Sleepy

January 17, 2019

On my birthday I sometimes I feel like it’s a good time for self-congratulation. Other times, I feel I do way too much of that sort of thing already. But right now, I’m feeling pretty good because I’ve just written a draft of the Opening Sequence of a musical and take a great deal of satisfaction in assembling the various elements that are needed up front. Musicals must make a good first impression. Show me A Typical Day In Dogpatch, U.S.A. and I’m primed for a certain kind of humor all night long. At the opposite end of the spectrum is my favorite whipping boy, Still Hurting, in which lights went up on a lachrymose young woman who wailed her dismay that her romance had gone wrong. I wanted to bolt for the door. And the show never quite recovered from the initial unappealing note of self-pity.

So, in discussions with an unusually large collaborative team, I kept emphasizing our need to keep Scene One positive. And so, I’ve written energetic and catchy music, loaded the lyrics and dialogue with cleverness and/or jokes, introducing a community with something to celebrate. As we write more and start rehearsing (that’s any day now), we might discover I’ve set the wrong tone. But right now, I’m feeling uncharacteristically positive about it.

People feel old on their birthdays, but I’m noticing a way in which I’ve changed with the times, in a songwriting sense. The much-admired Broadway composer Lawrence O’Keefe does something that I think of as music designed for short attention spans. Often, the feel or groove it’s in drastically alters rather abruptly. My opening number does something similar: There’s one kind of energy for the intro, which is all in the bass clef, then an Andrew Lloyd Webber-esque duet made of descending lines, a short speech and then a Motown-like ditty in a new key. After two A sections, the feel changes to plainer pop over a bass line that walks down the scale. Then there’s funny dialogue covering a seemingly important Event. The villain launches into the Motown melody and then the chorus takes up the pop tune. Three new characters have a funny spoken exchange which is underscored by a sentimental waltz, then launch into the pop. Another bit of dialogue gives a new character something to celebrate. Then the chorus finishes things off with the Motown into pop sequence one last time. Much less fun to read about than to hear, but this illustrates what I mean when I say it keeps changing.

Time pressure on this show has led to a lot of quick turnaround. I furiously turned out ten other songs in the past month, and that included holidays and my mother-in-law occupying my office for ten days. When something is quickly created, it can be quickly discarded (if it has to be) without a great sense of loss; easy come, easy go. A couple of days ago, the writing team convened and I was asked what I needed to proceed. All I could think of asking for was a list of events, in order, that needed to happen in the first scene. That four-part opening number was written weeks ago, but now there was a larger structure to fit it into. The list was just what I needed.

Deborah S. Craig & Aaron Ramey sing a song of mine at the NEO Concert at the York.

At this point, I’m wondering whether I’m enamored with my work or more self-impressed with the mere fact that the work got done.

Songwriting that spurts out that quickly is aided by something that might be called Modeling on Antecedents. In the musty old file cabinets of my mind are a plethora of songs I’ve heard more than once, and admire. So, when I examine the situation in the show’s story that requires a song, I sometimes say, “needs a song like I Want It All from Baby.” That gives me a template. So the second number has those energetic eight eighth notes to the bar thing from the great female trio. And the bass rises on off-beats, I-III-IV, which I’m aware is a bit of Cats dance music I once found too tricky to play. A song about the start of a marriage takes it accompaniment figure from a more sour Sondheim song about marriage, The Little Things You Do Together. The lullaby needed to have the simple sincerity of Lay Down Your Head from Violet. A chorale about friendship has some distant relationship to some forgotten sitcom theme, and the word, “freedom,” inspired something along the lines of the Aretha Franklin classic, Think. And the finale uses a measure from Cole Porter’s Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, which was known as a delightful duet long before the title was borrowed for a game show. So, right now, you might be humming a whole bunch of really disparate numbers. But the audience that will hear this score in May is unlikely to think of any of them; they’re totally transmogrified. And one ballad is a simplification of a sophisticated number I wrote last year that nobody’s heard. The point is, having these other tunes as a leaping off point helped me unleash the floodgates of creation.

And it’s been a lot of fun. There is something uniquely enjoyable about solving dramaturgic problems through the creation of songs that illuminate turns of plot, and where characters stand; this sort of thing is catnip to me. And nothing stops you from dragging your feet like knowing that a deadline looms ahead. The show opens May 23rd in Beverly Hills; I hope you’ll come see.

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Untitled

January 9, 2019

I’ve been writing a slew of songs lately, and, paradoxically, my break before getting back to this rap nonsense – oh, that’s not a pejorative; merely descriptive – is to share a little bit about how I do it.

Alone in the Lab

There’s a good amount of solitude involved. I’ve found that there’s no use in talking about the song I’m going to write. People can’t share that vision; they need to hear the tangible thing. So, I have this image of myself as a scientist who merrily mixes stuff in beakers, with nobody watching, until some new potion is ready for presentation for others.

Practically, I have to have many hours of uninterrupted concentration. (This can be hard to get.) There will be pads of lined paper, which is not the same as blank music paper, which I’ll also need.

In the Beginning Was the Word

But not just yet. I like to focus, first, on what’s being communicated in the song. Since it’s almost always a song in a musical, I’ve a lot of parameters that are set up by the needs of the show. I know what the song needs to accomplish, dramatically. One of the pitfalls, here, is that a good song in a musical doesn’t amplify or explain and emotion the audience already knows, or can deduce.

But that’s a problem that can be fixed later. Once songs are completed, there’s all sorts of adjustments that need to be made – often cutting bits of book – to avoid redundancy. Let me emphasize that again: avoid redundancy.

Staring at the blank page, I begin to list things that might go in the song. As I do this, the need for a title is never far from my mind. A good title will encapsulate most of what a song is saying. That’s why it’s usually possible to get a sense of a musical’s plot just by looking at the names of its numbers. But, at this point in the process, you don’t need to have decided on the final title. You’re just listing.

Patterns Emerge

As the list grows, a sort of child’s game begins. Finding matches. The element most likely to leap out is rhyme. One could circle the rhymes, but I never do this, since I think in rhymes. It’s too obvious, to me, to waste time circling. A more important match would be metrical feet. Setting rhyme aside, can phrases be assembled that would have the rhythm of poetry? If you recognize rhythmic patterns, you’re well on the way to starting a melody.

I heard a rumor about Cole Porter: That he would set a lyric by notating the rhythms first, and the pitches came later. But what I’m more likely to do is to investigate various ways the stresses might fall. The image here is that of an actor, testing out different interpretations of a speech. Usually, more than one rhythmic setting will work. But here’s where you go beyond Cole: If you’re pondering the voice of the actor, you’re probably getting a sense of the shape of the melody. Nobody speaks in a monotone, except maybe that dullard who chants “stars and the moon and a soul to guide you.” Don’t be like that character! You’d rather have the moon.

Building Blocks

I’m not sure what to call what you have at this point – a snatch of melody? Well, scientist, you now have an element you can build with. That snatch could go somewhere in your song, and it’s going to be one of many pieces you’ll use. So it’s probably time to think about the larger structure. Piecing together an A section, you’ll now make decisions about where the title goes, where the rhymes go, and how to use those matching rhythms you identified earlier. And, by this point, you’ve chosen the title, which is more than I can say for this essay.

And then give a thought to the larger structure. Your B section will provide a contrast. This might be harmonic, or take the voice to a different tessitura, or, most likely, there’s a rhythmic contrast. A song I’m writing now starts in a minor key – the title’s the first line, but there’s a rhythmic match with the third line there – and is on jagged syncopations. The bridge is higher, in major, and involves much longer sustained notes the singer can open up on. Just the example I have on my mind at the moment. Right now I don’t know about other sections, although I’ve been playing with a somewhat long intro and, as an obstetrician once said to my wife, “I suspect there’s a C section in your future.”

Color By Numbers

Now that I’m thinking about my daughter, let’s consider a bunch of First Graders being given the same color-by-numbers page and an unlimited spectrum of colored pencils. The little artistic prodigies will choose different pigments that give the same drawing a wide array of emotional characteristics. It’s something I particularly love about the painting done about a century ago: Unexpected hues led to unexpected feelings.

Give music students – Tenth Graders, perhaps – the same lead sheet and the geniuses will come up with chords that put the tune across with varying levels of piquancy. Now, if you’ve familiarized yourself with thousands of songs over the years, (and if you haven’t, why not?) you’ve recognized patterns in the chord symbols. It’s fair to say there’s usually the Most Obvious Way a melody might be harmonized. But why would you want to go with the Most Obvious Way? Leave that for the non-genius Tenth Graders.

Learning Through Observation

My daughter has started playing music too loud in the next room, and it’s one of those uninventive kiddie ditties with Most Obvious everything – Can You Imagine That? I’ve often spoken, here, of the sign in my office that reads Eschew Cliché. In order to do that, you’re really going to have to take a good long look at a huge quantity of songs from the past 100 years or so. See what they do with placing a title in the A section, deciding where the rhymes go, where the rhythmic matches show up. And if you’re staring at sheet music with chord symbols, take a gander at how the tune’s being colored. Anything that’s been done too much is, by definition, a cliché. Excuse me, I feel a sneeze coming on: Eschew!


Haven

December 14, 2018

Another of my musicals has a major anniversary this month. You’ve heard me claim The Christmas Bride has little to do with Christmas. Well, The Heavenly Theatre: Hymns For Martyred Actors has more to do with Halloween than anything Yule celebrate this month. It’s a ghost story, and certain wisps of memory I have about it haunt me to this day.

My collaborator was extraordinarily talented, but I’m not going to reveal his name. (Ooh, a mystery as well as a ghost story!) This is because I want to speak honestly about him and some of the callous things he did to me, but it’s classless and/or impolitic to speak ill of the rich and famous. He went on to win the Tony, the Pulitzer, an Emmy – but for now let’s just call him Individual One.

He said he loved musicals, but he seemed troubled by his own ardor. He once told me he considered them an inherently conservative art form, meant to lull the audience into bourgeois complacency. So, to be a good leftist, it seemed, one had to reject certain musical comedy conventions; to rouse rather than to lull. Them’s fighting words. I was fairly political, of a similar stripe, but didn’t see my embrace of certain time-honored theatrical forms as inherently conservative.

Most songwriters would have cursed out Individual One, refused to work on the project, slammed the door. The 23-year-old me thought that all collaborations involve a certain amount of compromise. If I broke things off, he’d find another writer, and I’d be just another writer without a show. If I found a way to work with Individual One, to get past this rather silly difference, we could create something interesting. Yes, my traditionalism would clash with his incendiary rejection of what had gone before, but I didn’t want our audience lulled into anything either. It was exciting to see where his approach would take this thing.

And, at every point, I never lost sight of two positives: Individual One has an extraordinary brain, able to unite a plethora of disparate concepts, to quote and discourse on a large array of complicated philosophies, to utilize a wide range of theatrical effects. Also, the script crackled with passion and poetry. This guy could write – boy, could he write – and I didn’t want to unhitch my wagon from a speeding locomotive.

I’d contributed some incidental music to three plays he’d written or directed, but The Heavenly Theatre would be a whole score with lyrics by Individual One. That threw me off my game, as I’m always most comfortable creating both words and music all by myself and usually at once. Here, I was handed text to set. And the words – which usually lacked rhyme, meter, or matching sections – were unlike any lyrics I’d ever seen. Forget making this sound like a musical; how could I make this sound like a song? I felt a need to honestly communicate the difficulty I was having to Individual One, and hoped he could restructure his blank verse into something with a little more form. But my request enraged him. “We’re not collaborating here. You’re working for me. Now, if you don’t like it, resign from this now, while I have time to get a different composer.”

999 out of a thousand would have resigned, but I figured writing with someone is an experience one is bound to learn from. Individual One was so clearly brilliant in so many things, was abandoning him the right way to go? Plus, I had a plan, and that plan involved writing a song. I could take one of his lyrics and reconfigure it into a rhyming, metered, traditionally structured opening number. My efforts energized me. I knew the song was everything the show needed, introducing characters and a style of comedy; showmanship tinged with Bach-like melismas. Individual One grudgingly accepted this into the show. I felt like I’d won one.

From then on his lyrics got more settable, and I found that there were compositional techniques that suggest structure to the listener. One example involved an unusual rhythm that’s first heard on a drum – it alternates 6/8 and 4/4 – and the feel is that of an ancient country dance. The lyric doesn’t utilize a title, but tells a frightening story that’s very compelling. The cadences of those hard beats command the attention of the audience. The whole thing managed to come across.

If I was able to channel my frustrations with my collaborator into my creative work, so was Individual One. The premise of The Heavenly Theatre is that, in medieval times, a government official has ordered the death of a commedia dell’arte troupe. They get revenge by returning as ghosts, presenting him with a musical about the events leading to their murder. Now, of course, the haunted martinet doesn’t like the show, so, after some numbers, he gets to yell his disapproval. In a way, this may have been a healthy outlet for Individual One’s disapproval of me.

Ours is not the only musical set in medieval France with a composer approaching his 24th birthday. There’s also Pippin, and the creative pressures birthing that one led director Bob Fosse to bar songwriter Stephen Schwartz from rehearsals. As rotten luck would have it, I, too, was subjected to this cruel and unusual punishment by Individual One. This was emotionally devastating to me, but I had a great deal of confidence in musical director Wade Russo. He saw to it my music was brought to life, and we remain friends to this day.

Alas, I can’t say the same for Individual One. I ran into about a month after performances, and wondered if it might ever be done again. No, Individual One told me firmly. After our difficulties working together, he’d have to find a different composer for any further permutation of The Heavenly Theatre. He did just that, and the show was announced as part of a major theatre’s season about ten years later, but never came to pass.

Merry Christmas!


Etude

November 17, 2018

I envy the music critic Alex Ross for his ability to talk about composition in a way that both musicians and the never-even-took-piano crowd can understand. And there’s an assumption in that: I can’t be sure those wholly unfamiliar with theory are able to follow along. But today, I want to write about the process of choosing the notes to throw on a page. And I want to throw words on this page that won’t alienate anyone.

A song has various components. One is

Melody

and if I asked you to hum your favorite showtune – sans words – the melody is what you’d be humming. In musicals, it’s important that the tune puts across the lyric in a way that makes dramatic sense. So, the composer looks at text in the way an actor might, choosing what syllables to emphasize:

Don’t call me at 3 a.m. from a friend’s apartment.
I’d like to choose how I hear the news.

To Andrew Lloyd Webber, the important syllables in this rather moving passage are “ment” of “apartment” and “I’d.” The voice leaps up to hit these fairly hard; then the same thing happens on “how I.” Does that make any sense to you? Of course it doesn’t. But that’s my theory: Andrew Lloyd Webber is an Englishman who doesn’t know how to speak English.

The other trouble with the leap is that it’s hard to sing. After sitting down below the staff, you have to ascend a major seventh – a rather uncommon interval – into a completely different part of the vocal range. Am I being too technical, here? This is merely evidence for my other theory: that Andrew Lloyd Webber hates singers.

Harmony

There’s more to a song than the vocal line. The piano or orchestra will definitely play something in addition to the melody. Two notes that are different make up a chord. I find the selection of chords particularly fascinating. They give emotional contours to a tune. And I’m not going to name names here, but I know of a major Broadway score in which the composer sang into a tape recorder, sans accompaniment. Others filled in the harmonies, and those others did a particularly wonderful job. The result is a famously beautiful score, but the people who didn’t get the credit are the deserving ones. Sorry, I’m not going to reveal the secret.

Garden variety scores tend to use the most obvious harmonies, and I’ve noticed this is often true of works by rock songwriters. Most pop music is written on guitars, and the fingers of rockers tend to fall on familiar frets. The aesthetic, over there in pop-land, isn’t to search for patterns you haven’t heard before. I don’t know why. In my writing, I’m constantly looking for the chord you’re not likely to expect. But one can go overboard with this sort of thing, and a “constantly surprising refrain” may be too weird for most ears. So, show-creators strike a happy medium: not too hot; not too cold, but something Goldilocks would enjoy.

Rhythm

“Hup-two-three-four!” the drill sergeant yells, and that’s about as uninteresting as a rhythm can get. But get too interesting, and your audience gets unsettled. We need Goldilocks again.

Whenever you emphasize an unexpected beat – that is, not the marching cadence, that’s called syncopation, which is the root of jazz, broadly defined.

In the theatre, we’re always concerned with the lyrics sounding natural. Musicals shift from dialogue to singing, and if syllables get mis-accented, well that’s going to get in the way of understanding. Nothing’s worse than that. And yet false stresses abound – the songwriting mistake I see most often. Just yesterday, I was working on a song that’s in one of these awful jukebox musicals, and the word “watusi” put “wa” and “si” on strong beats, leading to all sorts of problems.

In an early comedy song, I commented on these sorts of errors with this bridge:

The bridge is a little too brief
And the rhythm is beyond belief

Of course, the challenge was to set the last line with as many false accents as possible.

Accompaniment

When I first started writing musicals, I hadn’t progressed very far in my piano studies. I knew what chords I wanted, and my first few scores I wrote nothing but lead sheets. These show what the singer does – the melody and lyric, and name the chord – G7, F#dim, etc. Those tell you what the chord is, but not how to express it. And that’s leaving a lot up to chance, or your arranger or accompanist’s taste. A composer’s job isn’t truly finished until there’s a full piano score, telling the musician exactly what both hands are playing.

Sometimes, the inability to write an interesting accompaniment is related to insufficient piano skill. And there are plenty of times in which singers need the support of hearing the melody in the accompaniment; this is called doubling.

There’s a song I admire greatly in which the melody isn’t the least bit impressive, the rhythm is annoyingly machine-like, and the harmonic structure isn’t extraordinary. But the accompaniment is so fascinating, and the lyric so trenchant, that when the components come together it hits you with such power, you go “wow!”

Another hundred songwriters aren’t considering interesting ways to support the melody. I think back to my early teens, and recall my composition teacher encouraging me to come up with something more compelling than the block chords on quarter beats I used in my earliest songs. Many current tunesmiths hit the same dull chord on the hup-two-three-four. If they knew now what I knew then, scores of scores would be livelier.

 


Just another lazy summer

August 11, 2018

Later this month, I’ll celebrate the centenaries of two of the greatest musical theatre writers. But, today, I celebrate myself. And I realize that’s quite a let-down. You know and love the songs and shows of the August birthday boys, and I’ll share some ideas about what makes them work. You’re less aware of my songs and shows, so if I detail what went into them, that lack of familiarity becomes a problem.

And I never want to use this page to brag. It seems so unseemly. But, in contemplating what to write about today, I’ve a few accomplishments that refuse to be ignored.

     *   This blog passed the 40,000-visitor mark.

I don’t know how meaningful that is. It’s just a number. And one never knows why people click to this blog. It could be to stare at a picture of Fantasia Barrino cleavage. Certain surfers search for specific images, and sometimes clicking on pics brings them here. I don’t kid myself that the forty-grand were all, or even mostly, musical writers.

     *   I successfully delivered my Subjective History of Musical Theatre to the general public for the first time.

Here’s why I make the distinction about the general public: For eighteen years or so, my one-man show has been put in front of theatre students. They paid tuition for two years, and get a lot of education in various forms. On some seemingly random days, they got my storytelling marathon, illustrated with songs and bad chalkboard drawings – a set of tall tales and jokes, tragedies and innovations that make up the long history of our genre.

The question in my mind was whether this thing would go over well with people who aren’t in a school setting. The audience I’m accustomed to already knew me as a musical director bursting with opinions about musicals. That engendered a built-in interest in what I might have to say about Gilbert & Sullivan, Rodgers & Hart and all the rest. This month, a crowd ranging in age from 16 to 66 came, saw, had a great time, applauded. It’s amazing to me that so many took the leap of faith to come see.

And I got to be in my element, for eight hours, in a room with a piano, talking about theatre, interacting with folks who invested some time and money in what I had to say.

     *   Teaching song interpretation and song improvisation

In a spiffy theatre complex in Beverly Hills, I introduced some principles of musical theatre performance to differently-abled young people. This was a bit of an adventure, as I had no special training or preparation on how to deal with them all. But the room was full of helpers, skilled and experienced, ready to handle anything I couldn’t. And I’m smiling at that word, “helpers.” Were they there to help them or there to help me?

     *   Since the Fourth of July, I’ve written seven new songs for a musical my collaborator once declared “almost done.”

Is anything really “almost done?” To me, “almost done” is the final dress rehearsal before the paying public comes. Rewriting is constant and I’m plagued with questions like “Is this really better than what we had before?” Songs are such a powerful form of expression, every new song that goes in to a script is likely to require many adjustments to that script. One must keep an eye on how the audience is going to take it all in. It’s a common problem for something to be expressed in dialogue, and then a song is written to express that thing, and the first expression gets left in the script; so, the audience hears the same thing twice. Each of these seven songs carries a lot of narrative weight. My collaborator wanted them written, but they always lead to his doing more work.

And one of them has already been cut. While I’ve written seven new songs, only six of them are going to be in the new draft. (Really, I hope five, since one might replace a song I love.) But all I mean to acknowledge here is that it’s been a very productive period. That’s more than a song per week.

Summer tends to be a fecund time of year for me. So much of On the Brink was created in the months right before our first rehearsal that autumn. The bulk of Murder at the Savoy was written over summer vacation before my senior year at college. Not the title, though; it was then called Pulley of the Yard. On The Pirate Captains, I had a deadline. That was a commission where they didn’t need it good, they needed it fast. And so it was.

I guess this all conjures up an image of your faithful reporter escaping the blazing sun to hide inside under a fan, flinging notes at a page. Yes, that’s about it.

The sweat of actually writing these things isn’t my favorite part of the process. I prefer Having Written. I like an audience reacting to my songs and shows for the first time. These new songs, I feel, constitute a first draft, and from now until opening night, I’m beset with something akin to a low-level fever. It’s the urge to polish, to fix things through writing. If there’s a way to make this better, my pen is at the ready. The book writer may say he can make it all work wonderfully with adjustments to the script. The director will have staging ideas that, she thinks, can put each number across. The performers will give their all, and we’re reliant on them, the faces the audience sees. Looking at this list of recently-written numbers, I don’t feel any of them are ready for the public. But they’re ready to share with collaborators, and, together, we’ll fashion an effective entertainment.

Today, I’ll merely toast the accomplishment of getting so many first drafts done. One of four achievements this month, but here my glass is raised the highest of them all.


Pieces of eight

March 22, 2018

It is easy to knock Andrew Lloyd Webber.
It is easy to mock Andrew Lloyd Webber.

And sometimes I think his unparalleled financial success brings out a certain snarkiness in us under-compensated musical theatre people. But then, his hero, Richard Rodgers, had success writing shows, unlike anyone previous, and was snark unleashed at him? Simply less snarky times, the good old days? Or could it be that Lloyd Webber (his 70th birthday is today) is really awful?

I’m writing this on the Ides of March, and come not to damn him, but to praise him. (Every post provides its own challenges.) First, I must note that we tend to think of his shows as Andrew Lloyd Webber shows, and forget he has collaborators. That’s unusual. Quick, who wrote Phantom of the Opera? Chances are you didn’t say Charles Hart, who wrote the lyrics. And the book, oddly, is credited to Lloyd Webber and Richard Stilgoe. It wasn’t ever thus. For a long time, people talked of Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice as a team, but then they both had success with other collaborators.

So, if this composer gets practically all the credit, he also tends to get all the blame. If Stephen Ward bombed (and it did), a lot of people point to Lord Lloyd Webber, but it seems logical that an inept retelling of the Profumo affair might better be laid at the feet of wordsmiths Christopher Hampton and Don Black.

Although it’s clear Lloyd Webber is involved with many aspects of his shows, he comes off a bit better if we view him solely as a composer. Take the anthropomorphic revue that he’s most widely derided for, Cats. There had to be a time when thirty-ish Andrew felt it was time to take time off from working with Rice on shows about celebrities and their fawning fans. He set himself a simpler task: setting music to a famous set of nursery rhymes by T.S.Eliot. Each page of doggerel describes a different pussy personality, so it makes sense to set each in a different musical style. And here the score succeeds in spades. There’s the stodgy Bustopher Jones strut, the Andrews Sisters bit, the train-like number in 13/8 time, and my personal favorite, the sentimental waltz about the old theatre cat. Good stuff, and it might have made a fine children’s album, or a concert for kids.

Powerful commercial forces made it something else entirely, the first “theme park” musical. Compared to other works for the stage, it’s a furry mess. You want to blame Lloyd Webber for that, be my guest. But the challenge he originally set for himself was admirably fulfilled.

When you have a project that’s not intended to be a stage musical and then repurpose the material for the West End, you naturally run into trouble. Say you’re fashioning a one-woman show for television. The small screen focus on one character, one performer managing to tell a story involves close-ups and something of a rock concert aesthetic. The singer’s range comes into play. So, for Marti Webb, Lloyd Webber could write a major seventh leap in the middle of a word (“apartment”) and get away with it. (Normally, this is considered horrible voice-leading.) But here come those money-grubbers again: Let’s make this musical for the stage. One star sings for the first act. Dancers enter for Act Two, using the variations of the familiar Paganini theme you wrote for your cellist brother. Poof, we have something big enough for Broadway. Now, as musicals go, Song and Dance may be fairly weak tea. But what Lloyd Webber originally composed for television is strong Earl Grey. I admire Come Back With the Same Look In Your Eyes and appreciate that Nothing Like You’ve Ever Known makes 5/4 time palatable; its awkwardness works in its favor. Again, what started as a little thing with certain virtues got blown up into something much bigger but less effective. And when you have an extremely predictable tune called When You Want To Fall In Love, the last thing you ought to do is change the lyric to Unexpected Song. Unexpected? The title invites the mockery.

Back in her performing days, my wife dazzled as two Lloyd Webber heroines, but it was a college assignment she told me about that first clued me in to the notion that this was someone I could marry. In it, she described compositional techniques used in Jesus Christ Superstar. As Judas froths with self-revulsion over his betrayal of Jesus, a chorus sings a calm major chord “Well done, Judas.” – in a completely different key. It’s a dissonance built on utterly disparate things: traditional church choir and contemporary self-lacerating rock. This is so effective, I’d call it a sonic coup, or – dare I say it? – original.

And that’s a word rarely applied to the Brit who’s served up Puccini, Bach, Mendelssohn and Pink Floyd and passed it off as his own. And I’m reminded that my wife heard something I was writing recently and claimed it was a theft from Phantom of the Opera. Is robbing a robber robbery? When it was pointed out that the first measure of Music of the Night is startlingly similar to Lerner & Loewe’s Come To Me Bend To Me, Lloyd Webber claimed it was his homage to Lerner, who was, at one point, supposed to write the words to Phantom. (Quite the homage to Lerner, quoting the work of Loewe.) But, you see, this is the problem with considering Lloyd Webber as anything other than the crafter of tunes. His talent lies not in talking about his work, but in coming up with melodies. Get past the derivativeness of bar one, and the long quote from Girl of the Golden West, and you’ll find a bridge that travels into odd and exciting places. There’s gold in dem hills; you just have to dig for it.


There’s gotta be an alternative

March 14, 2018

I’m setting myself a couple of huge challenges with this post. I’m going to talk about the process of writing music in a way that every reader out there can understand and yet will still be of some interest to those mavens who know way more about music theory than I do. And, if that isn’t hard enough, I’m going to start with a brief mention of current events that’s going to seem like it’s about politics, but really is not about politics at all.

You ready?

There’s a look of delight on Rachel Maddow’s face whenever she announces new indictments coming out of Robert Mueller’s investigation. And here’s the thing: her delight is not about another Trump-connected person going down. It’s about the unpredictability of the successfully secretive Mueller team. She can’t tell what he’ll do next and this fact truly tickles her.

Harmony’s a lot like that.

Things happen in sequences, and we can say they run on a scale going from most obvious to most surprising. We’ve all suffered through plots that get us to think, “I saw that coming.” Good plots tend to surprise us.

I’ve always been crazy about chord symbols. Not all music has them, but those Vocal Selections from Broadway shows usually do. And that’s where my eye goes. For most of my piano-playing career, my eye had to go there because I find it easiest just to play the vocal line and let my left hand render those chords. But this isn’t about playing music, it’s about analyzing as a step towards writing better music. So, I’m reading that sequence of chords and I might find them very surprising or not at all.

There’s always a most obvious chord. In a way, this is kind of comforting. The composer knows a path, a place to go next. I can draw you a chart. But a lot of people are scared of charts, and anything called “music theory.” Fear not! I’m making this simple. The Circle of Fifths is a way of arranging the twelve possible notes you can build chords upon in the shape of a clock. The space between any two that are next to each other is exactly the same. Travel counter-clockwise, and your harmony is going the most obvious route.

When I was sixteen, I wrote a little theme and started with something you don’t hear every day, going from F to B. But, from there, I took the cliché path, right around that circle: Em7, A9, Dm7, G7(b9), C7. (You can safely ignore anything that isn’t a capital letter.) I then repeated the sequence: F, B, Em7, A9, Dm7, G13(b9), C. I’m sorry if this looks like gobbledy-gook to you. Just saying that there’s a cliché involved in traveling along that clock.

For years I kept a sign over my desk that read:

ESCHEW CLICHÉ

Every time I pick a chord on that well-traveled path, I die a little. I’ve failed to eschew cliché. But here it must be said that if your chord sequence is too weird, listeners will revolt. Nobody hums Arnold Schonburg. Musical fans frequently hum Claude-Michel Schönberg, who consistently uses those most obvious harmonies. 30 years ago I walked out of Les Misérables humming Pachelbel’s Canon. This is considered the ultimate classical music cliché, because of its ultra-obvious and endlessly iterated harmonic structure. Its use in the film, Ordinary People, have led many to call it Ordinary Music.

But Les Miz is such a hit. It’s been suggested to me that my sign ought to read

EMBRACE CLICHÉ

But there’s got to be a happy medium, right? There’s got to be a way of avoiding too many obvious steps. Of shaking the listener, a little, but not so often that she can’t grasp what she’s hearing on first hearing.

Composers often talk in terms of emotional colors, but that’s so abstract. Instead, let’s talk in terms of cooking. You’re a chef who’s willing to experiment. You’ve a huge spice rack. (I like to alphabetize mine.) So, cilantro and cinnamon are right next to each other. How does your stew taste if you add those two? It’s either intriguing or ick. Now, maybe I’ve watched too many episodes of Top Chef, but I think every experienced chef knows something about flavor on the effect of adding any spice on the rack.

Combinations of chords hit the ear in different emotional ways. Think about this stuff enough, and you memorize the feel behind a slew of them. Composers know what’s intriguing and what’s ick. Many’s the time we go to the most obvious chord, that neighbor on the Circle of Fifths. But I tend to admire those brave enough to go to unexpected places. If you surprise my ear, my attention gets drawn in; whereas a pattern I’ve heard a million times before is easy to tune out. Vernon Duke, Leonard Bernstein, David Shire, Adam Guettel – these wizards take my ear on a journey filled with surprising harmonies, God love ‘em.

Of course, good songs are written in different ways. One pictures James Taylor, hearing of the death of a young friend, and strumming the most obvious chords on his guitar, without thinking, perhaps, pouring out his emotions. There’s nothing wrong with Fire and Rain and I admit that what I do is fairly uncommon. I prefer to experiment with unexpected harmonic language quite often, as if ESCHEW CLICHÉ was a command from God. And “God,” you know, is my silly pet name for George Gershwin.