Posted on April 26, 2006 at 11:02 am
In today’s installment, marketing advice, queries from the UK, wonky piano questions, and the story of “Music of Heaven.” (I really will get to the business of blogging one of these days, but there are so many questions sitting in the “ASK JRB!” pile on my desktop that I just want to push through them so I can clear my desk!)
Jason Rasmussen writes:
You talked about how you were a “cult” composer. Well, I have a couple marketing ideas for you (and hey, I have a Bachelors in music management, so I think they’re somewhat credible). First of all, congratulations on your new website, that’s definitely the way to go in today’s digital marketplace. However, I would HIGHLY recommend a Myspace Music page. My second suggestion is a little more intensive and would require assistance from your marketing/PR team/manager. Starbucks, as much of a large “evil” corporation as they are viewed, is doing EXTREMELY well selling music through the Hear Music™ brand. I guarantee if you got your solo album into Starbucks stores, you would triple whatever your current Soundscan rating is in two months.
Thank you so much for all of your suggestions, believe me, I need all the help I can get. Let me answer one thing, though: I know everyone is supposed to have a MySpace page, I see how people connect through it and music gets around and it’s so groovy and cool and viral and it doesn’t take any time at all to put it together and then BAM! you’re selling records, and it’s the new way to market and make yourself visible and … I really hate MySpace. I spent some time on the site (and still occasionally do) looking at friends’ profiles, and the whole thing is just chaotic and ugly, ugly, ugly, and it feels like seven million girls all having their Sweet 16 at the same time, and while I know it makes me tragically unhip and uncool, I just don’t want to be a part of it. I’m not a teenager, I don’t want my presence on the Web to be in that context. I may change my mind about it eventually, but right now, the whole thing just feels icky and unclassy to me, and I really don’t want to play in that particular sandbox. So now you all know. (And there is a “Jason Robert Brown” MySpace profile, but I didn’t create it and I don’t endorse it. I am, however, on Friendster, if that sort of thing turns you on.)
And now, the British portion of our blog:
Rachel Thomas writes:
I live in England and was wondering if you know of any professional perfomances of ‘Songs For A New World’ or ‘The Last Five Years’ which are coming to UK?
Lucy Wade writes:
I just wanted to ask whether you can tell us anything about the upcoming premiere of ‘The Last Five Years’ in London? Any dates/cast news/production team news, etc? Will you be attending to watch or be involved in the production?
Adam Lenson writes:
I want to direct “The Last Five Years” more than anything but due to a lack of a professional production there are no rights available to the UK. Do you have any idea when the show will come to the UK and when us eager students could perform it? Also would it be possible for you to come and speak, sing or teach (or all of the above) in Cambridge when you are next in England?
Stephen Watt writes:
When are you coming back to the UK? I hope it’s soon. We need some real music laced with true emotions.
Chris Jenkins writes:
Just wondering if any of your masterful shows are going to make to the UK? I’m dying over here without some of a professional JRB show.
Stuart Price writes:
Just wondering when you are next in the UK and also whether it’s possible to get the sheet music for ‘Wearing Someone Else’s Clothes’. I’m currently training at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts in London and would love to add some of your latest material to my audition REP folder.
Apparently, I should move to England. That idea actually occurred to me when I left New York two years ago, but London is so unbelievably expensive these days that I couldn’t figure out how to make it work. Ergo, Los Angeles. Anyway, to answer the questions at hand: as noted in my previous blog entry, the Menier Chocolate Factory people and I are trying to get a production of “The Last Five Years” going, and I will update you all as soon as I know anything specific about it. Right now, we’re wooing directors, but a lot of the best directors in the UK are attached to very large, lucrative projects and can’t make the time for a very small show at a very small theater, so we’re playing the waiting game. “Songs for a New World” was done several years ago at the Bridewell, and I know it gets done in universities over there all the time, but I’m not aware of anyone planning a professional production. “Parade” is a tough one; there are very few venues in London that are appropriate for a show that is as large and difficult as “Parade,” and Nick Hytner has made it clear in a number of different ways that he is not going to present our show at the National, so we’re all just hoping for a Golden Ticket. We have one very exciting possibility on the table, and I hope that works out, but I can’t say anything about it right now. As for myself, I’m sure I’ll be coming over again, either at the end of this year or the beginning of 2007, since I always have a wonderful time doing concerts in London and I always get such great audiences. (Also, my best friend is getting married and moving to London in July, so I’ll have to visit frequently!) As far as coming to Cambridge, sure, why not? Have someone who’s in charge of bringing in guest artists drop me a line and we’ll figure out how to make it happen!
And now, pianists with grievances, first in a continuing series:
Paul Tate writes:
A quick question about a note in “I’d Give It All For You.” In the intro section, in bar 2 on the last beat in the RH, there’s a ‘B’ there. I could swear that on your recording you play a ‘D’ a third higher (as it is in bar 4). I checked my copy of the vocal selections book and sure enough it tells me to play B, but I’m just wondering if that’s what you really want. The D seems to make more sense with the musical motif that runs through the show (F#-G-F#-D-A), so I thought I’d ask… maybe you chose the B there for a specific reason. If so, I’d love to know!
One other question — any ideas about how to learn/master the opening of “King Of The World”? While I’m great at theory, and have success in finding patterns of chords or scales in most of your music, the intro to that song mystifies me. It’s aggressive and masculine and hard as HELL. 🙂 Please help.
Carson Schutze writes:
My question is about the piano solo in the opening four bars of King of the World. First, why didn’t you put it in the Vocal Selections version? People could just leave it out if it was too hard for them, couldn’t they? Second, while it seems to me that in the rental score the first three bars are very close to what you play on the cast recording (not so easy to tell when notes are flying by that fast!), the fourth bar seems to be entirely different. Why is that? I find what you did on the CD much cooler, so if you have a transcription of that bar kicking around somewhere, would you consider posting it?
I have a horrible confession to make. Please don’t be mad at me.
When I play the first four measures of “King of the World,” they are completely and totally improvised and the pitches and rhythms are absolutely arbitrary. I basically just treat the bottom two octaves of the piano like a set of bongos. I tried to write down some version of something in the score so that other people could have some guidelines, but you’re both right, the final measure is not so good. However, a transcription of my version of it? Not likely, unless you’re planning to do it. (If you are crazy enough to do it, I’ll happily post it here for posterity.) And to address your point about the Vocal Selections, here’s an interesting thing: you’d think people would just leave it out if they couldn’t play it, but that’s not often how it works. What often happens is some sweet 14-year-old boy brings that song in to an audition, and the pianist (who is really the junior high school choir director) just looks at the music and assumes that little Josh wants her to play it, so she begins, and nine hours later, the whole room is dissolved in tears and recriminations. Especially given what I’ve just confessed about how arbitrary the first four bars are, it seemed silly to include them in the vocal selections when they would be of no use to practically anyone. (They are “vocal” selections, after all, and I take that part seriously; those books really are geared to singers.)
As for Paul’s question about “I’d Give It All For You,” you caught a typo; everyone please get out your pencils and correct the last note in the second measure in the right hand, it should be a “D”, not a “B.” Thank you, sir.
Darryn deSouza asks:
I own a lot of your music in book form, and as a pianist, I am curious: A lot of your upbeat songs possess either very dense, complex chords, or lightning fast, seemingly unfathomable runs for the right hand — having seen you live twice, I remember you blowing through the majority of this stuff with your eyes closed or not even looking! My question is, are those chords and runs 4 or 8-bar creations you mould and compose, or is your playing style such that you can just pull those runs out from your skill and experience as a long time jazz lounge-style pianist?
Generally a little of both. If I just played what comes naturally, I’d end up playing the same six riffs all night (and there have been nights where “I’m In Bizness” feels exactly like that to me), so I do shape the licks as things get closer to public performance. For an example, let’s take “Moving Too Fast.” There’s a riff after “The light’s turning red!” in measure 19, that’s a typical unadulterated JRB run. I do that sort of thing in my sleep, basic barrelhouse blues and gospel stuff. (You see some variations on that in “Real Big News” in “Parade” as well.) Now look at the riff after “I found a woman I love” in measure 35 – that one emerged because I wanted to do a lick that went up since most of my licks start at the top of the keyboard and descend, so I just tried to find some new thing to do and that’s what I came up with (I don’t always play it accurately, incidentally, which is the price I pay for writing something that’s foreign to my fingers). And then the crazy thing at the end in measure 120 (the triplets in wacky keys) was really worked out, note-by-note, after I improvised something that sounded sort of cool like that. Again, I don’t play that the exact same way every time, but the basic structure of it is in place.
Kevin deYoe writes:
I am a composer myself, and I’m curious about certain aspects of your writing process. First, do you use notation software? If so, what software? (I’m a Sibelius guy myself.)
Second, I was wondering how you write. It definitely seems like for most of your stuff you come up with a riff first, and build the song off of that (She Cries and The Next Ten Minutes come to mind). But then, how do write your melodies? Is there any specific thing you do? Do you play the riff and then vocally improvise on top of it? If so, do you already have lyrics in mind, or do you just scat? Or are you improvising lyrics too?
Or are you insane like Mozart and have the entire piece mapped out with complete harmonies and lyrics in your head before you even sit down at a piano?
I’m a Finale guy, I have been since the day they introduced it back during the Pleistocene era. (I remember sitting in David Pogue’s apartment on the Upper West Side in 1989 while he showed me this cool new software he found for notation.) Sibelius is fine, it’s just not as nuanced for me. That having been said, I only use Finale for final copies, I still do all my drafts in pencil, and I actually hire copyists to do most of my Finale work (and then I tweak it myself).
I’m sure the answer of “how I write” is in one of the forty thousand interviews on the site, but to a certain extent, you’ve got it right. I start with a title, I sit at the piano and yell the title while I play a million different things, and gradually a melodic shape starts to emerge, and then I get up from the piano and start working on lyrics, and three decades later, a song is born! But I’ve changed up my method a lot recently, I now try to write completely away from the piano at first, just let the melodies come to me and then figure out what goes underneath them. I’m sure I’ll keep changing the way I write for the rest of my career, it’s the only way to make sure I don’t just write the same thing over and over again. And no, I am not insane like Mozart. Someone please back me up on this.
Brian Falgoust writes:
Do you have any plans of releasing the piano/vocal book of your CD Wearing Somone Else’s Clothes?
Sorry, for the time being, the six songs we included in “The Jason Robert Brown Collection” are all that we’re planning to release from the CD.
Jennifer Maddux asks:
I’ve enjoyed your new CD and I was wondering what inspired the song “Music of Heaven?” It’s so different than most of your songs and the content seems different too.
It’s a good story, actually. For three or four years, I was one of the accompanists for the Broadway Gospel Choir (they’re now known as the Broadway Inspirational Voices), a tremendously gifted group of Broadway singers under Michael McElroy’s expert direction. (You can check out their album here.) I loved playing for their concerts (particularly because I got to play with Joseph Joubert, one of the finest gospel pianists and organists I’ve ever heard), and I felt very special to be the one Jewish boy on stage. Anyway, in 1997 I had to give up that gig because we were doing a workshop of “Parade” in Toronto, but I did make it back to New York in time to see the actual concert. Watching it was a very different experience than being in it. As someone who has only the most distant relationship to religious faith, I started the evening very skeptically, watching all these actors onstage emoting madly about their connection to God. But the longer I watched, the more my skepticism turned to admiration, even envy: they were really experiencing something up there, they were really connecting. Sure, some of it was showbiz, but I could see past that to the place where there was something sincere, something very powerful happening on stage. And ultimately, I felt more than a little tinge of regret that I was unable to connect the same way they did, even though I loved making that music more than almost anything else I played. Being a professional cynic has its downsides, and I never felt that more keenly than that night at that concert. So that’s what inspired the song. Interestingly, I saw Jessica Molaskey the next day and told her about it, and she reported having had a very similar experience the previous year when she had seen the Broadway Gospel Choir show. And so when I premiered the song later that year in a concert, it was Jessica who sang the lead vocal, and she did it gorgeously. I don’t think anyone else has sung it since then other than me, but I’ll never forget the incredible bravery and openness she brought to the song that night.
Ryan wants to know:
Hey, what did you think of “The Last Five Years” in Baltimore?
I thought it kicked ass, dude. Seriously, I had a personal investment in it because one of my former students from Emerson was playing Cathy, and I wanted to be able to say, “Hey, look, she’s one of mine!” Fortunately, she was magnificent; her name is Betsy Morgan, and you’ll all have plenty of opportunities to see and hear her soon, I have no doubt about that.
More to come soon!