Pops Palette

This Saturday night, my group the Rats & People Motion Picture Orchestra play a new kind of show for us. In addition to serving as a kind of "house band" for a burlesque revue, we're playing a new original score for a short film that we ourselves did not compose. These past few weeks' practices and rehearsals for Saturday night's show have been really different from what we as a group have been accustomed - instead of taking cues and direction from ourselves, we've taken cues and direction from performers and composers with whom we've never worked before. It's been a pleasant and very new experience for us, perhaps not unlike when visiting composers and performers work with an established "symphony orchestra." I like to pretend it's not unlike that, anyway.

Kevin O'Connor is the visiting composer (and our visiting conductor, for that matter). Kevin plays drums in the band 7 Shot Screamers. They're a rockabilly band that's been around quite a while as bands go, and are quite well-known around the country. You may have heard of 7 Shot Screamer's lead singer's alter ego, Clownvis. Anyway, Kevin wrote a score for us to accompany Buster Keaton's One Week. In addition to the regular R&P MPO lineup, Kevin plays the drum kit (and conducts us) and Kevin's 7 Shot band mate Chris Powers plays upright bass.

Kevin composed a percussively kinetic and melodically freewheeling score to One Week that's perfect for the action on the screen. One Week was Keaton's first release on his own as a filmmaker. One gets the feeling when watching One Week that Keaton threw in dozens of sight gags and set pieces that he had been saving up for quite a while. With One Week, Keaton finally had the opportunity to film them. The visuals are non-stop action, and Kevin's non-stop score complements the action wonderfully. What better composer for such a complementary accompaniment than the drummer for a high-energy rockabilly band?

Kevin's score to One Week also is heavily jazz-inflected, the effect (and affect) of which works wonderfully both for the film and for this Saturday night's overall program. R&P MPO mostly know classical, but we gave it a shot. The result of us playing the jazz inflections sounds pretty close (I think) to a pops-style "jazz" of the 1920s ... classical squareness swung.

The 1920s pops-style continues in our accompaniment of the burlesque portions of the program. We've arranged three songs to perform with Lola Von Ella and friends: "Button Up Your Overcoat," "Smile," and "He Needs Me." Two are from the 20s and one is from the 80s, but we're performing them all in that 1920s pops style. Hopefully we'll musically complement the evening's theme: "The Golden Age ... Live on Stage."

Given the R&P MPO's conscious avoidance of "period" music when accompanying "period" films, it's been a new and sometimes challenging experience to rehearse and to arrange consciously "period" music. It's also been a lot of fun. Every song and every style has something to teach you as a composer and as a musician. No doubt our work in rehearsing and arranging the music for Saturday's show will inform our future and less consciously "period" music. Some of that 1920s pops style surely will be part of our future compositional palette.

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