January 5, 2010 at 7:29 PM
You know, when I began my professional life I really had no intention of spending as much of it as I have in the recording studios of Hollywood. When I arrived at the USC School of Music in the early seventies I imagined only a life in chamber music, in fact.
The ‘studios’ were something I just kind of fell into; a by-product of life happening.
It all started with a chamber music ‘jam session’ in Topanga Canyon at the infamous ‘Mermaid Tavern’, a popular hangout for musicians and chamber music fans, owned and operated for a number of years by a bassist named Mickey Nadel.
In any case, Mickey took an interest in young players, somehow he’d heard of me through music faculty connections at USC. And I was invited to ‘read’ the Brahms sextets with some of his regulars.
Playing 1st viola on that evening was then principal violist of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Myra Kestenbaum. What a unique and memorable player she was. A tone that was as rich and dark as the finest chocolate and an ability to spin out phrases that stopped time in its tracks.
Well, it seems Myra felt I had some good qualities in my playing as well.
Turns out there was an ‘invitation only’ audition for the LA Chamber Orchestra a couple of weeks after that reading session, and I found myself included in the list.
You know, auditions then were run much differently than they are now. No screens, no extensive repertoire lists; you just showed up, and played.
For me this meant the Bach A Minor solo sonata, a couple movements of the Mozart A Major Concerto, and some sight-reading of quartets with members of the orchestra.
And to my amazement, at the end of the day I was invited to join the orchestra for the following season. I was 18, and a sophomore at USC at the time.
Now the concertmaster was a man by the name of Paul Shure. And as one of the top concertmasters in Hollywood, Paul had quite a bit of influence in who was called for ‘session work’.
Now let me digress on this for just a moment. Prior to 1963 each of the major recording studios, and even some large radio syndicates, had fully contracted orchestras much like the major symphonies of today. After a watershed strike in 1963, however, all those contracts went away.
You were now only as good as the contractor, concertmaster, composer, or music supervisor THOUGHT you were.
So much for job security.
There was a bit of a silver lining in this change, however. At the same time this new system went into effect a few savvy negotiators for the musicians had the great foresight to bargain for the ‘special payment’ provisions we enjoy today; essentially what amount to royalty payments extending through the copyright life of a film.
Now the producers have regretted this little ‘bone’ to the musicians every since. And this is why you will RARELY see the names of musicians listed in the screen credits of films.
I’ll take the checks, thank you very much.
Getting back to my little personal history, Paul soon began having contractors call on me when their favored players were unavailable. At first I was called for television scoring most frequently as its pay scales and residual payments are less than film, typically. My recording teeth were cut on ‘Dallas’, the ‘Waltons’, ‘Columbo’, the ‘Carol Burnett Show’ and the like, though I did get included on sessions for some blockbusters as well. ‘Omen II’, ‘Swarm’, and ‘Rocky II’ come to mind.
Now these television dates were often no piece of cake, I might add. Being weekly serials they did not have budgets for large sections, and a great of music had to be recorded quickly. There were times, in fact, were there wasn’t a chance to even play through the music. We just went right to tape, and on to the next chart.
In such an exposed environment you had to be a very fine sight-reader, able to blend with other players, and very adept at staying with a ‘click’ – that’s the little metronome that often comes through headsets to the musicians, keeping everyone together.
Make a habit of sticking out and you could find yourself fielding far fewer calls on that new ‘streamline’ phone that had just come into fashion.
Another flourishing aspect of recording at that time was the record business. Disco was the rage in the ‘70s, and LA was ground zero for all the production done for it. It was also the recording local of choice for the likes of such pop greats as Barbra Streisand, Kenny Loggins, Neil Diamond, the Eagles, Michael Jackson and many, many others.
Well, I guess you could say I was at the right place at the right time, or the wrong place at the right time, depending on your view of popular culture.
In any case, the studio scene in Los Angeles, and indeed the whole country, has changed dramatically in recent years. These days we live in a global marketplace where a director can sit in on a live scoring session in Prague from the comfort of his own living room in Beverly Hills.
Popular music styles have changed, CD sales have slackened, and today computer software can more than adequately replace an entire orchestra in the ears of many an artist and producer.
In the electronic age studio orchestras gradually replaced contract theatre orchestras. In the digital age ‘sampled’ orchestras are moving to do the same with recording orchestras.
There are those, happily, who still do appreciate the difference that living, breathing musicians bring to the art of film. Stephen Speilberg is one who will not have anything BUT a live orchestra providing the music for his films. The folks at Pixar are much the same.
Yet the trend toward a smaller pie, and that divided amongst a growing base of players, may not be reversed anytime soon.
I was fortunate to have the bulk of my playing career in Hollywood in the last century. My heart goes out to many of my younger colleagues in Los Angeles. A ‘freelancer’s’ life was never particularly easy, now the uncertainty that accompanies it is truly daunting indeed.
All the best,
What an interesting post! And, how times have changed. My son works in tv production in Hollywood and recently attended a scoring session with a fairly large orchestra of about 40 instruments, including what he described as a bunch "screeching violins." My first thought was that I could screech as well as the next person on violin, and maybe I should quit my day job and go to Hollywood.
Mr. Haslop, Where did you receive your early training?
A very interesting story. Thank you so much for sharing this insider's view of music in Hollywood.
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