One of my favorite assignments in recent years was composing music to promote The National Constitution Center's 2012 exhibit American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. And like another notable project for the museum that I discussed in a previous blog, this one began with a call from producer Glenn Gury.
Glenn explained that he hoped to spark interest in the exhibit by drawing a parallel between the conditions that led to the passage of prohibition laws in 1919 and those that exist today. The goal, in other words, was to make the exhibit relevant to modern audiences, and Glenn wanted to reflect this musically by blending twenties-era jazz with contemporary rock. He suggested starting with a traditional twenties sound and then introducing rock elements, building to frenetic climax similar to the end of The Beatles "A Day in the Life." When the graphics announcing the exhibit appeared he wanted the music to come to a sudden stop, punctuated by "a hollow thud, like the sound of knocking on an empty wooden keg." At that point there would be a brief voiceover, followed by a final musical flourish. Glenn added that I would have to work to a storyboard since he wanted to cut picture to music; fortunately, the one he and Holton Sentivan + Gury Art Director Drew Sentivan had prepared provided plenty of inspiration (click the pic to enlarge).
Something about the storyboard made me think of Gene Krupa's famous tom-tom beat for the Benny Goodman version of "Sing, Sing, Sing." That tune was from the late 30s, but I realized that at a faster tempo Krupa's beat could drive a dixieland-infused piece characteristic of the Roaring Twenties. The trick would be transitioning to a rock feel, but then it occurred to me that Van Halen's "Hot For Teacher" features a triplet groove that would emerge naturally from the Krupa beat. Once I had sketched out the drums I turned again to "Sing, Sing, Sing" for inspiration and wrote a similarly bouncy-yet-mysterious bass line. I then began exploring melodic motifs that could be passed between clarinet, trumpet, and electric guitar, and when I had a complete melody I sent a demo to Glenn. He loved the track, but expressed some concerns about how my timings would work when he began adding pictures. I tweaked the arrangement until he was satisfied, and then began recording the live musicians. Randy Kapralick came in first to lay down the trombone line that opens the track; Skip Spratt doubled this on sax and then delivered a spirited clarinet performance. Allan Slutsky's banjo work was essential in creating an authentic twenties vibe, and Joe Scanella used a Solotone mute to give his trumpet a vintage sound. The production was complete when Jeff Kay added the electric guitar licks that give the track its rock edge. I was excited about how the piece turned out, and even more thrilled when I saw how well it worked with the video Glenn put together.
This was a dream assignment for me because I enjoy the challenge of combining disparate styles of music (and this project involved two of my favorites). It's also a great example of the reason I chose to become a commercial composer. While other composers take satisfaction in writing love songs or composing symphonies, I enjoy finding musical solutions that meet the specific needs of commercial producers--and I particularly enjoy doing so for clients like Glenn who have the same passion for their work that I have for mine.
Chuck Butler is celebrating his 30th anniversary as Baker Sound's in-house composer. For more information about Baker's music division, visit our dedicated MONSTER TRACKS website.