music, technology & life in pasadena, california

It's Wicked!

A few months ago, before I started preparing for my January concerts with the LA Phil, I was asked to play guitar for the hit musical, Wicked, which landed at the Pantages Theatre two weeks ago for a rare (for Los Angeles) extended open-ended run. As soon as the Philharmonic concerts were over, I started looking at the music to see what was required. What I saw was a score of incredible complexity and color, music that would be both a challenge and fun to play every night. Not your father’s Broadway show…

On Broadway, the music is scored for two guitarists, but as soon as the show started touring, it was cut down to one player. (Wicked is still playing on Broadway, is still playing in Chicago after two years, still playing on a nationwide tour and our production makes this the fourth company performing in the country.) This is pretty standard for touring Broadway shows, as micro-economics play a big factor in keeping a large tour profitable, so usually the orchestra gets cut down by at least 5 or 6 players. Sometimes the missing parts are doled out to keyboard players who imitate the missing instruments on synthesizers as the scores are reorchestrated for the tour from the original Broadway version.

In this case, the collapsing of the guitar books into one chair created one very busy book which has me playing electric, steel string acoustic, classical and 12-string guitars, as well as banjo and mandolin. That’s 42 strings to tune every night…twice a night if you include the intermission touchup.

In addition, there is the eBow. Ah yes…my friend, the eBow. An eBow is a small handheld electromagnetic device invented in the 1970s that vibrates a guitar’s strings when it comes near them, creating a sound halfway between a violin and a theremin. It’s a touchy little thing, difficult, at first, to find the sweet spot and get it to speak properly. In addition, most of the parts require playing a melodic line on one string and sliding up and down that string to the correct notes using a portamento effect. Jumps of an octave or more are not uncommon and you must land precisely on the correct notes. It took a while to get the hang of it and to learn how to get the eBow under my control. It likes to veer off in its own direction if not tended to…like I said, it’s a touchy little thing.

The other unusual effect I needed to find is called a Seek Wah. I’ve been playing guitar for my entire life, but this was a new one to me. With a little research, I found that the Seek Wah is a typically small effects pedal with 8 or 9 wah-like envelope filters that play in sequence along with a speed control. Think guitar. Think underwater. Then combine the two…that’s pretty much what it sounds like. They’re built by a company called ZVex, which I have reason to believe is a one-person operation in some guy’s basement somewhere in the Midwest, somewhere like, say, Kansas? Anyway, the Seek Wah (which I found on eBay) is hand-painted with psychedelic designs and lettering straight from an old Fillmore poster from the 60s. Mine has a ladybug and a space satellite on it and is covered with…now, get this…glitter. Needless to say, these new toys are a lot of fun to play with.

As of tonight, we now have 17 shows under our belts and our band of 17 players is starting to gel as a well-oiled unit. I’m lucky to have bassist Trey Henry (currently with Linda Rondstadt and many others), keyboardist Dave Witham (George Benson’s musical director) and a young transplanted Brit named Chris Jago on drums as my band mates in the rhythm section. Wade Culbreath, who I’ve mentioned here before, is our percussionist, but his setup is so huge that they had to build a special room for him backstage. We have a great conductor in Dominick Amendum and we’re digging in for the long run.

If you come down to the show, make sure you stop by the orchestra pit and say hi. Oh…and watch out for the flying monkeys.

February 24, 2007 | Link to this entry

A Short Ride with John Adams

It’s been a few weeks since I last posted here, as I’ve been busy prepping a lot of pieces for performance. The week after the Mahler 7 concerts, the LA Phil immediately went into rehearsals for John Adams’ Naïve & Sentimental Music, which I mentioned in my last entry. The performances were awesome and John was present the entire week. Our last performance was at Orange County’s new Segerstrom Hall. I was curious to find out how the acoustics there compared to Disney Hall, the orchestra’s home base. As the players filed in before the concert and warmed up, it seemed that the natural reverberation was excessive, which could easily spell trouble for an orchestra trying to hear itself on stage. Once we started playing, that problem seemed to fade away, but there’s no doubt that the sound in the hall is far less transparent than at Disney. My overall impression after one concert was highly favorable, but after 3 ½ years of playing at WDCH and loving every minute, it’ll be hard for me to be swayed by most any hall I’m likely to encounter for the rest of my career.

The concert was possibly the most expressive of the week and a reviewer for the OC Register noted that Esa-Pekka’s performance was a full 5 minutes longer than his recorded version. Wow! I had vaguely realized that the 2nd movement was very extended, but was so entranced by the beauty of the sound and of the moment that I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. It worked perfectly, conjuring up the most amazing and sumptuous sound from the orchestra. When the piece was over, Salonen leaned back on the podium rail and just looked around quietly at the orchestra, slightly nodding, acknowledging the amazing playing and journey we had just taken together, while the applause and cheers seemed almost from another time in space.

The next day, a small group of players under the banner of the LA Philharmonic New Music Group, started rehearsing Gnarly Buttons with the composer, John Adams conducting. This was a fun romp in a quasi-hoedown-Americana style, complete with banjo, mandolin and guitar. I don’t know how John does it, but he’s always able to evoke certain feelings in his music without once writing an overt reference to them. His El Nino, a Christmas oratorio with texts by Hispanic writers, uses two guitars, steel-string not classical, as you would expect from traditional mezzo-American music, and uses them in ways that are so original and unimaginable that it takes me back in awe every time I’ve played it.

Gnarly Buttons was just pure fun. A difficult piece, demanding in many different ways, but fun…and being able to play a piece like this with the composer at the helm was a very gratifying experience. The concert was sold-out, as more and more new music concerts are here, and proves that Los Angeles has responded to the challenge of expanding its musical envelope. It’s a great time for music here…

February 7, 2007 | 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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