Tuesday, June 05, 2001

Electro Art Jams with Philharmonic Strings

When I finally assumed something approximating a degree of professional and technical studio competence I began to collaborate on a number of sonic art projects with both Chris Fosdick and Michael Sweet (both of them assistants and engineers to record producer and film composer, Jonathan Elias).

For a song I wrote, called ‘Return to Zero’, I asked Michael to record me singing from Studio A where I was making a phone call back studio B, where the mix was running. I always loved the thin sound of trebly mono. Must have something to do with growing up with Panasonic cassette decks. Sure, you could dispense with the phone system and simply EQ a normal vocal take that way, but would it be half as fun as routing a call across the county before it cycled back to you to catch on Analog tape? No.

Experimenting with inventive recording techniques taught me a lot about practical hands-on music production. And it was on these personal musical projects that I tried and tested out techniques, singers, and new musical talent before introducing them or the Creative Director or to the compositional staff, which I might do by way of a recommendation for a commercial job. 

How did this sound in practice? I once walked into a room full of clients and creatives wracking their minds how to fill a few seconds of black with audio, and nothing was working. But, “Hey, I was recording 24 Buddhist monks chanting last night, and it was kind of cool. Why don’t we try that!” Cut to award winning TV commercial on air 3 weeks later featuring 24 monks (1 singer, 23 overdubs) voicing ‘OM’.

In the process, I became acquainted with the talents of –and made friends with– many of the session musicians and singers that I would work with throughout the rest of my career. Valerie Wilson Morris of Val's Artist Management and Sandra Park Tremante who played violin at the New York Philharmonic were early supporters, and they also gave me good career advice along the way, too.

So, although the experimental songs and sonic landscapes I created over many long nights never evolved beyond demos, they did much to increase my technical ability and inform my aesthetic approach. Today when I listen to those recordings I feel the same thrill now I did then, when I stood next to amazing musicians and colleagues lending their talents to my work in order to help me grow and and get better at my craft. 

To name a few: Doug Hall’s Hammond B-3 and Fritz Doddy’s funky bass kicking off ‘Outer Space’; Alexander Lasarenko’s ambient piano intro at the top of ‘Never Going Back To Earth’, and his lush harmonies throughout ‘The Strangest Boy’; Sandy Park’s psycho pizzicato and Valerie’s ethereal vocals floating just under the stoic sentiment of ‘Return to Zero’. Chip Jenkins, Chris Fosdick, Eric Schermerhorn, Kerry Smith, Ben Sher and Alton Delano all provided amazing guitar work throughout my entire repertoire.

I had a real penchant for space age themes back then, but the music was also always flavored with the terrestrial world rhythms that had served as the soundtrack to my childhood spent overseas.

While Brian Eno may be a human touchstone for many electronic musicians today, Jonathan Elias’ pop aesthetics were skewed somewhere between Peter Gabriel and Trevor Horn, which were closer to my own sensibilities, as well.

In retrospect, I think Elias attracted people who shared a similar taste, that is, drawn to global and technological hybrids, of which I was certainly one by virtue of my penchant for using computers to mix tribal percussion with pop harmonies –and that was probably one reason that our mutual composition professor (Joel Chadabe) sent me knocking on Jonathan's door in the first place.

While the world of polished music production for broadcast may not have been quite in sync with the American grunge zeitgeist of the time, those years at Elias Arts proved to be a great personal opportunity to seek out and work with global trend setters in music from Brazil and Kenya to China and the Caribbean, and certainly more interesting than, you know, well, just about everything.

I saw myself in motion pictures
Standing in the melting snow
If you believe in hallucinations
I'll give you some place to go

Return to, return to zero
I don't know, I don't know
If I can... 

Y'know, I'm just one man...

Return to Zero
(C)1994 by Terry O'Gara

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