music, technology & life in pasadena, california

A View from the Pit

Although it’s not widely discussed, playing theatre music has always been considered the ugly stepchild of the music business. Playing in a theatre doesn’t pay nearly as much or command respect as recording music for movies, television or CDs, but the work being done in LA’s orchestra pits today is as unmatched in quality as its recording brethren’s worldwide reputation.

When I read Sting’s memoir, Broken Music, I was surprised to find that his first professional job was playing in the pit for a run of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. The respect Sting has for the theatre and the working musician in the pit is evident in this passage:

I am so proud that after all this drifting and treading water I have a professional, well-paid job making music. This was my ambition, and here I am turning up every night under the enormous steel structure of the stage set, finding my own music stand, its tiny light glowing among the wires and equipment and the parts for the show, waiting in the darkness as the audience files in for the evening performance.

…I just love being here at the center of it all, playing the bass in my dark cave. I grandiosely imagine that the whole artifice is being constructed on the subterranean foundation of this sound, the steady, grounded, invisible pulse from the instrument in my hand. For when the lights go down and the conductor raises his baton in the silence before the first bar, nothing else exists and I am ridiculously happy.

For the next few weeks until January 7 I’ll be playing guitar and kalimba for a reprise of The Lion King at the Pantages Theatre. I was part of the original LA production that began in 2000 and continued for a long and rare (for LA) 2 ½-year run. The 17-piece orchestra in the pit sounds incredibly vibrant, real and is kicking butt every single night in a way that no virtual orchestra machine, tape or orchestral sequencer could ever hope to match.

If you happen to have tickets, please come down to the pit rail and say hello…and get a peek of the excitement Sting talks about.

November 27, 2006 | Link to this entry

The iPod Interrupt

Sometimes it’s hard to believe life existed before the iPod. The ubiquitous, beautifully designed personal music device has revolutionized the way we listen to music, surpassing even the previously wildly popular Walkman. By linking the iPod to the superbly stocked iTunes store, it has leapfrogged far above all competitors. One only has to walk down any street in America at any time of day to see just how far this revolution has come, as we encounter people with white headphone cords dangling from their ears while going about the business of their daily lives.

And it doesn’t stop there. Apart from the portability advantage, Apple has brought change inside the home as well. The Airport Express device allows you to play music on your computer, via the iTunes software, and wirelessly send it to any freestanding stereo system or set of powered speakers in the house within range of your wireless network. Now, with users copying their CDs to their computers for use on their iPods, they have access to their entire music collection for inside listening, too, and new auto inputs on late-model cars are extending that reach as well. Thousands of listeners are selling their CDs or putting them in storage (don’t forget to make hard drive backups!) after porting their music over, freeing up the physical space that CDs and albums once hoarded in their living rooms.

None of this is news to anyone who hasn’t been asleep for the last 5 years, as Apple sold 60 million iPods and garnered unbelievably giant market share.

But along with this new paradigm for experiencing music also comes a loss.

The focus on singles rather than whole albums deprives artists from relating their complete vision in the form of an extended music experience that comes from the careful sequencing of tracks along with a readily available physical album cover/sleeve that further entices the listener into the artist’s world.

I can’t imagine such breakthrough albums as Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon or The Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band bought as discrete singles only and not accompanied by the entire experience of the rest of the tracks. How about Jethro Tull’s Thick As A Brick without its album sleeve that folded out into a mini-newspaper complete with articles and crossword puzzle, all giving clues to the insight of the songs and bringing the listener closer for a more intimate listen? The advent of CDs was bad enough for those of us who loved to read the covers while we listened, with tiny 5” by 5” booklets and its small type. Now, digitized PDF-like files are becoming available with some purchases but are tied to the computer or so small as to make them unpleasant to read. The tactile part of listening is almost a memory.

The executives in the music business tell us that today’s listeners aren’t interested in complete CDs with all their “filler” material. Maybe it’s a reflection of the quality and depth of today’s music and artists or maybe it’s the I-don’t-have-time-for-anything lifestyle that so many of us find ourselves caught up in. The shuffle function on the iPod contributes greatly to this effect and hence the positive feedback loop (or is it the negative feedback loop in this case?) goes on and on.

All I know is that the revolution has landed, and while enriching our musical lives, has made us a little poorer for it.

*Disclaimer: I own an iPod Mini but rarely use it due to its short battery life, but use Airport Express and iTunes to blast CDs (in their entirety) around the house.

November 7, 2006 | Link to this entry


Paul Viapiano is a guitarist working in film, television and live performance based in sunny Pasadena, California.

You can email me here.

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