Pharrell Williams: Happy arr. Christopher Bill

Every so often I find a difficult time in choosing what to write about. It usually happens when I coincidentally get too busy to really devote any valuable time researching artists/composers/pieces for the blog and Friday rolls by at light speed and nothing's been done.

This entry was supposed to be about J.J. Johnson.

It also was supposed to be done by Friday.

If you're keeping score we're down by 2 and in overtime. This happened a lot when I was a teacher as you may be (or probably aren't) aware that teachers get squat when it comes to time to actually plan anything useful. Fortunately, there are those in our society who dictate what teachers are actually supposed to do without requiring them to think. But that's a topic for a much more cynical and jaded blog than this one.

Today we're "Happy" courtesy of Pharrell Williams (b. 1973) who is proclaimed by Wikipedia to be "an American singer-songwriter, rapper, record producer, musician, and fashion designer," which is an actual job title somewhere in the world.  

Williams released this single which became almost instantly a chart-topping hit worldwide. Accompanying the tune is a 24 hour music video, which www.24hoursofhappy.com purports to be the world's first 24 hour long music video. Basically, the song is looped continuously while a camera follows random people around, which sounds kinda fun.

In reality, it's somewhat like being stuck on "It's a Small World" for an entire day.

We feed on the boredom of small children.
Anyway, the song (like most top 40 stuff) is a little more than its deliciously catchy hook, and basically everything you'd expect from a tune called "Happy", just fun without much depth.

Much like this blog.

One thing I did pick up in listening to it was that Williams does possess a very lyrical tenor voice that just floats along in a wonderfully trombone-like tapestry.  I found myself thinking each time I heard it (which was a lot because Clear Channel and iHeartRadio won't stop playing a song until it's beyond dead) that this would be excellent fodder for a transcription for trombone ensemble.

It turns out I was right.

Enter Christopher Bill (b. ?), a trombonist out of New York who has grown in popularity by producing clever covers of top 40 hits and releasing them, performed by himself, onto YouTube.  His most recent one of Williams' tune has garnered a lot of attention on FaceBook and the like, however he has numerous on his website at www.classicaltrombone.com and here's the really cool part, the arrangements are 100% free.

Of course, there is a recommended donation.  After all, Mr. Bill is in fact a student at New York's SUNY Purchase Conservatory of Music and probably could use the scratch. To me, it's especially enthralling to see a classically-trained musician, let alone trombonist, using his talents to reach into the large audience share of popular music. Throughout my time co-existing with such types as "trombone jocks" and other titans of the performance factories of the world, I often noted their inherent disdain for anything less than your standard Hindemith or Mahler.  I think it does a disservice to musicians and music alike.

So, Mr. Bill strives (perhaps inadvertently, I don't know the guy personally) to establish some sort of bridge here between hither and yon. I am reminded of a recent FaceBook post I observed regarding a video of Britney Spears having some sort of lip sync meltdown.  I also think back to the Red Hot Chili Peppers and their so-called debacle at the Super Bowl and any other innumerable instances where a professional musician has been called out on using any number of digital aids.

There are many sides to this issue.

To dissect it a bit, we have to analyze the fact that live performance and recorded performance are two very different and very disparate animals.  What sounds good live, may not (and often doesn't) translate well to recording.  Since the wax cylinder, man has been trying to achieve that holy grail of audio medium that will reproduce live performance with such astounding quality so as to make God himself weep.

By the same token, transferring what sounds good on an album to a live performance is not always a feasible task either.  Often times when recording, you're dealing with numerous takes, isolation booths that split the group apart, different microphone placements that hinder mobility and that's all before it's processed through a digital audio workstation.  After that occurs you have literally millions of tweaks and effects that can be applied to adjust the sound of the track to absolute aural perfection, a process that can literally take months to complete.

Now in today's world, we are experiencing a blur of the digitally altered reality of the album track and the gritty analog of the real world.  More and more musicians are using digital effects in live environments and with that comes a sense that the performance is somehow more artificial than before.

Couple things:

Well, just the one thing I guess.
The music industry is by all intents and purposes a consumer-driven market.  If a song doesn't sell, or generate hits, radio stations don't play it because they won't attract an audience to pay their advertisers. That doesn't even get into ticket sales, but if no one listens online or over the air it's not going to be played at the super bowl.

Now, the whole RHCP unplugged thing was a result of nothing more than the environment.  When you're playing to a 100,000 seat stadium you are going to be playing hell with sound delay.  Since we live and operate in a medium within which sound travels significantly slower than does light, this becomes a concern in larger venues, especially when you factor in that somehow that mix has got to be set up to go live to 5 million viewers as well.

So, take your gritty analog live product, amplify the hell out of it through some crazy digital signal processing miracle to reduce the echo delay from the fact that your audience is sitting 100 yards from your speakers and then pile on the crap salad the fact that you've got to go live audio to the biggest audience in the entire history of mankind?

So what if Flea didn't plug his bass in?

In order to give you, the listener, the CD-ready product you demand and expect, there are sacrifices that have to be made.  It's up to you if it's worth the perceived sacrifice in musicianship and/or performance value.  I don't really know if it's right or wrong, because I'm more of the mindset of what matters at this point is the product.  Because our analog and digital worlds are colliding like two neutron stars, there's not a solid place to stand in order to make an accurate judgement of whether it's less musical for someone to play along to a track of themselves.  I would posit that so long as they made the track themselves, what's the difference?

Enter Mr. Bill and his charming YouTube videos.  In his "Happy" cover, he utilizes a digital looping device that he records each portion of the song about 4-8 bars at a time and then loops it in a very specific order under him playing new components that he adds intermittently throughout the track.  It requires no shortage of dexterity and timing to get it to work right.

Also, he has to actually play the trombone too.

Now, what you're hearing is anywhere from 0-100% of him actually playing while you're watching. But it's 100% him, just recorded.  And for that matter, you're watching him on a recording too.  So, what's the difference?

Now, you may be saying, "Well, the Chicago Symphony doesn't use digital effects when they play Brahms 4, so this guy is out of line."  OK, they don't.  But when they record Brahms 4, you can bet your ass there's an engineer that's editing the absolute pants off those tracks so that the final product will sound as immaculate as everyone says the CSO actually is (which is not a dig, the CSO is awesome).

My point is, if a piece of music or a specific performance means something to one person, then what difference does it make whether or not it's "real" or "artificial"?  If it means nothing to you, then it's no harm done if you don't listen to it, but all it takes is just making one person happy.

See you next Friday.


http://www.classicaltrombone.com GO VISIT THIS MAN'S SITE RIGHT NOW!