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eNotes, #010
March 03, 2008

eNotes - Monday, March 3, 2008

Hello Everybody!

If you are a new subscriber to eNotes, I would like to welcome you. And for both the new and the old subscribers, you are "in for a treat" (I hate using that overused expression but in this case, I just HAD to).

This eNotes contains a very interesting interview. The interview is with my friend, and former high school student (many years ago) Curtis Moore. Let me tell you a little bit about him. He works in New York as an arranger, writer and producer. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song for the musical "Palindromes" in 2006. He was an artist in residence and multiple grant winner at the Eugene O'Neill National Music Theatre conference and he just finished co-composing and orchestrating a show at Lincoln Center entitled "Cymbeline". He also provided orchestrations and co-produced the Tony award-winning show by Tom Stoppard called "The Coast of Utopia" at Lincoln Center.

I spoke with Curtis, whom I've recently been in touch with for the past 2 years, on the phone about 10 days ago. He had so much to say that I am breaking it down into 2 parts. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed talking with Curtis!

Let's get to it. First, here is his picture.


Debbie: Hi Curtis.

Curtis: Hi Debbie, how are you?

Debbie: Good! I’ve just been on your website getting some information on you.I’ve got a whole list of questions for you. I want to begin our interview by telling everyone how we know each other. I was your high school teacher in Methuen 17 years ago. Since then, you’ve been doing in the music world. So tell everyone what you do.

Curtis: Tough question! I do a lot of things. I’m a composer, orchestrater, arranger, music restoration guy. Since college, I’ve been doing a lot of arranging of shows and theater. Also, I started making my living as a copyist. When I first came to New York after college, I worked for a company that copied all the Broadway shows. Now, I do orchestrating work. I am also a composer and I write and develop new artists. I also write for various projects including my own.

Debbie: You have a show right now at the Lincoln Center called “Cymbaline”

Curtis: It was a play. It just closed. I worked with the composer Mel Marvin. I was the associate composer.

Debbie: How does that work when you are a composer for a play? Is it like a soundtrack to a movie?

Curtis: Yes, it’s basically like a soundtrack for a movie except you are doing it for a play. It’s actually very different from scoring a movie but there are a lot of similarities too. In the case of “Cymbaline”, it’s a stylized Shakespeare piece.

Debbie: Is it an updated, contemporary version of the play?

Curtis: No. It wasn’t a modern interpretation of it. I worked with the composer and helped him realize the score for the piece. He would bring in music sketches and everyone down to the full score that he has written out with all the instruments. Then we would take what we had worked on in the studio using samples and use that in rehearsal. We could then run those cues in the rehearsal. If they were working effectively, then we would go to the studio and hire real musicians and record those cues.

Debbie: Was that a fun project?

Curtis: It was a great project. Lincoln Center is a great theater and a fairly well-endowed non-profit theater. They do great productions. And although they want people to come see their shows, it is not profit-driven. Also, the energy there is fantastic. I worked on “Cymbaline” and last year I worked on “Coast of Utopia”, the Tom Stoppard play.

Debbie: And that play won the Tony Award! I thought of you while I was watching the award show. “Yeah, Curtis!” I was screaming to the television.

Curtis: Yeah, that was great.

Debbie: How do you approach composition? Do you start with melody or chords?

Curtis: Generally, I start with a conceptual idea. Its pretty rare that I sit down and write a piece of music without a context. I work with several collaborators when I write. I work with a lyricist or in some cases, a co-composer/lyricist. We start with a concept for a song or a framework. If we are writing for a pop or rock artist, that is already a huge framework right there. We start with what is the idea of the song? What do we want to talk about? We start with the hook? What is the song about? Is it about saying goodbye? Is it about a relationship that’s ended? Well, then what could be that hook? If it’s saying goodbye, and it’s comparing it to the change of seasons and something in the air. Then maybe it could be “this is the season for saying goodbye”. We might use alliteration. Once we find the “hook” of the song, we’ll work around that and try to write the chorus. This is a general, straightforward, song-writing 101, but it works! And this is the way we do it. In theater, it’s similar. When I write with my collaborater, Tom Mizer, we approach it from a scene point of view. We have a scene written out first as a play. Often we’ll write out the entire scene of a musical as a straight play with dialogue. Then we go in and find where the conflicts are between the characters or one character in their mind because that is a great place to start for a song. We start extracting dialogue and replacing it with a song. A lot of times the hook of the song will come from a line of dialogue.

Debbie: You have written whole musicals haven’t you?

Curtis: Yes. No huge successes yet but hopefully someday. It’s an incredibly long, uphill, but incredibly fun and rewarding journey. Musicals are so hard to put together! I would never recommend it as the first art form to jump into It is so complex to marry together altogether all the elements to make an effective cohesive evening. You have to start with a good story. That alone is hard enough to do. Then on top of that, converting it into a musical…. Musicals are so stylized to begin with. Most people don’t burst into song unless you’re me! When you’re creating a world where people do that, it’s a delicate thing. It amazes me with every show I see how a good writer convinces you that it’s okay to sing.

Debbie: That it seems like people would normally do that!

Curtis: Exactly. And you have no problem with it. And when it’s done badly it’s really bad. So musicals are a really tough thing to write. You have to develop them. You need to see it on it’s feet. You write a version of a show, then you put it up somewhere in a reading or a workshop. You have to see it flow. So development is so critical. Most shows that you have seen on Broadway, like “Wicked” or “Light in the Piazza”, have gone through innumerable amounts of readings and workshops. It generally takes between 5-10 years to get a show to a place where you can see it.

Debbie: Wow, that’s incredible. When we got together in New York last year, you said you love collaboration. For some people, that would be hard.

Curtis: Collaborating it difficult. The key is working with good people and I have been incredibly lucky because I work with good people! The reason I like collaborating is because generally I’m wrong. And it’s good to have someone in the room who can show me those times when I am wrong. When you are working with a collaborator that you trust, that’s the key. You’re open-minded to those experiences of creativity. Sometimes you have an idea in your head that you think is a good idea but you’re kind of nervous about it, and then that idea goes away. When you’re in room collaborating with someone you trust, you can just talk about those ideas, even if it seems really dumb. Two heads are better than one when it comes to this. It’s just so hard to write these pieces.

Debbie: I’ve been writing songs lately and I’ve never written a song with somebody. It seems like it’s so personal. I can’t imagine how that would work.

Curtis: Everything that happens doesn’t happen in the same room, but the bulk of the creative work does happen together. We’ll work together on the theme and story elements.

Part II will be transcribed and sent to you in about 2 weeks.

That's it for now. Shortly, I will be announcing some special offers so keep a look out for them. And check out the website and blog now and then. I am always adding to it with new links, content and classes!

Happy March and as always, let me know if I can help you in your studies of the fantastic world of piano and singing!

Debbie Gruber
Easy Piano Styles

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