Musical Direction for Genre-Based Long Form Improv

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Introduction

At “The Right To Be Funny” festival last month, the cast decided to end the festival with a “Tarantino Night”.    When I asked how they would like that MD-ed (MD standing for Musical Direction) they went “Oh lots of surf guitar music.  Or maybe vampire music.  Or Ennio Morricone.  Or Nazi songs.”   I scratched my head.  In this post I’ll explain how I went about that performance.

In the cast you will recognize among others Jeron Dewulf, Jacob Bannigan, Inbal Lori, Alan Cox, Javier Pastor & Bill Barberis.

The Format

Let me first explain the format, which is not limited to “Tarantino” – you can do this format for whatever genre you like.  Here’s how it works:

  • This is a 2-part performance.
  • First part, before the intermission, starts with audience suggestions.  You’ll need a whiteboard or flipchart to get them down, because you’ll need lots of them (I’d say 20 is a good target).  You basically ask the audience what is typical for the genre you’re going to play.  For Tarantino we got suggestions like: Western, Surf Music, Violence, Drug Dealers, Silly discussions about topics not even worth a discussion, Swords, Nazi’s, Gangsters, 70s music, etc.
  • First half is then scenes based on those suggestions.  These scenes should take place in the middle of a story; each scene it’s own story, and the stories should not be connected.  Consider this like a montage of fragments of different movies of the genre.
  • After the intermission we are going to see one movie (or story).  The audience gets to vote on which scene in the first part they want to see the full version of.   During the intermission we made a list of all the scenes we played, so we could remind the audience.  The scene the audience picks is first replayed, as well as we can remember it.  After that, the story starts for real; the idea being that we’ll see this scene in the middle of the performance.

MD-ing the format

Music is obviously pretty important in most Tarantino movies.  I had 24 hours to prepare and although my workstation is capable of doing a whole band or orchestra, it is a complex machine and programming it takes time.  I did not have a bunch of surf programs at hand.  Let alone “vampire music”.   Hence I suggested I DJ (part of) the performance, and the group – looking a bit puzzled – said, OK sure whatever.

I took an afternoon and sampled 40-ish “Tarantino songs”.  I did use a couple of classics, like Bang Bang (he shot me down – used in Kill Bill), Little Green Bag (used in Reservoir dogs) and Misirlou (the opening song for Pulp Fiction), but also music Tarantino never used but which I figured he might have.   For example Loving You is Easy ‘Cause You’re Beautiful by Minnie Repperton.  I made sure I had some western movie music (Ennio Morricone!), plenty of soul and just plain loud distortion guitars which I figured would be good to underscore violent scenes.

I loaded those into my Korg Kronos workstation, mapped every sample to a key, and used the Kronos Set List feature to help me find back the songs easily.  A picture of what that looks like below.  The set list slots indicate the key on the keyboard the sample was mapped to.

You’ll see the song names in the slots (here 0-16); the description and key name it at the top. So C4# would play the Pulp Fiction theme song.

The way we performed it was the following.  For the first half:

  • Short scenes based on the suggestions were played
  • I would edit away the scenes with music that fit the scene, after which the next scene would start.  
  • For some scenes I used the samples to underscore.  That was the case for e.g. a rather graphic vampire scene.

During the second half I used a combination of improvised music, mainly on bass guitar, sometimes with a bit of percussion added in, as well as some of the samples.

The show was a blast!   At the end of the story, all characters died quite dramatically.  I underscored that with a loop of Loving You – the Lalalala part if you’re familiar with the song.  I have no pictures or video, except for the post-show group shot at the top of this post 😦 .

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