Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Steering the Pitches

One of my favorite online video bloggers is a guy named Christian Henson. He's a media composer and a "big cheese" at Spitfire Audio, who produce some of the orchestral samples I use my composition. Christian is a very intelligent guy who -- as I do -- tends to wander through diverse topics. His "vlog" is often about composition and often about life -- always about both. I have learned a great deal from him about the craft of composing "orchestral mockups" -- in short, orchestral music from recorded samples of real players -- and he has often left me thinking long and hard about life. (A man after my own heart.)

But, the other day, he made me realize that I have had just about enough of The Information Age.

The topic was whether "the media composer" (he or she who composes for film, games and TV) will become extinct with the recent inception of artificial intelligence "composition." Apparently -- this is the first I have heard of it -- there are services through which you can have music composed through A.I. know what? I just don't effing care.

I can't be wringing my hands over whether the machines will take over the world or whether I will lose my next gig to a Mac Pro. What I have to do is what I know I can do: keep writing music that is better than that which any machine will ever write. I know that some people will not be able to tell the difference between mine and a tune generated by algorithm, but...what, exactly, am I supposed to do with this information? -- that one can order music written by a program that comes more cheaply and more quickly? One only has so much energy for lifetime. One only has so much "bandwidth" for each day.

We live in the "Information Age," so, every moment, we see another article that tells us how we are doing everything wrong. Apart from the fake stuff (and it is out there, in droves, despite Trump's absurd attempt to claim credit for the "fake news" phrase and his tendency to paint anything he doesn't like as "fake") there is a never-ending parade of bad news and revisionist philosophy about what we do and how we do it. "Information" shared among "communities." (Both worlds just about make me puke at this point.)

It seems to me that, in futuristic retrospect, one of the virtues of a person of our time will have been determined to have been the ability to ignore the smothering torrents of information we endure all day, every day; to push forth regardless of the world's attempt to overload our memory banks.

Those who distinguish themselves to future recognition will be the ones who acted upon their feelings and instincts: the dad who handled his son's scraped knee the way he saw fit and not the dad who read a ton of articles about how comforting the boy too much is a mistake or that not comforting him as much as he wants is a mistake; the mom who lets her frightened kid sleep in her bed because it feels right and not because the choice is validated on several websites; the writer who still uses a typewriter and delivers his manuscripts in person because it feels right; the guy who holds doors because it is right and does not fear the implications about gender relations; the businessperson who is not afraid to tell his or her employees they"look nice today;" the teacher who is not afraid to tell a student his answer is wrong.

Am I raising my kids right? Am I brushing my teeth right? Washing my face with the right soap? Is soap okay on my face, at all? Is artificial intelligence going to start writing books? Are there not enough black men in baseball? Are there not enough white guys in football? Is every person who voted for Trump a racist? Is time in sun worth the vitamin D, in spite of the cancer risk? Are hallucinogens the future of treating depression? If we treat suicide with too much understanding, will more people do it? If we call it cowardice, will it cause more suffering? How many sexes are there, exactly? Should we change everything if .00000000908% of the population is unhappy? Does Mozart really make babies smarter? How many hours should I allow my son to play Call of Duty? Is Call of Duty causing mass shootings? Is my house a more healthful place with the windows open? Or...closed?

...are composers going to become obsolete?

I just don't care. I need to live and do. I need to feel and act. Every one of those things in the long paragraph above -- with a pinch of hyperbole, perhaps -- is something that social and conventional media have attempted to chloroform me with over the last week.

I don't blame Christian for bringing up the topic and, in fact, he had some encouraging things to say about us humans. But, good Lord, I find myself saying, more and more, "What am I supposed to do with this information?" Rather than work to comfort myself that it will all be okay for composers, I'm just going to crank out more music. Rather than worry about what is socially acceptable, I'm just going to keep being nice to people.

Some time ago, there was a piece on the radio about publishers using e-reader algorithms to track reader tendencies: How long do they read per session? Which pages do they spend the most time on? What content makes them slow down in their reading? What makes them skip forward? Do they read inside or outside? When Stephen King was asked about what he thought about this, he said it better than I could. He said he wants nothing to do with this info. He needs to write. Using this information before writing, he said, would encourage a pitcher to try to steer the ball after it leaves his hand.


Maybe worst of all the consequences of The Information Age is the fact that as we are being filled with information, we are forgetting how to use reasoning. Why should we think things through if we can scoop up all of our procedures in a quick Internet search?

Maybe I can sum it all up with the example of the map and the GPS in a car. Sure, a map is information, but you need to reason your way through it; see what road connects to which; decide whether to go north, south, east or west...choose scenic routes over highways... The GPS gets us there; tells us where and when to turn. We've though about nothing, planned nothing and have been more-or-less uninvolved in our own journey.

We have turned from explorers into direction-followers, literally and metaphorically. We think less and react more. We join on-line "communities" and thought-groups. It's easier that way.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Peerless Annabelle and Me

Annabelle Moore, 1878-1961
Last Wednesday night, well into the still of Thursday morning, in fact, I had an encounter with a woman who wasn't my wife. No laws or vows were broken, but Annabelle and I did sort of share a certain intimacy...across time.

I had just finished writing a piano piece called "C in Three." It was a "pitch" for a Netflix documentary. Based on their "temp" music (an example of the type of sound they want for their movie) I decided to follow the restriction that the composer of the example had -- to compose only on the "white keys" of the piano; so, in the key of C, with no accidental sharps or flats. "C in Three" was the result of a very quick turn-around writing session.

I decided it would be cool, since the piece is in kind of a camouflaged waltz time, to set it to a video of someone dancing a waltz. What I found was not exactly what I was looking for. I found Annabelle Moore, but she was not waltzing. But in her, I found a soul, long-faded from this world, preserved in the small square of a moving picture like a firefly cupped in gentle hands; an imperfect immortality of beauty and vivacity that -- I have to admit -- made my heart flutter. 

Annabelle had made her performing debut at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, as a dancer, at the age of fifteen. She later went on to a career in stage, dance and early film in New York, according to Wikipedia. She eventually also become a member of the Ziegfield Follies -- the original Gibson Girl, in fact. 

None of this mattered to me, though -- in fact I knew none of it, sitting in the low light, in the glow of faders, knobs, and musical instruments in my small home recording and composing studio, well after midnight. I just found her, dancing her "Serpentine" and her "Butterfly" dances through the blotchy flutter of digitized old film, flashing yellow and orange and blue in the hand-painted style of the time. 

But, when I matched up my music to her moving form, the breath I lost went across the veil to her. There was a wonderful alchemy between her movements and my notes -- either the happiest of accidents or a gift of fate. 

To say neither of us had intended to make art together is to reach an absurd level of understatement. I had never heard of her and she never even knew I'd be born, having left this world seven years before I would enter. But there she was -- there she is -- alive and smiling and passionate in her movements, reaching through the span of more than a century, creating a spectacle of flowing fabric and glowing beauty and unpretentious and subtle sexual energy that must have stunned all of those suited and capped men and their corseted women sitting to watch this new art form of motion pictures. 

Together, she and I made new art. Two spirits melded by what I hesitate to call "accident." She, a woman born in the corpse-cluttered wake of the Civil War as I had been in that of Vietnam. She is gone; I am here. But "Peerless Annabelle," as she was called during her fame, is still here. She will always have her own little space to dance in my heart. 

If "C in Three" is bought and used for this documentary, I will gladly accept the money, but the piece will always be hers. I didn't write if for her, but I do give it to her. Whatever happens, this little YouTube video will be a lasting record that she and I "met," proving, in very real sense, that death is not really the end it seems. 

As you watch, pay attention to the section in black and white. This is where and when I really saw her and felt the resonance that carries so far into the future from her smile. If she can see me from where she is, I hope this, at least, makes her smile again. 

I hope you like what Annabelle and I made together:

Sunday, July 15, 2018

"A Trip to the Moon:" The Story of a New Film Score, Round III

For the third and final post in my "behind the music" pieces on re-scoring three classic, short silent films, I give you one film that is, artistically, worlds beyond first two (which were: Frankenstein [1910] and  The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde [1912]). This one, A Trip to the Moon, was made in 1902 by the early film innovator, Georges Méliès. Anyone who knows film knows this short feature and even those who are not film buffs are usually familiar with the iconic scene in which the moon is hit in the eye with a bullet-like ship.

My trilogy of film re-scorings went from being called a "horror" to a "Halloween" trilogy, with the inclusion of this final piece. A Trip to the Moon is quirky, fantastic, visually stunning, sweet and adorable; so, although it fits into the costume-fun world of Halloween night, it doesn't quite fit the "horror" bill -- though, there are some space villains! [...he says, rubbing his hands together...]

By this point in my journey into the musical orchestral sampling world (explained in more detail, here) I had acquired even better quality sounds than I used in the first two films, having stepped up to a library of symphonic sounds from EastWest called "Symphonic Orchestra." Yes, I was still blending this with some of the other less sophisticated sounds, but, overall, the quality had improved.

Again, I had watched some other re-scoring attempts of this to get a sense of what others had done, but, yet again, I found myself disappointed by the modern ones. I am still not sure why composers see these old films at a palette for weird colors and sounds. I saw one re-scoring of A Trip... that used nothing but strange synthesizer drones, and while I think this kind of score can be effective, I just thing films like this need a more traditional approach.

[As a side-note, I never was a real fan of the original scores to most silent films, written to be played live in the theaters. I always though the concept of "scoring" had not bee realized yet -- the music was more background, melodramatic "mood" music than score. I always feel like the film makers were more advanced in their storytelling techniques than the composer were at that point... So, I never felt a desire to mimic the old stuff, either...]

To me, A Trip to the Moon is, like the previous three films, filled with child-like wonder. I say this with no condescension. There is an innocence about film, in and of itself, in this that really moves me. These artists were truly opening the door to the magic of cinema; they were wide-eyed explorers of a new realm and this unashamed enthusiasm certainly can be felt in their work.

In short, Professor Barbenfouillis is convinced he can make a ship go to the moon, and the film opens with him presenting the idea to his colleagues (sort of scientific/professorial/wizard-like chaps)A bit of an argument ensues, one poor fellow scoffs and has books thrown at him, and then the men settle down to support the professor's idea: They will shoot a rocket to the moon by using a large cannon.

For me, the opening asks, musically, for a generous helping of pomp and maybe the underpinnings of a march as the beautiful young women and the scholars literally parade onto the set, which (as in much of Méliès's art) is done in a staggeringly cool tromp l'oye fashion Méliès's work is really a visual feast -- worlds beyond the accomplishments of the American film makers of my other two scores.

This score needed to be textural, light-hearted, grandiose and -- at least for my money -- melodic. Again, I used the traditional thematic approach by writing leitmotifs for the Professor and for other elements and characters. But each visual corner turned allowed me to go down a separate path, sometimes goofy and sometimes beautiful. The scenes on the moon allowed me to open up and write some pretty bits, this time; the depth of the chords and melodies these scenes called for did not exist in the previous scores; the higher level of art of Méliècertainly pulled more out of me, musically. In fact, this score took me twice as long as the others to compose, having spanned more than a month for under fifteen minutes of music.

I won't get deeper into the plot, because, unlike the other two, you probably don't know it well. Although this story was based on the work of Jules Verne, these books are not as iconic to the average reader as Frankenstein and ...Jekyll and Hyde -- so, more fun in discovery! (Though, I will tell you, because I got hung up on it for a while: apparently science had not yet figured out the zero-gravity element in space, so, in their minds, it was possible for someone to, say, fall off of the moon and into one of Earth's oceans...) Please enjoy the film and the music!

Saturday, July 14, 2018

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: The Story of a New Film Score, Round II

In a previous post, I told the story of how I came to write a new score for the 1910 version of Frankenstein, done by Thomas Edison's company. Needing to come up with at least three ten to fifteen minute films to score for an upcoming screening, I eventually found my number two: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, from 1912, directed by Louis J. Henderson of The Tanhauser Company.

As with Frankenstein, the film is another early horror delight. I feel as if James Cruze, who plays both Jekyll and Hyde, might be the earliest screen presence with "star quality" in the history of cinema. His charisma and good looks are the earliest movie-star presence I have seen. But I am no film historian...

The plot of the film is, of course, simple, based on Stevenson's novella and also upon a play version written by Thomas Russel Sullivan in 1887. In this short film, Dr. Jekyll, seeking a pharmacological way to separate evil from good within the human animal (ostensibly as a start to purging evil from mankind) designs a concoction that he is willing to test upon himself. But, as Sting so succinctly puts it in his song "If I Ever Lose My Faith," it's hard to find miracles of science that don't go "from a blessing to a curse," and, after repeated use of the drug, the evil Hyde begins to have his way with Dr. Jekyll and pop out whenever he wants.

The classic 19th, early 20th century mix of fear of the overreach of science and a bit of a pessimistic view of the nature of good and evil then ensues. But, I don't want to give you every detail. I'll let you see the murderous, little-girl-knocking-over fun for yourself. (You'll see what I mean...I can't imagine Hyde was meant to have done anything else to the poor girl in such an early film...but...knocking down little girls is evil!)

My approach to scoring the film was, again, traditional, with thematic motifs for Jekyll and Hyde as well as a theme for Jekyll's love, who is simply billed as "Jekyll's sweetheart," played by the ironically named Florence La Badie. The love theme was a result of some research. I found that the biggest hit song in America at the time of the film was "Let Me Call You Sweetheart," and, although I could have simply used it, since it is public domain, I decided to create a thinly-veiled variation on its main melody.

I writing the Frankenstein score, I had realized that the approach had to be carefully done. I had no desire to write tongue-in-cheek scores that, in any way would mock the films, nor did I want to do what I had seen countless other silent film re-scorers do: go all...bizarre and noisy and synth-ey. I wanted to to capture the films' innocence and a mix of the tone of the early silent film music approach and that of the post Bernard Hermann era.

The "horror" of these films must have seemed more intense to audiences of the day, but, the films -- and live accompaniment scores of the day -- had a certain melodrama to them which meant completely dark and humorless score would not have captured the spirit. Somehow, I remembered -- probably imperfectly -- Carl Stalling's brilliant introduction music to the Bugs Bunny short, "Hair Raising Hare," which I always had loved, and I fashioned the opening chords with their echo in my mind. The rest took shape from there.

By this time, I had upgraded my sound samples a little bit [I had mentioned in the post about Frankenstein that my samples on that one were "stock" with my new program and not top quality]  and I had gotten some orchestral "effects" -- some quirky and spooky articulations of the strings and winds, which I put to use not the J&K score; you can hear plenty in Jekyll's first transformation. I also did some simple -- even predictable -- but effective things, like using a downward-running sweep of the wind chimes for Jekyll turning into Hyde and an upward-running version for his turning back into Jekyll.

In the end, I hope I did the movie justice by writing a sincere score. It was hard not to, because while working on this film, as with Frankenstein, I had come to care about both the creators and the characters. Two weeks of scoring is a long time to spend with them all. I think I got to know them pretty well. I hope you enjoy it:

Friday, July 13, 2018

Frankenstein, 1910: The Story of a New Film Score

In October of 2017, I had an opportunity to screen three silent films to which I composed new orchestral scores, at the excellent music venue, The Vault, in Berlin, New Jersey. No, I could not afford to hire the Philadelphia Orchestra, or any orchestra, for that matter. But I had recently discovered that, during my stodgy and deliberate evasion of computer recording over the years, I had missed a revolution in home production and, in particular, instrument "sampling." Put simply, "sampling" meant that I could use pre-recorded orchestral instrument sounds, which allowed me to play, through use of a controlling piano-type keyboard, literally every instrument in the orchestra, each with its varied articulations, as a real sound -- not synthesized. (There is still dent on my forehead where I slapped it, lamenting having missed out on this in my Scrooge-like evasion of changing times. Alas.)

[It might also be worth mentioning that this discovery is a big reason for my spottiness on the blog up till now. I was hooked.]

Having finally stepped aboard the new-fangled steamship of computer recording, I found myself able to compose, orchestrate, mix and master orchestral music, which (and I say this with no irony at all) was nothing less than a dream-come-true, as it allowed me to finally hear my music "played by an orchestra." I still am not the least blasé about this. It's a miracle to me.

With these tools at my fingertips, I decided to seek out short silent films (which are both public domain and just plain cool) and write new scores to them. (I will present the first one here and do separate posts for each of the remaining.) The three films were Edison's Frankenstein, 1910; The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, directed by Lucius J. Henderson and A Trip to the Moon, 1902, directed by the great Georges Mellier. The spooky/quirky titles were chosen because the target date for the screening was Halloween of 2018.  I created this trailer for the event, complete with appropriate original "trailer" music:

People with discerning ears will be able to see that the quality of the samples and production improves from film to film, with the highest quality being the last-made: the trailer you just watched. While I had been composing since the age of about ten, the sample biz was new to me, so I was (and still am) acquiring skills and better-quality samples along the way. This first score, Frankenstein, was done entirely with the stock samples I had in my computer program and they are good, but far from great.

Enough of the technical. This process was a blast. I grew to love each of these early silent films as I worked: about two weeks of composition for each.

Amusingly, Thomas Edison thought to call his adaptation (the first ever on film) of Mary Shelley's book "a liberal adaptation." Boy, was it ever. In it, our young friend, Victor Frankenstein, literally stirs up his Creature in a cauldron in the seclusion of his requisite skull-and-beaker-cluttered garret laboratory. (We can let Edison have this one. Shelley was pretty non-specific as to the means Victor used in order to breathe life into the Creature -- though, Galvani was, I think, mentioned; hence, the interpretation of the electrical force we have come to know.)

So, the Creature is simmered to perfection -- accompanied by a dramatic bit of music in 5/4 time, complete with some fun "mickey-mousing" to the chemical puffs and poofs -- and, emerging from his copper womb, with a spooky reach of his long-fingered claws -- scares the cheese out of Victor, who flees to his bedroom. Again this is the basic idea of the book; Victor really does hide in bed when he sees the ugly thing he has made.

Victor is more a neglectful parent than anything. Had he nurtured his intelligent creation, things might have turned out differently. But the film -- perhaps to "dumb things down" for this new thing called the "film audience" -- attributes the Creature's behavior to Victor's evil parts having been, somehow, poured into him. Maybe being created and abandoned and without anyone to love was not enough reason for the Creature to have behaved badly... but there it is.

But the loneliness of the Creature is not avoided completely. In fact, one of my favorite moments of acting in the film is by the Creature, played by Charles Ogle, who, without sound or words, manages with very clear motions of his arms, to bellow "WHAT ABOUT ME?" after he sees Frankenstein's sweet love with his lovely fiancé. (Look for it -- it's heartwarming.)

Things go downhill from there, as you might guess.

I'll let you experience the rest in all its beautiful theatrical newness. I find some of the early special effects wonderful, just as I find it wonderful that the film makers of this time saw, immediately, that this new celluloid thing could yield much different magics than those of a play.

I took pretty traditional approach to the score; all acoustic instruments. I also use consistent themes -- leitmotifs -- here, down to a literal reversal of Frankenstein's theme for the Creature, inspired by the often-puzzling mirror-work that the director, Searle, does throughout the film.

Please enjoy it. This film -- and the others -- became very dear to me as I worked. I hope you love them as much as I do.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Joseph, 2018; Guiseppe, 1618

So many little things are so profound but we spend so much time fixated on the wrong aspects of those things.

My sixteen-year-old son got into the car yesterday, having been sent into the school office to take care of a little piece of business. He got it wrong.

I found myself lecturing him: "You need to stay focused on the thing you're doing and not on the thing you are looking forward to doing. I know you want to get done and leave, but..."

Within seconds, I saw myself sitting in the passenger seat, in 1984, being told the same thing by my own agitated father. Immediately, I smiled to myself and told my son that I had been in his seat, both quite literally and quite metaphorically, many times. My dad had told me the same, exact thing (over and over).

In that moment, I felt deeply connected to my dad again. I also felt overwhelmed by the profundity of the truth -- what I really think Keats meant by "Beauty" (not aesthetics but the profound) in his famous "Beauty is truth, truth, beauty" line.

This particular truth is that life is a continual rewrite of our past and of the past before our past. We look at the work our parents did and we separate the good from the bad and try to improve on the bad and to capture the good in what they did for us. We try to evolve into better parents -- and people -- than they were, no matter how good they were. (I know I want my boys to be ten-times the man I am.) We go one and on, generation after generation, era after era, doing this.

It is also true that what we so often comically write off as "I sound like my mother/father" is really the echo of an epic story that goes back to the beginning of every family line, back to the first sea-fleeing slime the was to evolve into our ancestors. (In my case, probably slime with glasses and too much affinity for bread.)

So, yeah, I sound like my dad sometimes because my sons often sound, act, succeed and fail,  just like I did. And that is powerful.

It is so powerful, that it makes me realize how unimportant it is to dwell on sentiments like "Oy, kids today..." when their sometimes annoying traits are really profoundly beautiful and really proof to me that the spirit of the Matarazzo roots going back to the very beginning of it all. Somewhere perhaps, in Renaissance Italy, a Matarazzo and his son were in the cart, the boy -- with dark eyes, mysteriously like my own son's -- looking sheepish and the father looked at him and said, "Devi rimanere concentrato sulla cosa che stai facendo..."


But here's the rub: The kid still needs to learn to take care of business. Not dwelling on the mundane in the face of the profound is wise, but letting your kids become irresponsible is profoundly wrong. It just ain't the end of the world, though, when your kid leaves his socks on the floor. So many things in life are like this. Problem is, the more one realizes this, the more people look at him (we'll call him "Chris") like he's crazy.