The Music Of JC Harris

positively the most intelligent progressive rock on this here planet

positively the most intelligent progressive rock on this here planet

JCHRants

Putting The Anal Back In Analog

Sorry I’ve been out of the loop. I’ve had an ongoing battle with pneumonia and bronchitis that hasn’t let up since Christmas.

I played the absolute worst recording session of my life a couple of weeks ago, with a guy who does a type of music unique to himself (in the Seattle area anyway.) It’s so unique in fact that, were I to mention even the genre to you, I would unmask myself before him and thereby ruin our relationship. (How’s that for some bush league, soap opera cloak and dagger!) But he’s about the nicest guy I can imagine and I actually like the genre he works in a bunch. Therefore, his identity shall forever remain a secret!

And yet, Dear Reader, I feel I must comment on his approach to music because it’s so, so, so… wrong.

He begins the recording process by creating very detailed mock ups of his music in a computer, using synthesizers as his sound sources. He makes sure that every nuance he wants played is electronically ‘recorded’. So far this is not at all unusual. Most every movie composer works that way these days—they create everything in the computer and then, if necessary, then print out notation for ‘real’ musicians to play the parts. This guy does something similar. But since he does not read music, he gives an MP3 of his songs to the ‘real’ players he hires and asks them to re-create what is on the sound files. But that’s where the similarity ends.

When a big shot Hollywood composer writes out a part for a cue, say bass, drum set or guitar, he rarely and I mean rarely notates much beyond the bare necessities. Why? Because it’s just a given that you’re hiring the player for their ‘humanity’—the special ‘zing’ that having a real player brings to the table that no ‘sample’ or synthesizer can duplicate. And I’m not talking about wild solos. I’m talking about the entire part. It’s normal to simply let the ‘non-orchestral’ players simply create their own parts. I’ve been given whole cues where the only ‘notation’ was

‘Shaft-like wah-wah guitar in A major’

Why? Because a long time ago composers figured out that the average studio player can come up with something better than they can—after all, the average player has worked his/her entire life to know how to come with a cool groove and tasteful fills. All one really needs to do is wind them up and let them do what they do best.

Now what this guy does, however, is as I said, ask his players to re-create precisely what is on his MP3. Note for note. Inflection for inflection. In fact, during recording, he listens to his version of your part in one ear of his headphones and your playing in the other; to make sure they match precisely. If not? We do another take. Or he uses the magic of editing to cut/paste the part until it truly matches.

In addition to the life-sapping feeling of being literally ‘audited’ for correctness while recording, the fact that he consider his parts to be the ne plus ultra of parts makes one feel like an automaton.

Now, why does he pay good money for this rigamarole? Because the genre of music he does demands it. Or rather, his potential customers want to know that real people played on the record. It would be disastrous if customers thought that electronics were in use. (Lots of genres are like this. Not too many folk records are done on synths, right?) But whether or not it actually sounds ‘human’? Evidently, he could care less. He treats his songs as if they were scores by Schubert and they must be executed with that precision.

The closest I have ever come to this in mindset is the music of Raymond Scott. This was a tremendously creative guy who wrote great music in the thirties and forties. He wanted a very mechanical sound and he got it by rehearsing his players over and over to get that distinctly precise sound. You’ve heard his stuff in many, many cartoons and loved it in that context although he meant for it to be much, much more. So as soon as synthesizers became available in the fifties he started writing for them because that was the sound he had always wanted. In fact, he was so enamoured of the possibilities of creative control that he built many of his own devices in his machine shop! In other words, Scott was trying to get people to play more like machines. But then when machines came along that could do more of what he wanted? He started using those. Fair enough. He had no interest in a human sound so his approach makes perfect sense.

What my friend/contractor does, however, is quite the opposite. He takes music that should have real organic goodness, that he wants to have really humanity and tries to direct just the humanity he wants in every note. But in this pursuit of precision, he sucks the humanity right out of it. He treats his arrangements with a preciousness that would define hubris—if his work mattered to enough people, that is.

It feels like hiring organic farmers to run a machine that makes white bread—just so you could say ‘made by organic farmers!’ It’s a bit of a stretch just for that bit of marketing ‘truth’.

I used to believe that there was one true and ineffable rendition of a song; or orchestration of a piece of music; that constituted perfection. And once achieved, that version should then be left unchanged for eternity. I developed this idea in music school after seeing how hard Beethoven and Brahms struggled to get just the right version of even one movement of a string quartet. Now I know better. There can be many ‘alternate takes’ that are just as fulfilling and it’s a fool’s errand to try to choose one over the other based on what ‘posterity’ will think. There is no posterity; only what seems right at the time. If time validates that choice? That probably means you were good. If not? It means you shoulda been selling insurance. Oh well.

One thing I’ve re-learned from this experience is this: When you hire professionals to do any job? Let ’em do their job. Not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because, you’ll likely end up with a lot better product.

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