Karin Webb & I are producing an extraordinary show at the Somerville Theatre on Thursday, February 28th. We are bringing together over 150 local musicians, dancers and performance artists to collaborate on Beck Hansen's lastest project "Song Reader" (an album released exclusively as sheet music) with live music and original choreography. Loosely, Karin is in charge of the dance component and I'm overseeing the musicians. This article shares my journey for this show over the past few months.
It started over the summer with an article in Forbes magazine. Author Will Burns broke the story about Beck's latest album, and that it was to be released exclusively as sheet music. Without any audio versions available, Beck was asking his fans to create versions for him and share them online at Songreader.net.
As word spread about the project, the idea of putting together a live show came up quickly. Karin Webb and I took the reigns of co-producing and put an emphasis on bringing the best local musicians and dance companies together. Our first step was draft a list of potential artists and provide them with a reasonable deadline. Our schedule gave the musicians four weeks to learn the music and create a demo. After that, the choreographers would get four weeks to create and rehearse a new piece based off the demo. And then we perform!
There was a lot of mystery and anticipation surrounding the release of Song Reader. How detailed would the scores be? Do we have to play every note as written? What if we don't like the tune? What kind of instruments will we need?
Before the book was available to the public, the first "single" was release on Songreader.net (McSweeney's online presence for this project). They were giving out Old Shanghai as a free PDF for joining their website. I quickly grabbed the PDF and shared it with the musicians involved. This was valuable information as it was a sneak peak of what the rest of the tunes could possibly look like.
As I watched Songreader.net fill up with other people's versions of Old Shanghai, I realized that we needed to record a demo and release a video to promote our show and join the online club. Old Shanghai was arranged for voice, piano, trumpet, tenor sax, bass trombone & tuba. I plugged the arrangement in Sibelius (a music notation program) and thought about how I could make this work with the musicians I know. As I collected a band in my head, I started to change things here and there. I asked Mary Bichner to sing it and she helped me bring it to a new key. I asked my favorite horn section (David Aquilina - Trumpet, Brendan Higgins - Tenor Sax, Randy Pingrey - Trombone, and Kathy Olson - Baritone Sax) to play it, and they helped me alter the arrangement a bit to fit their instrumentation. Tony Leva (upright bass) & I (acoustic guitar) recorded the initial tracks in garageband, and in doing so we discovered we needed to bring the tempo up a bit. From there, Mary Bichner added her part, and then I re-arranged the horns to better reflect her melody. After that, I brought it over to Karin Webb, and we had the wonderful Sarah Paterson film a rehearsal of us working through ideas and playing around a bit. The end result was published on YouTube and has since gathered nearly seven thousand hits.
Old Shanghai's journey from a slow dirge to our version as a medium swing tune is similar path that the musicians on the project all experienced. It's not always clear where these tunes are going when we are working on them, but as we look back, there's a straight line. Here are the journeys that the other musicians on this show went through:
Once the book was officially released Mary Bichner was the first to look through all the tunes. She took each piece to her keyboard and tested them out. She shared a few thoughts on which tunes might be good fits for other artists and decided on Why Did You Make Me Care? as her feature. Over the next few weeks she reworked the harmony and shaped the tune to fit her sound. She enlisted the Triple Strung Trio as her backup band and created arrangement for strings & voice.
After Mary, I sat down with Lainey SchoolTree and played through the rest of the book together. We did four hand piano renditions with her on the bass and harmony, and me plunking out the melodies. After two passes through the entire book, she found two pieces that worked for her: Eyes That Say I Love You & Last Night You Were A Dream. She felt that Last Night You Were A Dream would be great for her as a solo piece (with her vocoder) and that Eyes That Say I Love You would be great for the full band (of which I am the guitarist). As she worked on her solo piece alone, the band met in a couple different configurations to figure out how to play it live. Lainey gave us a rough demo to start, and then we had a guitar, bass & piano session to play around with some ideas. After that, Lainey & I met exclusively to figure out how to integrate guitar & piano, and then we made it to a full bass, drums, guitar, piano & vocal rendition. Over the course of a few weeks we rearranged the form, changed the harmony slightly, made a few rhythmic adjustments and then added a coda. It took us a while, but the piece evolved from sounding like a Beatles cover to a really well-rounded SchoolTree song.
Sarah Rabdau & Peter Moore
Sarah Rabdau & Peter Moore were next in line after Lainey to look at the book. I dropped it off at their house and they held onto it for a weekend. In that time they discovered that Please Leave A Light On When You Go would be the right fit for Sarah, and Heaven's Ladder would be Peter's tune. And then, on another weekend, they hunkered down together and created two amazing demos (Sarah's Demo & Peters' Demo) that feature a horn section on one tune and a simulated choir with Sarah & Peter singing all the parts.
Krissy Skare is directing our 50 person choir. We sat down at a practice room at Brookline Music School on the Monday after Sarah & Peter had the book and went through the rest of the tunes. She, as well as Sarah, Peter, Lainey & Mary, helped me identify which of the remaining tunes belong to the rest of the artists. Krissy chose The Wolf Is On The Hill for her choir piece and then set in motion an elaborate scheme to draft 50 people to sing it. Over a few weeks time, she collected a full crew of singers and then started rehearsals. For the concert, the choir will be singing on five tunes include one acapella feature.
Early in this process I felt strongly about America, Here's My Boy for Singer Mali. It's a bold tune and needed a strong diva-type performer. We met that Friday evening and went through all the tunes and the both agreed that America, Here's My Boy was the right choice. She had some clear ideas about the arrangement and we worked back and forth with each other about how to incorporate strings and brass. The end result is a beautiful arrangement that brings out a lot Jaggery elements and allows Mali to be the full vocal powerhouse that she is.
Kristen Ford & Steve Walther
Later that weekend I met up with Kristen Ford and Steve Walther. I've been playing in Kristen's band for a little over a year now and absolutely wanted her participation in the show. I met Steve at a gig earlier in the summer at the Cloud Club. I thought he had the perfect low/raspy voice for Rough On Rats. With two guitars between the three of us, we sampled the songs that were left. Kristen ended up falling in love with Do We? We Do & Just Noise. Over some time and few band rehearsals Do We… ended up taking on a Rawhide/Country vibe and Just Noise went in the opposite direction of jazz ballad with Kristen as a featured vocalist. In our same introductory meeting, Steve not only accepted Rough On Rats he also found inspiration in We All Wear Cloaks, which is a weird waltz with a missing beat every so often. Steve's been rehearsing these tunes with his band on his own and they have great feel and flavor to them.
As we approached the Holiday break, I sat down with Molly Zenobia and we went through the remaining tunes. She chose Don't Act Like Your Heart Isn't Hard, which is written as a straight-ahead country tune, and decided to develop it into a more 6/8 piece using Vibes, Acoustic Bass, Percussion and the Choir as her backing band. She made some nice developments to the melody and reworked the bridge to feature more of the choir.
Early on, I dog-eared Saint Dude for Brian King. I heard it as a Rolling Stones-Gospel tune and I knew Brian would be the perfect vocalist for it. After we talked about scheduling, we decided not to use his regular band (What Time Is It, Mr. Fox?) and that I would provide the arrangement and backing band for him. We will be bringing in the horn section, and the house band be supporting him with drums, bass & guitar.
The Highland Drifters & Endation
I asked Jess Fox of the Highland Drifters to do the song Now That Your Dollar Bills Have Wings. They are a marvelous old-time/country band and I absolutely wanted them and their sound for this show. On Christmas Eve, I went over to visit Jess as I had one tune that I didn't know what to do with. Sorry was ballad with very bland chords and melody. I couldn't figure out what to do with it. I thought it might be good to turn into a waltz and have her band add it to their set, but Jess remarked that it might be great as an uptempo punk tune. That idea instantly sparked Endation in my brain. They would be the perfect fit for such an interoperation. I sent the music over to Matt & Ants and within a few days they had their own take on the tune that rocks so hard.
Brookline Music School All Stars
I teach at Brookline Music School and I've always admired the ensembles and teachings of John Purcell. He's put together countless groups of children and adults at school and brings the best out of every student. I asked John to put together a special band for this show that features outstanding students and their creativity. Their assignment was I'm Down, and they've turned it into an amazing Hawaiian Strip Tease number.
Burns & Webb & Vessela Stoyanova
There are two instrumentals in this collection and it was clear early on who would get what. I saw The Last Polka as a great piece for UnAmerika's Sweetheart Karin Webb & I to explore. A co-producers we thought it was important that we not only produce together, but also perform together. We will be using The Last Polka as a basis for an improvisation. The other instrumental was Mutilation Rag which is a piano piece written as a fight between the left hand and the right hand (the right hand wins!). Because of it's fiery and rhythmic nature, I knew that Vessela Stoyanva would be the perfect match for this tune. After looking through it, she chose Tony Leva (acoustic bass) as her duet/duel partner. Breaking the piece's left & right hands up to two different instruments provides an interesting sound and great dynamic between two phenomenal players.
Jade Sylvan was the last to be cast for this project. Karin had worked with her during December's filming of the movie TEN, and had the highest words of praise about her. Karin asked me if Jade could be part of one of the tunes as a spoken word artist. My initial response was no because we didn't have any room for Jade. The only tune we had left was Title Of This Song, but I had thoughts of arranging it as a We Are The World type finale featuring all the different singers we had in the case. But as I examined it more closely, I found that was a terrible idea. The more I explored the tune, the more I wanted to push away from the standard arrangement. And then one day it hit me that Jade could fill the roll as "the vocalist" by doing her spoken word. We met and talked about ideas and then sent mp3s back and forth to each other, demoing different approaches each time. We ended up integrating a horn quartet, rock band and choir for the tune, and decided it would a fitting finale.
And that's that's the music! 20 songs from Beck, brought to life by Boston's best local musicians with care and attention. And if that wasn't enough, we have each song choreographed by some of the most amazing dance companies Boston has to offer. This show is happening soon and will be ONE NIGHT ONLY (February 28th). Grab your tickets now!