More on the first snippet from the new opera, The Boats. Overture. Fretless bass as passing fad. Bodhràn. Getting reacquainted with an instrument is not like riding a bicycle. Instruments as characters. Dog training. Ants. The Invisible Fence as compositional aid.
Roger CortonWe got comments that we never actually talked about the music last week.
JCHSo let’s do it. Again.
Now when I start a piece, I have a relationship with the main instruments. They’re like voices and characters on their own. I hire them and then–I keep using that word–we’re committed to seeing it through together.
RCIs this the overall tone of the piece? It sounds very ‘pop’ to me. Not ‘operatic’.
JCHWell, it’s a whole separate talk about what is an ‘operatic’ sound these days. But as far as the tones? For The Boats I dusted off two instruments I haven’t touched in ages: the fretless bass and the bodhràn.
RCThe hand drum. Last heard from on Home.
JCHRight. It dawned on me last year that I haven’t really touched the fretless in ages. Which is funny because that was my main instrument in college. I mean I learned to read music on that thing.
RCNot guitar. Not double bass.
JCHI’ve blathered about that elsewhere. But the point is that when I started, I really thought it was ‘normal’ to play a fretless bass. You know, like Hammond B3 vs. a piano. Some guys play piano and some guys specialize in organ. I figured that fretless would be like that. There was enough fretless bass on the radio that I thought it would be ‘standard’. How could it not? It’s such a great sound, right? So I made it my mission to be as dexterous with that motherfucker as any guitarist or trumpetist or whatever-ist. I didn’t realize it was a passing fad.
RCTrumpet-ist? But I get you. I can’t remember the last time I heard it on any new record.
JCHIt had its moment and then it just drifted away. Anyhoo, that’s not the point. The point is that it’s murder to learn to play well. Twice as hard to play as a double bass.
JCHI don’t wanna get into the weeds, but you don’t get the same feedback from your left hand as to where you’re at on the neck. Anyhoo, that’s not the point.
RCThere is a point in here?
JCHOK, now for the bodhràn. So think of riding a bike or water skiing or whistling. They’re not things you learn to do gradually, right? One day after 999 failed attempts? Suddenly? You’re up!
RCHarmonica is like that too.
JCHRight. Like so many things, all of a sudden its like yer muscles just figure it out all at once. So with bodhràn one day the ‘wrist swivel’ just starts happening and you’re clickety clackin’ away. OK, here’s the point.
RCYou’re just teasing.
JCHThe reason I don’t get these things out very often is because, unlike riding a bike, I do forget!
RCYou get rusty?
JCHRight. It takes a certain amount of time for me to re-acquaint myself with these old friends. If I haven’t played the bodhràn for a year, it’s gonna be about as rhythmic as Steve Martin in The Jerk. I visually know the movements, but the muscles have forgotten ‘the trick’. Same with fretless. So this creates a Catch-22. There aren’t enough hours in the day to keep up to speed on all these instruments so as I stop playing them, it gets harder and harder to get back to them.
JCHThat’s a great way to put it. And the worse thing is that someone will call me to do, say a mandolin session and I’ll have to coyly inquire, you know, real stealth-like, “Umm… how hard is the material?” Because if I haven’t picked up the mandolin in a while?
RCThe perpetual state of jack-of-all-trades…
JCHEXACTLY! In the good old days I was staying in touch with all these instruments playing all kinds of gigs. Now I have to kinda ‘commit’ to an instrument when I start a project; like hiring an actor for a play. You’re committing to that guy’s ideas and point of view. Which is a little weird to me.
RCBecause you don’t like to plan ahead?
JCH(laughs) I wouldn’t put it that way, but yeah. It’s kind of a drag to spend three months getting yer chops back together and then one day think to yerself. “Man this whole fretless thing is not the sound I’m looking for. Oops!”
RCLike hiring the wrong guy after training him for months.
JCHSo I’m committing to that guy. I’m committing to the character of a fretless or a bodhran. They have to fit the story.
RCYou can’t just swap out sounds like presets on a sampler.
JCHBut see that’s how I used to view composing, which was silly. Now when I start a piece, I have a relationship with the main instruments. They’re like voices and characters on their own. I hire them and then–I keep using that word–we’re committed to seeing it through together.
RCSo this accounts for a general ‘tone’ to your recent records?
JCHWell, on The Boats for sure. The fretless and bodhràn and especially the organ are all over the place because each has a dramatic function. They each come back over and over when a certain idea returns.
RCSo is that a conscious thing? I mean do you think, “We need more cowbell!”?
JCHNo. It’s never conscious. But if the thing is working, that sort of internal structure happens automatically. In other words, I’ve got a big structure worked out, but all those inner connections you notice when you watch a really good opera or movie or book? You know where all the colors match a certain way, they happen organically. I only notice them if they aren’t there. In other words, if I don’t see start to feel the cohesion I know I’m messing up.
JCHWell, I worked on Detroit: The Opera for several years. The basic (cough) ‘songs’ were mostly done in like six months. At that point, I thought I was pretty much done. This whole ‘classical shite ain’t so tough! (laughs) But it didn’t feel right. Like so many stupid ‘concept albums’ it just felt like a bunch of songs and not one thing. But after a lot of pounding on it, for some reason it started to feel right. No idea why. But then I noticed that, yeah, certain instruments always were playing to represent a particular idea. I didn’t do that strategically. I just kept throwing shit at the wall until it felt better. When it feels right, then you go back and analyze and go “Wow, that was clever”. As if it was some other guy who did it.
RCYou sound like you’re talking about dog training. “Pain and repetition, son.”
JCHActually, that’s probably true. The dog just starts to see what to do through repetition. Or maybe it’s like an ant colony. You know, they all just randomly wander around and report back when something works. It only looks intelligent because they sacrificed so many workers. I know it sounds backasswards. But basically? The piece trains me. It always sounds like bullshit whenever any artist say it, but to a real extent ‘you’ really aren’t in control.
RCI can’t help it, but I was thinking while you were talking about that story you told me about the ‘Invisible Fence’. Your little dog hit the roof. Maybe you could…
JCHTruly? If I really thought it would speed up this process? Yeah, I’d wear that collar. BZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZP.