Tag: holiday party music

The Pun is Mightier than the Portmanteau

Orchestra performing with some players dressed in Santa Claus costumes.
Orchestra performing with some players dressed in Santa Claus costumes.

BasSOON It Will Be Christmas was featured on the 2013 Columbus Symphony Holiday Pops Concert

Following my first post about giving the three-letter answer to projects that are a bit off the path, I’ll now continue with more compositional ventures of mine that aren’t of the usual nature but that have helped me forge a multi-faceted and successful career.

I admit it: I love wordplay. Ever since I was a kid and puns were introduced to me at summer camp during nighttime bunk chatter, I’ve been hooked. Since I was at Interlochen, the first ones I ever heard referenced composers. There were the easy ones, like, “If your record player is Baroquen, try to get a Handel on it.” Or a game involving finding classical scores could be called “Haydn go-seek.” But my mind was already searching for the more difficult ones—using the Russian composers, for example. I tried in vain to come up with something like (apologies, it takes a little bit of set up time):

Grocery store customer: “Excuse me, I’m looking for some really good coffee.”

Sales-clerk: “Well, we have the bad and amateurish stuff here. But for the ‘Pro Coffee – If’ you’re really into it, try “Chopin” elsewhere.

(I told you Russian composers were hard. I had to resort to the old Polish stand-by.)

Even yesterday, someone posted the following on Facebook:

“I wish I were less stubborn, and was more smart.”

To which I immediately responded:

“Well, you could try combining the two. That would be a ‘start’.”

(I think that one is actually quite good, though it’s actually a portmanteau.)

But many of you would disagree. You don’t like wordplay. But I can’t help it. It’s a part of me. As I’ve already mentioned, I started as a kid and have continued right up until this very moment, as I have become—most obviously—a “Groan Man.”

(OK, I’m done. I promise. Maybe.)

A good friend once told me: “You need to be more mysterious.” (That’s not a pun, by the way. I’m actually verging on being rather serious here.) He ventured that I needed to reveal less of myself, so that people would want to know more about me, and therefore seek me out as a composer.

That comment has stayed with me for a long time. I’m a “serious” composer, after all. Is it going to hurt my career if I sometimes present myself as silly, goofy, or having a semi-addiction to puns? (Or, as I might call it, a pun-directional mind)?

(If you’re still reading at this point, I applaud you.)

Here comes the music part…

In the mid-2000s, I wrote two pieces which combined these two qualities of “silly” and “serious.” They were my attempts at musical puns. I confess, a little to my horror and to my delight, that they have become rather popular.

Toward the end of my playing days as a trumpeter with the Naples Philharmonic and when composing was becoming more and more of a reality for me, I started to engage in somewhat regular projects with Michael Krajewski, one of our many pops conductors who had stepped in to replace Erich Kunzel after his departure. Michael—who is now the principal pops conductor of Philly Pops and Atlanta Pops, among others—was, and is, still known as someone with a beautifully dry sense of humor. We began to discuss the idea of adding humor to some musical arrangements or originals, while at the same time bringing recognition to some less-often featured instruments of the orchestra. Since Christmas was a popular time for fun music, we used that opportunity to start with “We Three Basses,” which was a solo feature for a trio of double basses, based on “We Three Kings.” (I have since done an adaptation for violins and called it “We Three Strings,” of course). For the subsequent project, I suggested to Michael that we feature the bassoon section. I had the idea that I would combine the most famous excerpts in the bassoon repertoire with standard Christmas tunes and would title it “BasSOON It Will Be Christmas.” It would feature the three bassoons (or two) in front of the orchestra. He loved the idea, which was great except that now I had to actually write the piece.

It was an absolute thrill—which completely satisfied my loves for both wordplay and for music—to discover the Christmas tunes and bassoon excerpts that could be paired together. I’ll list them out of order in two separate columns. Perhaps you can take a guess at which became paired with which:

Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique
Dukas: Sorcerer’s Apprentice
Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro (overture)
Christmas tunes
“Joy to the World”
“O Come All Ye Faithful”
“God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”




There are hints of others for good measure, like Beethoven’s Fourth, and then Tchaikovsky’s Sixth in the cadenza. I couldn’t leave those out! It ends with “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” of course!

You can hear it here:

I was told after I wrote it—by a (perhaps too) “serious” musician—that it wouldn’t get played much. Well, it gets played at least a dozen times annually and has been played by many top orchestras, such as the symphonies of Atlanta, Houston, and Pittsburgh.

I think there’s a reason why, which I’ll get to at the end of this post, but for now, forgive me for telling you about my other “silly” piece—the Concerto for Cell Phone.

You can blame this one entirely on Michael Krajewski!

Around the same time as BasSOON It Will Be Christmas, Michael and I had a coffee at Starbucks. (I’ll let you all decide whether that brand is “Pro-Coffee If” you’ll indulge me a bad pun in the meantime.)

So… (sigh)… I was sitting at this Starbucks in Naples, and Michael leaned forward, looked me straight in the eye, and said, “Jim, I’m thinking of a new piece. Something where we might comment on this new wave of technology, and the constant interruptions we’re getting during concerts.” (Now remember, this was roughly 2006, when cell phones were becoming relatively ubiquitous, and therefore so were the accompanying distractions—or failed mutings—thereof.)

He continued, “I’m thinking of a Concerto for Cell Phone.”

[Long silence, as I was honestly trying to consider all of the options. Did he mean one of these audience participation thingies, where the random Cage-iness of it all created music? Or did he mean something where players in the orchestra would plan their ringtones to have them go off during a solo or something like that?]

It turned out that he left it all up to me to figure out but wanted the focus of the piece to be the interruption part, which would hopefully be humorous.

After some considerable thought, I decided that the humor in the piece would be most effective if the piece were treated seriously. The soloist was actually the “cell-phonist,” with ring-tones serving as the main licks that the soloist would perform. (Don’t worry, I had tricks up my sleeve.)

With all of that in mind, the piece opens in a very Rossini-esque manner, building and building, until, well, you can listen for yourself:

What’s been a fun consequence of this piece has been the opportunity for some teaching moments that it has created. Just last year, I visited with a band that was preparing it, and the teacher mentioned to me how the “ring cycle” moment within the piece (yes, pun intended) allowed for an explanation of Wagner and his operas for those students who didn’t know of them. And let’s not forget about “William Cell” (another key moment in the work).

As one might expect—due to the rapid advances in technology—the ringtones used in this piece have already made it typewriter-esque in just ten years, but I’m happy to say that, just like BasSOON…, it has already been played by many major orchestras and concert bands across the country. And again, the response has always been quite positive, from players and listeners, and the audience has laughed a lot, for which I have been very gratified.

And now to the reason why they proved to be popular.

In both cases—and even in a very early work of mine, “Diaper Rag” (gotta love it!)—I have always treated the comedic subjects with the utmost respect. I wouldn’t dare put something in front of my colleagues (remember, I am a former player) that didn’t reward them with well-constructed music and with interesting material to play.

Therefore, in the Concerto for Cell Phone you get a fugue and other contrapuntal material; in BasSOON… I wouldn’t dare put those carols and excerpts together if they didn’t WORK. Tricks and gimmicks are only worth it if they serve the music. That is how I can look at myself in the mirror or go to bed at night knowing that I have tried my best to create music—whether hilariously silly or of the most serious nature—that is of the highest quality that I can create. I think even the most serious of musicians recognize this, which has allowed me to continue to take a break from my concertos and symphonies every once in a while to write something that might allow a few people on stage or in the audience to smile a little bit. That’s not so bad, is it?

While I may not be “mysterious,” I only believe in being true to one’s self. If I tried to be something I’m not, then that would immediately come through in the music and therefore, in my opinion, would have less chance for any possibility of continued success.

I’ll have to let you and future audiences decide whether these “silly” pieces might succeed at being hysterical or historical. If they’re not funny, than I guess they are just pre-hysterical. Ouch, that’s not even a word, so that’s Borodin on being just plain bad.

‘Tis the Season!

I know that anyone reading this will agree that music is an integral part of human existence. (I’m sure that it’s an integral part of their existence; at least I can verify that it is of mine.) It’s no wonder that we hear it almost everywhere: in supermarkets, doctor’s offices, restaurants, and just about anywhere large groups of strangers regularly gather. Music can be a very effective social lubricant that can have a calming effect on unsettling situations, which is probably why music is such a welcome feature at parties. When you throw a wedding, reunion, or office party: hire a caterer and a band!

The six week period between Thanksgiving and the New Year is a concentrated time for parties and a time that musicians tend to get busy playing them. Improvising musicians, especially jazz musicians (who are used to playing a broad variety of genres), will wear an assortment of musical hats and play all kinds of music at these usually unstructured gatherings. Two weeks ago I wrote about playing for one while I was in San Francisco. It was a party thrown by someone who plays music “for fun” and collects guitars. Many of the guests shared his passion for music and spent a lot of the time listening to the trio, so the most important thing for us to do was to play the best we could. Fortunately, we were in good form that night.

Unfortunately, that was a rarity. The standard end-of-the-year party is attended by people who have got, or are anticipating the arrival of, their end-of-year bonuses and want to party a little harder than usual. As the coarser forms of social lubricants are dispensed and imbibed, inhibitions and standards of decorum drop and playing music that everyone finds satisfactory can be, to use a single word, challenging. This might be why so many musicians prefer not to take this kind of work unless they get paid well for it and why those that do are often associated with what is attributed to be the world’s oldest profession. Because I cut my musical teeth playing for parties (my father would take me along to play on his weekend-warrior affairs for the Nick Jordan orchestras in San Francisco), I’m usually up to the challenge. I dust off the fakebooks, spend a little more time studying YouTube, and hope my black suit passes for a tux. (I knew one musician, a drummer, who used a magic marker to make a t-shirt, jeans, and sandals pass as formal attire!) Horas, carols, disco (and maybe a Messiah or two) become a part of my musical household during the holiday season, enough variety to make the saltiest Pete jolly!

This year I’ve been blessed to be in good company. Besides the party mentioned previously, I played a wonderful Chanukah party with vocalist Judi Silvano, drummer Bob Meyer, guitarist Mark Sganga, and an angelic choir consisting of Leah Grammatica, Francesca Maese (a.k.a., Mrs. Harris), and Jody Sandhaus. It was for the Actor’s Home in Englewood, New Jersey, a beautiful facility for performing artists who are going through end-of-life issues. We were playing for our peers and our betters, many of whom had a direct influence on our professional lives. Besides being a moving experience, it was fun. Silvano and Meyer brought a rare sensibility to “The Dreidel Song” that set the mood.

The rest of the parties I’m doing this year are with four fantastic musicians who I work with regularly during the year. I’ll plug them now so that if readers might not be familiar with them they can resolve to become so in the upcoming year. I won’t mention venues, but they might on their websites: Cynthia Hilts, Vicki Burns, Alan Eicher, and Saul Rubin. Sadly, these probably won’t be like the two parties mentioned above. I anticipate smiling at the sottish requests for “Black Magic Woman” and “Hold It Against Me” to a guitar, voice, and bass trio. I’m sure it will happen (particularly on New Year’s Eve), but, hey, ‘tis the season!

I’ve heard that there is a possibility that the year 2013, like the proverbial tree in the woods, isn’t going to happen. If that’s the case, we should all get busy listening to and playing music in 2012. We should encourage those we play music for to play music also. I don’t mean karaoke, or even the sing-along. Real music-making, with the “whole-nine”: rehearsing and practicing. The act of making music does something to people I find very fine and counters the situation a fantastic musician, Jonathan Segal, who I’ve played parties for in the past, described in his book, The Disharmonic Adventures of David Stein. The scene is the Metropolitan Museum of Art; a pianist is returning from his 15-minute dinner break to resume playing solo after witnessing a street performer being run over by a taxi cab on Fifth Avenue:

What kind of person leaves a scene of carnage and goes off to entertain the wealthy? How could David reconcile these two worlds in the space of minutes? … He could truly feel the pain of the mime’s death, and yet he could compartmentalize the feeling … from the place where he bathed in the glitter of his musical performing life.

Arriving in the museum’s Medieval Room, he sees the knights on horseback that have been there his entire life…. A wealthy blond matron in a gown disturbs his reverie.

“Would you bring me some white wine.” … It is not a question.

“I am not the waiter, Madame. I am only the lowly pianist.”

“I’m so sorry! Please forgive me.”

“Of course, it’s perfectly natural. After all, I am in uniform.”

As people mill and mingle at this museum fundraiser, the effects of his playing vary. For some, it’s an ambiance that says that they have arrived … for others it is the thrill of New York at its most glamorous…. For some it is the remembrance by song, of precious memories. But there are some out there, with a drink in their hand and a sudden glow in their eyes, for whom it is passion….

The knights clamber off their steeds and gather round the piano. David plays “Rule Britannia” and the knights laugh heartily. They have mugs of ale in their armored hands. They pry open their helmet visors and pour the ale into the emptiness within…. David plays Beatles songs for them. Then the James Bond theme. They sing lustily along to the score from Camelot. …Now they raise their mugs and bellow a British soccer song, to the tune of “My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean.”

Oh pour me a big glass of cider
Oh pour me a big glass of stout
Oh pour me a big glass of ale
And then watch me puke it all out!

As the song finishes, a pompous, overweight museum staffer comes over to the piano and speaks to the knights.

“Would you please get back on your horses? This is a cocktail party, not a fraternity beer bash! There are some very important people here who don’t need to hear this crap!”

There is silence. The knights stand still like the statues they are. They don’t answer.

“Well?” barks the red-faced staffer.

He is answered by a “whoosh” and a “kathonk” as his chest is pierced by an arrow….The knight with the crossbow shakes his fist triumphantly and they all give each other clanging high-fives. David plays “God Save The Queen” and “We Are The Champions.” …After this merry carousing, the knights return to their horses. David plays a slow blues.

And to all, a good night—Happy Holidays!