Strange Fellowe: Act I Follow-up, Part 1

posted by Hitomi Oba, composer

photo by Ashley-Nicole Grosse

photo by Ashley-Nicole Grosse

The staging of Act 1 of “Strange Fellowe” has come and gone, and a follow-up blog entry seems long overdue – but this past month has given us a healthy amount of time to reflect individually, amongst ourselves, and with the people with whom we shared the as we take our next steps forward with this work.

Nick and I have repeatedly agreed that the week of workshopping was one of the BEST WEEKS EVER!!!  Having the opportunity to completely dive into this long-developed work for a full week was at once gratifying and deliciously challenging.  Not only did we watch it come alive, but we also came face to face with a variety of questions in the work, many of which we were discovering for the first time.

And being able to work for a short but uninterrupted period of time with a team of extremely imaginative, enthusiastic, and professional artists in different fields was precisely the kind of stimulating, positive, and substantial interactions that we in the creative professions crave.  The interpretations, discussions, and actions we shared with the other artists were eye-opening.

As much as I would have liked to have sat in the audience and experienced the piece unfold in front of me, I was nonetheless able come away with an equally as immersive, however different, experience of being able to work as a performer in the production.

photo by Andrew Russell

Jazz artists most often adopt stage presences centered on the performance of music alone; they always look as though they are about to, in the middle of, or have just finished playing their instruments.  In this production, however, the musicians were a part of the scene, features of the landscape of this world we created upon the stage, and thus were expected to adapt to this environment – even blend in.

My impression is that in the beginning, the musicians (myself included), were a bit unsure of how to conduct ourselves, particularly when we were not playing our instruments.  But as we ran through the act over and over, we became familiar with the world, the pace, and our roles, and we slowly melted into this imagined world.

photo by Ashley-Nicole Grosse

photo by Ashley-Nicole Grosse

This engrossing “world” contributed to other concepts that set the piece apart from a typical jazz performance.  In my jazz performances, I strive to create a world and perhaps a certain sense of flowing time through the music.  But I recall being much more conscious of this effect within “Strange Fellowe.”  Instead of the audience focusing on the sounds we made, they experienced the larger world that we were a part of – a world created collaboratively by all involved, including the director, librettist, actors, lighting designer, video designer, and set/costume designers.

Strange Fellowe - Kristolyn, the Bellowes, and Band

photo by Andrew Russell

Interestingly, when I was composing the music, I was very conscious of the vibes and effects that the music would evoke, as that was arguably one of its most important functions in a work like this.  However, the experience of releasing and projecting that music into the world as a performer allowed me to be an active part of that profound moment.

I could go on and on about the great things we discovered and created, the wonderful people we had the fortune to work with, and the next steps we’re taking on this “Strange” path, but I would like to leave room for insights from Nick and Jerome…

I wish that I could enjoy weeks like this every week of every month.  Except, of course, with some minor improvements such as remembering to eat and sleep.  Of course, the more exciting a project is, the worse those two functions usually suffer.  And at this point, I’m most definitely more excited than ever as we move forward with “Strange Fellowe!”

Strange Fellowe: The Design Team

posted by Nick DePinna, composer

As a jazz musician, we rarely have the privilege of working with visual artists.  Most often, it’s when we’re on the road with more commercial acts, and usually the visual elements are more entertainment based, rather than artistic.  (We have, however made great friends with a few brilliant artistic minds who just happen, like we, to be working in a commercial entertainment situation – yes, you Justin Roy.)

So when Giao-Chau Ly, Rachel Levy, and Adeline Newmann joined the Strange Fellowe team, Hitomi and I were really excited.  But when they started sharing their ideas, and eventually began to execute, that’s when we, quite simply, freaked out.

Last night, as I sat at my workstation in the cavernous space that is Fais Do-Do, setting up my synthesizer cues and mixing the ambient music that will inhabit the space in the thirty minutes prior to “curtain,” I watched in amazement as the space slowly transformed.

With only simple cloth, Giao-Chau, our award-winning set and costume designer (who works extensively in films and theater alike), killed about ten birds with one stone.  She clearly indicated the boundaries of the performance space while simultaneously hiding the physical boundaries of the building…giving us a feeling of space-less-ness,  She set the tone of the room with curvy drapage alongside elements of elegant flagrance and randomness.  She high-lit natural elements of the space that she and the director liked, and hid those that didn’t serve the story.  And the result is a room that has the feeling of mysterious purpose…a haunted chateau, blending practicality with pure aesthetics.

“Guys, is this straight?”

As this whole thing was being schemed and rigged, animator and multimedia video designer and artist Adeline Newmann was assembling and animating her projections.  The space came to life -using traditional animation techniques on digital technology, she designed movement that disoriented our perception of space and time, gritty images and environments that set the tones of scenes. I hesitate to go into much detail here, because I don’t want to give away the coolness of what she is doing…and I probably can’t do it justice in writing.  I got the feeling that maybe she and I saw things from a similar angle…she describes herself as an “ambient minimalist.”  Some of my best friends are “ambient minimalists;” in fact, there’s a pretty good chance I am one too…I just haven’t been able to afford to make the change permanent yet

Adeline calibrates, we celebrate.

The last, and quite possibly the most difficult, tedious, and essential element of all was the lighting design by the very experienced Rachel Levy.  There is so much skill involved here, guys.  First, Rachel had to take in the practical things that had to be done.  This meant making sure of things like actors being visible and popping from all audience angles, making sure that the band can still read their music when the lights are dim, making sure that power is evenly distributed and rigged elements were safe and secure.

Next she had to figure out how to elegantly tell a story with the lights…set a mood, give a concise image, and help us all find our way to a shared experience.  The effects of the lights did not become apparent to me until the work lights were turned off, and she began playing with the different sets on different faders to help the audience direct their attention toward the appropriate actions.  Immediately I realized that the role of the lights were NOT just to highlight other elements of the set….the lights themselves were the actual lens through which we all experience this drama.

All of these lovely people are Cal-Arts alumni, by the way.  I always thought highly of that place, but now my suspicions of its coolness are confirmed by the bad-assedness of this team.

An extra thank-you goes out to the brilliant Ellie Rabinowitz, who graciously stepped up to help us execute the whole thing and lend her creative voice.  Next time we’ll bring her into the equation much earlier.  (Ellie works on the show “Robot Chicken,” which I freaking love.)

I really feel like these designers have a lot in common with us composers.  We all get a little “gear-heady” about the mediums and materials we work with, we all have a very specialized skill and knowledge set, and we all gladly forget all of that when we enter a creative zone to let our imaginations speak.  I realized this as I sat and watched these people…doing what the LOVE to do…and doing it with practiced hands.

Hitomi is sitting behind me as a write this post.  She just said, “I REALLY love these designers…I hope we get to work with them again.”  I know we will.

*Update 10/27/12 – I now understand that the most excellent Ellie Rabinowitz has been working in tandem with Giao-Chau on the set and costume design.  Although I didn’t talk too much about her here, or even credit her appropriately in the program, I know that next time we work together (soon, please!), I’ll have a chance to gush 🙂

Strange Fellowe: The Director

posted by Jerome Parker, librettist

What more can I say about Andrew Russell that I haven’t already?

We were introduced through a mutual friend as I was looking for a director to helm a short of mine at the Downtown Urban Theater Festival.  I will say this – there is nothing urban about Andrew – yet he was game and dove in with a cast of four including one blues/r&b singer.  I’ve seen that piece on its feet now in many different incarnations and the one he directed remains the best in my memory.  Part of the reason it sticks out so positively is the way he runs the rehearsal process.

In the room Andrew is giving, he’s open, he’s ambitious AND realistic.  He is a confident leader and knows how to take the temperature of a space and make adjustments accordingly to bring the heat or the chill that’s necessary.  He’s smart, sharp and sassy – and the great head on his shoulders is capped by a lustrous mane of hair.

It’s been my pleasure to help unleash the creature that is Mr. Russell upon my fellow collaborators for Strange Fellowe.  And I believe I can speak on behalf of my cohorts – everyone is in love with him.

We are now at the end of our third day of rehearsals for the workshop production of our jazz opera and not only has my admiration for him grown but also my fascination. In only three days I’m watching a set being put together in front of my eyes where there was none.  The lighting designer is finding creative and funky ways to illuminate the space.  The video designer has presented an animation storyboard for the projections that will be blasted on the curtains in the space.  All of this would not have been possible without his sure-handed guidance, his appreciation of other’s talents, and his acerbic wit – which always lightens the mood in the face of tense and tough situations.

Andrew in action…

Yes – we open in two days!

Thank you, Andrew, for taking the wheel.

And if you think I’ve waxed too poetically about his inimitable assets as a leader and director – don’t take my word for it.  Take a look at an article he wrote some time ago that sums up his largeness in more detail:  http://www.intiman.org/what-have-i-done-by-andrew-russell-for-city-arts-magazine/

Strange Fellowe: The Cast, Part 2

posted by Nick DePinna, composer

So if I were to tell people who knew Sean Pawling that he was doing an opera next week, no one would be the least bit surprised. “No big deal, he plays trombone in operas all the time,” they would say to me, looking at me as if I were stating the obvious.

But Sean won’t be playing trombone next week.  He’ll be singing and acting – one of the three actors in “Strange Fellowe,” – taking up the role of “The Band Leader.”

I met Sean at my first class, on my first day as a student at UCLA in 2003.  He was the rock-star classical trombone major of our year (and continues to be, to this day), and it was immediately obvious that he was also an incredibly funny and warm human being.  But it wasn’t until I visited and stayed with him during his time at the Aspen Music Festival in the summer of 2007 that I learned that he was also one heck of a singer, songwriter, and guitarist.  Though I myself am a jazz trombone player and composer, I began to play piano and keyboards with him in his groups shortly after.  We played together a LOT.

Last year, at the Banff Music Festival, Sean recorded and subsequently released his EP, “Inner Child,” combining his classical and popular music interests by accompanying his voice solely with trombone quartet.  Just last month he returned to LA after another summer stint in Banff and I was delighted to learn that he had recorded more music(!), this time as a portion of a full-length album to be released in the Spring of 2013.

Imagine my delight when, after I sent his music to the production team, Jerome and Andrew jumped on top of securing him for our production.  They too saw what an invaluable musical asset and shining personality he was.  We had our first music read-through last week with him, and all I can say is that the guy’s got serious style – on top of being a truly beautiful vocalist.  I’ve always known it, but seeing him bring that to music of mine really felt like a dream realized.

Tomorrow morning (Monday, 10-22) is our first reading and rehearsal as a near-complete team, (bellowes, actors, writer, director, producers, managers, and designers), and I couldn’t be more excited.  Stay tuned for some behind-the-scenes pictures and videos next week!

Strange Fellowe: The Cast, Part 1

posted by Andrew Russell, director

Having collaborated with Jerome Augustus Parker several times in NYC, I’m looking forward to bringing our energies together on the west coast for this fusion of jazz, theatre, and performance art. Labeling this piece a “jazz opera” gives us the freedom to exploit the best of jazz and the best of opera, and to throw in everything else that comes to mind to truly bring to life this ghostly story.

The reward for working tirelessly on a creative endeavor comes in the form of new relationships, and the reuniting of old creative flings. Having studied together at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, PA almost 8 years ago, I know Anderson Davis and Kristolyn Lloyd will bring their best work to the table. Anderson is an absurdly talented composer, musician, actor, and human, who has made a name for himself in all of those areas, and Kristolyn is an actress whose heart is just as big as her talent, and who can light up any room. From Broadway to TV stardom, they’ve both made their mark on the industry, and I looking forward to seeing how they’ve developed their craft over the past years.

If I were to brag about them, I’d say that Kristolyn is captivating on Bold and the Beautiful, and can sing her face off as would have been seen when she sang with Hairspray at the Hollywood Bowl, or in her own hit cabaret; and I’d give a big shout out to Anderson for killing it as Joe Cable in the national tour of South Pacific, rocking it in Les Miserables on Broadway, and for getting over 40,000 hits on one of his YouTube videos.

Also worth noting, that there is a producer who has joined the team, and her name is Ashley-Nicole Grosse and she too is a Carnegie Mellon alum. I’ve directed her as an actress in her one woman show, I’ve danced with her in a drag performance (Tina Turner’s Proud Mary if you are curious), gambled with her in Las Vegas, and have known her now over 10 years. I’m madly in love with her, and her support and guidance will influence this project, without a doubt.

This is a workshop presentation, and we’ve brought together a strong team to explore what Nick, Hitomi, and Jerome have been working on. We now need energized audiences to come and check it out, give feedback, and help us make this piece stronger and stronger as we work towards a full production. So, come get Strange with us!

Andrew Russell, director of this opera, is currently the artistic director of Seattle’s Intiman Theater.  More on this young visionary in a later post…

Strange Fellowe: The Bellowes

posted by Hitomi Oba, composer

Any artistic endeavor seems to inevitably face the challenge of balancing ambitious dreams with the blunt practicality. Shortly after embarking upon our collaborative venture with Jerome, Nick and I  experienced a production of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd at the Ahmanson Theater in LA. At the prompting of Jerome, we had been mulling over the idea of dual-role musician-actors, and this particular production excited us further. The cast was ultra-concise, with each character also playing a musical instrument as part of the band.

However, the demands required of a multiple-role figure became increasingly more apparent as we composed more music and Jerome developed the book. Where were we going to find musicians who could not only beautifully perform the music, but also sing and act? (No dancing requirements, at least…whew!)

So we gave up on this element of our work, and proceeded forward. Over the years,
the story has morphed and the characters taken shape. The instrumentation and band size has undergone changes and developed into the septet that will be presented in our upcoming staging of Act I. Once the staging in Los Angeles seemed like it would become a reality, Nick and I started to obsessively brainstorm ideas for whom to fill out our musicians’ roles.

During one particular drive up to the Bay Area along the I-5, Nick and I were enjoying such a brainstorm when it suddenly became clear that we could employ our original dual-role idea from years ago. The ‘Bellowes;’ the three, chorus-type, ghostly figures present throughout the opera; could be portrayed by three saxophonists; saxophonists whose playing we loved, who we knew could and would elegantly execute the the score, and could sing the single ‘Bellowes’ song in Act I.

It was a happy coincidence that this decision helped the financial practicality of the production, but more importantly, it strengthened the roles of the ‘Bellowes’ and in an undeniably unique fashion. That these three figures would be specifically saxophonists, served to tie into the core musical theme of the opera, originally played by a quartet of tenor saxophones.

The saxophonists making the realizing of this vision possible are outstanding musical colleagues and close friends of ours.

Remy Le Bouef’s friendship with Nick and I goes way back. If memory serves me correctly, Nick and I each met him independently when he was but a sophomore in high school through various jazz competitions and high school honor bands. Since then, he and his equally prolific brother, Pascal, have been collecting slews of awards for performance and composition, while regularly recording and touring internationally with their own group, the Le Bouef Brothers.  Much to our delight, Remy recently moved to Los Angeles after spending eight years out in New York, and we immediately lassoed him into our project as soon as we found out. His artistic integrity, professional skills, and focused enthusiasm make him a unique and invaluable asset.

Tim McKay and I were a part of the same Oakland jazz education scene growing up, so we have similar roots and our friendship spans years. Tim’s versatility and professionalism on saxophone and woodwinds have been earning him a huge amount of very diverse work in Los Angeles, including funk, jazz, indie rock, and salsa, to name only a few.  Tim is most notably an exceptional expert on the baritone saxophone, the saxophone that I (and many others) agree to be the trickiest of the lot. How Tim has grown together with his ‘bari’ to make it sound so effortlessly musical is beyond me. It’s no wonder he’s become such an in-demand musician since moving to L.A. a few years back. We are so fortunate that he is lending his professional talents and artistic energy to our music!

The role of the third ‘Bellowe’ will be played by myself (Hitomi). Throughout most of the
creative process, Nick, Jerome, and I were aiming towards abstaining from active roles
onstage, in order to observe, enjoy, and learn from the work from the perspective of the audience. But once the idea took hold in our minds during that brainstorm up the lovely I-5, it became very matter-of-fact that I should participate as a saxophonist/singer/’Bellowe’.

And so it came to be that practicality and artistic vision came to be tied up so
beautifully and concisely in the form of the ‘Bellowes’. Ta-ttada-daaaaa—- (closing
fanfare).

Nova: Acoustic Instruments, part 1

This week’s post can be enjoyed by anyone! – Hitomi

Creative musicians seem to have a hard time defining their music in words.  When faced with the task of describing it in a concise manner, “original”, “unique-sounding”, and “cross-genre” are common results.  And I empathize with that!  Exposed to musical genres varying over time and cultures, most musicians, being music-lovers as well, draw from a rich array of musical backgrounds.  And unless an individual is being hired to create music evocative of a specific genre, it seems like most individuals are out to create their own sound.

However, when potential listeners are exposed to musicians not through the music itself first, but through some form of information (name, site, reference, search, etc), verbal descriptions and implications are helpful (or at times crucial??) in deciding whether or not to pursue it.  With no idea of what to expect, many people will not get to the, “just listen to the music” stage.  So, from a practical standpoint, being able to verbalize can help the music’s existence in the world of humans (most of whom use words), though so many of us are reluctant to use the word “genre.”

After much deliberation, Nova’s musical description was decided upon as:  progressive electro-acoustic pop.

On first listen, the “acoustic” aspect may not come to mind immediately, but this is a very important part of Nova’s music.  So (after a long intro!), today’s post will be introducing some of our many acoustic instruments that were used on Periapsis (with pictures!).

According to Nick, real guitar is irreplaceable and crucial to the music (and I agree!!), so he pulled out the Strat and practiced several strumming passages over and over again until he had guitarists’ calluses.  The subtleties in attacks, inflections, and sustains of guitar always evoke a raw realness for me.  And yes, the short guitar fills are all by him too!  Go Nick!

Nick says:

There is so much to say about the modern concept of electric guitar.  The first real distorted guitar sounds occurred by sheer accident as a result of broken amps.  Most musicians of the time were not into it at first, but some producers saw the potential of the new sound and started putting it in everything!  And now, there is hardly a secular guitarist on the planet who doesn’t turn up the drive once and a while.  And some who never turn it down.

The pure sound coming out of the instrument is violently destroyed.  What does that mean in the music on a subconscious level? You can put the pieces together. Hendrix set his guitar on fire…because it logicially followed what was already going on.

I am a terrible guitar player.  But it’s not hard to fool around and find a few little things that sound good.

The most varied and fun of the acoustic instruments were the many percussive instruments we used.  These ranged from objects made for music-making purposes, to household and more obscure objects that we tested and experimented with.  Some of the resulting sounds were achieved by experimentation and we used the ones we loved.  Others were created after deliberately searching for a sound we already had in mind and/or needed in a specific part of a song.  I foresee much more fun in the future with such experiments!

The goat-hoof shaker and maracas above, and the percussion frogs below, are examples of “instruments” we had and fit well within our songs.  I really love these frogs.  Normally, they sit by my door and I sometimes play them as I pass by.  They never fail to uplift!

Our wide array of non-traditional percussion instruments included the pipes above.  Hand-selected for their pitches and timbral capacities, these were used to fill a sound we heard in our heads, knew we wanted, and were trying to create.  Each pipe is able to produce a wide variety of sounds, depending on where and how it’s played, and we achieved some personally satisfactory ones.

Nick says:

I’m hoping that Nova gets a Home Depot endorsement deal because it’s one of my favorite music stores.

Another fun set of percussive experiments were conducted with a collection of wine bottles set aside for music-making purposes. Not to worry; we did not consume the wine in one sitting.  They were collected over a long period of time J.  The picture above illustrates a segment of all of the empty bottles ordered by pitch.

We then constructed a cave to record the bottles in.  The “Rabbit Ridge” bottles were a favorite; we filled them with water to attain desired pitches and then sampled (recorded) each of them being hit in six different ways (varying the strengths and speeds at which they were struck with two different “mallets”).

Nick Says:

We made a few EXS24 sample patches from these.  Some mapped a ton of differently pitched wine bottles out across a few octaves, and some pitch mapped a single sample across the entire range.  Each was more appropriate for different situations.  Any ideas which two songs they are on?

Bottle and “mallets” at home in the “cave.”

I regret recording this with a large diaphragm condenser.  Small would have been the way to go, but it wasn’t immediately available at the moment we were formulating these ideas.  The result from this were sounds that needed to be EQ’d all the way to Kalamazoo, and ended up sounding stuffier because of it.

Sidenote:  My favorite ridiculously huge reverb on Logic’s Space Designer is “Big Cave,” and many of my friends make fun of me for it.  So we made a little cave.

Back to the traditional instruments!  We were fortunate enough to be able to record on a freshly-tuned baby grand piano for one of our songs.  The experimenting that went on with the piano had to do entirely with the micing.  We thought we knew how we wanted it done beforehand, but there was still much finagling and readjusting that had to be done.  I’m happy to say that my mother recognized my piano playing upon first listening to the finished track!  That itself says a lot about recording acoustically!

Nick Says:

My friends make fun of me for this too, but I love a really close mic’d ultra compressed and dry soundboard-heavy piano sound.  I think it’s from my silly loyalty to some of my favorite modern jazz pianists, and from always sticking my head in the piano when I was a kid.  I didn’t have the gear needed to get that sound, but I tried nonetheless.

By titling this article “Part 1”, I hope to relay that there will be more posts on our acoustic instruments (partially because I have more photos I want to share).  If you caught that, it will have been an successful example of verbal implications!  Instruments to be discussed in the following “Instrument” posts include but are not limited to the following: plastic action figures, stacks of books, tubs of mud, badminton rackets, tennis balls, and saxophone.

Question of the week:  Electric and acoustic instruments…on their honeymoon or filing for divorce?