July 2003

Conversation with Bruce Dukov: Happy Birthday Variations and more

July 31, 2003 14:35

What happens to a person’s head after Juilliard, Dorothy Delay, and more than 1,000 T.V. and movie soundtracks? Hear for yourself at http://www.brucedukov.com/Music/Music1.asp.

Bruce Dukov is the king concertmaster of the studios here in LA and has been the concertmaster of the Hollywood Bowl Symphony since 1991. He also has put a sassy new face on several of our favorite violin tunes from the last few centuries.

“They are very irreverent treatments of some of the major violin works,” Dukov said, speaking to me on a break from a recording session at Todd-AO in Studio City, Calif. The one that actually made me burst out with laughter was “For Kreisler’s Sake.” Perhaps it’s because I recently went through several arduous months of teaching this to a teenage student. Or it could be because of the groovy electric guitar, disco beat, the micro-chorus, and the feeling that I was listening to an early-80s T.V. show theme.

Dukov played his arrangement of “Happy Birthday,” (imagine a duel between Paganini and Wieniawski) in New York with Itzhak Perlman for Nathan Milstein’s 80th birthday party. You can actually buy that arrangement over the Internet at http://www.brucedukov.com/main/birthday1.asp . Of course, you and your partner will have to dust off your Paganini chops if you want to play it, even the second violin part.

“Neither violin is in a preferred position,” Dukov said. “The music itself is challenging, you have to be an accomplished player to do it.”

Dukov added another “Happy Birthday” variation for Henri Temianka's 80th birthday. Temianka was in the Paganini Quartet and founded the California Chamber Symphony. Dukov was inspired to write the new variation by Temianka’s recording of the Wieniawski “Scherzo Tarantelle.”

“It’s one of the fastest versions you’ve ever heard in your life,” he said of that recording.

Also on the menu at Dukov’s Web site are: “Meowski,” with excerpts from the Wieniawski Concerto folded into a mewing conglomeration of synth over a funky bass. Or the somewhat manic “Viva Vivaldi,” the “Four Seasons” accompanied by a drumbeat, lightly wailing soprano and weird wandering into Scheherazade that, strangely, fits right in. Or “Sad Song Rondo,” with Saint-Saens' “Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso” sounding like a slow jaunt on the moon, ending in a duet with a space alien.

It’s hard to believe Dukov has time for such diversion, prolific recording artist that he is. He averages about 60 projects a year. His latest include a Harry Connick Christmas album, a Barbra Streisand album and the “Hulk” movie -- which he hasn't seen yet.

“It’s very disappointing for us,” he said, “we get to see the film in the wrong order. Very rarely do they record it in the order of the film.”

Lately, the life of a studio musician has been a little harder in LA. “Over the last five years, the volume of work has dropped,” Dukov said. Whereas there used to be 60 to 75 films a year, he said, these days it’s dropped off to about 40.

“Now, because markets are so global, we are faced with tremendous competition overseas,” Dukov said. For example, a director may choose to score a film in Hungary. “It may take two weeks to do it there, whereas we’re used to doing it in four days here,” but one has to pay for that kind of efficiency. “The LA studio musicians are the best around. If you get a Rolls Royce, you have to pay.”

Even within the LA studios, the amount of time it takes to record a score varies from composer to composer.

“Some composers are very meticulous,” and take a great deal of time, he said. But time is money, when it comes to hiring an LA recording orchestra. “It can be in two sessions if there are budgetary constraints. That’s hard to do. But we just crank it out, and we have to be very scrupulous about it. We always play the best we can.”

What he means is that they have to be absolutely top-notch sight-readers, as “the best we can” doesn’t allow for practice time. You go to the gig, sit down in front of the music and play for the record. No rehearsals, no music in advance.

“When you are sitting concertmaster, you get a couple of seconds to look at the solo, then the light goes on and you have to start,” Dukov said. “You have to make it sound like you’ve had it for weeks.”

Some of those solos are hard, too. Studio music is not all whole notes and runs, as rumor would have it. For example, Danny Elfman, who composed scores for “Batman” and for “Hulk.”

“He writes impossibly difficult passages for violin,” Dukov said. But it’s beautiful music, even if some of it gets covered up by sound effects, he said. “He also did a magnificent job in ‘Red Dragon,’” Dukov said of Elfman.

Dukov’s first big studio gig in LA was playing for Bruce Broughton’s “Silverado” score. Soon after that was “Cocoon,” by James Horner, has come to be one of Dukov’s favorite film composers. Horner also scored “Titanic,” and “A Beautiful Mind.” He described “A Beautiful Mind” as being an especially interesting project. “At one point he had four pianos on four corners of the stage,” he said. The effect was wonderful.

Dukov said that he has found his life as a recording artist to be fun and fulfilling. Think about it – here is one place where the orchestra plays nothing but new music!

“I love it,” he said. “It’s different all the time – you have variety.”

Okay, I’m going to go listen to “Meowski” again!

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July 30, 2003 13:59

A few months ago I got myself a mandolin -- something to play just for fun.

I have a different relationship with my mandolin than I have with my violin. My violin has been my lifelong companion, burden, joy...My initial excitement with it has mellowed over 25 years into an abiding friendship, with mutual respect. My technique has been hard-won. I know better than to grab my fiddle by the neck and plow into my favorite tune. We warm up with scales, without fail, and proceed thoughtfully, with care, until we're going full steam.

But my mandolin is new, and despite what I know about technique-building, I just wanna play, man! I don't want to practice picking on open strings. I don't want to figure out chords, watch my fingers so they land just behind the frets (frets? whatever for?), sit up straight while I'm playing, learn a piece of music note-by-note. I wanna strum! Play in a band! Play the blues! Jam!

It can't be that hard. I play the violin after all. Now *that's* hard. The hardest instrument there is, right? Harder than the mandolin, right? Right?


Now, where to begin? How about with pick technique...open E's and A's...

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July 29, 2003 12:03

Practicing actually works!

This was what my six-year-old daughter realized for the first time in her life yesterday, and it was a pretty amazing moment for me as well. Up until now, she has held the suspicion that playing the violin is impossible. It’s a suspicion supported by a lot of real-life evidence, as we all know!

I can imagine her thoughts: "Holding the violin is hard. It kind of hurts. Holding the bow is hard, and Mom is never happy with where my fingers go. When I play my 'motorcycle stop-stop' rhythm on the E string, it doesn’t much sound like when Mom plays. In fact, those 'Twinkle Variations' seem awfully easy for Mom, and I’ve never seen *her* practicing 'motorcycle stop-stop' on the E string. I bet she made a deal with the Devil…"

I vowed that I would not let either of my children play the violin unless they begged me, on hands and knees. Then when my daughter was four and a half, she said to me in a somewhat half-interested way, "Maybe I’d like to play, too…." I immediately ran out and got the little fiddle, the books, the tapes, etc. I did my Suzuki training while pregnant with her, so I had certainly thought about it. I could be her teacher, my husband could practice with her…

It didn’t really work for us, Mom as teacher, Dad as practice parent. When I was being the teacher, I often wanted to talk to the mother of this child. And as her parent, I wanted to talk to the teacher! I just couldn’t do it all, especially at the proper pace and with the proper patience required for a four-year-old. So we quit – burned out before age five!

Actually, I knew we just needed to wait until she was a little older. Then recently, an opportunity came up for me to "trade" lessons with a colleague. She’d teach my daughter, I’d teach her grandson.

At first, my daughter was skeptical. I was skeptical! Maybe she just didn’t like the violin. Why force it? We came very close to quitting before even starting.

But she loved her first lesson with gentle June. She came out beaming and said, "Is it morning or night? I forgot because I liked my lesson so much!" I was stunned.

So I have been practicing with her just about every day, though so far she has enjoyed her lessons more than our practice.

But yesterday seemed like a small turning point. She had been trying for days to play "motorcycle stop-stop" on the A string, but every time she did it, she would hit other strings and then stop trying in frustration. I said to her, "Do you know, we learn a lot from our mistakes. If you didn’t know what it felt like to play it wrong, you couldn’t play it right." She paused for a minute, looked at me with her luminous gray eyes, trying to decide if I was serious or not. "Okay, I’ll try." She looked at the fingerboard very intently, and played her rhythm without touching the E or D at all.

"You did it!" I said.

"I did it!" she said, hopping up and down and smiling like she’d just climbed Mt. Everest. I explained that when we get it right, we do it a bunch of times. She dutifully did it again, six times.

After our practice was over and she’d packed away her little eighth-sized violin in its case, she smiled.

"Can we get up really early in the morning and practice again tomorrow?"

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July 28, 2003 10:38

Greetings from Los Angeles, California, where we sometimes succeed in drowning out the ever-present drone and call of the highway with classical music.

It's actually not a bad place to be a violinist. There is ample work at many different levels. The LA Phil is among the best anywhere, as is the LA Chamber Orchestra. Then there is the recording biz, which can mean anything from playing the soundtrack for "Star Wars" to helping a garage band tape their demo in a basement sound studio.

If one doesn't mind the highway, there must be 40 other professional and semi-professional orchestras in the area, and as many chambers groups. Add in a zillion churches and lots of fun weddings, and you have cobbled together a life. Really, there's nothing like a wedding on a Malibu hillside, sun setting over the ocean...

As for me, I fall somewhere in the middle of the road (so to speak). I play my share of orchestra jobs. Some are 10 minutes away, other several hours on the highway. I play a few weddings here and there. I teach violin and belong to a group of Suzuki teachers in Pasadena.

I'm still waiting for Fox Studios to call me up (in a serial manner, preferably) for a run of movie recordings that pay residuals, setting me up for a life of financial ease and comfort...

So that is where I'll start with this blogging business. My days in LA...

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More entries: August 2003

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