Tom Nagy on the Merchant score

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As Jonathan mentioned in his last post, The Merchant of Venice was a collaboration with local jazz musician Tom Nagy.  Tom wrote a score to accompany the production; here he is talking about the music and the process of putting it all together.


Hello readers!  In this post, I'd like to give you a bit of an overview of the music for this production, and answer a few questions that folks have asked.  I will also scatter a few bits of trivia around that no one has ever publicly disclosed - keep your eyes peeled!

Back in 2014 or so, Jonathan and I chatted at a friend's birthday celebration, and the idea came up about a production of Merchant set in the Jazz Age (loosely defined as the 1920s through the early 40s, though any attempt at a canonical definition will likely come to fisticuffs), with a score to match.  Life took us in interesting directions, and we ended up reconnecting about this in late 2016.  We discussed the concept a few times, and some of the elements came into focus early on – in particular, the concepts for the opening and for the ending pantomime, along with the notions of separate feels for Venice and Belmont.  As well, I took some direction from the music of Benny Goodman – the notion of a Jewish bandleader of the Jazz Age was a perfect match for this production's voice.  As well, Goodman's band was playing music on the cusp of one of the largest transformations in jazz music and culture: the change from traditional Swing to Bebop.  Again, this element paralleled the production's thrust, of examining changing personal and social circumstances, and having one foot in traditional culture while moving ahead into an uncertain future.

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Given the cost of hiring musicians to perform live for a whole theatrical run, the availabilities of most working musicians, and the natural vagaries of live theatre, I decided that a pre-recorded score that could be mixed on the fly would be the best way to proceed.

As part of my background research, I examined compositional and performance styles of the period in question.  The pre-Bebop era is sufficiently different from my usual idiom that I needed to dig into some of the performance and compositional ideas that were common back then.  Ultimately, this became a voyage of discovery as I combed through research papers on bass playing styles of the 1920s, the evolution of the drum kit, and so on.  Often we deliberately disregarded these ideas, but you can hear echoes of them throughout the score: the clarinet and saxophone parts are in a mostly melodic style, the piano often comps like Count Basie did, the guitar sound is often reminiscent of Charlie Christian (with a hard picking style, as though trying to play over a much louder band), the bass plays more repeated notes than usual, the bass drum is hit on every beat (a practice that mostly disappeared in the early 1940s), etc.  The choice of instrumentation was also based on the Benny Goodman small ensemble lineups of the day: clarinet (a instrument common to klezmer and Goodman's music), saxophone, guitar, piano, bass and drums, with voice on a couple of cues.  Brent Rowan, the clarinet and saxophone player, also plays bass clarinet, and this factored into the composition of some of the cues.

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Ultimately, I chose to create three themes or concepts, which weave throughout the score.  The first is a motif that represents Shylock's person, culture, values and history.  My original inclination was to use a melody based in the Hebrew music tradition, but I could not reconcile my use of this music with an underlying theme of this play, that of cultural invalidation and appropriation.  As well, the use of a Hungarian folk melody (heard at the beginnings of the Prelude and pantomime cues) tied in with my own heritage, and implicitly made the points about culture more universal.

The second musical concept is based around the only part of the play that explicitly calls for music: the song "Tell Me Where" in act III, scene ii.  This piece represents decadent, bourgeois Belmont, with its soft, saxophone-based lyricism, and is meant to be reminiscent of the many popular ballads of the 1930s.  I wrote the "Tell Me Where"-derived cues for a full, languid, Lester Young-style of sax playing, which Brent delivered in spades.  Joni NehRita and Jason White perform it fabulously in III-ii.  (Scroll down to the bottom of the post to give it a listen!)

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The third musical concept ties Venice to the 1930s cabaret scene, making a connection with the anti-Semitic regimes of that day, while giving a more upbeat, bustling feel to the city.  This piece is a setting of Shakespeare's song "Under The Greenwood Tree," and it is progressively deconstructed through Acts I and II in the Venice scenes, becoming more and more dissonant and strange as the play progresses.  This devolution culminates in the music for act II, scene viii, which features some digital acrobatics by Dan Beacock on guitar, as he plays an E and Eb, bending the Eb back to an E, all against Brent playing a low E.

Most of the score features bare comping (background accompaniment) with minimal soloing, or very sparse playing – this was intentional, as the purpose of the score is to complement the stage performance and not draw attention to itself.  Nonetheless, there are some stellar soloing moments from all of the players.

After the score was recorded by Jeremy Bernard and Peter Beacock at the Jazz Room over 2 days, Peter took the tracks back to his studio to mix and master.  Two sets of tracks were produced: one for the released score CD (mixed in high-quality stereo and edited for length) and one for the theatre (mixed to sound good in the KWLT space and with extended running times).  The facts that the staging had not been set when we recorded the music, and that every night is different in live theatre, meant that more music had to be recorded than would likely be used, for each cue.  It was during tech weekend prior to opening night that the final running times and mixes were prepared.

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A final bit of the promised trivia: The section at the very end of the pantomime (with Shylock's forced conversion) was improvised on solo saxophone by Brent Rowan.  The extra special sauce in that part was added by audio mage Peter Beacock, who came up with the idea of removing all of the pauses and breaths from that part of the recording.  The result is a disconcertingly frantic 30 seconds that somehow just feels wrong in exactly the right way; just another example of what can be done when you have the right people on your team.

The score CD is available for sale during the performance - please consider buying one to help this musical project come closer to breaking even.  Having said that, there is no way this score could have come close to happening as it did without the financial support of the Region of Waterloo Arts Fund, and the Jazz Room - please support these great organizations in our community!

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