And Now For Something Completely Different

One of my oldest and closest friends is a fellow by the name of Carl Sturken. We’ve been pals since the fifth grade.

Carl is a fantastically (and eclectically) talented musician. We were bandmates in high school, and he went on (to no-one’s surprise) to a very successful career as a songwriter and record producer. (Have a look here, or here.)

Since Carl was a boy, he’s spent a week every summer at a retreat on Star Island, one of the Isles of Shoals off the New Hampshire coast. There are a lot of musicians who go there, and every year they have a little talent show. This year, Carl, together with his longtime musical pal Kemp Harris, decided to try something ambitious — an ad-hoc orchestra playing the complete arrangement of the Jimmy Webb/Richard Harris 1968 mega-hit MacArthur Park.

To make this happen, first Carl needed to figure out the arrangement. To do this, he loaded a copy of the song into his digital audio workstation (I think he uses Logic Pro.)

The original song had a lot of tempo changes, all played live. Carl set up a tempo map in Logic, with tempo changes just a bar or two apart in some spots, so as to be able to add sequenced parts that would track closely enough with the varying tempo of the record.

Next, he began listening for every instrument he could hear in the mix — strings, horns, bass, winds, guitars, keys, you name it — adding a MIDI track, for each one, that effectively matched the part it was playing on the original. (No small feat!)

Once he had finished this painstaking work, he was able to solo each track, and use the built-in notation software to generate a printed score for each instrument.

Next, he started calling all the people that he knew would be there for this year’s get-together on Star Island. (It’s a tight-knit community, and many of the families who go each year have been coming for generations, so everybody knows everybody.) He asked anyone who could play a musical instrument to make sure they brought it. All were welcome to join in, and the players ranged from 8-year-old violinists to grizzled professionals. Carl omitted no detail: for example, the high note at the very end of the original record was sung, not by Richard Harris, but by a female vocalist. Carl found someone to do that, too.

When the week at the island rolled around, Carl set up rehearsals for all the different sections — string players in one room, rhythm section in another, etc., and they all went off to learn their parts. After a day or two, they all got together for a full rehearsal. A day after that: showtime!

As it happens, the whole thing ended up on YouTube. (There is a rather extended series of introductions by the maestro himself, and then the song begins. Hang in there.)

A final “inside” note, and another mark of the attention to detail on view here: that’s Kemp Harris conducting, in an homage to the conductor-in-a-kimono featured in this classic appearance on Soul Train by the late, great Barry White. (Said conductor really gets going around 2:15 in the linked Soul Train clip.)

OK, without further preamble: here it is!

One Comment

  1. Kevin Kim says

    As community productions go, this was impressive, given what you wrote about both the project’s concept and its execution. That’s a huge amount of tech effort and savvy, not to mention some amazing admin/organizational effort to pull the whole thing together. Everyone obvously had a great time, which is what community productions are all about.

    As I was reading your post, I was unable to pin down exactly what the tune for “MacArthur Park” was. It wasn’t until I started watching the linked video that I realized— “Ah, I have heard this before!”

    So then I went to Wikipedia to look up trivia about the song, which has apparently been much panned and parodied, vilified for its “loopy” metaphors (the article highlights the “love as a cake left out in the rain” image). Richard Harris was an early singer of the song; he insisted on singing it as “MacArthur’s Park”— a genitive— instead of “MacArthur Park,” with no possessive marker. The error was perpetuated by subsequent singers. When you think about the song’s nature and history, it’s a quirky choice for a community performance. In this case, I think the quirkiness was a good thing: note the audience’s delighted reaction to the tempo change.

    Anyway, it was a very impressive achievement. Hats off to your buddy.

    Posted September 28, 2013 at 1:06 am | Permalink

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