The music of "9 Items or Less"
by Dave Baxley
Back in 1995 when Joe came to me and asked if I'd be interested in working on his first movie project I was honored, elated and overwhelmed! Sure, I was working then as a synthesizer salesman at the local, cool music store, Skip's Music, and was well on my way to indebting myself, my future children and Social Security checks to Skip by purchasing gear there, but I felt I was (at best) ill-prepared for movie audio post-production work. I felt if I had any strengths at all, these would be having an adventurous spirit, a love and respect for the cinema, an ambition for music composition and performance, and I had great friends to boot. As it would happen, one of my best friends, David Perrault, a guitarist of the Jimi Hendrix tradition, was also my best resource, musically, since we would often collaborate on music in highly improvisational and intoxicational ways! We would get together usually about once a week and present ideas to eachother and work on them from there. These were great times for us, and Dave and I recorded two CDs worth of really groovy psychedelic music we titled under the thought-provoking name "Lost Religion." I called him immediately to inform him of the good, yet daunting news and to chart a course for what would eventually become the music people would enjoy as an intrinsic part of "Nine Items."
I can remember the night I showed up at Dave's apartment with a VHS tape of Joe's rough clips, a Fostex 4-track recorder and a few sheets of score paper where I had scribbled out some rough melodies and chord changes for potential use. At that time I was using a little Macintosh computer, a Classic II, for MIDI sequencing, and Dave and I were marveling over his roommate's blazing, new Pentium 100 Mhz PC. Now, of course, this is an ancient piece of machinery, but was such the state of technology not too long ago. I fully trusted that my 4-track would do the job, since I wanted to add guitar tracks to make the recordings for the movie sound more modern. Joe wasn't opposed to this idea. PCs were recording audio, but an 8-track computer-based Digidesign Pro Tools system was way out of my financial reach. After all, I was but a lowly salesman. Since I had previewed the VHS tape, I played a few of my musical ideas for Dave, and he, having a natural intuition for how to help develop my ideas, began to jam along and interject chords and counter-melodies I couldn't have developed myself. His influence was important to me, for Dave's ideas gave me a fresh perspective on my original sketches. Later on we put the VHS tape on the television, so we could watch it while roughing the ideas for the segments. Slowly, the basic form of the continuous music began to form, and we played twice through the entire movie from top to finish before the night was through. To boot, we recorded the rough takes and had something to start with and present to Joe, who became an integral part of the formation of the soundtrack once I began to integrate the 4-track ideas on my Mac. My approach was to record the music, so Joe could fit everything together later during the post-production process.
Then Dave bailed out on the project! He, basically, was just going through a period of time where he couldn't commit to anything outside of the basics: work and college. Though this saddened me, I understood and decided to continue forward, integrating some of his ideas into the film's music. I then decided to rent a number of Charlie Chaplin films, since some of the rough music just obviously didn't work, and I was looking for more inspiration and direction. However I didn't want the music to sound cliché, so some "groovy" bits, which I kept, seemed to fit the film in a new, nostalgic kind of way, sounding as if the music was created in the 1960s, and not the 1920s. The Chaplin films were suprisingly diverse from an auditory perspective, covering the sounds of the classic "saloon" piano to the theater organ to even small chamber orchestral arrangements. Since I liked all of this music, I sought to include these sounds, however I did later decide to focus on the piano during an important scene. Cliché? Maybe. However, the organ does groove and the orchestral sequences were progressive sounding, almost as if Stravinsky had suddenly decided to become suddenly melodic. The guitar was definitely now out, but I do believe it would have made for an interesting flavor. Most of the tracks recorded with guitar sounded great with the keyboard and were innovative, musical and had a positive-sounding vibe, an element I've always tried for in my music.
The real challenge was to get the songs for the segments to develop in an interesting manner and yet not sound too repetitive. Since Joe had pretty much finished filming and editing the scenes, I could only aim to enhance what was already pretty-much set in stone, visually. Armed with a Roland sampler and synthesizer, an Oberheim drawbar-organ sound-module, the 25 Mhz Macintosh computer, a TV and a consumer-level VCR, I went to work on recording the music using a popular MIDI sequencing program by Steinberg, called Cubase. This program didn't allow for multitrack audio recording at that time, so I had to record the final audio a DAT deck. Soon after I began sequencing the keyboard tracks I began to meet with Joe about once a week. Both being bachelors at this time, we actually had some time on our hands, and we managed to squeeze in a game here and there of "Dice It," a Macintosh form of the popular dice game, Yahtzee. Looking back, we probably spent as much time playing "Dice It" as we did working on the music, but it was fun and was a good stress release! I can remember also laughing a lot during those evening sessions. Joe and I had a lot of fun and were both thrilled to see the film slowly, yet surely coming together.
Joe's input was invaluable, for he could describe the motivation behind the scenes to me, but sometimes random spots where the music and action would synchronize sometimes gave us ideas, and we would go with this new flow of this inspiration. I loved this aspect of the film's creation probably the most. In fact, Joe later had a second master of the film made to insure that certain portions of the music would fit appropriately with the visual action. The humor was truly more apparent this way. I began to focus on the visual cues when composing new music, and I would present these ideas to Joe during the breaks between the "Dice It" sessions. All went well once I did this, however this new process of syncing cues was tedious and time-consuming since I wasn't equipped with SMPTE synchronization between the Mac and the VHS deck. Basically, I had to start my sequencer when the white blip began at the beginning of the film, and from there I would pray that the music wouldn't get too far out of sync with the VHS tape! Of course I had made notes of the exact length of the segments in SMPTE time and frames, but without a timecode synchronization this really this was a primitive and old-fashioned way of scoring for a film. The film actually ran at a slightly different speed than the VHS deck. I like to believe that the score was perhaps improved by the "rawness" of my recording techniques in this instance, for an ultra-modern sounding soundtrack would have probably been inappropriate. After stopping and starting the VHS copy of the footage and the sequencer dozens of times, if not hundreds of times, Joe and I finally finished the music and promptly recorded it to DAT!
A party was thrown at my house once Joe had the music melded with the film. I remember about thirty or forty people showing up at my house in East Sacramento and crowding about my medium-sized TV set to view a VHS copy of the film. Some important people from the Sacramento film community even diced to visit, as well. The house was pretty quiet during the film; everyone seemed rapt with attention. There were even occasional laughs and chuckles. Good, I thought! I was happy that the reaction to the film was one of amusement and entertainment! After all, isn't that what a film should be about? When the film ended everyone who attended: the friends, extras, camera operators and transients, applauded and fortunately, congratulations ensued! To my surprise, Joe and I were then presented each with an Oscar for our participation in the making of the film. Although the Oscars were but mere miniatures, being key chains with our names engraved upon them, I will always treasure that moment standing in front of those good people! I was truly proud when we were awarded our Oscars and thoroughly appreciated this gesture, which truly was quite humorous and unexpected! Yet this Oscar did feel like a real one to me. Joe's and my friendship and perseverance, I believe, did produce a really enjoyable little film, one this reader has hopefully come to enjoy!
I believe the score, though possibly not Oscar level, is fun and suits the film well. Again, I thank Joe for this opportunity, which I believe helped me in being hired as the audio engineer for PlayTV.com's live internet broadcasts. We knew this film would lead us to bigger and better things - like Joe's second film!! Adieu! DB.
March 16, 2000
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