural phenomenon, and it’s cast its shadow over nearly four decades of American life, since. (Although a few stories have since surfaced detailing the disdain that some of the movie’s own production crew members had for the project while they were making it. Admittedly “Episode IV” must have looked like every other bewildering or pathetic attempt at science-fiction movie magic that had come before it, and more than a few that came after.)
But honestly, it could still be filed under “guilty pleasure” because honestly … weird creatures and zap guns and really not-that-great acting? I mean come on. And then “The Simpsons” invented their Comic-Book Guy character, thereby creating a capsule review of every mid-thirties American male who waxes authoritative about the galaxy far, far away from the comfort of a parent’s basement very, very nearby.
The other geek-out subject is that of the good old American marching band. (On this Blogge, I suppose you could think of it as “the universe according to George Parks”.) Sadly, no matter how much dignity and seriousness we try to infuse into the activity, for every “Drumline”, it seems like there are several “American Pie: Band Camp” examples out there.
From inside the bubble of the marching band universe – the place where its participants and adherents rehearse music, learn marching drill, and practice throwing and catching flags and rifles and other implements of destruction – the activity can be a remarkable and beautiful experience both from an entertainment standpoint and from a “life skills you will learn while marching that will stand you in good stead for the rest of your life and make you lifelong friends”, etc. etc. angle.
From outside that bubble, it can look like just a bunch of odd ducks wearing feathers on their heads.
Everybody is right.
One day in 1999, my two guilty pleasures intersected. It was a moment of guilty-pleasure geekdom that I fear will never come again. Although perhaps that’s for the best.
As has been chronicled here and elsewhere, when the marching music activity is done right, it can be great, and when it’s done poorly, it’s cringeworthy and look-away territory.
Until that day, and since then, when marching ensembles have attempted to reproduce the John Williams “Star Wars” musical scores, it’s been anywhere from “almost; good try” to “oh put that away, it’s not even close and it’s embarrassing”.
I come at the “Star Wars” scores from the perspective of someone who considers himself, rightly or not, something of a “Star Wars” score savant. When I hear any orchestral cue from the original trilogy of films, I can hear the dialogue from that scene in my head at the same time. I can hum along with most of those cues, accurately. You could say I’ve marinated in the stuff for nearly forty years. That “Episode IV” double-LP album has long since had its grooves worn away.
And having invested that kind of ridiculous time in listening to those recordings, I’ve gotten used to what the London Symphony Orchestra sounded like, making those recordings. As glad as I was, when “The Force Awakens” opened, to hear the first new “Star Wars” film score in ten-plus years … still I was a little puzzled at the opening blast of brass because it didn’t sound quite right. I wondered if it was (ironically) some new recording technology that was making the brass sound a little different, not quite the same … and then I read somewhere that the score was recorded in Los Angeles (a nod to not forcing the octogenarian Williams to cross the ocean to London, repeatedly). Ah ha. So, different. Not bad; just not … quite.
So, at the fourth annual Collegiate Marching Band Festival, held at J. Birney Crum Stadium in Allentown, PA, came a moment of “will it or won’t it?”
I sat up in the stands amongst the Boston University band folks with whom I had traveled (and the legions of other college band members, and local high school band kids, and lots of other spectators), watching the mighty Penn State Blue Band take the field. I had never heard Penn State live. Their reputation preceded them. The Festival, which to that point had taken place on the last weekend of September, had been moved to the first weekend in October to accommodate Penn State’s schedule. Yes, you do that for certain groups which reside in the pantheon of American marching bands.
Their PA announcement declared that they would open their exhibition show with The Theme From Star Wars!! …
And my heart sank.
Because any other time I’d heard an outdoor band go there, whether they’d played well or not, it had not been … quite.
(And sometimes – many more times – it had been not at all.)
Penn State took a deep breath … and so did I. I didn’t trust a big-10-style, high-stepping, spats-wearing band to make “Star Wars” sound like anything other than a marching band trying to approximate that sound that I was so familiar with, and knew could not be reproduced – certainly not by a marching band.
I prepared to be disappointed.
Penn State did not give me that opportunity.
In the time before, and in the time since, I have not ever heard a marching band nail, completely nail the opening introductory few measures of John Williams’ “intro to a galaxy far, far away”. But that afternoon, Penn State nailed it. I sat up very much straighter on those not-quite comfortable benches in the J. Birney Crum home stands. I listened very much more closely to the chords, the rhythms … the voicings in the arrangement … trying to see if I could spot watered-down rhythms, not-quite-correct chords. I couldn’t. To my ears … with no orchestral string section present … outdoors, with no acoustical shells to direct the sound properly to my precise location in the audience … Penn State delivered a sound so authentic, so true to the original, that I wished I could hit rewind and listen to it again, right then.
The phrase “I couldn’t believe my ears” is thrown around with such abandon now.
But I couldn’t.
But I was forced to, because those were live humans down there – no lip sync, or the band equivalent (whatever technology *that* might require!). No faking it in any way. What you hear is what you get.
I got an earful.
Penn State put an arrangement very much like that one back into its repertoire ten years later, and they almost, almost reproduced that Allentown sound. But I think it’ll never happen again. And that’s okay. The wind was blowing just right – the winds were blowing just right – and at least one particular geek in the stands got his perfect storm, his Great Convergence of Guilty Pleasures.
[Ed. note: here's a post that appeared late last week on my blog "Editorial License", which is linked in the footer of this website. Specifically, it ran on Thursday, the day before a Big Cultural Event ... and since I've still not yet partaken of this Event, it's still entirely up-to-date. Amazing.]
So, here’s the thing about the new Star Wars movie that comes out tomorrow …
For various reasons, I won’t end up seeing the thing until it’s been in theaters for about ten days.
Weep not for me. I have a roof over my head, and food in the ol’ icebox.
But aside from my desperate attempts to avoid spoilers for a week and a half (and still somehow remain connected to my friends on social media) … and aside from my insane curiosity about things like, “who is this Daisy Ridley running-toward-exploding-spaceships character? And who is this John Boyega heavily-perspiring-stormtrooper character? And is there truth to the rumor that Han Solo and Princess Leia didn’t actually stay together, in this new Abrams-verse? And does Luke Skywalker ever take off that hoodie? And how in the world did they build that insanely fast rolling droid thingy?” … and all of those questions undoubtedly will transform into the dumbest questions imaginable, come January …
Aside from those mere trifles, the real suspense for me is … what it was when the last batch of prequel things came out, sixteen years ago:
What’s the score going to be like?
Even now, nearly forty years since Star Wars became A Thing, the same John Williams is at the helm of the Star Wars film music juggernaut as was in charge . Give or take an animated series (i.e. “Star Wars: Clone Wars” spent its first three seasons unsure about whether to avoid the classic sound or embrace it; and the more recent “Star Wars Rebels” has done a very nice job of honoring the good ol’ movie scores, and in some cases gleefully ripping them right off) … the Williams sound has been the sound of the Star Wars franchise.
He and the other handful of composers who have tackled Star Wars projects over the last four decades … have largely been creating new arrangements of that great old material.
The prequel scores, I thought, had the great potential to “reverse-engineer” the original scores (just as the stories were reverse-engineering Darth Vader’s life story) – in addition to being opportunities for more fun treatments of the music that has become, for some of us, like the artistic version of family.
Let’s find out where all those leitmotifs and themes got their start!, I thought. … Ah well.
With the exception of a really clever melodic turn at the end of what was essentially a “kindergarten with ominous foreshadowing” theme for Episode I’s young Anakin Skywalker, the occasional “Force motif” quote, and a marvelous re-setting of the Imperial March as the clone troops inexorably head off to war at the end of Episode II … the music was mostly fresh and new and struck me as the end result of a head-on collision between Harry Potter and Hook, or at least those films’ incidental music.
Well, can you forgive a composer for having a compositional style that has evolved somewhat over forty years of work?
To my eye and ear, the musical scores sold Episodes I, II and III as nearly nothing else did. And yes, there were blasts of identifiably “Star Wars-y” music. But that Star Wars Main Title theme only appeared a handful of times in the prequel trilogy, and … I don’t know about anyone else, but (as chronicled in a previous post hereabouts) I thought the Episode IV music had a certain bombastic charm, and I kinda missed it.
It was as if the extended family had come to visit after being away for a long time, and they were sorta recognizable, but there were more than enough things different about them that we had to get reacquainted again. And it didn’t feel quite the same.
Conceivably, Williams may just have been reacting compositionally to what he was seeing, in the final cuts of the prequels:  a story that inevitably will end badly, and darkly; and  an editing pace to these films that mirrors the accelerating pace of American entertainment in the years since Episode IV – i.e. there’s barely any time to linger on a visual, or bask in a great extended musical moment. The goal of a film composer is to reflect and amplify what’s on the screen; and so Williams did.
So, since “The Force Awakens” has threatened to reference the Episode IV-V-VI story and characters so much more directly than the prequel trilogy …
… the London Symphony Orchestra’s performance in Episode VII has the potential to be the world’s most Wagnerian-scale cover band in recorded history.
Whatever it is, I’ll listen to, enjoy, and in all likelihood lay out bucks for, Johnny Williams’ latest hits. He is arguably at least the greatest living American film composer. Guy knows a little somethin’ about cinematic sound.
But I’m really hoping he goes back to his Star Wars roots, if you will, on this one. I hope the family looks more like it used to.
“On teaching: … the job seems to require the sort of skills one would need to pilot a bus full of live chickens backwards, with no brakes, down a rocky road through the Andes while simultaneously providing colorful and informative commentary on the scenery.”
- author Franklin Habit
So, he puts up this (relatively) (for him) massive website to broadcast the idea that he's planning to ramp up his musical arranging efforts. Those efforts previously were just kind of an extra, something on-the-side that he did for fun and a couple of bucks here and there.
But why? My writing in recent years has been mostly for friends. I haven't gone in for all that Advertising and Marketing Stuff. I haven't done research on estimated tax payments. Why shift gears now?
Among the several perfectly good reasons, it occurred to me – and I'm talking mainly to the music teachers out there, the school ensemble directors, and possibly the church musicians as well – that there's one reason which has gotten especially notable in the last year or so:
You probably don't have a spare minute to do it yourself.
I'm lucky to know a pack of music teachers – friends and colleagues with whom I have shared tales before – who probably are capable of putting a note or two down on paper (virtual or otherwise) for their bands, jazz bands, orchestras, choruses, small groups, whatever. I can think of one such friend and colleague who just put an item together for her middle-school jazzers, and seemed quite thrilled with it.
But given all the Stuff (with a capital “S”) that teachers have to do as part of their daily jobs – and the extra Stuff that various education departments, federal, state and local, have piled on top of them – well, I can imagine many music teachers thinking, “I'd love to write out this or that tune for my gang; but with what time, exactly?”
New evaluation regimens. New requirements for record-keeping, with respect to those evaluation standards, and to special-education plans, and … well, the list goes on and on. Even if teachers were “merely” teaching, and didn't have to contend with all the other Stuff that goes with teaching (in many cases, being the parents that their students maybe don't have, or certainly could sorely use), preparation of materials and strategies for those classes still would put time at a premium. Not to mention, they might be trying to maintain lives outside the workplace. What a thought.
In the last year or two, here in Massachusetts, a new requirement was dropped onto teachers of all stripes (music included): they need to take a specialized course in how to deal with English-as-a-second-language learners, and there's a deadline before which they have to take it. It's the equivalent of a semester-long graduate class, with weekly writing assignments; and everyone must complete it, and get a good grade, … and pay for it themselves. No help from the state, or from any individual school districts. Oh joy. Another unfunded mandate.
Don't get me started. Oops. Too late.
I have it on good authority that the humor in those classes is strictly gallows.
<*shakes himself from his red-tinged haze of “you gotta be kiddin' me”*>
Having been a high school band (and chorus and jazz band) director, I know all too well the virtual mountain of to-do list items that face music teachers regularly. Sometimes it's a physical mountain of Stuff.
My new favorite quote about that specific version of teaching comes from a t-shirt meme, of all things:
Being a band director is easy.
It's like riding a bike.
Except the bike is on fire.
You're on fire.
Everything is on fire.
With all that, who has the time to write out the perfect arrangement, not to mention the time it takes to track down copyright permissions information and all the rest of the details that go into all this?
You could say I want to help.
So do feel free to pass the word … if you (or a friend or a colleague) have a project in mind that you will never in a million years get to, but would make your kids very happy (with you!) … drop me a note here, on the Contact/FAQ page …
… and let me know what I can do to make your life easier.
One of the curious terms that has sprung up in the music arranging world in the very recent past, thanks in this case to the influence of the pop music world, is the mashup.
As in, “this is a mashup of Whitney Houston's 'I Wanna Dance with Somebody' and Cyndi Lauper's 'Girls Just Wanna Have Fun'.” A couple of tunes that have at least a little to do with each other. Maybe they don't have that much to do with each other lyrically, but somehow they've been jammed together, put into the same key, perhaps linked by a compromise between their two rhythm-section grooves, and away we go.
When I first heard of the mashup, I listened briefly to one, and thought, “perhaps you meant a medley, yes?”
It can seem that way, but of course a medley is one tune, then another, distinct and separate, connected only by clever transitional material. In a mashup, the tunes appear to do something that is impossible in physics. Two objects can't exist in the same space … but two songs sometimes can.
Some mashups are sheer unadulterated brilliance – “I would never have thought of putting those two items together but don't they work!” And some are square peg / round hole creations. But it's been interesting hearing different arrangers' efforts.
The example I quote above, as you will have figured out via the link, is an actual arrangement done by Elle Brigida, a terrific arranger who has written charts for the Cape Cod-based women's a cappella group Cape Harmony for the past couple of summers, and has hit it out of the park on a regular basis. When Cape Harmony closed its shows with that one, this past summer, nothing could follow it.
Another great example of utterly inspired mashing was done by Northeastern University band director John Leonard, for the field show performed by the Central Connecticut State University Blue Devil Marching Band. In the finale of a space-music show, full of Gustav Holst's “The Planets” show through with moments from the new Star Trek movies' and the “Halo” video game's scores, John's rendition of Elton John's “Rocket Man” is sailing along, when suddenly, if you listen closely for the mellophones and saxophones, you can hear a secondary melody from Holst's “Jupiter” movement dancing around amidst the “Rocket Man” melody.
During one of CCSU's band camp music rehearsals, my instructor colleague and I realized what we were listening to, and had a moment of complete jaw-drop. Wow – John made that work. That is really cool. We found an Easter egg!
Some time ago, though, I figured out two reason why I had initially kinda looked askance at the concept (because I surely did), other than – as with every kind of musical form, in the right hands it can work and in the wrong hands you need a crash helmet (or possibly a forensics expert).
The first reason was … gang, you all may think you've created a new musical form, but as it turns out, every kindergarten kid in America has sung a partner song.
Okay, I can be fairly relaxed about that reason.
But the other reason is one that, if I don't exactly want to launch a crusade about it, at least it inspires me to make a suggestion:
Can we give it a more dignified name?
“Mashup” sounds … well … ham-handed, to me at least. “Mashup” is what you do to peas, when you're four years old and don't want to eat them for supper anymore.
When a musical mashup really works, to the point where you only realize after a few moments that you're listening to two songs work out a negotiated settlement … that's so much more sophisticated, and therefore, I think, deserves a better moniker than what it's got.
Anyone got any alternative ideas? Other than partner song, which tends to put me in mind of farmers and dells.
I don't. But I'd like some.
[Ed. note: this article is cross-posted at my "other", slightly less music-specific blog, Editorial License.]
Whenever I attend professional development conferences full of choir directors who are put in small groups and compelled to describe their groups, their programs, etc etc to the other members of the small group … I kinda have to tone it down a bit.
Because nobody wants to hear “I have lots of church choir members and our congregation is swimming in instrumentalists and we do this and that and have so much fun blah blah blah” when their choir is lucky to hit double-digits and they don't even really get on with their pastor all that well.
So, I have to come here and let it all out.
Specifically, I'm thinking of the first Sunday of each month, when, during our worship services, we assemble any or all of the ten or eleven brass players who are church members, and have them play parts while we're singing hymns.
Right around the beginning of the month, I'll get the “bulletin forecast” from our pastor, lining out the probable themes, activities and hymn choices for that first Sunday of the month, and I'll set to work throwing together some quick and painless brass arrangements.
Figuring that we only get a few minutes early on that Sunday (before the choir piles in) to rehearse anything, my goal is always to create arrangements that can basically be perfected in one shot. If that means changing the key from a brass-scary sharp key to a brass-happy flat key, so be it. And if there are four verses, the first and last for the brass are tutti block chords and exactly the same, for economy in rehearsal. The second and third verses are for high brass and low brass, respectively. Must preserve the chops.
The instrumentation is of the variety that no church musician should ever expect to have, nor should s/he take it for granted: if everyone's in, we're looking at three trumpets, French horn, four trombones (one of whom would take everything down two octaves if she were allowed!), euphonium and tuba.
This past spring, at Easter time, we gathered those forces for hymns AND the Hallelujah Chorus, and afterward I gleefully posted to social media that we'd essentially had a little drum corps in there.
When I go to write the charts, sometimes I'm not exactly sure exactly who's in and who's not … some folks eMail, and others just arrive that morning. And it's all okay … but I've developed a tactic for writing in such a way that it won't sound odd if the instrumentation is non-standard. (And the pipe organ plays all the chord tones, anyway.)
I will write two trumpet parts that look like trumpet parts; recently, at the urging of one of our trumpeters who likes a challenge, I've begun writing a part called “Trumpet 3*”, which is a doubling of a French horn part, in case there's no horn that week. I'll write three trombone parts: one in the 'bone 1 range, one called “trombone 2/euph”, in case our euphonium guy is back from college; and one that has lots of optional down-the-octave notes, for our subterranean sackbut. And of course a tuba part.
Usually, I'll take the SATB arrangement and distribute the soprano melody to the high trumpet, the alto part to the low trumpet and horn, the tenor part to the trombones and the bass part to the euph and tuba. Not terribly mysterious, here. But I've discovered that merely-four-part brass arrangements lack a certain I-don't-know-what, if you're lucky enough to have more than four players. So I regularly give in to the urge to, um, thicken the low brass chords wherever possible (while making sure that if suddenly we only have one trombone, it's playing the right chord tones … uhhhh, not that second and third trombones are unimportant, or superfluous, of course … low brass folks aren't usually touchy but we would like them to want to come back again! …). Just building in some contingency plans. Must be prepared for a duet OR a duodectet (look it up).
It's a self-imposed tightrope-y balancing act sometimes. … And it's just fine.
Tomorrow, though? I go and break one of those rules – the one about straightforward and easily sight-readable. For lo, the closing hymn is “Sing With All the Saints in Glory”, a text set to the melody of Beethoven's mighty “Ode to Joy”. And we'll have a decent subset of our brass contingent on board, plus a gentleman (a friend of a choir member) who visits us periodically with his ridiculous mad trumpet skillz – to whom I sent an eMail saying, “since you're coming to us on a Brass Sunday, does this mean I get to write totally absurd hymn arrangements?” and from whom I got this staccato eMail reply: “Absolutely!”
So, um, I kinda went a little overboard.
We'll see what kind of fireworks we can create tomorrow.
I've been a musical arranger for a long while. By contrast, I've been a website designer for only a couple of weeks.
Starred Thought: You never get a second chance at a first impression.
So have a look around, and let me know what you like, and possibly more importantly, what you think I could have done better, if only I'd had a little common sense, or training, or both. Constructive criticism is always welcome.
Ever improving the product, and all that.