A Guide to Musical Theatre Quodlibets – The Dancin’ Quodlibet (plus Ideas for the Future)

So far, I’ve looked at two kinds of musical theatre quodlibet. Just to reiterate, these are instances when melodies previously heard are reprised, but simultaneously. Quodlibets are a specific instance of counterpoint, and I’ve covered The Berlin Quodlibet, which has two or more different melodies written to the same chord progression, and The West Side Quodlibet, in which melodies that were written to different chord progressions are reprised, but some are altered enough to fit the chords of just one of them.

If you’re kind of mathsy, you may have already spotted the missing combination yourself: is there a quodlibet featuring melodies written to different chord progressions that are later combined without altering any notes?

I know of only one, and it’s …

Dancin‘ (John Farrar, Xanadu)

Yes, Xanadu, which is on nobody’s list of great theatre scores, features the only example I know of, by John Farrar, who is on nobody’s list of great theatre songwriters. But he was – yay! – born in Australia.

Dancin‘ combines two characters’ vision of what a disused auditorium could become once renovated: Danny McGuire sees a ballroom with a ’40s style big band in tuxedos, while Sonny Malone imagines an ’80s nightclub with a synth/rock band in electric orange. Their two visions combine, visually and musically.

Normally, given this kind of writing assignment, a pop/rock writer like John Farrar would do a good job of the ’80s band, and utterly botch the ’40s swing. But instead I think he hits it out of the park. I’m using the original film version (because it’s better: the stage version truncates matters badly), and here’s the relevant part of Farrar’s Andrews Sisters-esque chord progression and melody. This is just the top sister, if you will – naturally, the underlying harmony sisters would have to change their tune if the chord progression changed:

dancin1_0019

All those ninths and thirteenths are exactly the right sort of harmonic flavour for the period being evoked (unlike the anachronistic grinding choreography in the clip I linked to: what a dirty-old-man’s vision that Danny McGuire is having). Here’s what the ’80s rock band sings, to a very pop/rock chord progression – no ninths or thirteenths here:

dancin2_0020

But look at this! Without needing to change a single note, the Andrews Sisters tune can be sung with the rock/pop progression:

dancin3_0018

Actually, there’s one tiny pick-up note that does need to change, by a mere semitone, but even so, this is very neat. I can’t really defend Farrar’s lyrics in the pop/rock verses – they just sound like threats of sexual assault – but musically, I’d rather listen to Dancin‘ than to many other quodlibets by bigger music theatre names. And please, tell me if there are other quodlibets like it that I’ve missed, because I don’t know of any.

Which leads me to …

Ideas for the Future

A word of warning for all of these ideas: since quodlibets link different songs together, they can really kick you in the teeth during rewrites. Sure, you’re cool with changing the big Act One finale, but dammit, now you have to go back and rewrite three other songs to be heard in counterpoint during the bloody thing. No wonder Claude-Michel Schönberg stuck to one of music’s most easygoing chord progressions.

1. The Double Dancin’ Quodlibet

Just like Dancin‘, except there are three tunes, written to three different chord progressions, and they still fit together later on. Hell, if I were attempting this, it might be fun to combine the three tunes over a fourth, as-yet-unheard chord progression.

As for why you’d do this, let’s see: three people who turn out to be related, maybe? Or one character, played by three different actors, at three different but related points in her life?

2. The Diminished/Augmented Quodlibet

Augmentation and diminution involve lengthening or shortening the rhythmic values of a melody, usually by a factor of two. They’re bread and butter techniques to a Baroque-era composer, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard them in musical theatre, and I think they could be fun in a quodlibet.

You’d need a dramatic justification, obviously, and you’d have to keep whatever rhythm you were playing recognisable, or the trick wouldn’t work. But pretend one character was very wound up at some earlier point, and sang a very wound-up melody. Then they had a night of passion, maybe, or took pills, or went on a spa retreat, so now we hear their melody again, over the top of their lover’s, or dealer’s, or massage therapist’s, but at half speed. Bonus points if the melody reveals hidden melodic depths at half speed, a la the delightful contrafactum Seventy-Six Trombones/Goodnight My Someone.

Change the pills, and maybe we hear the tune at double speed.

3. The One-Person Quodlibet

Here’s a snippet of a compound melody for cello, by a fellow named J. S. Bach:

compound1_0018

Bach doesn’t present this as two separate melodies first, but he could have, since it’s a combination of:

compound2_0018

Thus, a singer could sing one melody first, followed by the other, followed by a One-Person Quodlibet. For an added thrill, the two sets of lyrics could join up and make sense in a different way once combined. Even Bach never did that.

Reasons for this? J. Pierrepont Finch sings to himself in the mirror in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and his mirror self could sing back. Sid Sorokin sings a duet with his dictaphone in The Pajama Game. Guido tries, and nearly manages, to sing a duet with himself in Nine. A precedent is clearly established for men who are pretty full of themselves. Maybe it’s time to let a female character have a crack at it?

4. The Quodlibet That Doesn’t Happen

This one actually exists, but sort of by accident, in Hamilton. Dear Theodosia begins with Aaron Burr’s song to his daughter, followed by Hamilton’s different melody over the same chords to his son. Before the show moved to Broadway, those two melodies used to combine in a quodlibet, which – pace, Hamilton fans – you could hear coming a mile away, because Dear Theodosia is very pretty, but its chord progression is kinda hokey.

Now, forever enshrined on the Original Cast Recording, is a Quodlibet That Doesn’t Happen, and whoever had that idea, they were wise. We know Hamilton and Burr are joined by destiny, thanks to the first song in the show, and subsequent songs, and staging, and motifs, and word choices etc., so there’s no need for the two melodies to over-egg the pudding at this point. Instead, we get another musical bond between the two men, but implied rather than stated outright.

I admit it would take modesty and restraint to make one of these quodlibets on purpose, since one of the reasons you write a quodlibet in the first place is to show off a bit. And I’ll also admit you could probably only make one of these work in the audience’s mind if the two chord progressions were the same. Who knows, maybe it would only work if the progression’s kinda hokey?

[EDIT: One week after I posted this, another Quodlibet That Doesn’t Happen popped up and I’ve added it in the comments. These things may be all around us, people!]

5. The Ashman Quodlibet

There are two famous quodlibet opening numbers: Tradition, from Fiddler on the Roof, and All That Jazz, from Chicago. They’re both Berlin Quodlibets; Jerry Bock in particular has a ball inventing more and more tunes that can be played over Fiddler‘s fiddler’s leitmotif. They’re also sung by characters who are all in agreement, more or less, whether they’re detailing the traditions of life in Anatevka, or all the hi-jinks in store for Chicago’s town-painters.

But there’s a particular kind of opening number described by Jack Viertel in his Secret Life of the American Musical (a good read, by the way, if you’re interested in structure, and to be avoided if you think ‘secret’ means gossip), and he associates it with lyricist and book writer Howard Ashman. It’s the kind of opening number Ashman structured for Beauty and the Beast: the audience is introduced to the world of the musical, and in the middle of that world there is a main character who has a contrasting ‘I Want’ moment, as opposed to a separate ‘I Want’ song later.

Ashman’s not the only writer who likes this kind of opening: Marc Shaiman’s clearly a fan, having co-written structurally near-identical songs for the openings of South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut and Hairspray. There’s also a proto-version at the start of Li’l Abner: A Typical Day introduces the audience to the citizens of Dogpatch, and briefly to Daisy Mae, who wants Abner. But Ashman seems a worthy man to name a quodlibet after, not least because what I’m proposing nearly – nearly – happens at the start of Little Shop of Horrors.

Little Shop has a Berlin Quodlibet moment towards the end of Skid Row, when Seymour starts up a new tune (“Someone show me a way to get outta here”), which turns out to be a countermelody to the song’s main refrain (“Downtown …” etc). By this point Seymour has already had his introduction as a main character (“Poor, all my life I’ve always been poor …”) and so has Audrey (“Downtown, where the guys are drips …”). As for the tunes of these introductory moments, Audrey’s is the same as everyone else’s, and Seymour’s is not used again.

So, I’m not advocating any rewrites to Skid Row, but what if instead, to use Little Shop as a hypothetical model, we got this?

A section. Skid Row and its lousiness introduced

B. Seymour and Audrey introduced in contrasting sections, with their own melodies and harmony, perhaps according to their I Wants.

A. More lousy Skid Row, building to …

A+B. Big finish: Seymour and Audrey sing their introductory parts at the same time as the A section. Surprise! It was a quodlibet all along.

All other ideas gratefully accepted. Also, any types of quodlibets I’ve missed, because nobody knows every score.

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A Guide to Musical Theatre Quodlibets – The West Side Quodlibet

In the previous post on this topic, I looked at what I call The Berlin Quodlibet, which works like this:

Two Different Melodies Written to the Same Chord Progression

This post is about

The West Side Quodlibet

… which works like this:

One Melody’s Chord Progression Calls the Shots; All Other Melodies Fall Into Line

I’ll admit that One Day More, from Les Miserables, is probably the best-known example of this type of quodlibet, but West Side Story came first, and One Day More has a guilty secret, which I’ll get to.

Tonight Quintet (Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, West Side Story)

The melody for Tonight has already been heard in its entirety earlier in Act One, as a balcony love duet between Tony and Maria (I’m using the stage score, not the film’s, by the way):

westside1_0003

Bernstein begins the quintet version of Tonight with very different melodic shapes, accompanied by very different harmonies.

westside2_0013

and, later:

westside3_0017

As you can see, I’ve given up trying to reduce Bernstein’s harmonic accompaniment to a mere chord symbol. You can’t, really, because at this point the composer is doing some very jazzy things, naturals and sharps happily clashing, the bass line’s rhythm grouped in three against four. It doesn’t matter, though; all that matters is the harmonies are very different from those of the balcony duet. Keep your eyes on those punchy groups of notes I’ve highlighted in blue and red. They’ll be back.

Once the Riff/Jet and Bernardo/Shark motifs are established, Anita sings them in her own slinky way, before Tony pops up and reprises the melody heard earlier on the balcony with Maria. And he reprises it exactly – no quodlibet trickery yet – before Riff reminds him to turn up to the rumble, to the tune of the first melody in the quintet (the one above, with the blue notes).

Then the fun starts. It’s Maria’s turn to sing the balcony tune, but as she does, Tony and Riff keep singing the rumble motifs established earlier, but – and this the crucial ingredient of the West Side Quodlibet – their motifs are shifted up and down to fit the balcony tune’s chord progression:

westside6_0013

That’s it. That’s all there is to the West Side Quodlibet.

Actually, no, I’m lying, that’s really the easy part. What Bernstein does, and does very well, is manipulate the rising tension and increasingly contrapuntal texture throughout the rest of the quintet, all while sticking to the one chord progression. He even gets away with this:

westanita_0014

That’s Anita, singing an altered version of the blue-coloured motif Riff sang at the start of this quintet, right-side-up, and then again, with the ending upside down. It works because Bernstein understands an important element of jogging your memory with a previously-heard tune:

The Rhythm Matters More Than the Intervals

If you’re repeating material, you can change a minor third to a major third, or you can flatten this and sharpen that, and I probably won’t even notice. But if you mess with the rhythm too much, there’s a good chance I’ll no longer recognise the thing you’re counting on me to recognise. And without that feeling of recognition, a quodlibet isn’t doing its job.

Bernstein also has fun introducing completely new material, including my favourite bit, which happens at the same time as Anita’s part above:

westanitaplus_0014

One last point that might seem pedantic, but I think it’s important: by having Anita sing these motifs on her own near the beginning of the piece, Bernstein and Sondheim give her musical permission to join in on those motifs later. As you’ll see, in One Day More from Les Miserables, Claude-Michel Schönberg isn’t quite so scrupulous.

One Day More (Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil, Herbert Kretzmer etc etc etc, Les Miserables)

Here’s a bass line built from a descending major scale, and one set of chords you could choose to put over the top:

lesmisbass_0014

When a bass line descends like this over just the first four notes, and is given a chord for every note, it’s often called a lament bass, and there are many famous examples. Since the minor key version of this is called a minor lament, from now on, even though it doesn’t strictly have a chord for every note, I’m going to call the above major key version a major lament.

Several of the songs in Les Miserables are … wait for it … major laments. The bass line and chord progression are first heard, almost completely, as the instrumental introduction to At the End of the Day, and the first time they accompany a song is in Fantine’s I Dreamed a Dream:

lesmisdream_0014

I Dreamed a Dream also has a B section, or bridge (“But the tigers come at night …”), which features a different chord progression and melody. Schönberg will use this B section in One Day More, and add some pretty answering phrases for Marius and Cosette, but he won’t do any quodlibetting with it.

The major lament next turns up in Jean Valjean’s Who Am I? (strictly, Cart Crash, but seriously, who calls it that?):

lesmiswho_0015

You may notice, in this different key, that the chords aren’t strictly identical, but trust me, this is the same chord progression and bass line. Anyone who tells you there’s a fundamental difference in pop/rock between, say, B and B6, needs to get out more. Also, like I Dreamed a Dream, Who Am I? has an extra section, a tag at the end (“He gave me hope when hope was gone …”), which Schönberg will use right at the end of One Day More, but again, he won’t do any quodlibetting with it.

A brief reprise of the major lament occurs when Marius meets Cosette – his first words to her are to the tune of I Dreamed a Dream – and then a few minutes later, Javert sings Stars, which is an almost identical major lament. But Stars isn’t used in One Day More, so I’ll skip it for now.

Then, at last, it’s quodlibet time in One Day More. It should come as no surprise that all these tunes, written to the same chord progression, can be played (according to the rules of the Berlin Quodlibet) at the same time.

Jean Valjean begins with the tune he sang earlier in Who Am I? Marius and Cosette join in with the tune of I Dreamed a Dream – remember, Marius was given access to it earlier? – and from here on the chord progression becomes that of I Dreamed a Dream, with key changes, until the very last bars.

Next, Eponine sings the B section of I Dreamed a Dream, while Marius and Cosette sing those pretty answering phrases I mentioned. Now, I have no idea how Eponine knows the bridge to I Dreamed a Dream, but it doesn’t matter, because now Enjolras bursts on to the stage and he sings the B section of I Dreamed a Dream as well! It’s thrilling and dramatic, and musically it makes no sense. Where did he pick it up? We’ll never know.

After a thumping good key change, Javert gets a crack at things, but he doesn’t sing Stars; instead he sings a leitmotif that is by now associated with him, the police and the law. It was first sung by the constables who arrested Valjean when he nicked the silver from the Bishop of Digne, and also by Monsieur Bamatabois, the prissy bastard who had his face scratched by Fantine. Javert’s first rendition of it:

onedayjav_0016

is altered to fit the major lament (otherwise this might all be an enormous Berlin Quodlibet, but at this point it becomes a West Side Quodlibet). Schönberg even shifts Javert to a different beat of the bar, but it still works a treat because, like Bernstein, Schönberg knows that rhythm matters more than intervals:

onejav2_0016

And the Thenardiers join in, too, with a chunk of the chorus from their signature tune, Master of the House, which needs no altering.

Now it’s time for the bridge from I Dreamed a Dream again, and by now all of Paris knows it. But there are still no quodlibet moments within this section! The quodlibet moments have, so far, been reserved exclusively for the major lament. By now, even if all of this is new to you, you have probably guessed One Day More‘s guilty secret. It is this:

Thousands of Tunes Fit This Chord Progression

So, as we approach another key change, and Marius chooses his bros over a girl, the major lament kicks in again, and everyone repeats their bits, except for Eponine, who gets this, which is frankly piss-weak:

oneeponine_0018

This strikes me as an opportunity missed. Javert could sing Stars. Eponine could start singing On My Own, with a couple of tweaks, even though it’s from Act Two, and even though the song hadn’t been written yet when One Day More was composed (the tune was Fantine’s – it’s complicated).

I’ll go further: Javerts of the world! Eponines all! Next time you’re at this bar, rehearsal letter F in your scores, I want to hear this:

Marius: My place is here, I fight with yoooooooouuuuuuuu …

Jean Valjean: One-

Eponine: ON MY –

Javert: THEEEEEEEEEEERRRRRRRRREEE!

Eponine: OOOOOOOWWWNNNNNN!

Yes, it’s in a high belty key, but you’ll enjoy that. And think what a fun surprise it will be for your musical director.

A Guide to Musical Theatre Quodlibets – (and How to Write Your Own)

This is going to be a pretty geeky series of posts, with a necessary amount of music theory included, but, I hope, no more than necessary.

There’ll be three parts, dedicated to what I’m calling The Berlin Quodlibet, The West Side Quodlibet, and The Dancin’ Quodlibet (this last will contain Ideas For the Future).

Terminology first: in music, generally, a quodlibet (from the Latin, meaning “what pleases”, and it’s pronounced just as it looks) occurs any time previously-heard melodies are played at the same time. In musical theatre, specifically, the word has come to mean the practice of laying out one vocal melody first, followed by another vocal melody later, only to reveal, finally, that these melodies work when sung together.

As for my use of that key word – that the melodies ‘work’ – I desire much from a musical theatre quodlibet. I desire that:

  1. The melodies please, individually.
  2. The melodies please even more when combined.
  3. I can’t hear it coming.
  4. The revelation has some dramatic function.

A quick note: we’re not talking here about little moments of counterpoint, because while all quodlibets employ counterpoint, not all instances of counterpoint qualify as a quodlibet. We’re also not talking about leitmotifs, although – as you’ll see in the later Les Misérables example – leitmotifs are sometimes used in quodlibets, as if to announce “Hey, remember this person’s tune? It fits over this other one!”

Lastly, we’re not talking about what’s known as the Massive Multiplayer Ensemble Number. Some of those are quodlibets, but not all are.

So, I’m going to lay out the main types of musical theatre quodlibets and how they work. After that, I’m going to suggest some types I haven’t heard yet, and hope everyone gets to work writing them.

The Berlin Quodlibet

(aka Double Song, or Counterpoint Song) – Two Different Melodies Written to the Same Chord Progression

This is probably, in most people’s minds, the classic form of the musical theatre quodlibet: You’re Just in Love, from Call Me Madam is a witty and graceful example. Irving Berlin writes to this chord progression:

quodlibet_0005

If you know your harmony, you’ll recognise right away that this is simply a long stretch of tonic, moving away to the dominant. After this, the next eight bars sit on the dominant, before returning to the tonic. If this is technobabble to you, don’t worry: the most important thing to know is that Berlin has given himself, with these chord choices, a vast range of options for melody-writing.

Over this chord progression, Berlin writes two complementary melodies – longer phrases with a wide range for the lovesick Kenneth Gibson, and shorter, syncopated phrases with a smaller range for Kenneth’s brash boss Sally Adams. Here’s an excerpt of the full 32 bars:

quodlibet2_0005

Students of strict Renaissance polyphony might look at these two melodies and wonder: are those seconds and ninths between D and E a problem? Are those diminished fifths and augmented fourths displeasing to the ear?

No, they’re not. Apart from their regular use in almost every form of music for the last hundred years (you’ll probably hear them a dozen times today), those little dissonances – by Renaissance standards – simply don’t register as long as they’re not exposed, and as long as the rhythm of the melody carries the listener’s ear forward. Trust me, you can get away with things that would have killed Fux if your two tunes fit the underlying chord progression.

Hallmarks of the Berlin Approach

Berlin was especially good at these kinds of quodlibets, which is why I think we should name them after him. There’s a comprehensive list of his output here, including several he composed over tunes not his own. If you’re planning to write a Berlin quodlibet, you could do a lot worse than follow the kind of example he sets in You’re Just In Love, because:

1. The chord progression allows for melodic freedom. With the exception of Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil, which is pretty bluesy, Berlin used the same chords for all his most famous quodlibets (I, ii, IV, V, I7, II7, and the occasional passing diminished chord). These chords might seem like, as the lyrics for Play a Simple Melody put it, good old-fashioned harmony, but they allowed Berlin the freedom to write two thumping good tunes.

2. The melodies have individual character, before they’re combined. In You’re Just In Love, Sally sounds like Sally, even without her lyrics, and Kenneth sounds like Kenneth. You couldn’t sensibly swap their tunes. Then, with their lyrics added, their characters are even further enhanced. Sally gets most of the consonants, in “pitter-patter” and “pleasant ache”, and Kenneth gets most of the open vowel endings, in “trees are bare” and “I wonder why”. Berlin combined similarly romantic and jazzy melodies earlier, with Play a Simple Melody, and again later, with An Old-Fashioned Wedding.

3. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Look at how beautifully the two melodies in You’re Just In Love give each other room, rhythmically and harmonically. The phrases start and end on different beats, and when longer notes are held, the other melody uses different degrees of the accompanying chord (for example, while a bar of G to G6 is happening, Kenneth holds a long b, while Sally sings e, d and g). Thus, to hear these two tunes together is to hear more than just two tunes piled one of top of the other.

4. There’s a dramatic point to the quodlibet. You’re Just in Love doesn’t represent a major turning point in its parent musical (the song was a late addition to the show), but nevertheless, Kenneth poses a question, Sally answers it, and their friendship is strengthened, all through song.

Even in 1914’s Play a Simple Melody, when a dramatic point was not the point, the ingenue (Ernesta Hardacre – no, really) yearns for songs of the past, before Algy Cuffs (true, I promise) demands up-to-date ragtime; the quodlibet then points out that we can all have both, at the same time, and harmoniously.

In 1966’s revival of Annie Get Your Gun, Frank Butler predicts, in An Old-Fashioned Wedding, that he’ll vow to love Annie Oakley forever, while she’ll “vow to love and honor and obey”. When his part is combined with Annie’s their two sets of lyrics match up: her line “love and honor, yes, but not obey” follows immediately after Frank’s. They’re arguing, good-naturedly, in song, and Berlin must have planned this beforehand, musically and lyrically. It seems effortless; it’s kind of wonderful.

Some Other Berlin Quodlibets, Not Necessarily By Irving Berlin

Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil (Irving Berlin, Music Box Revue 1922-23)

The two individual melodies in this number are fun, but the second has, I think, a weak moment:

Nothin’ on his mind but a couple of horns
Satan is waitin’ with his jazz band
And
His
Band
Came from Alabam’ with a melody hot …

On its own, that part doesn’t hang together for me. It sounds like a mere counter-melody, and its purpose isn’t revealed until the two melodies are combined. When combined, since both tunes are pretty busy, they really tumble over one another, except for in this section I’ve cited, where they interlock nicely. The effect of the whole number is that of a patter song, with the point being to dazzle the audience by reprising the two melodies at lightning speed. As for surprise, I didn’t hear the quodlibet coming the first time I heard the song. Dramatic function? Not really applicable, since this song is from a revue. The two singers express the same sentiment: Hell is a pretty jazzy place.

All For the Best (Stephen Schwartz, Godspell)

Schwartz, only in his early 20s when he wrote this gem, had clearly been paying attention. The two melodies have great individual character, and the surprise of the quodlibet is heightened by presenting the first tune, on its first outing, colla voce – it’s in tempo only when reprised. That’s clever stuff, and it really got me the first time I heard it. When combined, the two vocal lines sit on different parts of the accompanying chords, and are rhythmically complementary as well. As if all this were not sufficiently impressive, the two singers express different attitudes (Jesus sings about heaven as the ultimate reward, while Judas rails against earthly inequality), during a number that itself functions as a major turning point in Godspell. In any story of the Christ, there’s got to be a point where the tone darkens. After this song, we reach that point.

You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow/Love Will See Us Through (Stephen Sondheim, Follies)

I know, it’s heresy to criticise anything in the score for this show, but I’m going for it: I’ve never really cared for this quodlibet. There, I said it.

Dramatically, the song is everything you could ask for: the two young couples make predictions about their rosy futures together, futures that we in the audience know will be distinctly thorny. Sally, part of one young couple, is really in love with Ben, who’s part of the other couple, so there’s a good reason for the tunes to intertwine with one another in this love square.

Lyrically, both refrains are wordy, nifty pastiches expressing similar, cheery sentiments. Rhythmically, when they combine, it’s chaotic, but this is the start of a section in the show where everyone loses their minds, so that’s an apt choice.

Musically, the accompaniment is identical, and in the same key. This is not a quodlibet that’s trying to surprise you, and the first time I heard it, I thought “Ah, here we go. These’ll be in counterpoint later.”

So where’s the problem? I even like the two individual melodies well enough, individually. The problem, for me, is when they’re combined.

Here’s the melody for the refrain of ‘You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow’:

you're gonna_0001Sondheim’s accompanying harmonies for these eight bars are Gbmaj9 for four bars, followed by two bars each of Ab13 and Db9, with the occasional passing chord. If this means nothing to you, remember only this: the above melody sits mostly on the major seventh and sixth of the first chord, the root of the second, and the root and ninth of the third.

Here’s the melody for ‘Love Will See Us Through’:

love will_0001Now, where does this second melody sit, predominately, on those same chords? The major seventh and sixth of the first chord! Then the ninth of the second, followed by a phrase ending on the ninth of the third. This is the effect, to my ear, of combining these two melodies:

SAME SAME SAME SAME NEEDLESS CLASH BRIEF INTEREST SAME.

“But Peter,” your inner dramaturg might object, “this is the genius of that song! The tunes are too similar, just as the couples’ woes are too similar! The tunes needlessly clash just as these couples needlessly clash!”

Nah. Sondheim is too well-schooled a musician not to have intended the effect, but I don’t think it works, melodically. Melodically, this quodlibet deprives its audience of one of the chief pleasures of a quodlibet: a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Instead, it’s two tunes piled one on top of the other. I can appreciate the mechanics of the effort, but I feel no thrill.

Who’s That Woman? (Stephen Sondheim, Follies)

Whereas the equivalent moment in this number, from earlier in the very same musical, has always thrilled me. The two tunes (the second might be titled ‘Mirror, Mirror’) don’t work together as a quodlibet for their entire respective lengths, and upon their reprise the singers revert to ‘Whose That Woman’ wherever the combination would come a melodic cropper.

But before that happens, there’s a full refrain of ‘Who’s That Woman’, after which ‘Mirror, Mirror’ is introduced in a different tempo and key – a deft way of hiding its quodlibet potential. A long dance break follows, and in Michael Bennett’s original staging, the older female ensemble are mirrored by their ghostly younger selves. It builds, and builds, (honestly, if you’ve not seen the reconstructed video and audio I’ve linked to in the title above, watch it, it’s glorious) and builds, until the lead singer Stella is mirrored by her past self, and the two female groups have combined, and the two tunes finally emerge in counterpoint, in a musical equivalent of the staging. Best of all, this is a song about growing older, showing past and present merging, within a whole show about growing older, and about reconciling your present self with the in/decisions of your youth. Two good tunes – tick. Whole greater than parts – tick. Surprise – tick. Dramatic function – tick.

Honourable Mentions

The Inch Worm (Frank Loesser, Hans Christian Anderson)

This song isn’t presented in typical musical-theatre-quodlibet style, since the second tune (“Inch worm, inch worm …”) appears over the first (“Two and two are four …”) without having been heard on its own earlier. My favourite thing about Loesser’s achievement – and I haven’t heard it in any other quodlibet – is that Hans’s tune stays firmly inside the tonic scale, while the children’s tune enjoys all the flattened notes made possible by the chord progression. This is exceptionally good musicianship, from a songwriter with better technique than most of us realise.

Playing Croquet / Swinging / How Do You Do? (Rick Besoyan, Little Mary Sunshine)

People tend to get pretty worked up about how Besoyan combines not two but three separate tunes in this quodlibet, which is itself an affectionate parody of other quodlibets. Personally, I find it laboured. It’s a looooong time to spend in the company of the same generic chord progression.

One (Reprise) (Marvin Hamlisch, Ed Kleban, A Chorus Line)

This is the first quodlibet I’ve mentioned that is not by a single composer/lyricist; you can see why these things might be a challenge to write with another person.

One, ostensibly a real showtune from the musical everyone in A Chorus Line is auditioning for, has been half-heard earlier in the show; in its reprise, which functions as both A Chorus Line‘s finale and bows, One is presented again, followed by its counter-melody, and then by the quodlibet moment.

If you’re not a musician, you may not appreciate how distinctive the chord progression for One is. There’s no other I know quite like it:

one-chord-progression_0002

That’s like the chords to a bebop tune. Little wonder that, while Hamlisch’s main tune is a cracker, his counter-melody is like a clever student’s exam answer, with too many chromatic runs, and a flabby loss of verve in bars 9-16. Even if you’re not a sight-reader, I reckon you can see it:one-countermelody-comments_0002

Meanwhile, Kleban, the lyricist, is having a field day:

She walks into a room and you know
She’s uncommonly rare, very unique,
Peripatetic, poetic and chic …

Very unique? How unique can something be? By the last bars of the section above, Kleban is essaying:

Loaded with charisma is ma
Jauntily sauntering, ambling shambler.

… which no-one ever hears, because the women of the cast are taking their bows. The following video is grainy – and, fair warning, it cuts out just before the end – but you can see what I mean:

I wonder, did Kleban know, as he sweated over each syllable, that they’d be drowned out nightly? One is a helluva number overall, but as a quodlibet, it’s all about the dancing. Oh, that Michael Bennett.

 

 

 

Some Old Musical Theatre Songwriting Tropes We Should Be Using More

1. Flip the Title Around, and/or Gently Pun Upon It

Punning on a song’s title used be quite the thing, back when lyricists were allowed to be clever for the fun of it. Here’s an attention-getting example from Ira Gershwin:

Beginning of refrain …

They’re writing songs of love,
But not for me.
A lucky star’s above,
But not for me.

By refrain’s end …

When every happy plot,
Ends with a marriage knot
And there’s no knot for me

That’s “But Not For Me”, from Girl Crazy (1930), and I doubt you could get away with that sort of pun today, outside of a cabaret act or a topical revue. It throws character aside, and pulls the audience out of the story. But Ira Gershwin could be beautifully subtle when he wanted to. This is “Long Ago (and Far Away)”, from the movie Cover Girl (1944):

Refrain starts …

Long ago and far away
I dreamed a dream one day
And now that dream is here beside me

Refrain ends …

Just one look and then I knew
That all I longed for
Long ago was you.

Notice how, apart from the downright dreamy sentiment, playing with the title like this gives Gershwin a fresh rhyme for the final syllable, and on a lovely vowel?

One more: here’s Stephen Sondheim in “Good Thing Going”, from Merrily We Roll Along (1981), avoiding the trap of rhyming the last word of a song with the pinched sound of “going”, while also breaking our hearts.

Beginning …

It started out like a song.
We started quiet and slow, with no surprise,
And then one morning I woke to realise
We had a good thing going.

Ending …

It could have kept on growing,
Instead of just kept on.
We had a good thing going, going,
Gone.

Advantages of this trope: It obliges you to move the song’s ideas forward. Let me repeat that. It obliges you to move the song’s ideas. Forward. An AABA theatre song should do something like this:

A – only some of what you need to know,
A – a little more of what you need, extra details, elaborations,
B – a fresh perspective, alternative view, dissenting opinions,
A – the last of what you need to know, maybe with a revelation, or a twist.

Here’s what too many contemporary AABA theatre songs do:

A – everything you need to know.
A – what I just told you, only more of it.
B – what you already know, seen from a different vantage point.
A – what you know, louder and higher.

A score that coulda used it: Catch Me If You Can (2011, Shaiman / Wittman)

The central conceit of Catch Me If You Can is that Frank Abagnale, Jr is presenting his life story, through the 1950s and 1960s, as an old-fashioned TV variety special, so it’s understandable that most of the songs use some variation of AABA form. But out of sixteen numbers, guess how many songs end their refrains by rhyming with the title, or the same few words added to the title, every single time? Go on, guess.

Eleven. And that number goes up to the thirteen if I include two songs in verse-chorus form (“Seven Wonders” and “Fly, Fly Away”) that use a repeated ending line which happens not to be the title.

In these thirteen songs, there’s no playing with the words in order to push ideas forward, or to create fresh rhymes at the end. Over and over, these thirteen songs do this:

Here’s a thing I think, and in a style you might enjoy,
Couched in all the language you’d expect me to employ,
So the thing I have concluded is (and was there any doubt?):
The Title of This Song is What This Song is All About.
Yes, The Title of This Song is What This Song is All About

2. Not Much More Than An Octave, And Not Often

I’m going to assume you don’t read standard music notation, but if you don’t, I’ll also let you in on a little secret: the little diagrams you’re about to see work in exactly the same way, as far as timing and pitch go. From left to right, they show when the notes occur. From bottom to top, they show how high they are.

But first, here’s Fred Astaire introducing Irving Berlin’s “Change Partners” in the 1938 movie Carefree. The song is near the start of the clip, and if you stay for the dance routine I’ll understand completely.

Here’s a diagram showing how this song’s melody works, through its AABA form – I’ve joined the phrases together for simplicity. Look at how beautifully Berlin tackles a practical and commercial consideration of melody: his leading man does not have a big singing range, and neither does the average music customer, so Berlin is very careful about where his tune ascends to an octave or more above the melody’s lowest note. Click if you like full size:

change partners

By heaven, that’s how you write a tune that doesn’t go much over an octave, and doesn’t do it often.

Advantages of this trope: Let’s say you have a character who won’t be hitting the big notes – and a leading character, too, not a bit of Thénardier comic relief. Without the applausebait of loud, high belting near the end of the tune, what will you give this character’s performer to help put the song across? How will you convey emotional intensity and depth of feeling?

Maybe you’ll use dance, as above, or explore more specifics of character, or reveal some new plot, or give better fodder for acting. It’ll have to be real acting, too, and not just emoting. It’ll be worth it, though, because you’ll end up with a character (and a show) that doesn’t sound like all the others. But even better, you’ll have more casting choices, since it won’t be all about the eight bars of high F. One of your stars won’t need so many days of vocal rest. More performers will be able to sing your song, reliably. More audience members too.

A score that coulda used it: Chess (1984, Andersson / Ulvaeus / Rice)

All the main characters in Chess have big singing ranges, and all of them indicate emotional intensity by singing loud and high. Fair enough: a singer can’t croon in a rock/pop score; they’d never be heard over the instruments. Also, scores that use repeated melodic chunks often ask one character to sing another character’s tunes, so if one character sings over a wide range, chances are the rest will too.

And yet. And yet.

Consider the Russian, Anatoly, who does not express his feelings as readily as his American counterpart, Freddy. Anatoly’s first big number is “Where I Want To Be”, and the melody of its verses is in a nice register, and prettily shaped, as you’d expect from Benny and Björn. But in the chorus the vocal melody does this:

where i want

This number actually has a smaller range than Berlin’s “Change Partners”, but as any baritone will tell you, it’s not about the height, it’s about how long I have to stay up there. It’s about the tessitura. In the case of “Where I Want To Be”, maybe the Musical Director could transpose the whole thing down, but that wouldn’t help much with Anatoly’s big aria at the end of Act One. Look again at how Berlin prepares the singer’s voice (and your ear) for the higher notes in his song, and then consider this, near the end of Anatoly’s “Anthem”. You know the bit – “how could I leave her …”

anthem

That’s almost the song’s entire range, within four beats. It’s the melodic equivalent of a doctor with cold hands. Later, in “End Game”, Anatoly will traverse an even wider range, an octave and a major sixth – the entire range of “Ol’ Man River” – within six bars. And this is the guy who doesn’t have to sing “Pity the Child”.

3. The Song That’s Not About Sex (Except It Is)

In Guys and Dolls, the rakish gambler guy Sky Masterson takes the Salvation Army doll Sarah Brown to Havana, thereby winning a bet. He plies her with a local drink, “Dulce de leche”, including its “native flavoring” of Bacardi, and she elaborates on its effect with the following examples of the subjunctive mood. In summary:

Ask me how do I feel
Ask me now that we’re cosy and clinging
Well sir, all I can say, is …

If I were a bell I’d be ringing
If I were a lamp I’d light
If I were a banner I’d wave
If I were a gate I’d be swinging
If I were a watch I’d start popping my spring
If I were a bell, I’d go ding-dong-ding-dong-ding
If I were a bridge I’d be burning
If I were a duck I’d quack
If I were a goose I’d be cooked
If I were a salad, I know I’d be splashing my dressing
If I were a bell, I’d go ding-dong-ding-dong-ding

We know Sarah is physically attracted to Sky, but look at how composer/lyricist Frank Loesser flirts with, yet avoids, overtly sexual imagery. That’s because he knows two things about a crass possibility like “If I were a camel, I’d hump”:

1. Drunk or not, Sarah Brown would never say such a thing.

2. Sexy songs are sexier when you let the audience supply the sexy details.

Advantages of this trope: I know, it’s no longer 1950 – surely we can be more candid? But if you have a character who, deep down, wants to dance the no-pants dance, and you make them sing a song all about how, deep down, they want to dance the no-pants dance, what have you given the actor to play?

Nothing. There’s no tension. They, and their director, will be forced to come up with all sorts of “comedy” “business” to help the time go by.

On the other hand, if you have a song about two characters buying the firm’s annual office supplies together, and one character deeply, deeply wants to jump the other one’s bones, you’ve got possibilities. Think of what a gift this situation could be to a performer and a director. Think of all the wholesome joy your audience can have supplying filthy, sexy details.

A score that coulda used it: Victor/Victoria (1982, 1995, Mancini / Wildhorn / Bricusse)

Victor/Victoria is all about sexual attraction, from Victoria, who’s attracted to a real man’s man, King Marchand – but can’t reveal it because she’s masquerading as a man herself – to King Marchand, who’s attracted to Victoria, thinking she’s really a man, and is wrestling with this hitherto unsuspected side of his sexuality.

The score gets it right at first with “Le Jazz Hot”, a song all about the hotness of jazz, but really about the hotness of Victoria. Then, later (and to everyone’s credit, this song was later cut), King Marchand’s lover Norma tries to tempt him into bed with “Paris Makes Me Horny”:

Rome may be hot –
Sexy it is not!
Paris is so sexy!
Ridin’ in a taxi
Gives me apoplexy.

Been ta Lisbon
An’ Lisbon is a has-bin!
Schlepped ta Stockholm
An’ brought a lotta schlock home!
Also Oslo
An’ Oslo really was slow!

Paris makes me horny!
It’s not like Californy
Paris is so dizzy, Jack,
It’s such an aphrodisiac!

There it is. A character who wants sex singing about how she wants sex. Even if the song were good, there’d be no tension, and sure enough, performer Rachel York and her director Blake Edwards were forced to come up with all sorts of “comedy” “business”.

There’s a simple fix, though, if this scene is to contain a song, because the wrong character is singing: it should be King Marchand. After seeing Victoria as Victor, he should be singing about he’s not worried about that handsome Victor guy, because King Marchand is a real man, who likes manly things, like football – yeah, King Marchand, grabbing other guys, pulling them to the ground and … no, wait … poker – yeah, poker, King Marchand, with all the fellas, staying up all night, drinking, sucking on cigars, gazing at each other’s hands, looking real deep into each other’s eyes … no, wait, dammit … a sharp, tailored suit – yeah, King Marchand, buying expensive fashionable clothes, and all the guys saying how good he looks …

Then Norma can invite him into bed.

Two Recent Google Queries Answered

No.1

is walking on sunshine major or minor?

Dear me, it’s so major it’s crazy! The opening chord progression consists of the three major primary triads, the opening notes of the melody are the tonic major triad, and the remainder of the opening phrase is the tonic major pentatonic scale.

It’s so major it makes Do-Re-Mi sound like the Pathetique.

No.2

do you think jingle bells is major or minor?

By heaven, I think it’s major! The opening two phrases of the verse outline the tonic major pentatonic scale, and the first notes of the chorus are the tonic major triad.  Furthermore the end of the chorus outlines the tonic major triad all over again.

It’s so major it makes Ode to Joy sound like Psycho, I’m tellin’ ya.

I shall amuse myself by posting, at some point in the future, minor key versions of both these melodies.  And your minds will be blown, gentle truth-seekers.  Be blown.

Notes on an Australian Cast (Concept) Recording – Ned Kelly

Damn, but Google Books is an ugly place to visit. I swear, it was designed by someone who hates books.

But the occasional gem is hidden thereon, like this account of Ned Kelly‘s first season at the Adelaide Festival centre in 1977.

Reg Livermore has given his own clear-eyed account of the show (more properly, Ned Kelly – The Electric Music Show), in his book Chapters and Chances, and here, on his website. Great pics there too.

The show began in pretty hip fashion for the 1970s, with an original 1974 concept recording, and then a stage adaptation, a la Jesus Christ Superstar and (later) Evita. After a contentious run in Adelaide, December 1977 (of the “is-public-money-wasted-on-this-sort-of-thing?” variety), it opened in February 1978 at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Sydney (the theatre is now no more), and quietly disappeared until 2000, when the songs and lyrics were revised, and the stage rights became available to amateur and community groups.

There is no official cast recording of any stage production, but the original concept album can still be found (in my case, in a library), and has additional historical interest because most of the cast (Trevor White, Jon English, Arthur Dignam, John Paul Young, Livermore himself) had lately distinguished themselves in the Australian cast of Jesus Christ Superstar. Dignam and Livermore, between concept album and stage version of Ned Kelly, starred as The Narrator and Frank-n-Furter in the Australian premiere of  The Rocky Horror Show. Oh, and Livermore managed, in all that spare time, to squeeze in the first productions of Betty Blokk Buster Follies and Wonder Woman.

This is in the space of four years, which is now the average length of time between a musical’s first reading and its lukewarmly received second workshop. Perhaps this is not always a bad thing, because the consensus on Ned Kelly is that the score had promise, but that it was probably unstageable, in the 1970s, in its 1970s form.

How’s the album holding up these days?

1. What Else Is New? – John (Paul) Young, Trevor White & Peter Chambers with Arthur Dignam

The opening bars sound like a proficient high school band, so things are off to an inauspicious start. Then, happily, everyone starts to rock out, and all the guys are obliged to hit high C sharps. Characterisations aren’t subtle: “once upon a time, there were these greedy squatters”; meanwhile, Dan, Steve, Joe and Edward “Bang Bang” Kelly are “fighting for your liberty”.

2. Put ’em Down – Dignam, Reg Livermore

The villains appear – cops and judges who they don’t rock like the Kelly boys. They are exceptionally daggy, and their beef with the common folk is both too self-knowing and vague, for the “unhygienic rabble” … “do exactly as they please”.

Incidentally, Flynn’s melody is not dissimilar to the one Benny and Bjorn would later write for “1956 – Budapest is Rising” in Chess. And nice countermelodies!

3. Lullaby – Janice Slater

Janice has a touch of Olivia Newton-John, especially when she hits the top notes. Or is it the other way around? This is a very, very loud lullaby, and the music is blithely that of the American southwest, with no attempt to sound Aussie, and not a hint of worry about it: “there’s a chahld … crahn to bee a may-uhn.”

4. Rob A Bank – J(P)Y, White, Chambers

A bluegrass patter number, with good, specific imagery from lyricist Livermore: “velvet suit” and “mad Uncle Harry”. At this stage the gang are still lovable ruffians.

5. Never Going Home – JPY, White, Chambers, Jon English & Tony Rose

And now they’re not. This is a big set-piece of a number, intelligently contrasted with  what went before. At Stringybark Creek the Kelly boys, in reverse historical order, graduate from bank robbers to killers. Flynn again proves adept at the big choral counterpoint stuff, alternating with solo passages. It builds and builds but it’s all a bit ponderous. Ned gets a chance to prove, once again, that heroes are heroes because their voices rock out.

6. Better Watch Yerself – White

Now that he’s crossed the threshold, Ned gets a short choral commentary, just as Judas did in Jesus Christ Superstar.

7. Dark Walk Home – White

A Kelly boy theatre-ballad at a moment of dilemma and, like many of them, too self-knowing: “I can walk two roads, one of them home. I can be two men, one man alone … gonna be a dark walk home tonight.” The chord progression wanders ambivalently through key centres, a nice touch.

8. Queen Victoria’s Fuzz – Livermore & Cast

The police are back, and they’re still jokes, led by a Queen Villain: “My blunderbuss bent, and a touch of waratah scent”. Livermore’s rhymes are true, and the images are specific, true to the period. There’s a kick-line finish, and the bad guys are given no more motivation than Iago was: ” … no grand parade, it’s just the way I’m made.”

9. If I Was A King – English

Ned in the Garden of Gethsemane (“Oh Lord, you’ve lost your touch”), with another balls-out vocal (high C sharps up to high Es!) over a minor key vamp in the middle.

10. Die Like A Kelly – Slater

This is the only song I knew prior to listening to this album, thanks to Geraldine Turner’s performance on ABC TV’s Once in a Blue Moon, back in 1994. That was a theatre ballad performance – this one is Renee Geyer at two in the morning. The caterwauling has the unintended effect of making Ellen Kelly’s grief all about herself, and not about her sons’ impending deaths.

11. Band Together – English, JPY, White, Chambers

“The people gonna come and band together … the people gonna have that family feeling”.  It’s not explained precisely who “the people” are, and if anyone (the fuzz?) is not included. The people are a bit like Hair‘s tribe: if you have to ask, you ain’t one of them. This singalong at the end, utterly without irony, feels icky.

12. Finale – Jon English

A whooshy, electronic ending for our hero. Also very Superstar – a choir, with a few sprinkles of Holst and Ligeti, sees him off.

It’s immediately apparent, all these years later, that the fate of Ned Kelly (the show, not the man) deprived us of two valuable musical theatre writers in Flynn and Livermore. Flynn (who also composed the score for Sunday Too Far Away) had real composing chops, and could write honest Ozrock – a combination rare in Aussie musicals, then and since. Flynn eventually moved abroad, conducting orchestras in both the UK and USA. He co-wrote three new songs for the revised Ned Kelly in 2000, and died in 2008.

Livermore remains better known for theatre roles and television presenting, despite all the writing entailed by his one-man shows, on both the large and Clarendon-scale. I wish, though, we all knew more of his lyrics: based on the evidence of this show, he had real craft, and he could do the modern Tim Riceish vernacular without resorting to cringey undergraduate jokes.

Adventures in NOVA-land, Part Six

On Friday morning, Horti Hall was being gussied up for everyone’s run-through:

Later, it was even spiffier, in time for an audience that included several dozen impeccably behaved senior schoolkids.

Here’s how Sandy France and Helen Nourse’s Playing With Fire looked on Saturday, for an audience member with few photographic skills.  Chris Dench (composer of WE) is on the left, chin on hand, and the silver-maned Music Director of the Victorian opera, Richard Gill, is on the right.

Eamonn Kelly has already written in The Australian on NOVA, and Australia’s history of spreading seeds of opera upon fertile ground, which is not an illustrious one.  He was also kind enough to say kind things about most of the five NOVA efforts.  In fact, thanks to him and the slippery nature of publicity blurbs, I can now legitimately say this:

The Devil Builds a Chapel
“dripping with neo-gothic, psycho-sexual delight”
                                                            The Australian

and

“humour, catchy Broadway elements and 1960s popular music flourishes”

The first of those isn’t strictly true; Kelly may have been referring to the delights of supernatural fantasies themselves, rather than to my and David Stanhope’s work in particular.  But I choose not to be fussy.

Here’s the fun thing that happened as we all heard the excerpts over and over again.  At first, mine, The Un-Dead and Playing with Fire were clearly the most immediately accessible pieces (by this, I mean largely tonal, with discrete arias/duets).  I even began to find parts of mine a little banal by the fifth or sixth time I heard them.  Meanwhile, Jane Montgomery Griffiths and Kevin March’s Razing Hypatia, which everyone agreed was a real challenge, and difficult to pull off in only a week, just grew and grew on me.  The finale, in which the heroine spends several pages repeating “it takes a long time to die”, while everything falls apart around her, is just terrific.

Dustine Barnes and Chris Dench’s WE was ten minutes of free atonality, scored in proportional notation (which gave the musicians a nice workout).  Dench explained that he had an animated work in mind, an opera written for the screen.  His music makes me think of a late-night SBS stark visual style, heavy on the black outlines, and I think it would work a treat.  Writing directly for the screen is a wonderful idea, and we should all do more of it; it is getting, as Dench pointed out, cheaper and easier than the stage.

David Stanhope’s The Un-Dead is finished, David said, in a score for full orchestra and an adaptation for chamber ensemble.  So why hasn’t it been seen yet?  It has Dracula, good parts of Stoker’s original dialogue, and a line I can already sing along with (“The children of the night”).  Oh, and three hot vampire chicks who visit you in bed and sing progressively higher ninth chords!  What’s not to like?

Sandy France expressed concern in rehearsal about a rhythmically complicated part of Playing with Fire (two men are arguing about abandoning their houses in the face of a bushfire), and I watched two singers work very hard to master it.  By Saturday, I could have sung along with them, and as I write this (a week later), I can’t get the tune out of my head.  “If we stay-ay, hold our ground …”

All of which underlines the importance of repetition when we’re hearing a new piece.  Obviously, I’m a trained muso, and the circumstances made me listen really, really hard, but there’s a good argument in last week’s experience for the 19th century model of new opera: write it, prepare the orchestral suite from its music, get singers to plant bits in their recitals, and have hotel orchestras play medleys prior to opening night.

The 21st century equivalents of these would be free video and audio on the website, rehearsals on YouTube, music excerpts available before the opening (especially for critics), and interstitials on TV and radio.

In fact, just imagine if you could get your forbidding new music planted in a video game.  There’s some repetition.

Adventures in NOVA-land, Part Three

Sandy France is the composer of Playing With Fire, also receiving a workshop this week.  We know each other a little from Canberra, where we both teach and rail against the wilful ignorance of youth.

We immediately extended a mutual open invitation, to attend rehearsals, give feedback etc.  We’ve been hovering a bit around the other composers when we see them (OK, just me doing the hovering), hoping they’ll invite us along too, but perhaps they’re equally nervous and self-deprecating.

The music calls are happening in an intimate room with an upright piano, and in the main hall, which looks like this:

  

With these essential operatic supplies laid out:

 

Much of Sandy’s session, like mine yesterday, was concerned with learning, and re-learning new material.  Sometimes, for example, singers know their parts in a duet individually, but once they have to sing with each other, they feel as if they never learned it at all.  This frustrates them, because note-bashing is dull, and they don’t want to be doing it at the expense of higher musical values, like actually running the thing.  It frustrates composers too, because note-bashing is dull, and they want to know if the piece works as a whole.  

Composers should either grow a thick skin or stay away from note-bashing sessions.  You need a thick skin, because …

What the Singer Says Is

“It’s hard because of the length of the phrase.”

And What the Singer Means Is

“It’s hard because of the length of the phrase.”

But What the Composer Hears Is

“You can’t write for voices.  You have no idea.  Go home.”

Afterwards, Sandy and I went for Tom Kha nearby, discussed the above matters, our sneaking fondness for tunes and basic triads, and my fanboy love of the Flower Duet from Lakmé.

Highlight From Day Two

Opera singers, it turns out, are as human as the rest of us.  I say this because I thought they could sing anything.  You know, with all those scary bang-on-a-can, throw-the-plates-at-the-audience, sing-into-a-dead-goose, modern operas floating around, that today’s singers had seen and done everything, and nothing could faze them any more.

Then, in my afternoon session, we spent half an hour note-bashing a couple of bars of waltz time I wrote back in 2009.  It is pretty tricky, that part, and although the three female voices all land on the same A by the end, it’s a little hairy until they get there.

I have a pretty thick skin, as per my own recommendation, but this is what my head does to me when singers find something difficult.  The singers, by the way, are saying things like “It’s hard because of the length of the phrase.” 

Stage OneWell, that’s not what I wrote yet.  I’ll wait until it’s what I wrote.

Stage TwoThat’s closer.  Maybe what I wrote isn’t good …

Stage ThreeWow, this is really hard.  Why did I write it to be so hard?  What was I thinking?  I must have had a reason; I don’t write hard just for the sake of it, do I? 

Stage FourMaybe they could all sing the same part?  Would that be worse?

Stage FiveOK, in five minutes I’m gonna suggest we cut it.

Stage SixWait, that was nearly it!  Now I remember: it’s to contrast with the next part!  The next part is a great relief after all this tension – that’s what I was thinking!

Stage Seven Yeah, that’s it!  There’s that A!  Hell, yeah!  And you all sound great!  And I AM A GOD.  On your knees, all of you.

What Pride Goeth Before

Tomorrow’s call makes me nervous.  Tomorrow’s call is the first orchestra call, and I think I know my way around a voice and a piano, and I can handle a big band just fine, and I can orchestrate for a Broadway-style pit orchestra without too much stress.  But this is a little chamber ensemble, seven instruments, and I just know I will have made some very, very amateurish mistakes.  I just know that the French Horn player will politely call me over, point to a bar, and say, “See this note?  You can’t really play this note at that dynamic.  It’s not the right register for the instrument.  You can’t write for horns.  You have no idea.  Go home.”

I may not get beyond Stage Five tomorrow.

’tis in my memory lock’d

In early 1990 I wrote the music for Bruce and Doreen, an original (and in retrospect very strange) musical.  It played the Erindale theatre in Canberra for a strictly limited engagement – as people would say nowadays – of 9 performances, and I believe its entire combined audience over that run did not add up to one full house.

I remember starting rehearsals with vocal warm-ups, but at the age of 19 I didn’t know very many.  I hadn’t had many singing lessons, and I’d done only two other amateur musicals since leaving school, so I made some up, and one in particular has really hung around.

1990 was my second year at the Canberra School of Music, where I was studying Jazz, and I’d become a little obsessed with degrees of the scale.  I remember a lecturer mentioning that many singers tended to go flat on the seventh degree of a major scale, so I gave this to the cast:

I’m hesitant about claiming authorship of this one, because it’s now gone on to have some life of its own, but I remember having a few concerns about it when it was new.  I remember worrying about the timing changes that kicked in, especially when you reach the sixth note of the scale.  I remember justifying it to casts as an articulation exercise, as well as a pitching one, but this was just spur of the moment flim-flam.

I remember coming down the scale – 8, 878, 87678 etc. – and trying a chromatic version, with all twelve degrees of the scale, but just on an “ah” sound.  And I remember getting people who were afraid of harmonies to stop on a given number on the way up, making crunchy chords with lots of tones and semitones in them.

I never did it as a round (and my hat’s off to the person who thought of that), and I never did it using solfa syllables, because I was in a Jazz course, and we didn’t go in for that fusty classical stuff.

After I moved to Sydney in 1992, the exercise was introduced to several hundred Brisbane and Sydney school children, in the cast of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and their attendant teachers.  Later adult casts with the STC, the Ensemble Theatre, David Atkins, and Gordon/Frost would have done it too, until I moved back to Canberra in 1998.

I didn’t know people were still doing it until Dusty: Little by Little aired on the ABC in 2006, and there they were, the cast, warming up with “1 121 12321 …”

Alright, memory is unreliable, and this kind of exercise could have been independently created by hundreds of people.  But I really think I thought of it.  I remember coming up with it, and I certainly don’t remember being taught it by anyone else.  If I’m wrong, and if “1 121 12321” has been around since forever, I’d still love to know where it came from, mostly because of what happened last night.

Last night, you see, I was the improvising muso at ACT Impro’s Improvention, and as I went into the dressing room to get a cup of tea, the improvisers were doing focus exercises in a circle.  Out of nowhere they started singing “1 121 12321 …”

I got a little proud glow on the inside, which may be completely misplaced; perhaps, I thought, a tiny, tiny part of Bruce and Doreen lives on?

So can anyone, in the name of historical accuracy, dash my hopes?  Or confirm them?

UPDATE!  This, via facebook, from the lovely Jodie Blackshaw (who was, as fate would have it, studying Composition when I was doing Jazz):

“I have been singing this warm-up in school choirs since the mid-to-early 1980’s. My husband studied conducting and performance (percussion) in West Virginia in 1987-88 and page 1 of the aural textbook they used, that was printed in 1967, was this exercise. So.. sorry Pete, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t you.” 

I did write “Heart and Soul”, though.

Dun-Na-Da-Dun, Da-Da-Da-Dun …

Ron Grainer’s melody for the theme from Doctor Who does this:

Everyone knows that, right? And yet for years I heard the melody as this:

Audio demonstration here:

I thought the melody continued from the upper D to the B a third below.  Years later, I wondered what was wrong with my ears. Why couldn’t I hear the right melody, with the B an octave lower?

So I did a little sleuthing, and I was helped by the impressive geeky devotion that has been lavished upon the Doctor Who theme. God bless you all.

Here’s the first version of the theme, from 1963. Delia Derbyshire was the BBC Radiophonic Workshop whiz who worked from Grainer’s score, and painstakingly edited together sections of tape containing oscillation tones, white noise and the occasional real instrument. She sped the recordings up, slowed them down, fed them back onto themselves, and edited it all with a razor blade. Grainer, deeply impressed, wanted her to get a co-composer credit, but the BBC wouldn’t allow it.

Whose idea, though, was the portamento between the notes? Surely, with such big intervals, Grainer had the swooping on his original score? Was he thinking of a theremin?

You’ll notice, in this minimalist early version, that there’s an organ sound an octave above the oscillator noise, reinforcing the upper overtone.  So you’re really hearing this:

Mark Ayres is responsible for a wonderful, detailed analysis of later versions here, and his work explains my old inability to hear the tune properly. In 1967 the intro was shortened, and electronic rising arpeggios (spangles, they’re called) were added.  You can hear them over the bass line, right from the beginning:

The spangles drop down in the mix, so by 0:18 you can still hear the melody swoop to the lower octave. 

But all of this was before I was born.  By the time I was hearing the theme , it sounded like this:

By now, the intro had been shortened again.  And there it is, at 0:11, another electronic spangle, partly to hide an edit point, and covering up the crucial part of the melody!  I hear the B from the upper organ line take over.  It’s very difficult to hear the lower oscillator note any more, and if you hadn’t heard the earlier versions (as I, a mere child, had not), that note might as well not exist.

By the 1980s the theme had been re-recorded, its key shifting up to F# minor, then back to E minor, and its melody was much clearer, but it was too late for me.  I stopped watching the show around the time Peter Davison turned into Colin Baker, with the wrong version of the theme firmly ensconced in my scone.

Mystery solved, although it should be noted that it’s also quite hard to sing the correct melody.  That big interval is not typical of a vocal line.  Here’s John Barrowman, who might be expected to know the tune, and who is no slouch as a singer, getting it wrong in precisely the same way that I used to:

Perhaps this anomaly is true of most people my age?  John Barrowman is, I notice, only a couple of years older than I, although not quite so good-looking.