The Long and Winding Road, Part VI
“I’m looking for someone who has a theremin, and knows how to play it.”
It’s a desperate shotgun post I place on my Facebook stream in the summer of 2014 that I honestly doubt will have any takers. Despite the fact that I have a number of musician friends, a theremin is a highly specialized and nearly extinct piece of musical gear that hardly anyone has on hand - let alone uses - for modern music production. The last time I remember hearing it used in any serious way was in the movie soundtrack for Mars Attacks. Still, I need the sound. I’m in post-production on The Case of Evil, a noir horror short that I’ve recently shot for the Horrible Imaginings Film Festival in San Diego. As part of our bid to recreate the atmosphere of the old black and white Universal horror films of the 1940s, I’m adamant that we need a theremin for the soundtrack. It was ubiquitous in all of the horror and suspense movies of the era, and without it I feel we’ll be missing an important element. I’m surprised when I get an answer back almost immediately from one of my first musical co-conspirators.
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“I’ve got a theremin that was built for me by Bob Moog. What do you need?”
It’s my old buddy Carvin Knowles in whose senior recital I’d performed twenty-six years earlier. We’ve only relatively recently reconnected thanks to the magic of social media, but we are at a greater distance from one another than we’ve ever been before. He’s living near Auckland, New Zealand where he’s done some incredibly awesome stuff since our last contact, including writing some music for Peter Jackson’s blog about the production of The Lord of the Rings movies as well as creating an entire album in elvish. Out of all of my contacts, he’s absolutely the one that would have to own a theremin.
My original plan is to have him create a special theremin theme for Stagolee - the supernatural guitar that is at the center of the story of The Case of Evil - which will then be introduced at special moments within the film. My plan for the rest of the soundtrack had been to find classical recordings of Holst’s The Planets from the 1920s or 1930s, and then use the “Uranus” movement in the same way that “Swan Lake” was used in The Wolf Man. Unfortunately, as Carvin lets me know, even recordings from the 1920s would still be new enough to be protected under copyright which might pose problems for getting Case into film festivals. What he proposes instead is that I synch what I want from the “Uranus” movement to the film, and then he would record an all-new arrangement along with new material to help sandwich everything together.
The challenge of course is that The Planets is a symphony, meaning that it we’re going to need more than just Carvin to create the feel of an old Hollywood pit orchestra. I’d love to play along, but I don’t own any of the analog instruments that we need to sell the authenticity of the recording. Carvin can handle playing the trumpets, and drums, and keyboards but he needs other players to fill in for the other sections. He turns to friends in Shanghai and Hong Kong to fill in tuba and flute parts, and I ask if my string instructor cousins - the Johnstons - if they can provide the string parts. Working with all these players scattered across the globe and recording their parts asynchronously with only his new score and a click track to guide them, they become the Missouri-Pacific Orchestra, and deliver a soundtrack that sounds like it’s straight out of the old mid-century thrillers.
THE MISSOURI-PACIFIC ORCHESTRA - Before the pandemic made musical collaborations across the internet commonplace, Carvin’s creation of the Missouri-Pacific Orchestra created an amazing sound for The Case of Evil.
SPOOKY GENIUS - Carvin Knowles wishes everyone Happy Halloween in a special promotional clip created for The Case of Evil website in 2014.
DEEP SOUNDS - Easily the most unique instrument featured in The Case of Evil soundtrack, this piano located in the KBB Music Store in Auckland is the same width as a standard grand but is 5.7 meters long, making it the longest piano in the world. It was built by Adrian Mann and is named the Alexander Piano after the creator’s grandfather. Carvin recorded the piano parts of the soundtrack on it for its bone-rattling, eerie-sounding low end.
It’s a little after three a.m. at Lestat’s in Hillcrest, and I’m watching my friend Alex eagerly devour a vegan dessert that’s apparently the thing to order here. He’s relaxed and smiling, looking like he’s just come from playing a gig at a piano bar somewhere, dressed in his ever-present fedora and a Cuban-style top. He’s always got this vibe about him, like he’s an extra in a Latin American-produced version of Casablanca, and at any minute I half expect Sydney Greenstreet to come strolling over to make us an interesting offer. But there are no parrots here or Gestapo agents, just a frustrated hipster wedged in the corner who’s quietly cursing at his MacBook.
As Alex is digging into his dish, he offers to get one for me as well, but I’m satisfied with the hazelnut steamed milk I’ve been nursing for the past fifteen minutes. I could lay out what I’ve come here to say, just start spilling the proverbial beans, but I know it’d be pointless because I’d just end up having to repeat everything for our still-to-arrive third party. Besides that, Alex is eyeing the streetside patio, and I can tell he’s itching to step out and light up one of his cigars. I give him the go ahead to feed his demons while I mull over my proposal.
A few minutes later he’s back, and this time he’s got our much-anticipated companion Kristin in tow, just arrived from their shared apartment from around the corner. Despite having just rolled out of bed, she makes her thrown-on sweatshirt and jeans look like she’s walking the runway, but it comes with her professional territory. As a model and actress, she knows how to make an entrance, even if she’s just been summoned to a middle-of-the-night pitch session with a crazy old man. She gives me a ferocious hug, then melts into a seat next to Alex, smiling at me like I’m her personal Santa Claus. “So…what’s up?”
I feel a little guilty. I don’t really deserve these two. They’re young and beautiful and talented in their own rights, but for whatever reason they treat me like the flea-bitten old neighborhood dog that they’ve taken in and given a loving home. They’ve been enormously kind about entertaining my ideas, and after Jana, they’re my first sounding boards for anything new I’m cooking up. I’d made friends first with Kristin while Jana and I were promoting The Case of Evil at a film screening. Shortly thereafter, we’d met Alex during a Christmas party event. These days the two of them have been helping me through a particularly deep cycle of depression, brought on largely by the fact that I’ve been out of paying work for a while, and I’m itching to collaborate on something - anything - creative that will help me dig out of the black pit that I’ve been in for months.
“Well…I’ve been working on a project called Uncharted Regions,” I begin to explain. “It’s a radio drama project that’s basically a reboot of something I did back when I was a kid in the eighties.” Given how young they both are, I’m lucky that I don’t have to explain what a radio drama is. They’re both fans of vintage things, and get what I’m describing, even if they aren’t entirely familiar with the audio drama versions of Hitchhiker’s Guide to Galaxy, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, or Bradbury 13 — all the things that originally inspired me and that had been big hits on NPR shortly before I began working in radio. All the two of them really need to hear me say is “it’s Twilight Zone on the radio.”
The first episode I’ve got planned is “Someday, Over You.” It’s based on a script I’d written for the original run of Uncharted Regions on KTOW back in the 1980s. We’d got far enough with it to fully cast the episode, but we’d run into a significant stumbling block. A major part of the story hinged on a fictional blues tune that first needed to be written and recorded for a blues trio before we could even think of recording the dialogue and sound effects. Unfortunately, I didn’t know any blues trios when I was seventeen, and even if I had, it’s unlikely that I’d have found anyone playing in the style I had in mind. More than that, I had no clue what the song was even going to be beyond some sketchy ideas for the lyrics. I just hadn’t the resources to make it happen back in those days, but over the intervening decades, I was confident that I could now turn it into a reality.
After I spell all of this out for my very patient middle-of-the-night companions, Alex tells me that he and Kristin have been helping to promote a San Diego blues player, and he might be able to help with locating the people I need. In the meantime, I’d need to get busy with finishing the song so they’d have something to show this individual, assuming he can help us at all. It’s agreed we’ll circle back in a couple of weeks and see where we are.
Back at home, I begin struggling with the issue that I have nothing to compose with. The same prolonged period of unemployment / underemployment that had driven me into my present state of depression had also forced me into the piecemeal selling off of my most beloved instruments. The only pieces of kit I still owned were a Kurzweil 1000 HX Horn Expander and an ART FXR Elite effects processor, both of which were in my mother’s basement in Oklahoma — of no use to me in my present circumstances, and I couldn’t afford to drive out and retrieve them. I had no hardware, I had no software, and yet somehow, I needed to find a way to communicate to Alex’s potential blues players what was buzzing around in my skull.
At first, I decide to try it the old school way. I dig out a pencil and some staff paper, but I quickly establish that my ability to write music this way has long atrophied from lack of use. It’s been nearly two decades since I’ve written music straight to paper, and even though I can generally figure out the rhythm, I’m hopeless with the melody or the harmonies without a keyboard. Add to this, I’ve never written music for vocals at all (I’d written lyrics, but I’d never set them to music myself, so I wasn’t even sure how to transcribe them). I can’t tell whether the tune I’m humming to myself is in C or E or any other scale known to God or man. Without a keyboard to verify the notes of the song, I realize I have to find some kind of electronic help to get this job done.
After scouring the Internet for a couple of days I find Musescore - a music notation program that’s free for evaluation purposes, and at first I’m stupid enough to think I’ll be able to dive right in and knock the song out in a few days. Unfortunately, while I can sort of pick out the melody this way, it’s a painful process. It's simply not the inspirational tool I’d been looking for and so I decide to cut bait and try something else.
A few days later I’m on the hunt for a full-fledged DAW, short for Digital Audio Workstation. It’s similar to the sequencing software I’d used on the Atari 520 ST, but the capabilities of that genre of computer software have grown exponentially since the last time I touched one. Now the field is quite crowded with competing titles: Reason, Logic, FL Studio, Garage Band, ProTools, Ableton LIVE, Cuebase, Cakewalk. All of them have rabidly passionate user bases who say their system is the best one, though in truth they seem to be pretty much the same to me, at least as far as I can discern from surface level searches. ProTools definitely appears to be the most well-known among them and seems to be the defacto choice for recording studios and Hollywood sound designers - making it particularly appealing given my interests - but it is also prohibitively pricey given my current economic situation. The more I look at the list of software names, however, one begins to stick out at me. Somewhere down in the dim recesses of my mind, I recall that music software had come bundled with a piece of gear that I’d purchased in the past, but I’d never got round to installing it. After rummaging around in my collection of CD-ROMs I find the installation disk for Live LT, a feature limited version of Ableton’s DAW software that should have just enough power to do what I need.
Thankfully, I find that the time I spent working with Musescore hasn’t been a complete waste of time, and I’m able to fairly easily import the basic melody I’d worked up into Live LT — though I still have a lot of work to do getting used to the new software. It isn’t entirely an intuitive learning experience, but I quickly come to appreciate the power that’s lurking under the hood. There are several software-based virtual instruments (called VSTs) available which can be “plugged-in” to Ableton which very realistically recreate the sounds and behaviors of real-world instruments — though almost all of them are far beyond what I can afford right now. As much as I’d like to spend a ridiculous amount of money building a virtual band, I remind myself that isn’t the goal right now. My job isn’t to try to produce the song myself, but to create a simple mockup so that a live, experienced band will be able to play and record it.
O, FOR A MUSE(SCORE) OF FIRE - My first attempt at using Musescore was a bit of a slog and trying to find the bluey swing of “Someday, Over You” with a very formalistic music notation program produced painfully unsatisfying results.
READY, WILLING, AND ABLE(TON) - Ableton Live was the DAW used to rough out all the parts for “Someday, Over You.” Here, a more contemporary-sounding version, using the original vocal tracks drawn from the version used in the episode, is being remixed as a single in the most recent version of the DAW, Ableton Live 11.
Digging into the composition, the first thing I do for myself is establish that this isn’t a Delta style / country blues song. There’s no traditional twelve-bar turnaround here or a place to fit in a slide guitar. Instead, I imagine it as a kind of sultry torch song, something you might hear during the Jazz Age in a smoky club in Chicago’s southside. Behind the main character’s vocal, I hear piano, upright bass, drums played with brushes, and a muted trumpet. It’s a classic five-piece arrangement, and the most important thing is to give the vocalist some whispery, unobtrusive accompaniment.
About a third of the way into the piece, I create a bridge for the trumpet, and it’s a deeply emotional track for me to write. I pour into it my grief over the recent death of my close friend Paul Robinson, another writer who I’d invited to write for Uncharted Regions, but his life had been lost to pancreatic cancer before he could make much progress on his story. The trumpet part will be a kind of musical eulogy, and the first of two tributes we’d pay to him during our first season.
At the point at which I think I’ve got the basic ideas down, I reach out to Alex about meeting up with the dude he’s been promoting, but we’re having a lot of trouble finding a window of time that works for everyone. The player and his band are supposed to be leaving town for a few weeks, and I’m not at all sure how long they’ll be gone or when they’ll be back. I decide to drop into the club where they usually play, but for whatever reason they aren’t there on the nights they’re supposed to be there, and I’m starting to get really anxious. It’s been nearly a month since I finished composing the song and I’ve already set several balls in motion to make this happen. I’m lined up to moderate a panel of podcasters at Comic-Con where I hope to announce that the first episode will debut at the Horrible Imaginings Film Festival - just a little more than a month and a half after the con.
My chief concern is with identifying the vocalist because she’ll have two roles to fill. Along with singing the song, she’ll also be one of the three dramatic leads in the episode, meaning she’s got to be a double threat. On top of this, I’m adamant that the actress be black because “Someday, Over You” had always been an obliquely derivative Twilight Zone take on the life of my favorite blues singer, Billie Holiday. It’s a steep hill that I’ve set for myself, and as it becomes clearer and clearer that I’m not going to get any help from this elusive, never seen band leader, I turn to the San Diego indie film community to see who I might be able to find. We get several auditions, but most of the singers give me Broadway-esque performances that are very wide of the mark, and none of them are black (despite my making it very clear in audition materials that this was 100% a requirement for this role).
As I begin to despair that history is going to repeat itself and that music will once again be the downfall of this episode, I get a note from Haris Orkin — another one of the writers I’ve invited in for Uncharted Regions — who thinks he knows exactly the right gal for us and asks if it’s okay to submit the role to her. Initially I am concerned because she doesn’t live within driving distance of San Diego — a requirement that we’ve laid down so that the actors get the opportunity to work face to face — but Haris assures me that the distance issue shouldn’t be a problem. She’s a professionally trained and experienced audio engineer in addition to being a terrific actress and singer, and she’ll have no trouble handling the recording and mixing requirements on her end. Once I hear her work, my concerns melt away and I realize she’s the Marlena Mathis for which I’ve been waiting for thirty years. Devona Williams slam dunks the audition, nailing not only the audition sides, but also her rendition of “Blue Moon,” one of two possible musical pieces we’ve asked for as a singing sample. Now we’ve got our lead vocalist, but at the moment, I’ve still got nothing to put behind her.
Once we’re into August, I realize I’ve got to adjust my thinking. With the debut date of the episode already fixed for next month and looming, there’s no question that I’m going to get a live blues band into a recording studio in time to lay down the backing tracks. There have been too many missed connections and misunderstandings at this point, and I’ve got to have the courage to do what had previously been unthinkable. What I’d laid down in Ableton, with the idea that it would simply be a guide track for a live performance, would now have to serve as the backing track itself. The outside world was never supposed to hear this version. I felt as though I was being asked to release all the post-it notes around my monitor to major New York publishing house who intended to release them as a finished novel. I was now in a scramble against the clock.
I had already pinged Carvin about handling the scoring for “Someday, Over You,” though I felt a little worried about having to hand him such a huge ask. The Case of Evil had only been eleven minutes long, and we’d begun with tweaking the arrangement of an extant piece of classical music. “Someday, Over You,” however, was going to require twice as much music, all of it original, including the title song. Happily, he was down to jump into the larger scoring job, and became a lifesaver as I began to fuse my composition with Devona’s performance. I hated the cheap, tinny-sounding muted trumpet I had in Ableton, so he dove in and recorded a live version of the trumpet solo for me, as well as helping me do a final mix of it - before I ran it through a series of filters to mangle it into something that sounded like a badly scratched 70 rpm record cut sometime in the 1930s. Somehow, miraculously, the episode and Marlena Mathis’ swan song all came together beautifully.
UNCHARTED ANNOUNCEMENT - On July 23, 2017 during the Comic-Con panel “Heroes at the Mic,” I announced that the first episode of our Uncharted Regions series, “Someday, Over You,” would have a sneak preview at the Horrible Imaginings Film Festival which was only a month and a half away. At the time, neither the song nor the dialogue had yet been recorded. Several important people involved with that launch are seated here to the right of me. Kristin Naomi Garcia (the Kristin mentioned earlier in this blog post) checks her phone while the Horrible Imaginings Film Festival director Miguel Rodriquez listens to an ongoing discussion. Miguel debuted both of the projects mentioned above (“The Case of Evil” and “Someday, Over You”) at HIFF. To his right is Gene Turnbow, owner of SciFi Radio, who ran “Someday, Over You” on his channel multiple times on Halloween Night 2017. At extreme right is Keith Lane who, along with his partner Ben Ragunton, are the internet podcasters The Two Gay Geeks who have been ongoing sponsors of Uncharted Regions. (Jennifer Zhang who is seated between Gene and Keith hasn’t been involved with Uncharted Regions yet, but I have high hopes.)
LADY CAN SING THE BLUES - Devona Williams turned in a perfect performance as Marlena Mathis in “Someday, Over You,” handling not only all of the singing and acting required for the part, but also the engineering required for her vocals. Ironically, what I didn’t know at the time was that shortly after she recorded her parts for the episode, she had major surgery that could have potentially permanently damaged her singing voice, meaning it was possible that “Someday, Over You” might have been her last performance - which makes her song all the more poignant when you listen to it with this context. Thankfully, Devona made a full recovery and continues to sing and promote her own work.
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