Archive for March, 2010

Tools of the Trade

Sunday, March 28th, 2010

Gear.  It’s part of every musicians’ existence. A question I’m sure every composer is asked at some point is “what do you use when you write?” or, if under the age of 40 “Sibelius or Finale?” Every composer has their own preferred method(s), as well as preferred gear, and it changes over time.  For example, I used to be a die-hard hand copyist until I had to transpose a whole chart up a half-step.

Anyway, in my toolbox, I have 3 basic methods, depending on the job:

1. Finale

For me, all roads and methods end with Finale, my go-to for notation. Being an arranger, composer and copyist, I’ve made about 90% of the money I’ve made in music due to Finale. For what I need, it works. Finale is first and foremost a NOTATION program, and that’s how I use it. Others might disagree with me, but I rarely, if ever, rely on Finale playback, even to check for wrong notes, because even that can be deceptive.

I do it on a PC and Mac with either an Oxygen 8 for mobile applications, or a larger Novation (which will probably be replaced soon) on my tower. I use speedy entry with all the midi-thru off and use a virtual Bosendorfer running in the background to check my pitches.

2. Pencil & paper, then Finale

There are a number of situations in which pencil and paper would be my first go-to. If I’m sitting at an acoustic piano trying out some sonoroties (synth pianos can be deceiving!), or maybe I’m on a bus or plane and I’m traveling light, nothing gets it done like a pencil and some staff paper. I make my own custom 4 or 8-stave pages using Finale & run off about 100 copies.

If I get an assignment to do a “lift”, or “takedown”, or if I have to write an arrangement from scratch, my first step is to get a roadmap, or general layout of the tune with phrase lengths, tempo, time, key, rhythms, lyrics, melody sketch. Other times, I’ll be having lunch or something and be “struck by lightning” with an idea, and a pencil and paper is the quickest way to write it down before it vanishes.

As for the hardware, I have a box of Pacific Magic Paper “Magic Writer” pencils; they write dark, and erase easily. I’ve read good things about Staedtler drafting pencils, so I may be talking about those soon, too.

3. Cubase (then Finale)

I use Cubase and a pretty good set of sample libraries for rough sound ideas, or if I need a really simple, basic, short piece, like a brass & percussion fanfare, and a mockup is preferable. I also use it to make rehearsal tracks for our Army show(s).  I don’t make full midi mockups of large pieces unless I have to, because that can get frustrating.

Even good sounding sample libraries are a bad substitute for acoustic instruments.  On one hand, you can quantize or nudge the hell out of them, but on the other hand, you’re limited to what they can do, which is usually long and short notes, and maybe a few basic effects, depending on how much you spent on them!  For example, with my libraries, tutti pizzicato strings sound fabulous, but a simple fingered tremolo is next to impossible.

My “White Whale”

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

Anyone who knows me knows that I’ve been searching high and low for a certain piece of music lately. Yesterday, I FOUND IT.

I don’t know if you ever get this, dear reader, but I have a short list of pieces that I’ve heard, but have never been able to identify. It usually happens when someone drops some music behind a TV episode or cartoon (yes, I watch cartoons). I pride myself on being one of those freaks at a party who can do the “drop the needle” test with the best of them, so it bugs the heck out of me when I come across something I can’t identify, especially if it’s something “easy”. Well, it’s almost impossible to have heard EVERYTHING, right?

Anyway… one of those pieces was a little ditty I heard on an episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, in particular, an episode called “the Mouse Problem”, which was a tongue-in-cheek mockumentary about (probably) homosexuality. Anyway, the episode starts with some murmuring people, then flashes of headlines and other scenes, all underscored by a very bold triumphal trumpet fanfare with a full orchestral tutti behind it. Sublime, truly sublime. What the heck was it?

Sounds kind of Russian, but kind of British. Well, it’s on the BBC after all. Maybe Walton, maybe Elgar. I always hear stuff and think “THAT’s (composer name)?? Cripes, I’ve got to listen to more of that”. Still, that melody sounds very Russian chant-ish, but there’s something Elgar-ish about the orchestration. Argh… I even considered firing off an e-mail to Michael Palin. “Loved you in the fish slapping dance! If I may…” So I embarked on a small quest to try to find out what it was.

I played it for people, fellow composers, orchestra librarians, other orchestrators, other trombone players. I played it for my Brit friends. I posted it on the Orchestration Forum. Nobody knew. Well, on a lark I went to the almighty YouTubes and found the video excerpt. Sure enough, reading the comments, I found I wasn’t the only one wondering about the inspiring music, and LO and behold, out of the 182 commenters, someone recognized it:

Rachmaninoff, 1st Symphony, mvt. 4 – Allegro con Fuoco (at 0:14)

This particular segment had been used as the theme for a show called “Panorama” or something, starting in bar 8 of the movement. Jeez-o, you think you know a composer’s music, and someone like Rachmaninoff can still surprise you.

Next step, hit the store and find a good recording.

Twilight Tattoo

Monday, March 15th, 2010

I’m often asked, “so what kind of stuff do you write at Pershing’s Own?” Usually, I give my stock answer of “you name it, I’ve probably done it,” then I tell an amusing anecdote, like the one about when VP Dick Cheney required us to put a SECRET classification on one of our charts (buy me a beer and I’ll tell you about it). But that’s not very interesting (is it?). It’s not very specific, either. SO, thought I’d talk about some “everyday” Army band arranger stuff.

The TUSAB arrangers typically do 3-5 major shows every year, and then lots of little stuff in between. I actually didn’t find out until last year that TUSAB alone, as an organization, performs roughly 30,000 engagements every year. That’s THIRTY… THOUSAND. EVERY YEAR. Some of those, probably a lot of them, are a guy playing “Taps” at Arlington Cemetery (a harrowing job on its own), and some are full blown 2-hour orchestra concerts, but every “mission” gets planned & executed, and catalogued, presumably just like any typical military unit.

The latest project on the hit parade was the first of these shows, the “Twilight Tattoo”, or “TLT” as we call it. No, it’s not some Wiccan ceremony (even though the Army DOES recognize Wicca as a religion), or anything involving Bella & Edward (god forbid). It’s a yearly tradition in Washington DC, featuring some of the elite units in the Military District of Washington, one of which is the Army Band. Every summer at around twilight (wednesday nights), there is a performance that includes music, historical narrative, “drill and ceremony” as it’s called in the Army, and other assorted things. “Tattoo” is actually a modernization of “tap-to”. The history is fairly well documented in various places.

Anyway, as arrangers, our part involves writing music to underscore a narrated history of the Army. ALSO, it involves arranging pop tunes for the Army’s premier jazz ensemble, “the Army Blues”, and pop vocalists “Downrange”. This year, the straws I drew were: Ricky Martin’s “La Bomba”, “Smoke on the Water”, and then some basic printing of a Miley Cyrus chart (you may have heard of it – “Party in the USA”). That’s right – Miley Cyrus. I never know which is funnier, the thought of a bunch of hardcore jazz cats having to play Hannah Montana every week, or the fact that they’re doing it for the Army.

From a writing perspective, it’s basically like writing for a rock band with a slightly bigger horn section: 4 pc. rhythm, 3 tpts, 3 bones, 4 saxes (ATTB), & singers. Fun on a bun.

If you’re ever in DC, check it out at Ft. McNair.

Eviler Elves at UNT, April 8th

Friday, March 12th, 2010

I just received word from Robert Schwartz at the University of North Texas that the Wind Symphony, under the direction of Eugene Migliaro Corporon, will be performing “Eviler Elves”, my concert band rendition of the similarly named trombone ensemble composition “Evil Elves”.

It will be web/pod-cast live.

Or if you’re in the vicinity, it will probably be in Winspear at 7:30pm CST; verify it locally.

Check it out if you can!

What’s in a name?

Thursday, March 11th, 2010

Howdy, folks. I suppose it’s somewhat official, I’m a web-nerd/blogger!

Check back for news, updates, heads-ups, and assorted mad rantings.

After much gnashing of teeth, wrenching of garments (gotta buy new t-shirts now) I finally have this thing up and running.  It took a bit to figure out how to make it look like my parent page, but heck, it’s all worth it, right?

Anyway, I thought an appropriate 1st post would be have to be something about the inception of this little project of mine.  I’ve decided to start a little self-publishing “venture” to vend and rent my music that maybe isn’t as publisher-friendly as some of my other for-hire stuff, and as a clearing house for the various bits of business I do.  As you can see from my main page, most stuff, if not all is available either through Hal Leonard or Vern Kagarice, or just isn’t available at all.

SO, I decided “JK Publications” would be a good name. You know, 1st initial, last initial, “publications”. Makes sense, right? WELL, as it turns out, I’m not the first person to think of that very simple name.  As it happens, “JK Publications” is not only a pornographer, but the subject of an FTC fraud investigation.  Go ahead and Google it if you don’t believe me.  (I’ll wait…)

Well, it turns out that “JK Music Publications” is kosher.  Frankly, it makes more sense anyway.  I guess the very obvious moral of the story is to check your company name against all possible sources!  You never know, right?