It’s Gonna Be Another Day with LZORK

For the last three years, The Viper has served as Composer in Residence with the Orchestras of Lake Zurich Middle School North under the direction of Mr. Riley Broach. This is always a great experience as I compose and arrange music for these 6th, 7th, and 8th-grade students along with their input and ideas, working with a full orchestra in the same informal way I work with my much smaller performing band.

On Thursday, May 17, 2018, we’ll be doing it again — at 7:00 p.m. presenting the results of the three all-day workshops I’ve held with students so far this spring. (Riley tells me the public is welcome. Details: Lake Zurich Middle School North | 95 Hubbard Lane, Hawthorn Woods, IL 60047 | (847) 719-3600.)

Earlier this year in April, I sent them the following message to get ready for our time together in 2018.

Hey, Orchestras of the Lake of Zurich and the Middle School of the North. Yes! This is the Viper, and beginning on April 27, I’ll be coming — I hope — to vipe avay some of the cobvebs in your musical brains as I drag you kicking and screaming into the strange and wonderful world of living composition.

I’ve had the pleasure to work with you and Mr. Broach as your very fancy-sounding Composer in Residence for what will be our third season together, and I really look forward to meeting you for the workshops in which we’ll take on the challenges of story-telling through composition, collaborative arranging, and exploring a range of musical styles. By the time we perform on May 17, you should be more than ready to blow some minds and rock some (nay, all) worlds.

This past November 17, 2017 — simpler times, no? — The Viper brought his Famous Orchestra and a host of LZORK alumni to good ol’ LZMSN to play a mix of past mixed triumphs and future noble failures. You remember the roll call: “Hotzeplotz Calls,” “The Monster Are Coming,” “Heartbreak for Beginners,” “Just That Good,” “My Dog Has Fleas.”

As we played, we asked audience members to record any and all thoughts on “the new-to-you songs…. any thoughts or ideas that arise, bidden or unbidden, in your Viper-y brain.”

Here’s a small sampling of what we got back:

“You guys rocked. I have nothing to say.”

“Very impressive! Do not stop playing!”

“Interestingly weird (but good). I WANT TO DO”

“OOF”

“La La La”

“Memes”

“I wish we had Mr. Broach for high school orchestra.”

Uhh… let’s try to stay on topic here.

A few such comments stood out to me as I thought about what we might do and make together in this once-in-a-lifetime Spring of 2018. So here’s one:

“Yodel/whistle more”

Well… Okay! We will.

Intermezzo

In fact, with the Intermezzo Orchestra, we’ll apply our talents to one of the first tunes I wrote specifically for the ukulele: a Hawaiian song about East-Central Wisconsin called “The Winnebago Bay” (described by one November listener as “upbeat & fun”). This is a pretty simple, melodic tune — with ample opportunities for yodeling and whistling — and it will give us as musicians a chance to think about how to take a melody and provide the heartbeat behind it: bass lines, harmony, counterpoint, elaborations, etc.

In other words: we’ll make some music!

Here’s what it sounded like when The Viper & His Famous Orchestra recorded it. Question for you: how can we make it you? Sub-question: how can we make bowed strings sound like a Hawaiian steel guitar?

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1Xe27errTvkC9gdIuk7WsRvrxO37AfrqD/view?usp=sharing

If you’ve got a ukulele, play along:

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1QjEJwTJI3GI3UmuvDNLiIu3_Aje1_W5p/view?usp=sharing

Chamber

For the Chamber Orchestra, another November comment drove my thinking on what we’d do this Spring:

“Made a song with dark lyrics really bright. Don’t know how I feel about it. Enjoyable.”

I’m never sure how I feel about that either, though it seems to be a Viper specialty. So let’s not overthink it. And, instead, let’s all enjoy it until we figure out a more appropriate response.

In that vein, I’ve got a totally brand-new bit of songsmithing for us to work our magic on together: a deceptively optimistic take-down of Einstein’s theory of time called “Another Day.” It sounds like this:

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1vMYWcSRYrcLa7qakjYQNlfC7P_7Tq99x/view?usp=sharing

Actually, “it” doesn’t sound like “that.” THAT’S just what writers call a “demo,” which is to say a kind of proof-of-concept demonstration of the basic skeleton of a new piece of music. It’s like when Wagner came in and was like: okay, guys, picture this. Four-and-a-half hours of singing cobblers. Like this [plays some meistersinger stuff on his ukulele]. What do you think?

And what the group thinks matters. As a group, we’ll going to figure out how to provide this skeleton song with musical blood and flesh and sinews and nerves and hair and pimples and a backstory and dreams for the future and a voice for singing about it all.

In other words, we’ll arrange it. And we’ll attempt to do it very much like the way I do it when I bring a new song to Mr. Broach and the rest of my Famous Orchestra as we figure out exactly what details of harmony, rhythm, feel, dynamics, silence, and sound add up to a whole and hopefully beautiful thing.

Are you ready for it?

So that’s what they got in April. Since we’re playing tomorrow, tonight I’m going to send out another — shorter — message of the let’s-win-one-for-the-Gipper sort to get them psyched (or inpire an eye-roll) for tommorow’s performance.

Here’s what that will look like:

LZORK — Item: IT ALL COMES DOWN TO THIS

Tomorrow night, the 17th day of May in the two-thousand-and-eighteenth year of our Common Era at precisely 7 bells of the postmeridian half of the day, we’ll be onstage at LZMSN to make some noise, break some eggs, make some omelettes — musically speaking.

I’m just writing to wish you well on everything you’ll be playing under the skilled direction of Mr. Riley Broach. May your strings stay tuned, may your fingers fleetly fly, may your ear be true, and may your intent be pure and true and honest. In other words, good luck!

On the songs we’re doing together, I don’t have to wish you luck: I’ve been there for the rehearsals and I know how good they can sound.

“Winnebago Bay” is going to make everyone there feel like they are basking in the sea and sun of an island in the tropics — or at least in Sheboygan County, Wisconsin.

And “Another Day” is going to remind everyone that (like the reindeer said) there’s always tomorrow, and that, while we concede Einstein’s theory of relativity and the concept of non-empty relational and dimensional time on which it depends, it sure feels like we have get through a lot of days.

So for those songs, I just say: play it proud, sing it proud, and have fun. I know I will.

And if you have a chance after the performance, take Mr. Broach up on his suggestion to drop The Viper a line or two with your thoughts on the performance, on working the songs up, on living composition, or on anything else that our time together this year inspired in that brain that sits in your head.

Watch this space over the coming days for their replies. And memes to you.

Announcing 12-27-17 show at the California Clipper (Chicago)

The Viper & His Famous Orchestra return to one of the classiest joints that has the poor judgment to let us regularly darken their door: The California Clipper, in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois ( 1002 North California Ave., Chicago, IL 60622 | (773) 384-2547 | 10 p.m. | $5 cover).

AND we’re playing on the biggest party night of the year — the Wednesday mid-week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. French hens for everyone!

The last time we played at the Clipper was also around this time of year. We were anticipating a pretty small crowd when — bang! — all of a suddenly, a busload of Germans showed up on a week-long tour of music venues in the city featuring iconic Chicago styles (mad love for Chicago skiffle, yah?).

We didn’t know their story until after we’d finished, and we couldn’t figure out why this crowd that seemed to be enjoying the music and paying pretty rapt attention also didn’t laugh at any of our musical jokes about high-functioning alcoholism in Libertyville or whether to subvert an ASCAP copyright by going instead through BMI. “Vat iss this ‘Sharking?'” they asked us.

One guy, however — who turned out to be Austrian — was really excited about the fact that we had a song about Krampus, and so we sent him on his way with a free copy of our sheet music version of “Save Me A Krampus (For the Holiday).” In those dark days of Nov. 2017, we built a bridge across the sea on a stick wrapped in barbed wire and a kidnapping sack.

Who knows who’ll turn up this time? Maybe you!

On the Road Again. Probably Hwy 45 Mostly.

The Viper, His Famous Orchestra, his ukulele, his jug, his suitcase, and his liver all make their way to down to Lake Zurich, Illinois this Friday, Nov. 17, to offer up a pre-Thanksgiving cornucopia of musical nourishment to the students and families of the Lake Zurich Middle School North Orchestras.

This concert will inaugurate this school year’s edition  of the Viper’s Composer-In-Residence tenure with LZOrk, with the students themselves participating in making some decisions about what pieces we’ll learn interactively and develop together over the course of the spring semester, based on what they hear and think they can work with this fall.

Of course, The Viper and His Famous Orchestra will revisit some of the pieces LZOrk has performed in the last couple of years as well — “Just That Good,” “Hotzeplotz Calls,” “Heartbreak For Beginners,” “The Monsters Are Coming” — with some very special guest appearances by past, present, and future orchestra students.

Anyone needing an introduction to the Viper or the Composer-In-Residence program could do worse than revisit this Q&A from the first year of the residence, titled “What Does The Viper Say?” And everyone else, we’ll see you on Friday!

 

Announcing: Summer 2017 Festival Shows

The Viper and His Famous Orchestra create their own high-speed rail system in Wisconsin as they storm the state from Milwaukee to Madison over two days in late August.

First, on Saturday, August 26, 2017 (1:00 to 3:00 p.m.) (TIME CHANGE: 3:00 to 5:00 p.m.) we’ll be taking the early afternoon shift at the 2017 Washington Heights Boulevard Bash in the vicinity of the intersection of 54th St. & W. Washington Blvd. (Milwaukee, WI 53208). For The Viper, this is about as hometown as it gets — the neighborhood festival on the very grounds on which The Viper stomps daily. It’s a great all-day party that stretches through five of the loveliest blocks in Milwaukee, just West of Washington Park. You might even see our Mayor, who lives along the Boulevard and has been spotted at the Bash helping kids get soccer balls out of trees. Free! (Facebook event)

Then, on Sunday, August 27, 2017 (12:00 noon to 1:00 p.m.), we stake out the stage at high noon at the 52nd Annual Orton Park Festival 2017 (Orton Park | 1114 Rutledge St, Madison, WI 53703) on the third day of this four-day festival sponsored by the Marquette Neighborhood Association. The Viper briefly lived in this neighborhood as well, but its grounds are more regularly stomped by trombonist Rob Henn. Orton Park is on the near-East side of Madison, not far from Lake Monona, and is the park where on a summer day in or around 1993 or ’94, I crossed paths with a man jogging in a full-body knight’s armored suit, helmet and all. Also free! (Facebook event)

If you can’t make one, make both! If you can’t make both, make monkeys! If you can’t make ’em, train ’em!

Knock, knock. Who’s There? It’s The Viper

Middle school denizens of the Northern territory of District 95, Lake of Zurich, United State of Illinois: The Viper comes in peace but he comes with washtub, jug, and, probably a cümbüş (don’t ask) in hand. Beyond that date, there be monsters. But fear not: we’re just that good.

I’m looking forward to my second annual virtual residence with the LZOrk-ers for your Spring 2017 concert. Mr. Broach and I have some fun and challenging music planned for all y’all, and I hope you’ll challenge us right back.

Here’s a glimpse at what we’ll be doing. And if you’d like a deeper dig into just what this Viperity is all about, you can read here about what last year’s students (which includes some of you!) asked about what to expect and what I wrote back, in a post called “What Does The Viper Say?”

“Just That Good”

The Intermezzo Orchestra will be working with a little trash-talking piece I wrote as the type of thing that should take five minutes to learn and a lifetime to master. (Like Othello!) It’s about as simple as it gets — a twelve-bar blues in a ragtime/stride style — and our work with it should be a good example of the way most non-classical musicians learn and develop new music.

You’ll have a written template for the melody. But, truth be told, most of the “information” to be transmitted about this tune and its style is something you’ll have to learn by ear: you’ll hear me play the melody and “figure out how it goes” by playing it back and then memorizing it.

We’ll also try to work out ways, as a group, to produce bass lines and other accompanying parts and to introduce some development to this basic theme — including, if all goes as planned, a little “concerto mini-grosso” band-within-a-band bit for two washtub basses and jug. Whatever we end up doing, our performance will be a unique arrangement and orchestration of the piece — something that’s never been played quite the same way before, and won’t ever be played the same way again.

Here’s a “scratch track” version of the song as recorded by the group that Mr. Broach and I perform in together, The Viper & His Famous Orchestra. A scratch track is a rough-and-ready reference recording that a composer or a group makes in rehearsal — basically, so they can come back later and remind themselves what they figured out. This is faster than we’ll do it, but you’ll hear how this song works as a kind of conversation between all the performers.

“The Monsters Are Coming”

With the Chamber Orchestra, we’ll be working on a piece that has been described as “the worst song ever written” (it was described that way by me!) and one that, when performed before an audience of children, produced cries of “Liar!” (I had to explain to those kids that sometimes the truth hurts).

This is an example — or maybe even a parody of — a style of music that composers like Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass developed in the second half of the Twentieth Century under the rubric of “minimalism” (though, as we’ll talk about, their work echoed some parallel developments happening in popular music as well). The idea is that we take some super-basic piece of melodic material…

monsters-bit

…and see just how little we can do with it and still end up with something that sounds like something that actually sounds like something!

The development might not be melodic — indeed, with this piece, the refusal to move away from the basic theme is really the joke — but instead might be in terms of the dynamics, or the sonority of the particular mix of instruments, or bowing/plucking techniques, or playing the melody backward (“retrograde”), upside-down (“inversion”), or, for the truly brave of heart, backwards AND upside-down (“retrograde inversion”), etc., and we will work this out in our rehearsals.

Truth is, even prior to the last century, there was a tradition of this kind of thing, whether we’re talking about monks chanting, or Indian ragas or Turkish taksims, or Beethoven’s meditation on a minor-third interval with a short-short-short-long rhythm in his 5th Symphony. But, trust me, Lake Zurich ain’t heard nothin’ like we’re going to lay on them with this.

Here’s a three-person version as performed by The Viper, Mr. Broach, and our colleague, Rob Henn. Now think of what we can do with a full orchestra!

The Monsters Are Coming, Var Gallery, Milwaukee, July 2016

the kind of music your great-great-great-grandparents warned your great-great-grandparents about