New video of “Who Do You Think” from the opera Detroit. When is it cheating? Lennie Tristano. The Great Gatsby.
Roger CortonSo you posted another video from Detroit. And you said that we should discuss the differences between ‘the score’ and what went onto ‘the album’. OK, shoot.
JCHThe recordings I did for Detroit were not meant to make an ‘album’.
RCI always assumed it was meant for marketing purposes?
JCHPartly. Although partly it was to hear how things sounded! I’m not Haydn or Bernstein. I don’t stand in front of an orchestra every day. Some of the orchestrations? I had no idea how they were really gonna sound. Were they playable? I had the usual noob fear. But yeah, I had the knucklehead idea of doing a ‘Kickstarter’ and all those guys do elaborate ‘presentations’ in their videos to sell the idea. I figured I had to do something like that.
RCBut life took a left turn.
JCHWell, I kept getting money to keep writing–arts grants. Oddly enough, at the same time I kept getting told that, no way in hell will this ever get mounted even if I raised two squillion dollars. But I did get players and an engineer to help me and so we went ahead and rehearsed and recorded.
JCHAnd the results remind me of my absolute fave opera Les Enfant Et Les Sortileges.
JCHRavel. It’s beautiful, profound, short and kids absolutely love it because it has all this fantasy stuff in it. It should be like The Nutcracker popular. But it’s a total loser because the staging is so hard. Never seen it done in America.
JCHThere’s this bratty kid and he’s left alone for punishment. It’s a lot like The Nutcracker. He falls asleep and all the furniture in his room comes to life. But unlike a ballet, it’s hard to have a singing chair; a singing cuckoo clock; singing flames. You’d need like Lord Of The Rings CGI to pull it off or elaborate ballet. The one DVD I’ve seen of it uses video tricks. But like I said, not only do kids love it but adults genuinely start weeping at the end. It’s just the greatest. Ever. Ever.
RCSo your rehearsals brought out some (cough) ‘challenges’.
JCHExactly. But not with the staging.
RCThis is where I get irritated. Why are we talking about Ravel?
JCHSorry. I’ve just always wanted to recommend Les Enfant Et Les Sortileges. (laughs). My problems were with recording so today we’re talking about ‘cheating’ and Lennie Tristano and Line Up.
RCObscure jazz pianist. Is this going anywhere?
JCHYes. He did this one album which just changed my life. Ten years ahead of its time in terms of style and I love it. What drove critics nuts was that the recording is obviously manipulated. Maybe he slowed down the tape to make it seem like he was playing faster. But whatever he obviously was over-dubbing his part on top of the other guys, which was considered total sacrilege at the time. It’s funny how in certain genres of music, that is simply not done.
RCAs we talked about in our mega-rant on opera where mics are a total no-no.
JCHPrecisely. So I spend like three months trying to get everyone together to rehearse some songs. We got yer choir. We got yer band. We got yer drums. Yer electric guitars. Yer strings. Yer timpani.
JCHAnd we exhausted everyone’s patience. We spent a whole day trying to get one take and they all suuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuucked. And you know I hate that word. We couldn’t figure out how to get the balances right. And each group had a completely different idea of ‘time’. I mean the gospel singers, the strings, the drums NO ONE could agree on “and a one and a two!”
RCI’m not following you. Isn’t someone conducting?
JCHYeah, but it’s the spaces between the beats. The ‘swing’ factor. Each group hears eighths so differently that they were literally fighting with one another. It got so bad that at the clapping section near the end? It looked like that scene with Steve Martin in The Jerk.
RCSay no more, say no more.
JCHSo… first cheat: record everyone separately.
RCWhich ruined the video opportunity.
JCHRight. I mean I was hoping for that, you know, “We Are The World!” moment.
RCMarketing gold. The whole orchestra and choir raised in song.
JCHBut the moment I scrapped that, everything went from impossible to actually doable. And scheduling got 1,000 percent easier. But then that led to more cheating.
RCI knew it. It’s a gateway.
JCHSo each section is recorded separately. But then there are parts that were just too hard to play. Rip ’em out! That double bass ostinato? Nobody could do it. Or they complained they’d need hand surgery. So we played that ‘sans CB’, I borrowed a really nice upright, practiced for a week and then overdubbed all the DUGGA-DUGGA-DUGGA-DUGGA-DUGGA.
RCThat’s a great Strong Bad imitation, by the way. OK, I think we can forgive that one.
JCHOh, it gets worse, Father. I replaced the drummer.
JCHHad to do it. So everyone is playing over ‘me’. Since each section (brass, choir, strings) have such different senses of time, I had to have someone laying it down so they could then walk all over it. The students I got for the project were great, but they were reacting to the other players, if that makes sense.
RCWas that a touchy subject?
JCHIt was. I mean, I hate it when it happens to me. But the other thing was that I couldn’t get the drummer to do the reverse stage whisper.
RCReverse stage whisper?
JCHYeah, ya know in a play where the actor is supposed to be ‘whispering’ but because he’s on stage he’s actually speaking REALLY LOUD, just in a breathy way. He’s pretending to speak softly. I needed the reverse. I needed the drummer to play softly but not sound like he’s playing softly, which is crazy hard to do.
RCOK, now I know what you mean. You go to a jazz club and the drummer always drowns out the other players.
JCHRight. It takes a certain kind of drummer to project a lot of energy without actually playing double forte. Most drummers simply cannot do it. When you ask them to play ‘quiet’ they play ‘gently’; their energy goes down. Well I needed it to sound rough but in absolute volume be down fifty percent. I sound so mean.
RCNo meaner than usual. So what was the actual process? What was recorded in what order?
JCHI drummed along with the strings. They play almost constantly so that provided cues for the other overdubs.
RCI thought you were conducting?
JCHI rehearsed the strings. Then when it was time to roll, I’d go behind the plexiglass screen and play. I’ve got these MIDI foot switches I can stop and start recording with. The parts aren’t rocket science. The drums sound a bit ‘mushier’ than I’d hoped, but they’re actually not bad for a concert hall.
RCI know just what you mean. Drums were not meant for the average classical auditorium! One big mush.
JCHPreach, brother. Anyhoo, after that, we did the brass and winds in one session at the high school in a band room. Now Dick is such a master that everyone just followed him. I mean there’s a reason it’s called ‘lead’ trumpet. The only problem I had there was that guys are switching from flute to sax or doing something on their bassoon and whatnot and I’d get every clinkety clink.
RCBut that blast at the very end is spine-tingling.
JCHYou know it. But that session led to a whole study of ‘noise reduction’. I spent hours removing all those little clicks and pops.
RCAnd more audio cheating!
JCHOodles. And finally, I got the choir at the Tabernacle during their regular rehearsals. And that was another story.
RCBecause of the different environments?
JCHMan, you’re sharp. It didn’t really dawn on me at the time how having three different recording environments might not blend together so well.
RCMaybe you were hoping that all the reverb would just wash together?
JCHExactamundo! Well, it doesn’t work that way. It was pretty awful for a while there. Fortunately, there is also noise reduction software now to REMOVE REVERB.
JCHOh yeah. Those guys think of everything. They use it all the time in movies. Strip out all the ‘room’ sound, then add a new reverb and Et Viola! The guy is speaking FROM THE DEPTHS OF MORDOR!
RCSo now I understand why these projects seem to take so long. Well, while you’re unburdening yourself, anything else? It’s OK. You’ll feel better after you cleanse your soul my son.
JCHWell… not really. I mean that was enough crap to last a lifetime. But while I’m confessing I must say that I seriously regret that I’m singing all the ‘characters’. The ranges are wrong for my baritone.
RCBut other than that you’re capturing complete performances?
JCHThat’s right. For better or worse, it’s mostly all just takes layered on top of one another. There are plenty of subtle clamatoes that I guess a ‘pro’ would overdub; assuming he had all the people available to overdub and do fixes. I just tell myself that it adds to the (cough) ‘realism’. Oh, there was one Bari note I auto-tuned simply because I could–I mean it was the one note where no one else was playing so it was like low hanging fruit!
RCAnything you want to say about the song itself? It’s definitely one of the high points of the album.
JCHOnly that it’s optimistic. I get a lot of grief about being ‘negative’.
JCHBut this bit is just the opposite. Remember that movie The Great Gatsby with Leonardo DiCaprio a couple years ago?
RCSure. With the rap music.
JCHThey used a hip hop score which a lot of people thought was really out of sync with the time period. But I got it. I thought that score stunk, but I got it. I was trying to do the same thing here.
RCProject the energy of ‘The Roaring Twenties’?
JCHExactly. When you read Gatsby, or listen to Detroit, these people are like Silicon Valley or Seattle software devs today. You have to think of them like that. If you just put period-correct music in there, you know, banjos and yacketa yacka trumpets, people don’t feel that. These have to be contemporary. When my grandfather was whizzing down Woodward Ave. during the 20’s in his LaSalle he must’ve felt like a guy driving a Tesla today. And that’s how this needed to feel.
RCNot to mention that those cars could really move.
JCHRight. RIGHT! The V-8s in some of those cars could move. People have this image of silent movies and everyone putzing along like in cartoons, but Detroit was beautiful and high tech and fast. So Liam’s enthusiasm for the city isn’t some fantasy. It was his reality. And finally, as you always want me to put in at least one progressive rockily comment.
JCHI happen to like the arrangement because, unlike that Gatsby hip hop, it’s not trying to be ‘now’. It’s not trying to be ‘then’ but it’s not trying to be ‘now’ either… if that makes sense. It’s just supposed to have energy. If it works, it’s because the three (really -four-) different time systems; you know the choir, the orchestra, the rock band, the reeds all pump along together. I didn’t buy the Gatsby score because it seemed contrived.
RCI take your point. It just felt like some period music layered on top of an 808 beat with electronic tricks Not organic at all.
JCHOrganic is good. When this stuff works… if it does… it’s because you’re not thinking of it as 1923 or 2013. You’re just hearing this one organic ‘thing’.