When Dr. Bill Thomas asked me to take on the role of musical director on a project to take popular songs from 100 years ago and reimagine the tracks in the context of everything that has come since (and possibly anticipate future trends in music?), I knew he would have something big in mind.
The project would require me to produce 10-14 songs for an album release AND arrange and perform it as a live set this New Year’s Eve at First Fest Ithaca, a new celebration designed to completely re-imagine the experience and meaning behind New Years.
Bill Thomas is a professional inspirer of folks, especially those willing to expand their vision of what’s possible in their lives. I didn’t know what music from 100 years ago would sound or feel like after being re-imagined by a musician and audio engineer like myself, but I didn’t think twice about taking on the challenge.
We’ve been poring over songs from 1914 and I have been slowly getting used to the fact that musically, this is going to be quite a bit more interesting (read: challenging) than I had anticipated.
Mostly that is due to the prevalence of what I will call “stylistically constraining elements” in so much of the music recorded 100 years ago. There is something about the era’s typical melodic phrasing which is at best, natural, and at worst, extremely predictable.
I’ve never been big on musical theater and I’m realizing that is because like much of the music I have found from 1914, the melody and harmony can be so “sing-song”, boxy and just inevitable. It’s pretty hard to imagine doing anything truly hip with songs like “I’m Glad My Wife’s in Europe” or “Kiss Your Sailor Boy Goodbye”, without going extreme in the interpretation department… which looks like where we’re headed!
I am learning to fully embrace the concept of limitations as the best friend of creativity. We started with a grand vision and I had planned on composing for a full seven-piece band and writing songs specially tailored for some of the best singers in the area. Now that we know what we’re dealing with, we’re scaling back the roster and in the process getting inspired to experiment with incorporating a turntablist/electronic multi-instrumentalist approach, which by definition will dictate a more modern rendering of the songs. It continues to evolve as I explore the music.
The experience so far has required me to stay VERY open minded, pushing forward and constantly re-imagining not only the musical possibilities but the very basic elements of the entire concept. I’m hoping to land somewhere that might force anyone trying to sort the CD by genre to really have to think about it and maybe even make up a new category. Music from my grandparents generation seen through the lens(es) of the best of mine. Jazz, R&B, Top 40, Country, World, Reggae, Hip Hop, Classical, Industrial, and… Centaria?
I’ll be updating this blog throughout the journey and will share a few samples of music along the way. Let me know what you think, and if you’re in the neighborhood this New Year’s join us for First Fest.