Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Overture, Curtain, Lights: The Cleveland Orchestra Tackles Carl Stalling's Challenging Cartoon Scores

by Mark Satola

“THERE NEVER WERE scheduled recording sessions for the cartoons,” says conductor George Daugherty. “There might be 35 minutes left after recording music for one of the movies in production. The call would go out, and they all would come running across the Warner Brothers lot with music flying.”

You wish that somehow, back in the 1940s and '50s, Warners had made a documentary feature, shot some 8mm home movie footage, taken some snapshots, kept any kind of record of the sight of cartoon director Chuck Jones and music director Carl Stalling in full flight as they raced toward a soundstage to record some of the trickiest music this side of Igor Stravinsky in his most acidulously spiky mode.

The musicians that awaited their hectic arrival were some of the best in southern California. “They were the Warner Brothers studio orchestra by day,” says Daugherty, “and the Los Angeles Philharmonic by night.” Still, the scores that Stalling plunked on the music stands challenged the bejeezus out of them, as you can hear in a rare rehearsal clip on the now-deleted CD "The Carl Stalling Project."

Stalling counts out the downbeat by snapping his fingers, and the orchestra launches into a crazy cue that races headlong into a melodic wall at the top of the phrase. But it's not right; the players lose their concentration in the last rush of notes and the result is musical mud. Finally, though, they hit it right, and the take is complete.

“This wasn't just cartoon music, these were seven-minute jewels of composition,” Daugherty says. “They would lay one of these things down in about an hour.”

George Daugherty brings this supremely difficult music to the Blossom Music Center this Sunday night as he leads the Cleveland Orchestra in “Bugs Bunny on Broadway,” a project he developed 15 years ago to celebrate the relatively unsung genius of Carl Stalling, whose recombinant way with classics, pop songs and his own fearsome composition made him one of the grandfathers of the modern technique of sampling.

Along with Stalling's scores (as well as those of his protégé and successor, Milt Franklyn), the actual cartoons themselves will be shown on a large screen, with the musical soundtrack digitally sliced away (Mel Blanc's luminous voice tracks thankfully left intact) so that the crack musicians of the Cleveland Orchestra can try their hands at playing to the breakneck action.

“What the audience sees is really a scoring session,” says Daugherty, though in truth, no scoring session ever went like this, with only a single chance to make it work; the actual soundstage recordings proceeded phrase by phrase. “You absolutely have to be accurate to within one-thirtieth of a second,” Daugherty says of the real-time situation onstage. “I really have to drive the orchestra. I feel guilty, but Bugs stops for no man, no musician, no nothing! That is the challenge.”

Since 1990, Daugherty has taken his celebration of the Wascally Wabbit around the world, and yes, even to Broadway, where it consistently sold out houses during an extended run at the Gershwin Theatre. But Bugs Bunny on Broadway is only part of his 25-year career as a West Coast conductor; he's been involved in a number of other projects that mingle music and other formats.

One of his projects with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra involved the premiere of a new concerto to celebrate the Chinese New Year and San Francisco's venerable Chinese traditions, with narration by author Amy Tan. His 2000 debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra, meantime, found him presenting Mendelssohn's incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream, with Shakespeare's text included in the performance. And he's guest-conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the legendary Hollywood Bowl.

“I always smile when I see myself described as a cartoon aficionado,” he says, laughing. “I was in my early 30s when I became re-interested in cartoons. I'd liked cartoons like any normal kid, and as a musical kid, I really appreciated the music. But the first ten years of my career were my ‘normal' period.”

The first part of Sunday night's concert begins normally enough, with overtures by Richard Wagner and Franz von Suppé, and Strauss's Tales from the Vienna Woods waltzes, but in Act II, things go delightfully astray, with 1959's "Baton Bunny" (guest conducted by Bugs himself), "High Note" (1960), "Zoom and Bored" (1957), "Duck Amuck" (1953), "The Rabbit of Seville" (1950), "A Corny Concerto" (1943), "Long-Haired Hare" (1949), and the one everyone will be waiting for, "What's Opera, Doc?," starring Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny in a cross-dressing travesty of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen.

This version of "What's Opera, Doc?" fills in an omission left open at the cartoon's original theatrical release. “Not many people know that the voice of Elmer Fudd was not Mel Blanc, but Arthur Q. Bryant, for which he never received screen credit,” says Daugherty. “There's a place in 'What's Opera, Doc?' where Elmer is on top of a mountain, calling out ‘Lightning! Thunder! Rain! Smog!' Well, Jones thought Bryant's voice was too high on the word ‘smog,' so he re-recorded it with Blanc.

“For this project, we had the original session recordings for the cartoon, and we restored Bryant's voice to the last word, so I suppose what we have here is like an ‘original instruments' version.”

In the years since the golden age of animation, the art underwent a decline from which it never really recovered, despite the best efforts of digital animators and writers. Daugherty believes that's due to a difference in the way the Warner Brothers crew worked.

“One of the things they did that they don't do today is that everything was plotted meticulously in advance,” he says. “Chuck Jones and Carl Stalling or Milt Franklyn and the sound effects guy sat down and figured out how it was all going to work. They really meticulously planned the sound design, 40 years before the term ‘sound design' was invented.”

It helped that Stalling was in essence a great composer who just happened to be working in an unusual medium. “His own scoring was absolutely magnificent,” Daugherty says. “He was the first of the neo-classical-postmodern composers.”

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times, July 28, 2004.

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