Looking Back

TV show logos

I was thinking about breaking my finger last year–first real injury to my hands over a 45 year career. Sometimes such events trigger a
nostalgic or reflective moment–as it did for me. Not playing guitar for 6 weeks was like a small child losing their special blanket or Teddy bear.
It never happened before–not being able to pick up my ax and play–it was terrifying. But more importantly, it was a wonderful confirmation
of how lucky I am to be a professional musician. It made me appreciate the work I have been able to do on the shows whose logos are above.
But, as cool as it is to get to do TV work and to have played on many albums, my reverie struck a deeper personal chord.

For me, the Beatles were the initial inspiration–how could one resist? Perhaps it was the lure of stardom, popularity and the camaraderie of
being in a band that drew me to music, but that quickly evolved into a passion for playing, a hunger to understand and explore the endless vista of a musical instrument and a deep respect for what I began to realize as a world wide, ancient human culture, a club that goes back into pre neolithic obscurity.

All of us, humble pickers or virtuosos like Joe Pass, Andre Segovia, Wes Montgomery, Stevie Ray, BB King or Carl Perkins–we all belong to the same club–the amazing club of guitarists. But more importantly, the larger club of MUSICIANS…like Mozart, Ravel, Miles Davis, Ravi Shankar, Cole Porter, Bach, Prince, Duke Ellington etc etc. All cultures have icons of music, all cultures have music that goes back as far as the definition of
their identity as a culture–be it in prayer or simply in song. Humans seem unable to exist without it–and that seems a simple obvious truth to me but perhaps it is much deeper than that…and perhaps now–with the digital revolution, it is time for music to be more critical to us than ever.
We now have in our hands in the form of a smart phone–which much of the population of the world now has–the ability to hear any music from anytime and any culture–on demand and for free. The universal language of all kinds of music can now truly be shared on a planetary scale.
Understanding, sympathy and empathy are more likely when one has shared experiences–a place to key into that becomes a window into the world of
people unlike ourselves. I have been very fortunate to take this journey actively as the composer of Travelscope, but anyone can do it by simply listening, extending themselves, broadening their exposure. This means of course, leaving the beaten path of what you are comfortable with–experimenting–exploring–and it is such fun…even if you don’t always love the music.

Some years ago I was asked to be part of a very interesting TV show called ‘Dissonance and Harmony.’ Studio Instrument Rentals(SIR)LA was booked out
and seven different musical acts from middle eastern countries were set up to play in various rooms with a camera crew and in some cases a full Pro Tools rig. A handful of western culture musicians were then invited to interact with these predominantly Arab musicians and see what evolved.
The western crew was RZA(wu-tang clan),Gustavo Santaolalla(Argentinian composer: Broke Back Mt.) Nile Rogers (Sheik, David Bowie etc)Charlotte Caffey (Go Gos), Jack Blades(Ted Nugent) and myself. We all wandered around separately from room to room making music, making friends and exploring new musical hybrids.To my delight and surprise, Iraqi born folk music legend, Iham Al Madfai, was a very accomplished nylon string guitarist who loved American standards.If you Google the show, you will see a photo of him jamming with me and Jack Blades. We found much common musical ground in his repertoire, but more importantly, we were able to improvise together, with Iham leading the way in an Iraqi style. Perhaps the most magical moment
for me was when I entered the room where an Egyptian traditional folk sextet was set up. I brought a bottle neck and an old harmony acoustic with me that day. The Egyptians had never heard slide guitar before and were delighted that I could mimic(to the best of my ability) their quarter tone
melodic ideas–especially when their wooden flute player got going. It was pure magic and smiles and we did not share a single word in common
linguistically–no Arabic for me and no English on their part.

We reached each other in the universe of music. I do not want to be too pollyanna about this–but it was special and it was a bridge and an
eye opening experience on both sides…acoustic slide took on a whole new meaning to me.

Interestingly, when I first was able too return to guitar after my broken finger, I picked up my slide(I use my pinky)so I would not stress my
injury too much. It reminded me of the sessions at SIR and it warmed my heart as I played Amazing Grace, remembering the look on the
Egyptians faces when I played it for them.

I am indeed so very lucky to be a musician.

Scoring as a growth challenge


Most composers have something that they do especially well–their
style or reputation may be built around this. It can be a genre–
like rock, or orchestral, perhaps contemporary rhythms or techno.
Whatever the tags that a composer may live with or even promote,
there are always tasks that require a composer to stretch–move out
of the comfort zone and grow. This can be a fun challenge, a way to
explore new musical landscapes and increase one’s range.

The wonderful thing about scoring Travelscope for me, is that it presents
this kind of challenge on a weekly basis. Each episode brings
the show to a new location, and at times a different time period.
In that it has no actual story line or recurring characters–other
than Joseph Rosendo as the host, it is the location that is both
the story line and the characters. This requires me to visit the
music of that culture and weave it into to the sound and POV that
I bring to the show as a composer. The music themes that normally
recur on scripted or even many reality shows, do not happen here.

A look at some Season 8 locations reveals the scope we are discussing:
Taiwan, San Antonio, Eastern Europe(Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia, Hungary),
Germany and Switzerland in a period centric 2 part episode about the
Reformation, Toronato, Tri Valley California, Korea, Thousand
Islands. Each of these has to have an identity that fits the subject
and yet remains true to the Travelscope sound. Each episode often
has moments that lean towards the past or peek into the future–
thus the ethnicity also has to be ‘period’ sensitive.

An example: The Reformation 2 part episode required music like
this opening from part one:
Early Renaissance 1
Or this cue which I created for Luther’s death–it is both period and in my guitar style.
Luther Dies
By contrast, few weeks earlier, I created this cue for one of the Taiwan Episodes:
Cherry Blossoms
The challenge is to keep all the music sounding appropriate and still be
stylized with my stamp on it.
(contrast to the atmospheres of Biker Build Off a few years back)
The Travelscope ethnic and period centric work has been made much easier having Youtube as a research tool. Imagine going to the
ethnomusicology department at UCLA to hunt down exotic recordings
from what can be almost any culture any week– Youtube makes this
quite doable…Of course, there is the challenge of doing
something creative and professional with the influences one has explored.
Personally, I love it.

Viva la difference!

Keeping Up with the Jones

The equipment arms race will never be over–and that is a good thing.
Music has always been driven by technological change (amongst many other factors).
Valves were added to brass in the early 19th century,
for instance. Electric guitar appears in the mid 20th century and synthesizer,
samplers and digital technology followed. There are always new interfaces,
new toys, new software, speakers and microphones. Access to good teck
stuff is a positive—sometimes just a new sound library can
kick start a composer out of a period of bad mojo.

The other side of the race is the addiction and pressurized environment
that can can darken it. Keeping up with the latest, greatest is not
always all it is made out to be. One way to confirm
this is to go back and listen to great records made 10 years
ago, or 25, or 40 or even 60 years
ago. Rubber Soul still sounds perfectly fine to me
–done on a 4 track analogue machine.

We all learn with and from our gear. If you know how to get great
results from a set up, it is not always a positive or necessary thing
to “switch up.” If something works well for you, keep using it.
Adding to a system gradually is usually pretty safe. Wholesale
leaps can be scary and demanding. I can honestly say I regret
dumping my old Roland 760 sampler and the 8 bit Roland drum samples.
They were just dirty enough and sent out through an analogue board
and a dbx 163x, the kick and sn popped like nothing I have heard since.
You can hear them on my heavy metal and are rock sounding
cues for Biker Build Off. And hey, a 57 on a guitar amp is still the THING.

Old is not a derogatory word in music technology—old guitars are priceless.
We spend lots of money
on emulations of old gear not because the old stuff was terrible.

Before stressing to keep up with the Jones equipment-wise,
slow down, pick a couple of things
that are tantalizing and be additive…
or….. just buy that old Telecaster you’ve been dreaming of.

Keeping Focused and Motivated

As all composers who have done TV will tell you, a long stint composing for an episodic
TV show brings with it the challenge of fighting off complacency and the boredom of
repetition. In many cases, the style of a show is set up very early, perhaps even in the
pilot, and is the basis for the musical palette that follows the show and even individual
characters. This is , of course a good thing for the continuity and style of the program.
Whether they pay attention to the show or not, viewers become accustomed to the sound
of a show, both the score and the source style.

The challenge for a composer is to stay inspired within the range established so that the
intensity and quality does not diminish over time. When the script and acting are very good,
this is not a problem. On the other hand, when an episodic is consistently below par it is
more of an issue. From my appoint of view, I like to identify the weakest link, be it an
actor or a story line, and try to support it as best I can without being intrusive. For
instance, one might be working on a suspense episode and the character in danger is just
not sympathetic enough for the audience to care. A deft composer can underscore that
character in such a way as to make the audience more invested. The trick is to not be obvious or
indicative to the point of intrusiveness.

As a contrast, I have the good fortune to be starting my fifth season with a show that
never gets boring or repetitive, Travelscope. In that each week we visit new locations,
meet new people and have unique adventures, the music is ethnographically in constant
flux and the situations, while all travel related, can vary widely. I find this immensely
enjoyable and challenging–especially the need to mix the ethnographic elements with
my guitar work and orchestral arrangements. It is wonderful that the existence of Youtube
makes it possible to easily research and gain exposure to practically any music from any
country or period. Of course, the trick is to be able to internalize that sound and
bring it out as your own.

Travelscope is on PBS, so there is really no back end to speak of. I say this too all you
young composers because, although we all need to make a living, money cannot be the sole
quest for a musician, in my opinion. I suggest keeping a solid footing in what makes
you curious, excited and challenged. Music is a wonderful voyage for its own sake.
Get paid, do the work, be a business person, but remember to feed your musical soul.

Young Guitarists

In the past few years, I have taken on a few select guitar students, kids that are focused,
disciplined and have that passion for guitar. It has been immensely rewarding to both
shepherd their development and find a place to share what I have absorbed over a lifetime
as a guitarist.

Earlier today, my eldest and longest under my tutelage came to me in sort of a panic.
She had recently been asked into a band situation that required a certain minimum of
basic chart reading. As a teacher, I have determined to teach by ear until the
reading becomes a necessity, feeling that one must learn expression
and technique–ie–develop hands and ears before eyes. It seems to work well
with my students, all of whom are building excellent four finger left hand technique
and great finger picking and flat picking chops with their right. The bottom line
is she was worried about the reading and more importantly about making
mistakes. To put this in context–she is 15 and can play a mean 12 bar as well
as wail like Hendrix, get funky with great feel and finger pick.

15 years old. The band is a funk outfit of young people 14-18 that is being MD’d
by the father of the two young singing horn players. My student is quick enough
to pick up a song in a couple of listenings but she has only begun to handle chord
charts with kicks and specific chordal direction such as C/E.
What this issue highlighted for me was a fear of making mistakes as a musician.
Granted that in a studio session context as a session player, one had better
be pretty quick and pretty accurate–as well as creative. But in a rehearsal
context, especially as young players, the atmosphere that encourages one to stretch,
experiment, grow and make mistakes is essential. Not to suggest that playing a
specific arrangement accurately is a drag–on the contrary.
But the overwhelming concern to already know how to do everything is not
productive for young players. I often say to my students, play what you hear,
not what you know. Playing what you know
often ends up as a series of practiced riffs–great soloists take chances,
follow the melody in their head and are willing to trip over themselves on
occasion. Generally speaking, one hopes that a chart
leaves some room for this kind of creativity as well. There is usually
a balance that needs to be found here.

Fear does not help, ever. We are all musicians and it is a joy to be
part of this amazing culture, this
special club with it’s own language and its own history and heroes.

In the digital, correct everything, world we live in–perhaps we
should remember that music is a performance art
not only a technological art. I love my studio and all
the bells and whistles, but picking up and acoustic
guitar and just taking it where ever I feel–that is still
at the core of what music is about to me.