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”
“La La La”
“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:
Well… Okay! We will.
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?
If you’ve got a ukulele, play along:
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:
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.