June 5, 2010

What to do with a pile o' $$$

"When you get some money you can either buy a new car or do this...it costs about the same either way." So said William Call, the composer, conductor, and producer at the recording session I played this morning at the U of U's Gardner Hall. He's an older gentleman who owns several Maverick stations, is quite well off, and used to play the trombone. For today he'd written a Handel-esque piece based around the words of Joseph Smith (LDS church founder) scored for full orchestra, choir, and baritone soloist.

Judging from the quality of his score, he obviously had some prior experience with composition, but it is also worth noting that "a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing" as bass trombonist Rusty McKinney reminded us during a break. Now I don't want to be too critical here because I really do have to applaud the man for following through with such an ambitious project, but there were a few issues (particularly in the horn and trumpet parts) that made our work today a bit on the tough side.

Something we high-brass players regularly encounter in recording sessions are parts written without sufficient rest. A lot of the music on movie soundtracks is like this: the brass keeps going and going...and going...like a bunch of energizer bunnies on steroids. The music sounds great! It builds, and builds, and builds somemore till you don't think there's anywhere else it can go, and then...the first trumpet blows down the walls of Jericho with an amazing high C (or heck...let's go for an F)! This kind of thing is totally fine--in fact it's exhilarating--but it only works when it's recorded in small pieces and then later stitched together in the editing room using the magic of pro tools...or whatever is is they're using today. To pull off such a score in live performance requires assistants on the lead parts, alternate horns (piccolo or E flat trumpets in key spots), and having fresh chops (brass-player speak for lips) at the beginning of the show.

Today we had none of that. We rehearsed without the choir for 2 hours and then started laying down some track. The music was slow, our notes had to be long and sustained, there was very little rest--particularly towards the end where, of course, things slowed down even more, got even louder, and climaxed on a couple great high notes. It was a massacre!

For non brass players this might seem a little silly, but think about it: when you press something hard to your lips for any period of time, circulation is cut off and there's a bit of discomfort that arises, even pain. Now add to that the muscle strength required to direct a steady flow of air through a tiny hole in your lips while at the same time pressing a thin metal cup further and further into your teeth (well, hopefully not literally, but it can certainly feel that way), and you have some idea of our situation.

To be fair, the conductor was fairly reasonable and when it became clear that we wouldn't be able to just record a series of straight run throughs, we did end up doing some things in smaller sections. Our MVP for the day was first trumpeter Joe Reardon. He moved here from NYC with his wife (a fine horn player) and daughter a couple years ago. He and his wife are both veterans of the cut-throat NYC freelancing scene and he's certainly paid his dues playing in various shows and touring with the Dallas Brass. Joe spoke up frequently on behalf of the section and persuaded the conductor to work in smaller segments and to allow for some recovery time in between takes. By the end of our 4 hour call, he was basically running the show and giving the conductor cues as to where to begin and where to end each recording segment.

Finally only 15 minutes remained and we had at least one good take of every bit of the entire piece. We were all feeling rather optimistic when Maestro Call flipped back through his score and said, "Ok. I'm going to do something the brass players aren't going to like much, but for continuities sake, I'd like to make a go at playing the whole thing straight through with no stops." YIKES!!!! Was he kidding? We'd been playing for nearly 4 hours at that point! Joe stood up and said there was no way we'd even make it half way. The horn players stepped in and agreed. I mean, not only would we have to muscle through the thing, but we'd actually have to try to make it sound musical too.

Mr. Call insisted that we just give it a try. So after a bit of grumbling (I tell ya, I would never want to conduct knowing what most brass players say about 90% of the conductors they play under), we sucked it up and muddled through--with a couple of desperate drop outs here and there. I for one hope that Mr. Call is pleased with the results of his effort. I imagine he must have been very frustrated towards the end of the recording, but maybe he'll have picked up some helpful ideas about scoring more effectively for brass in the future.

Afterwards I went and got lunch with my good friend Justin--a FANTASTIC oboe player--and heard him tell me all about the latest project he's been involved in. He recently recorded local composer James Prigmore's oboe concerto on a cd featuring many of his instrumental compositions. Prigmore conducted at Pioneer Theater for years before retiring. In fact, my current boss at Cannonball was a woodwind doubler under him for quite a while. I only played for him once during his last season, but he--and the overalls that make up his daily attire--are SLC music legends. Justin worked with him for hours fine tuning articulations and dynamics. He said he was a little nervous during the whole process because: "in 100 years when some University oboist is learning this concerto, they'll go back and consult the only recording made under the composer's direction. I'll be on the 'definitive' recording!", he said. "That's some serious pressure!" I told him I wanted an autographed copy--I'm sure it's brilliant!

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