Lemony Snicket Memoir


A Memoir

Wow, what a day!

Today was that “rare” day when I felt the essence of what being a real studio musician is–and should be. I was proud to be a part of this group and proud to be able to keep up with them. The business is very slow. Things just happen to be slow for everyone but, like a typical paranoid studio musician, I was wondering if my career was over! The last minute call reminded me of the date I did (as a sub for Tommy Johnson) for John Williams for the Conversation in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. That was 28 years ago.

The contractor, Leslie Morris, called me just last night to do a session with Tom Newman today at Paramont. It turned out to be one of my most memorable recording sessions. The were only five musicians, Frank Marocco on Accordion, George Doering on Guitars and other strings, Sid Page, Violin and Stroh Viol, Mike Fisher, Percussion, and me on my Yamahas–CC Tuba (“Monica”) and F Tuba (“The Bitch”). I was the only bass instrument!

Like “The Conversation”, it was a pre-scoring session for the upcoming fantasy movie Lemony Snicket. We were to create music for surreal bands, dancers and singers who were performing on camera. The entire day was improvised. They wanted music that was both like familiar music but also “out”.

We started off by the entire group of musicians, composer, engineer and all the studio staff taking a guided tour of the movie set–there on the Paramount lot. This has never happened to me before. Most of the time the music is put on after the shooting is finished. The purpose was for the musicians to get the sense of the set and the quirky nature of the production and, hopefully, to translate that into how we would “create” the music. The set was huge–10 sound stages. They were incredibly real looking–a very large, rundown Victorian mansion, a leafy garden, a sort of turn of the (last) century small town street in perspective. To me the impression was of a slightly skewed but somewhat familiar place.

I am reminded of all the talented and creative people that work making movies. LA is truly an exciting place for ideas to flourish….the best artistic minds in all of the arts and crafts collaborate here to make the best movies–set designers, computer geniuses, painters, technicians, carpenters, electricians, lighting people as well as the writers, directors, producers and actors and musicians. Their talents are seen (and heard) by (literally) billions of people–all over the world.

We went back to the scoring stage and Tom Newman began by singing an idea for a song as we took notes and suggested chord changes and grooves. It was like we were all co-composers. Then we improvised “takes” of the music in several versions with very little rehearsal–mostly talking over the roadmap and turning on the red light.

Then Tom asked us for ideas of “somewhat” recognizable pieces that we could play kind of weirdly. First we did a virtuostic accordion solo that Frank taught to us by rote.

He is a most amazing musician. Then I played the Clarinet Polka on solo tuba and taught the changes and format to the others. Tom suggested the Lohengrin 3rd Act Prelude. I knew it, played the tuba melody and taught it to the others. Finally we did a kind nutty song for singers to overdub. Everything was by ear, by rote and improvised.

All those years and experiences as a bass player and as a Trad Jazz tuba player really paid off on a day like today. I felt alive as a musician. As a tuba player so much of the classical and studio music I do is boringly simple. We develop our selves to play virtuostic solos and spend our lives playing oom pah or counting rests. But today I got to use my ears and my imagination. I was listening and “playing off” the others and they with me. For several numbers I was the bass instrument where time, precision and good notes are essential. For others I was the melody.

All in all I left on a musical high that, for me, is a rare experience on a studio call. I can’t wait to see how our music is used in the film and to see how unusual and interesting this movie must be. Tom says the rest of the score will be recorded sometime this summer.

Jim Self

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