Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Remembering Bob Bass (part 2)....

As I promised, I am posting part 2 of my experiences with the conductor Robert Bass, a great mentor of mine. Looking back, our relationship was not helped by my shyness and reticence. Even as I post this story, which on its surface seems exclusively to be about a conflict we had, the truth is the conflict was mostly inside me, and I'm remembering this with great fondness and warmth towards him -- and a large dose of amusement. He was, at least on a certain level, oblivious (and I don't mean that unkindly - it's almost 'cute'). In the the end the important part is what I learned, and that's a lot.

Bob did offer me some of the first opportunities I had -once I had come to New York - to do real work in this city. Today I relate an episode on which I now look back and laugh, but at the time I couldn't have been more upset.

It was 1991, and one evening Bob was downtown, doing some work in my studio. He was a little out of his element being an upper west side, classical musician guy. I don't remember exactly what it was we were working on, but at a certain point in the proceedings he started glancing around at all my equipment. In those days music studios were more distinguishable as such, because they had lots of 'music-looking' things. In other words, now I have a single keyboard and lots of computers, whereas in those days you typically had multiple keyboards, lots of tape machines, etc. It looked more 'music-y'.

So, Bob looks around the studio and says "we're getting ready to enter a contest, how would you like to write a piece of music for it?" I was very receptive and said I'd love to do it. It was to write and submit a version of a jingle for Diet Pepsi which was running on TV at that time featuring Ray Charles. The tag line was Ray saying "You've got the right one baby, Uh-huh". The submission would be a videotape, and the prize was $10,000.

Then he says excitedly, "and you can use all your toys!"....looking around at the various keyboards. His voice rises as he sweetens the offer: "We'll split the money with you."

Fair enough. I went to work quickly and came up with some music for the spot. Below is the shortened 15-second version in my own handwriting:

I decided to go a different way for the spot than techno or pop, and instead wrote a parody of a baroque 'classical' piece for chorus. Really it was a direct takeoff on a style prevalent in Handel's Messiah, an oratorio from 1742, known for the famous piece the "Hallelujah Chorus". This Diet Pepsi piece was supposed to be a little more like "For Unto Us a Child is Born", from the same work. You can check that out here on youtube. The humor was that I had the chorus sing an extended melisma on the word 'Uh-huh' (notice the way the sopranos sing the word 'born' starting at 32 seconds on the youtube clip - lots of notes on a single word, which is very typical of that historic period). It had a 1 bar introduction and then it was straight in. The urtext version was 30 seconds, total. If you can read music, you'll notice the version above isn't long enough to make a that big an impact on it's own, but if it were preceded by showings of the full spot, it invokes the memory of the Handel-like approach. I was thinking big!

Also (and I'm saying this because of the linked clip), I would have loved to have had an orchestra, but I knew I could only use piano, or something similar, as the budget for musicians was zero, so I wrote for choir and piano (or I would have preferred harpsichord). The only thing it had in common with the commercial in the music was the very first and very last bar in each version (that's a typical thing - think "At McDonald's", for example - it's called a musical logo). I knew syncing up to prerecorded sound would be a problem in this environment, so I didn't go there.

Looking back, I don't think Bob really thought of me as classically trained at that time, so he was expecting some sort of little pop ditty.

Anyway, I sent him the score. [In those days, not everyone was doing audio demos for all submissions like they do now, and we counted on our imaginations and training to be able to look at a score and make sense of it. Plus he was a conductor, so I assumed there'd be no problem]. One night the phone rings and Bob's on the other end:

"Hi, I got your piece," he says. "Is this all?"


"There's nothing else? No other instruments?" he offered...


Well, a little red flag went off in my head, but I didn't think too much of it.....

Finally the night of the videotaping, we arrived at Cami Hall, a space on 57th street across from Carnegie, and we started rehearsing for the taping. It was a nightmare. To begin with, he had the wrong approach completely, he was doing it too slow, heavy and ponderous. It might as well have been bad Wagner...terrible. It's supposed to be light and crisp. He must have had the quarter note at 60 BPM (beats per minute) instead of the 90 that is marked in the score, and everything was at least forte (loud) if not louder, not piano (soft) as marked.

I was stunned, aghast, a deer in the headlights. I was raising my hand wildly and trying to get his attention. It was not generally understood by the members of the chorus this was my work, and so I wasn't in the front of the room. Instead, I was all the way in the back, in a room full of 200 people. I couldn't get a response, although I'm sure he was aware of me gyrating in the back.

If it were now, I'd march up to the front of the room, and make my views known, as I have developed a backbone - but I didn't have the courage then. After unsuccessfully trying to get his attention, I sat there and watched this slow motion train wreck. He was completely rewriting it after a while. He had stuff being sung up an octave, he was adding notes, and having everyone sing everything (that's a typical Bob thing anyway).

At the end of the night I was FURIOUS. I just left without a word, and as the weeks went by, I thought about it, and thought about it, but I was just too scared of him to confront him directly. Finally I sent him a long letter, where I explained myself in detail, the musical approach, and my feelings about the outcome. I'm sure if I read the letter today, it would be equal parts humbling and hilarious. I cannot overstate how angry and hurt I was. After writing it, I put it in the mail to him. It was a feeling of satisfaction, and also of dread, since I knew I'd be hearing from him...

Another week goes by, and one night, about 11PM the phone rings, and it's Bob. I happened to be in the studio with someone recording so I couldn't have a long conversation.

"Hi Reed, it's Bob", came the voice.

Reed: "Hi Bob"

Bob after a silence: "I got your letter"

Reed: That's good, thanks for calling...listen Bob - I'm in the studio with someone right now, can we talk about this later?"

Bob: "sure that's fine...One thing before we go though..............we won...."

Yep, you read that right - we'd won the jingle contest. Frankly, I still can't believe it!

Later there were interviews, which I was invited to attend,there were some news reports in the local media and the money was collected by the Chorale. I never did get paid, and I never was mentioned as the composer.

...and Bob and I never spoke of it again.

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