Tag Archives: scratch track

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

Hanukkah with the Viper, pt. 4

So now you’ve got everything you need to enjoy Hanukkah with some “Heyse Latke Kalte Latke”: a recording by the Paint Branch Ramblers, a cheat sheet for singing and playing along, and even the lead sheet if you want to play the melody. What’s next?

Well, for the fourth night of Hanukkah, I’m posting a scratch track that I made very simply (recorded straight into the computer’s built-in mic) for the Ramblers to be able to hear and practice with when we were learning it. This is a slightly older version of the melody with one phrase that turns a different direction in the 7th bar than we do it now (see yesterday’s post for the details).

download

The instrument you’re hearing is the skin-head banjo ukulele I picked up some years ago at an antique shop in Kewaskum, Wisconsin.

In fact, the song was written not for the mandolin/violin tuning I use on the cümbüş, but for the basic D ukulele tuning (A – D – F# – B) of the 1927 Regal tiple that I used to have. A tiple – at least the early-20th-century American instrument that was called that – is a 10-string ukulele (four courses of 2 – 3 – 3- 2 strings each) that sounds like something halfway between a mandolin and a 12-string guitar. I’d found the instrument on e-bay and arranged to meet the seller in person on his way through Effingham, Illinois at a Cracker Barrel restaurant (his idea). So, like the banjo ukulele, and like the vast majority of every instrument I’ve ever owned, I bought it without ever playing it first. I’ve had pretty good luck with that, actually.

The melody of “Heyse Latke” falls very nicely into the ukulele tuning, and I’d written the song for the set I was going to play at my office holiday party, probably in 2005 or 2006. At that time, it was just an instrumental. But while I was in another room socializing, I heard the the tiple, which I just had propped up against a wall, falling to the floor with a sickening sound. When I went in, I saw that the headstock – as heavy in relation to the body as you’d imagine a headstock on a 10-string ukulele-sized instrument would have to be – had very cleanly snapped off in just such a way that no one was ever going to be able to fix it.

So “Heyse Latke” had to wait for the Ramblers to come along to get a public hearing. (From the set list notes we keep on our band’s wiki, it looks like the first performance of it may have been on July 31, 2008 at the Riverdale Park farmers market. Nothing like Hanukkah in July)