Wrapping up our recording session in Scotland — My Adventures in Underscore, part 19
I can’t get “The Prelude” out of my head. The drums, the glockenspiel, the tam tam and cymbals from yesterday’s session keep reverberating in my skull. It’s 3:13 on Wednesday, January 19 and I’m staring at the darkened ceiling of my hotel room. It appears that sleep is not one of the amenities that I will enjoy on our trip to Glasgow. But then, I get to hear the complete re-recordings of The Man Who Knew Too Much and On Dangerous Ground live, and in person. The first day was a blast. Who needs to sleep?
Fortunately, the excitement of my duties is sufficient to propel me through the day. I’m here at the behest of my pal Douglass Fake of Intrada, to document the proceedings (in blog posts like this one) and on social media as we go. I’m scribbling in my notebook all day long, and snapping pictures for Facebook. I’m dressed and at the hotel buffet by 8:30.
Breakfast is a simple dish of Muesli, fruit and almond milk—my belly needs a break from all the rich Italian food we’ve been eating here. Who knew that Scotland was a hotbed of Mediterranean immigrants? Seems there’s a pizzeria or pasta palace on every block. The Little Italy vibe is intensified by the architecture—I get the distinct feeling that some of the streets were lifted from lower Manhattan: dark, sooty brick buildings on wide streets bisected with narrow alleyways. It makes sense that the big New York ticker tape parade sequence from Indiana Jones 5 was actually filmed just a few blocks from the concert hall. Wish I had time to see that…
It’s time to gather on the Scotland Studio floor, and I check in with the other civilians present. Jerome and Tina have come all the way from Switzerland — bearing three boxes of chocolates for the team. Their Kickstarter contribution entitled them to a seat at the stage, although they opt for sitting in the bleachers. It’s a great way to watch the musicians “talk” to each other as they perform. Erik is our other major donor, hailing from Texas, and he splits his time upstairs and down. He’s clearly having a great time, there’s a beatific smile on his face whenever I look over. And then there’s Charlie, a young English conductor whom maestro William T. Stromberg invited as his guest. The young man sits hunched over the table next to Anna Stromberg, his shock of blonde hair jutting out as he stares oh-so-intently at the music laid out before him.
I’m struck by the range of personalities among the folks present here, and the single, unifying characteristic. We’ve got the fans who know the music well enough to hum along every bar. That includes many of us on the production team—never forget that everyone who runs a boutique soundtrack label is also a fan. They aren’t in it for the money or glory—they’re doing it because they LOVE the music. I have the opportunity to talk to several of the players in the orchestra, and they, too, have a fondness for Bernard Herrmann’s music.
Walking by the piano I stop in my tracks—I know that woman at the keyboard. Well, I recognize her—I recently cut a trailer for another Intrada album that included her photo, sitting on the bench in precisely the same position as she is now, one arm leaning on the keys. A strange sort of deja vú.
Turns out Lynda Cochran is a delightful presence, sweet and chatty and pleased to share a few impressions of playing Herrmann’s music. I never noticed the piano in On Dangerous Ground before this. Her performance was a standout yesterday, leaping in and out of the big cues to punctuate the furious action, with nods toward the dizzying arpeggios that would appear in The Day The Earth Stood Still—Bernard Hermann’s next assignment after ODG. Lynda shared that she’s played on other scores by the composer—and began her tenure at the RSNO playing celeste on a recording of Vertigo in the late ’90s. I show her the Tiomkin video on You Tube and we say our goodbyes.
While the players take their seats, I venture back to the recording booth. There’s a number of rubber duckies tucked among the gear upstairs—large and small yellow ones, even a large blue chap wearing a beanie. When I ask the digital manager about them, Hedd doesn’t give a straight answer—he looks at his assistant Sam and they share a grin. Obviously, it’s some sort of inside joke. But at dinner last night Bill Stromberg told a story about a rubber chicken, so I decide to play a joke of my own. I select a plump mallard with a squeaky bottom and run downstairs. I wait conspiratorially near the podium and plop it down on his sheaf of music.
Bill is busy talking to one of the stage managers. Something on the podium is loose and we don’t need any random squeaks or rumbles ruining a take. So he’s a little preoccupied when he turns and sees the duck. The maestro grabs it and locks eyes with me. “Who put this here?” Apparently I am utterly transparent, because he immediately knows who’s responsible. “What’s this supposed to mean?” I mumble something about a joke, and good sport that he is, Bill takes a picture with baton and duck in hand.
I grow flushed with embarrassment. Now is not the time for foolishness—we’re almost at the downbeat. I share the photo of Bill and Squeaky on FB from my seat. In no time, one of our friends chimes in and explains that in France, a bum note during a performance is called “un canard.” (Sometimes, social media can be a gift.) I explain it to Bill later and he has a good laugh. “The only canards in here are at the podium.” He has a way with self-deprecating comments. It’s not unusual to hear him ask for another take by saying “You played that beautifully but I conducted it terribly. Let’s do it again.”
Today the orchestra has been cut in half—yesterday was a full complement, with extra brass and NINE percussionists. Today, we’ve got a full string section, but only eight woodwinds, two horns, harp and our soloist. Strange to look out at a canyon of empty chairs between the front and back of the stage. I listen to the vibraphones tuning up, now with hard mallets instead of soft (another request from the producer). They give me chills.
One of the first pieces is “Fear” from ODG. What sounds the violins make! First, a high pitched trill that presages a certain shower scene. Followed by delicate vibrato which are as interesting to watch as they are to hear. The sight of a dozen bows making sharp, slow ascents and then vibrating as the players finger the necks—all in complete unison—is remarkable to behold. I am gobsmacked by the precision of the players. Then, I consider the source.
How did Benny learn what sounds the orchestra could make? I recall stories of him and Jerome Moross sneaking into Carnegie Hall rehearsals in high school. He had an ear for unique instrumentation, distinct orchestration. He knew what he could ask of his players and then get it on tape. That’s the problem with some modern scores plunked out on a keyboard. Too much music is written that’s either unplayable by humans—or more often, hews too closely to a simple piano line, using the orchestra like percussion rather than employing all of its remarkable color. Benny knew what he was doing.
Speaking of color, there’s the Viola d’amore—our soloist for the morning session. Everyone on the team has made the mistake at least once of referring to our soloist as “her” or “she” because Virginia Majewski made such an impression in 1951. (Her performance was impressive enough for Benny to demand on-screen credit for his soloist and he agreed to share his title card credit with her.) But our player today is a “he”, in the person of Huw Daniel (pronounced Hugh). Doug smiles that his name is spelled the same as Roddy McDowall’s character in How Green Is My Valley. Huw takes his seat to the right of the podium and begins to tune the extra three strings with his electronic fork.
Again, we are treated to a unique sound—his playing is lovely, and the melody dances oh-so-delicately over the bed of strings and woodwinds. Of course there are adjustments and requests from the podium or the booth. We’re up to 164 takes and roughly 30 cues in the can. It’s surprising to me that most of the large scale cues were recorded with fewer takes on average than the smaller ones. I ask Doug about that and he explains: “In the smaller cues, the players are more exposed, and every little tic and variance is more obvious. Whereas in the big cues, if one of the six trumpets is slightly off, you’re not likely to notice.” Not that there are any canards in this session. The issue is either timing or emphasis, some of which can be corrected in the mix. Sometimes the conductor and producer decide it’s easier to turn a channel up or down rather than ask some of the players to play 15% louder.
Soon enough, we are at the morning break, and still a little ahead of schedule. Which momentarily seems like a problem.
We’re in the booth when Maya Iwabuchi enters, looking serious. She’s the orchestra leader (equivalent to a concertmaster in the States), and her job is to look out for her players. Which she does brilliantly, juggling the recording order with the conductor so that she can liberate players when possible. Some are teachers or parents, who would appreciate a little extra time to get to the next appointment in their busy schedules. And Maya, who is also first violin, sees an opportunity to let a significant portion of the orchestra leave much earlier—if we can get the percussionists in before the afternoon. The arrangements are made and we resume the session.
By the time we get to the appointed lunch break, we are down to a handful of players and as many cues to record. Maya takes a consensus, and the orchestra votes to skip lunch in lieu of a short break and play through to the finish. It’s a fascinating run of music, mostly from TMWKTM. In the run up to recording, I’d read a few gripes online that the score “wasn’t that interesting” and that many of the cues were “just background or sneaking around.” But hearing the music apart from the film, at a listenable volume and without dialog, was a revelation. The idiosyncratic sounds and textures should be catnip to fans—and the producer calls down after one cue to congratulate the conductor. “It sounds like Herrmann! That doesn’t always happen with re-recordings.”
By 14:00, we’re down to three players, Pippo on harp, Tim on clarinet and Maya on violin, playing one of the pieces for the “Arab Trio.” Another trademark series of repeating cells, but still with a delicacy and flavor of an exotic meal. Hardly linoleum, as the old saw goes. And with a whisper, the session ends. Mike Ross-Trevor calls down from the booth in his usual understated fashion. “We got it.” Bill looks around the stage, “That’s it? We’re done—thank you!” And then, looking just a wee bereft, he adds “Is there any more music we can play?” Alas, not on this trip.
Over lunch at ’Babs (a Greek place, with vegetarian options for a change) we discuss what’s next. Our contractor Paul Talkington is keen to see us return to Glasgow as soon as possible. Doug and Roger are certainly onboard—if we can select the right score, find the parts, and raise the money. It’s a big question as to how often Intrada can return to the Kickstarter well. It’s a question we’ll be asking donors and fans. But after three campaigns and four albums, the team feels like they’re in a comfortable groove, with a proven track record. The rest is up to the marketplace—and the fates.
We conclude our day back on the stage one last time. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra has its own video staff, and they have transformed the Studio into a dramatic, noir-worthy setting. The banks of overhead lights are off, plunging most of the huge room in darkness. Near the piano, there’s a small grouping of chairs and stands in a spotlight, with the sheet music for both scores facing the camera. Producer Lorimer and his partner Calum have already captured a number of the performances and now they’re recording a few comments from producer and conductor.
I stand off camera and feed questions to the subjects. Doug begins by praising the RSNO. From top to bottom, it’s been a great experience, and with the expertise both on the stage and in the booth, he’s looking forward to continuing collaboration. Bill agrees, and adds a personal note. He remembers seeing—and hearing—On Dangerous Ground on television as a young boy. A random change of channel captivated him with the ferocity of the music and the unique sounds of the anvil. It was this score that inspired him to take up the horn as well as to set him on the path to conduct.
As I listen to their words, I am thinking about Herrmann myself. He was the first composer whose music I noticed, and the first whose history I learned (thanks to David Raksin and a TV program called Camera Three.) This trip has been a nice coda to my lifelong adventures in underscore.
As a capper, I’ve spent a few hours listening to a wonderful BBC Radio 3 program called Benny and Hitch, which dramatizes the collaboration—and unlikely friendship—between those two creative titans. Whatever quibbles you may have about the details, the broad sweeps of character and action, underscored by sterling musical performances, puts this partnership into the pantheon. At least, that’s where they reside in my mind.
Surely, Intrada has done their part to burnish that legacy. It will take awhile to complete the record assembly (Bill is coming up to Intrada to review the final mix), cut the disc, prep the packaging (biographer Steven C. Smith is writing the notes) and get it into the release schedule. We’re only a few months away from hearing new recordings of two notable scores, like we’ve never heard them before.
Our job here is done. After one more Italian feast (the arancini are quite good!), we’ll be returning to California. Maybe now, I can get a little shuteye.
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