This is a workplace

Had a wild time a few days ago laying down tracks in a recording studio. A singer is making an album and will do my Jobim send-up, Timid Samba, along with a new Jule Styne medley I just completed.

The tiny part of the recording process I was involved with was playing the accompaniment into an electric keyboard. Rick, the recording engineer, was fairly obsessive in trying to understand the right “feel” the singer and I want. He listened to a few Jobim numbers, and at least one Styne. Then he created a loop by recording himself shaking some maracas. After about six times through, repeating the two-bar groove, he selected the measures he’d played best to loop. This means a small bit of percussion recording, around two seconds or so, would be repeated over and over again. This was used instead of a click-track for me to keep a steady beat to in my playing.

Sound elaborate? Well, I may have just described the easiest part. The hard parts come later: If I made any mistakes in my playing (and God knows I did), Rick will go back and fix them. He does this in a manner not unlike removing a blemish on a headshot utilizing Photoshop. If I was supposed to play, say, an inverted A major triad, but failed, he’ll find an inverted A major triad elsewhere in the piece, copy it and paste it where I was supposed to play it.

But that’s not all: He’s going to orchestrate the thing. The Styne songs may end up sounding like a Broadway orchestra, and I called for a trumpet solo in my score. Timid Samba may come out sounding like Brazil 66. (If I remember correctly, at some point, Brazil 66 renamed itself Brazil 77, changing with the times.) Through some alchemy I don’t quite understand, what I played into a small keyboard will change into guitars, brass, strings, and reeds.

Rick and the singer have worked on two prior albums together, and I had a number of songs on both. The collaborators indulge each other’s craziest ideas. Many years ago, I wrote a simple pop song that was presented at Moonwork, in the old Stella Adler Studio on Lafayette Street, as if it was the number you heard during the final credits of a horror film named Ax Camp 3. Then they turned this into something of a radio play. You hear a young guy nervously treading through dried leaves, muttering about how the other campers have left him alone in the night. Then you hear the slashing of a knife, several times in quick succession, like what one might hear at Benihana. And then in comes my sappy romantic music.

Creepy? Sure, but funny, which is all these songs are ever meant to be. I was knocked out by what Rick had made of my little number. All I can recall of my contribution was that I hadn’t played it very well, but you can’t tell that from the finished product.

For the Styne medley, the singer wanted two of his favorite show-tunes patched together. I recognized that the two could probably be sung against each other in counterpoint. Since the singer wasn’t looking to make it a duet, my mind raced towards the idea that he could sing both parts of the quodlibet, dueting with himself. Which reminded me of another Styne number, Talking To Yourself. So, now I had three lyrics to shape into a story. You don’t know, at first, who he’s singing about. Then it becomes a merry paean to self-love. Ultimately, it made Rick laugh every time he heard it.

In my career, I’ve had a rocky relationship with the act of recording music. You know how, in school, if you misbehave, school officials threaten to put something down in your Permanent Record? For kids under a certain age, that’s pretty scary. When I’m recording one of my songs, I’m rather nervous at the thought that this will be the Permanent Record, the one rendition I’ll hear again and again. And, of course, others will hear and perhaps it gets remembered this way. In many cases, the only recordings of my songs are ones that have been done on hand-held devices, live in the theatre as the show was playing. And so, during one of the melodramatic pauses in A Sight So Gory, an audience member lets out a big sneeze. Those hearing this for the first time aren’t aware the sneeze isn’t a thing I wrote.

It’s often an expensive process: I must admit to you, all expensive things frighten me. It’s not so much that I’m a cheapskate; it’s an unnatural fear I’ll land in the poor house. In fact, there’s a bar in my neighborhood called The Pour House and I shudder a little each time I see it.

Musical theatre, as an entertainment experience, is one night in an auditorium. You remember what you remember, and forget a lot. But a cast album can be listened to again and again; nothing on those need be forgotten. I always write for that live audience, but, sooner or later, there’s going to be somebody who didn’t see the show, but will become familiar with my work just by listening to it. And that’s not so comfortable to me. What just flashed into my mind – probably because I recently did a show with the performer – is a teaching number I wrote where a three-star general takes off her bullet belt and starts using it as a dominatrix would use a whip. This visual helped to make my song fly. But a recording doesn’t give you that hysterical image, leaving it earthbound.

I guess that’s why I’m so appreciative of what Rick did with Dripping. Using a sonic bag of tricks, he aurally created an Ax Camp 3 so real, you can almost smell the blood.


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