Last week I got a text from a trumpet player I haven’t spoken to in a while:
“Hey Tubadan, this is Adam. How’s it going? Want to do a recording session on tuba on Saturday in the afternoon for 2 hours with charts already made up?”
The price was right, and I had the afternoon free, so it was a no-brainer. I wrote back and told him sure.
As the day approached I went through my typical worry over the unknown. I didn’t know anything about the artist I’d be recording for or who else would be on the session. What if the charts were too challenging? What if they didn’t like my sound? These sorts of things don’t actually happen to me, but I suppose I do like to torture myself to some extent.
Then the day before, Adam contacted me to confirm. I asked him what we’d be recording for. His response:
“It’s for some score for an IMAX movie or something along those lines.”
This was intriguing and posed more questions than it answered, but I was game for whatever came up. While I worry when I don’t know the full situation, I also feel liberated, since there’s nothing I can really do to prepare except be in good shape for the session. So I made sure to practice regularly a few days in advance, trying to keep the whole range of my instrument comfortable and in good tone.
On Saturday I arrived at the studio, which was in a back room of a club in town. I had played at the club multiple times, but never knew there was a recording studio. I met the engineer Peter and the film producer/creator Rich, who told me about his project Watermelon Magic. It’s a story of a family on a farm and a young girl’s learning about the magic of plants growing. It has a funny quirky story with some nice educational components as well.
The crazy thing about the film is that it is made completely from still photographs. As Rich explained to me, IMAX films are extremely expensive to make, in part because the cameras used have to film at an extremely high resolution. Ordinary video cameras can’t manage this, but high end digital cameras can. So Rich exploited this loophole to make his film out of still shots run together quick enough to give the illusion of motion. He also used time-lapse photography to show the growth of the plants. Even though these were done as a series of stills as well, he ran these at a much higher frame rate so it actually does look like a movie. The result is a film that can be shown in an IMAX theater that cost significantly less than a typical IMAX movie to make.
Back to where I fit in, Rich and Peter explained that they wanted to have some real horns on the soundtrack. At that time, they had only used MIDI to create virtual and sampled instruments, but they were looking for something more real. There was a particular section that warranted live instruments and they also wanted some horn cues to play some of the incidental music for the film. Then they shook things up a bit when they told me that the parts would be completely improvised (despite the message Adam had sent) and that the only players would be myself and Adam on trumpet. So much for worrying that I couldn’t play the parts!
Peter set up the microphones and Adam and I got ready to play the first sequence. There was an African drumbeat over a scene of the main character building a fence, and Rich was looking for a nice groove to be played over it. They turned the video monitor so we could see it as we played, and we laid down a few takes. It had been a while since I played with Adam, but he is a phenomenal player with great sensibilities for melody and feel, so recording was easy and really fun. Once we found a style we liked we did a few more takes, and then Adam overdubbed playing just his mouthpiece over our favorite take.
Afterwards, we each recorded a few of the movie cues individually. I would watch the film playing and add in what I thought would be a good soundtrack to it on the tuba, then Adam took his turn. Lastly, we planned out a few “cliche” cues (like the sad trombone for instance) together and played through them. We each came up with a few good ones, including a chromatic descent a tritone apart, a quick little march, and then a minor slower version of the same march. After just about every take, Adam and I would crack up at what we were doing.
We listened back to some of what we recorded before packing up and going our separate ways. I had a smile on my face the rest of the day thinking about how much fun I had exercising my creativity. Certainly I’m a part of an industry that involves creative thought in so many areas, but it’s not often as raw and intuitive as what we had recorded that day. It certainly helped that Rich and Peter had both ideas for directions we could go, as well as the experience and foresight to let us experiment and find what worked. I can’t remember the last time I had this much fun in the studio (apologies to everyone I’ve recorded with ever).
In addition to being a beacon of positivity, this experience also reminded me of all the exciting and creative endeavors that people are doing that fall under the radar. Musicians are exploring new subjects and new ways of expressing them. Visual artists are creating innovative approaches to expression in a variety of media. Filmmakers are finding ways to reinvent their craft. Authors are introducing unique perspectives of the world around them and of their own boundless imaginations. These are gifts to be thankful for every day. I’m just as guilty when I allow exhaustion (or laziness) keep me from discovering the next new thing, but we owe it to ourselves and our fellow humans to continue to explore our own imaginations and to support and encourage those who are doing the same. Take that chance to be a part of the art community by participating, supporting, or both, and you’ll soon discover that watermelons aren’t the only things that are magic.