People of earth, we have two shows to announce for the Fall 2019 season that find us back among some favorite places and friends in Madison, Wisconsin. They’re both kind of event-y, meaning you get a lot more than just The Viper and His Famous Orchestra. Can you handle it? Are you ready for this jelly?
On Friday, September 20, 2019, we play as part of the bi-monthly Adult Swim event at the Madison Children’s Museum (100 N Hamilton St #100, Madison, WI 53703 | (608) 256-6445). Because grown-ups are people too, you know! There we are in those pictures above from the last time we did this, sailing over a cardboard sea.
This time around, the theme is Downtown Abbey (yes, the movie opens that night as well). And between 6:00 – 10:00 p.m., The Viper & His Famous Orchestra join a cast of scores for “a special aristo-radical themed twist! General admission includes access to museum exhibits, live music, games, plenty of arts and crafts, and a little bit of friendly upstairs-downstairs competition.” $15 cheap ($12.75 advance).
Then, on Monday, November 11, 2019, we return for more of The Greatest War: a multi-media look back at WWI and its impact on Wisconsin and elsewhere, organized and led by The Kissers, and featuring music, photographs, and readings by us, Sean Michael Dargan, John Wedge, The November Criminals, and others. https://thegreatestwar.org/
This is a command repeat performance of the one staged at the Barrymore Theatre to a sold-out crowd on the November 11, 2018 centenary of the War’s armistice. And I don’t know if everyone who was involved in last year’s show is returning, or who might be joining the fray anew, but the show was spectacular and moving and really quite an experience and might be even more so in this year’s location at the Memorial Union’s Shannon Hall (800 Langdon Street, Madison, WI 53706 | (608) 265-3000). Just look at this press from last year!
For the fourth year running — they haven’t caught me yet! — The Viper has sprung the Spring as a Composer in Residence with the Orchestras of Lake Zurich Middle School North under the direction of Mr. Riley Broach. When the white snows of yesteryear’s Winter have receded, when the vernal hours and aestival days begin to thicken, when single-serving snackbags bloom red, yellow, and dream-lucid blue on each and every Milwaukee curb and root-snag, well, then’s when’s I show up, four strings and all, to corrupt our nation’s musical youth with notions of collaborative composition, creative “borrowing”, head arrangements, and well-turned melody as equipment for living.
So that’s always fun.
The word cloud above is based on last year’s post-concert response asking LZOrk students to describe the Composer in Residence program, which you can read more about on Mr. Broach’s teaching site here.
This year, due to the arrival of the newest little conductor in Mr. Broach’s house, and his consequent paternity leave, my work with the students had the able support of Susan Phillips — and I wanted to be sure to recognize all her contributions to this year’s project here. I ask for some strange things and deliver rehearsal materials in some pretty unorthodox forms, so I’m very glad she was game for it!
For the 6th-grade group of musicians, I typically bring a simple lead sheet of the type that a small jazz, country, or rock band might use to make “head arrangement” out of a familiar song structure, like the 32-bar AABA pop song form of “Winnebago Bay” or “Heartbreak for Beginners” (recordings from the 2018 & 2017 Spring concerts, respectively).
In rehearsals, we’ll work out how many times the orchestra would go through the form in performance and figure out which instruments are going to do what, where to provide variety and the structural development of the piece — with the emphasis on how the music itself (as distinct from the lyrics) can tell a story that starts somewhere and ends up someplace else.
A couple years ago, with “Just That Good” (see workshop video above), we found the 12-bar blues form worked pretty well in this regard. So this year I brought them a Spring-into-Summer seasonal celebration song called “Do All The Days With You,” which puts a New-Orleans-rumba-Professor-Longhair-style twist on the 12-bar form, including the distinctive habanera rhythm for the bass figure you see in the “rumba” line (lower staff) below.
The idea was to show how some fairly simple fragments, like the bass line + the basic melody figure (“call”):
… a response:
… and a counterpoint:
…could be layered on top of one another to produce some rather complicated and funky polyrhythms, which themselves would take on a different character when played in different permutations and combinations by the different instrument sections.
We figured out that with five instrument groups (violins 1 & 2, violas, cellos, and basses) and 5 different parts (which might include playing nothing at all!) there were 3,125 different ways we could play the first two measures alone!
Here’s the arrangement we settled on (pdf here): the text tells the player what to “go fetch” in terms of their fragment for each time through the form:
And here’s what a couple of combinations could sound like, as sketched out for our final two instrumental “out” chorus (in all the glorious midi sound of my MuseScore software).
Looking forward to hearing how it all pulls together on Thursday night!
If the work with the Intermezzo group focuses on arrangement, I like to get the older group of 7th/8th graders involved at the level of composition itself. And, again, this follows the model I might use with my own Famous Orchestra, in which rehearsals become the lab in which some germ of an idea I’ve had gets worked up into something fuller. With the Chamber Orchestra, this often takes the form of testing out ways of taking a bass riff and changing it up the rhythm, the ornamentation, or the harmonization, as we’ve done with “The Monsters Are Coming” or “(It’s Gonna Be) Another Day” (2017 & 2018 Spring concerts, respectively).
The piece I brought in for them this year, “Leave a Picture (Take a Person),” is something I wrote literally the day after last year’s concert, based on an idea of creating a loop that would undergird variations. But then I had to wait a whole year to hear how it would develop with the whole orchestra!
It’s a simple, mostly through-composed piece that takes a slow Beatle-y melody, adds in some Bollywood-ish call & response, and punctuates the verses with a two-measure, four-chord progression I creatively borrowed (i.e., stole) in equal parts from George Harrison’s “Isn’t It a Pity” and Big Star’s “Feel.”
Which sounds like this:
In the instrumental middle of the song, that bit becomes a looped “vamp” over which the orchestra riffs based on some rhythmic and harmonic ideas that came out of the workshops. And we end up stealing some other bits and pieces from other recognizable places — see if you can hear where in this midi-rendering version of the full score:
Can’t nobody tell us nothing. At least until Thursday! See you all then.
The Viper appears as Composer-in-Residence and soloist with the Orchestras of Lake Zurich Middle School North (LZOrk) for their Spring 2019 concert on Thursday, May 16, at 7:00 p.m. (95 Hubbard Lane, Hawthorn Woods, IL 60047 | (847) 719-3600)
Announcing that The Viper and His Famous Orchestra will be playing Wednesday, September 12, 2018 (9:30 p.m.) at one of our favorite venues: The California Clipper (1002 North California Ave., Chicago, IL 60622 | (773) 384-2547. $5 the price of admission. See the facebook event page)
It’s Autumn in the city Rahm Emmanuel once called home, and (for now) calls his “f***ing home” — the Windy City, City of the Big Shoulders, Freight Handler to the world, the City of Angels, the Big Apple, the Big Easy, San Fran, the Twin Cities (minus one), the place where “Everything’s Up To Date,” the City of Lights, the place you’ll end up when you take the Ferry ‘cross the Mersey: Chicago!
And we’ll be there to let everyone know how Milwaukee/Madison/Highland Park rolls. Roll with us, if you please. Make your Wednesday mean something.
On Thursday, August 2, 2018 (5:30 – 7:30 p.m.), The Viper and His Good Looks will play as part of the opening
night festivities for the Relative Connections Art Show and Sale in the Cortesi Gallery of the The Art Center Highland Park (1957 Sheridan Rd | Highland Park, IL 60035 | (847) 432-1888).
The featured artists in this show include: Laura Temkin (Abstract watercolors), Jody Berns (Fine art photography), Terri Weinstein (Unique wearable art) and Steve Temkin (figurative painting in natural and digital media).
We’ll be playing in rare dynamic duo form with just The Viper and bassist Riley Broach, the best thing to happen to Highland Park since The Good Wife and Cards Against Humanity.
So get fancy, get free, get art! See the Viper in his native environment — surrounded by original art and the artists who’ve created it. What is art? Is this art? How about this? Now imagine a whole evening of jokes just like those and make sure you take off work early to get there in time to hear each and every one of them.
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?
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’re 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 to 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.
The Viper appears with the orchestra students of : Lake Zurich Middle School North this Thursday, May 17, 2018 at 7:00 p.m. Location: 95 Hubbard Lane, Hawthorn Woods, IL 60047 | (847) 719-3600.
the kind of music your great-great-great-grandparents warned your great-great-grandparents about