Monthly Archives: August 2008

Obama’s scripted biographical video before his speech last night caught 38 million viewers.
These bio videos have a tall order to fill. You need to communicate universal experiences voters can relate to, but also show candidate as unique and extraordinary. And you have to put forward the rationale for the political campaign. So the music has to be universal, unique, and political all at the same time.So how did the Obama campaign do?

The video has a brief introduction, then gets started with Obama’s childhood photos. This opening section was strong. We hear a small orchestra of woodwinds and strings. A solo clarinet plays over images of Obama; an oboe takes over when we see his Mom. When Barack talks of his memories of his father, it’s a melancholy piano. All very conventional, but also very well done.

Even though Obama grew up in Hawaii or Indonesia, and ukeleles and Gamelan instruments aren’t really a fit for a US President.

Then Barack meets Michelle. We shift smoothly to acoustic guitar for the romantic story. Conventional, but so far so good.

Things misfire when Obama starts his rise in the state senate. A four-on-the-floor kick drum suggests the daily routine of work with a bushy-tailed optimism. It’s a little thin and repetitive, and doesn’t fit thematically with the opening material. It’s always better, if you have the budget, to license something from a band that worked for a year on their album – this section fell flat.

The opening themes return as Obama reminisces about astronauts, but then things go off the rails. We see Obama on a plane while a the narrator intones creepily about “promise”. A new-age synth pad takes over for the orchestra. The kind of thing you expect to hear rising from the snow when you see the Northern Lights for the first time. The moment overreaches – we’re gone over the top and self-serious. Is this speaking to the party faithful or working class swing voters?

The video finishes with light acoustic rock, a safe choice, but the producers want to communicate “Hope”, so we get the Soulful Celtic Fiddle. The sound couldn’t be more wrong for Obama, it’s like a mashup of Enya plus Hootie and the Blowfish. Leave the celtic touches out and you’ve got something safe and pleasing.

Finally, the video ends without musical crescendo or cadence – things fade suddenly. There is a vacuum – the viewer wonders “eh? that’s it?” but the moment is saved by U2 and the stadium crowd as the candidate strides out.
So let’s give the music an “A” for hitting the right Childhood Memories notes, but a “C” for overwrought Hope instruments. Given the dead ending, call it a “B”.

Next week – McCain’s bio…

Posted 8 years ago by John Piscitello
OK, so maybe it is possible to get by on fewer musicians….

Posted 8 years ago by John Piscitello

Here’s a little music to go with it…

Posted 8 years ago by John Piscitello

A detailed look at Broadway orchestrators (they earn $25 a measure!) focuses on cost-cutting trends, where shows try to get by with fewer and fewer musicians:

Downsizing is the norm these days, mostly because of space and economics. “We’re being asked to write for smaller and smaller bands all the time,” Mr. Starobin said. “Everybody’s oohing and aahing about ‘South Pacific,’ but nobody’s saying: ‘Hey! Let’s use big orchestras again.’ Producers don’t want to put money into the music; they’d rather spend $3 million on the scenery.”

Somehow I don’t think all those people raving about Mamma Mia were talking about the scenery.

Still, if a New York musician costs $100,000 a year, cutting from 25 to 15 musicians is $1 million a year.

Top shows bring in nearly $1.5 million a week, with overall attendance at 87%. You have to wonder if cheesing out on the musicians is like charging for water on the plane – sure it’s annoying, but people will still fill the seats.

Still, I haven’t truly enjoyed a Broadway musical in years. It’s distracting how the sound is produced so much like a rock concert that it becomes artificial. The orchestra is hidden, the singers are body-miked, and all the sound comes from speakers to the side, instead of actors on the stage.

There are no visual or audio cues to tell you that what you’re seeing is real, and at intermission couples in the drink line ask each other “is it lip-synced”?

Producers may suppose it’s not much of an issue. But sometimes it is.
With a bigger (and visible) orchestra, and turning down the amps so the singer’s voice is in the direction of the stage (and not the speaker behind you), the audience connects much better to the performance. We hear so much compressed digital music these days that live analog performance is becoming more valuable. Yet many musicals sound like a U2 playing in an arena.
It’s a musical, not a rock concert. The audience is not there to commune with each other while basking in the band’s glory. They are there to get swept up in the story and the music. Broadway producers would be smart to invest in the live music – get the musicians where we can see them, and build the emotional connection to the audience.

Posted 8 years ago by John Piscitello
I came across a short doc 34x25x26 in the YouTube screening room about female mannequins and how this company creates a beauty idea. It’s got over a million hits (it’s creepy watching men in a factory create female mannequin bodies). The filmmaker Jessie Epstein also posted a version using the temp music by Loscil (which is very experimental electronic-ambient music).
There is a lot of similarity in tone, and they both work, but I think one of them works a lot better than the other:
The temp version:The final version:
Posted 8 years ago by John Piscitello
I came across a short doc 34x25x26 in the YouTube screening room about female mannequins and how this company creates a beauty idea. It’s got over a million hits (it’s creepy watching men in a factory create female mannequin bodies). The filmmaker Jessie Epstein
also posted a version using the temp music by Loscil (which is very experimental electronic-ambient music).There is a lot of similarity in tone, and they both work, but I think one of them works a lot better than the other:

The temp version:

The final version:

Posted 8 years ago by John Piscitello

When you pick music for your scene, taking a moment to ask “what is the point of view?” can make the difference.Stanley Kubrick commissioned Alex North to create a score for 2001: A Space Odyssey. Midway through Kubrick cut North loose and decided to use temp tracks selected from classical music.

And Richard Strauss’ Thus Sprach Zarathusra fanfare became really, really famous.

Comparing the two versions of the scene shows how point of view

of the music can make (or destroy) a scene.

Strauss’ fanfare was called “Sunrise” and was just the opening of a suite inspired by Nietzsche’s writings. The music is shooting for the eternal and and omnipotent, and those pounding tympanis lend the scene more than a dash of violence (music starts about 0:20):

North’s music, wonderful as it is, now sounds dated and a little bit naive. It’s bouncy and enthusiastic, and occasional strings and woodwind colors lend a shrieking human quality. The human element diminishes the scene – something far bigger than us is at work here:

One could ague that Strauss’ music is simply better (Kubrick himself said so). The fundamental problem is the point of view. North’s music looks up at the scene as if audience is feeling awestruck.

Strauss’ fanfare, not written for the film, looks down on the moment, as if omnipotent forces, as inevitable as the sunrise, are in control.

Posted 8 years ago by John Piscitello

YouTube – Video explains the world’s most important 6-sec drum loopThis is a classic, a detailed and engaging history of the “Amen Beak”, which is a short drum solo from a 1969 B-side that got first sampled and placed in an NWA track in since 1990. Since then you have most likely heard it thousands of times in hundreds of different songs.

Start about 1 minute into the video – the break is first heard at 1:18. Then he’ll explain how it got used and reused over and over in tracks after that, with additional samples:

It’s like the “Wilhelm Scream” of pop music!

Posted 8 years ago by John Piscitello