My wife, Mirette, and I re-watched The Matrix recently after not seeing it for many years. I’m glad to say the film mostly holds up well, especially the outstanding score from Don Davis. One scene sparked an interesting discussion this morning: the moment where Neo finally truly accepts that the Matrix is an illusion, and he stops the bullets fired by the bad guy Agents in mid-air.
Mirette suggested we each think of a time when we had done the same in our lives – accomplished something “impossible” because we believed otherwise. I wasn’t sure I could come up with anything. Then I remembered this.
Trouble in Tennesee
Many years ago a piece I’d composed was chosen as the theme for The Nashville Network after a competition involving companies from New York and Nashville. The agency decided to hire a Nashville company – one of the losing competitors – to arrange and produce my piece to keep it as authentically Nashville as possible. So, I was surprised when the agency producer, Chris McHale, called me and asked me to come to Nashville as a consultant. I mean, I thought my job was done. Why did they even want me there? But my big brother, Sam Levine, a great multi-reed player and respected contractor, lived there and I could visit with him. So, to Music City I flew, prepared to be bored.
And I was – for awhile. The production company had two days to record three different arrangements of the piece including a 120, 60, 30, 20, 15, 10, and 5 sec. version of each, 21 versions total. They were recording in layers and started with drums. So, for several hours, I sat there listening to a backbeat. Then they began to overdub a bass. “Wow,” I thought. “They must have really rearranged this – this bass line doesn’t make any sense with what I wrote.” But I kept quiet because, after all, it was no longer my gig.
But as additional instruments were added, it got more and more unfamiliar. Finally, Chris turned to me and asked me, straight up, if it was my piece. I answered truthfully, “no”. It turned out to be the composition the production company’s writer had written that was rejected by the client. I have no idea what they were thinking – maybe that once it was done they could convince the agency to go with their better idea? At any rate, Chris fired them on the spot.
But now we had a problem. We had one day left to do two days of recording. Even worse – there were no arrangements.
Doing The Math
I met with Sam for dinner and outlined the problem. His conclusion was rational and immediate: “It’s impossible.” He asked, how could we possibly get all the arrangements written and copied, in all their various lengths by a 10 a.m. downbeat the next day? Without thinking, I said, “We will because we have to.”
We worked out a plan: I would write three master 2 min. pieces that were designed to be edited into all the other versions. Now these days with digital editing and time compression, it’s a lot easier, but then it had to be done the old fashioned way: score paper, a soft-lead pencil, and a lot of algebra involving beats per minute.
I got to work immediately after dinner. Sam booked the studio, a singer, and a 10 piece band. As planned, the copyist came to Sam’s house at 4 am to start his work as I continued mine. This was pre-Finale so it was all by hand. Somehow, by 9:59, all parts were written and copied.
We no longer had the luxury of layered recording. We had to record everyone at the same time, as quickly as possible. We played down the first piece – and it was a disaster. Nothing was jelling. We did pass after pass and it wasn’t working. I tweaked this and that and the players fixed some things without even telling me. Punch-in options were few and too time consuming – it had to be played right top to bottom. Finally, miraculously, we got a take! Chris turned to the engineer and eagerly snapped, “Play that back!” The engineer looked up, surprised, and answered in the slowest of all southern drawls, “You wanted me to record that?” It turned out that in Nashville the convention was that you never rolled tape unless you were absolutely sure you were ready to record because each time you did it wore out the tape a little. “Record everything from now on!” Chris said quietly but clearly, in a herculean display of cool.
Amazingly, we got it all done. It ran for years. And even though I was paid well, my best payment was learning to distrust the word “impossible” even when offered with the best of intentions. Sometimes, you can stop bullets in mid-air.
So, do you have a stopping bullets story? One in which something should have stopped you dead but you managed to accomplish it anyway? I’d love to hear it.