Work


Blurry Cars

The Reverend’s Adventures in Advertising, Episode 2.

The advertising world has many peculiar little niches and enclaves, and one of these is the realm of the Car Commercial. Cars are to advertising agencies as cows are to Hindus – sacred beings that are talked about in hushed tones and showered with rose petals.

I’ve done the music and sound for a number of car ads and I don’t think any one product ever gets as minutely scrutinized and picked over as the automobile. And almost invariably, after the ad agency creative directors have finished conjuring up hyperbolic pitches full of unbelievable superlatives and interminable drivel, the majority of car advertisements end up being nothing more than pretty pictures of the car in question driving around winding country roads. All the client ever cares about is seeing pictures of the car. Car car car. They can’t get enough of their car. No matter how clever the copy, or how novel the conceptualization, all they want to see on that screen is pictures of the car. What’s more, they fool themselves into thinking that everybody else thinks their car is as fascinating as they do too, and in this they are, for the most part, completely wrong.

One particular car ad that came my way was no exception. As usual, it began with a phone call from the ad producer:

Producer: Hi. We’ve got this great spot that we’d love you to look at. It’s got your name written all over it!*

Me: Uh huh. What’s the skinny?

Producer: W-e-e-e-l-l-l, I can’t tell you too much about it over the phone. The concept behind this one is ultra top secret.

Me: Right. Well, I’d like to know something about it before I commit to it…

Producer: OK, I have some storyboards that I can send you, but it’s super confidential.

Me: No problem. Mum’s the word.

Producer: So if I fax them over now, can you make sure you stand next to the machine. Don’t let anybody see them.

Me: O-k-a-a-y.

Producer: Promise that you’ll stand next to the machine and take them off straight away.

Me: I promise.

Producer: Because this is really Top Secret. It’s all very hush-hush. We don’t want news of this idea getting out before we have it ready to go.

Me: Sure. I understand. Super Ultra Spy-Level Top Secret. I’ll read the boards and then eat them.

Producer: I’m sending them right now. Stand by. [Hangs up]

I wait expectantly by the fax machine. The pages of the storyboard slowly peel out. First frame: a car drives down a country road. Second frame: a car drives over a hill. Third frame: a car drives through a tunnel. Fourth frame: a car drives over another hill. Fifth frame: Closeup – a car taking a bend. And so on.

I think of a possible way I could leak this to the media: “You’re never going to believe this – their car can turn corners! And it’s got wheels. Yup, that’s right, FOUR of the danged things. Underneath. Yessiree. I swear on a stack of bibles – I’ve seen the badly-drawn pictures.”

I didn’t do the ad. I think they saw me as a security risk.

___________________________________________________________________________

*This line is usually followed by “We don’t have a lot of money for this one…” In this case it wasn’t.

___________________________________________________________________________

For quite some years I made a very good living by writing music for advertising. That period of my life is pretty much over now for a number of reasons, and since it’s unlikely that I’m going to ever reclaim my glory days helping to sell shampoo and cars, I figured I might as well start a series based on my exploits in what must rank as one of the most pretentious, overpaid, frustrating, lunatic-filled businesses on the planet. It’s not like it will matter much if I offend anyone anymore. So without further ado:

The Reverend’s Adventures in Advertising, Episode 1.

I thought I’d kick off these reminiscences with a story about a campaign for which I was asked to apply my creative genius to the promotion of a lesser-known, but quality brand of Australian cheese.

My usual procedure for accepting a commission1 was to ask for a copy of the script, and if I thought I could do anything with the idea, I’d take it on. I turned down a lot of work. This particular spot was not something that was in my usual field of interest, but it did have a certain Monty Pythonesque je ne c’est quoi and I figured it could be amusing, so I agreed to give it a go. This was the pitch, as kooky as it seems:

The Chosen Cheese

A farmer is leading his cow off to pasture. We hear bucolic country sounds and pastoral music. Suddenly there is a clap of thunder and the surprised farmer turns to see the clouds parting and the Hand of God reaching down into his barn, from whence it retrieves an enormous block of Brand X Cheese. An angelic choir sings! The farmer watches in awe as we hear a booming voice-over proclaim “Brand X! The Chosen Cheese!2 The angels swell into an uplifting coda.

Kinda cheesy, I’ll agree, but sometimes these nutty ideas, if done with enough aplomb, turn out OK. And besides, the money was pretty good.

Now I need you to understand that this is not just the pitch that went to me, but was also the script that the client (I immediately dubbed him The Big Cheese) had already received and approved (generally, by the time I was called into a job, the ad had been completed except for the sound and music and the final visual effects. This spot was no exception).

A few days later the edited images turned up, and I was relieved to see that they were passable, as far as these things go. After a brief phone discussion with the ad’s Creative3 Director, Phil,4 I set to work whipping up a convincing chorus of angels, shimmering with heavenly harp arpeggios. This sort of work is actually a lot of fun. It’s not like you can be too over the top with a concept like this and !!!B-R-I-I-I-I-I-I-N-N-N-G-G!!!… I’d only been at it for two hours and Phil was already on the phone.

“Um… mate… [everyone in advertising calls everyone else mate]. Mate, looks like we have a tiny bit of a problem”.

“Oh? How so?” I ask, a feeling of dread settling upon me.

“Er, well,” says Phil, “The client is not too happy about the religious connotations of the spot”.

“You what?” I say.

“Yeah, they think it’s a bit Christian“.

Now this is one of those moments in which the universe suddenly ceases to make any sort of sense whatsoever. Personally, I thought the ad might have been straying a little on the Jewish side, with the ‘chosen’ cheese & all, but it’s a joke, right – you’re not meant to think too much about it. But it was the general overall religious aspect that Phil said the Big Cheese was having problems with, as astonishing as that seemed to be at this point in the proceedings.

Now it’s pretty clear to me that when your concept takes on quite this much water, you simply cut your losses, scuttle the ship and head for the lifeboats. But what’s this? Quite unbelievably, Phil was still bailing

“So what we want to do now is try and make it less religious…”

My brain went into a mode which I imagine is very similar to how Robby the Robot feels when he’s given an order to harm a human.

“But it’s GOD!” I say. “It’s GOD’S HAND reaching from HEAVEN. How the crap do we make that less religious?”

“Well, OK… we’re considering the idea of making the hand a little sooty with a bit of digital work, and with the help of some Wagner-style music, turning it into the hand of Thor, the God of Thunder! How do you think that would work?

Well I thought it would be about as successful as putting fishnet stockings on a pig and attempting to pass it off as Dita Von Teese, but I remained stuck for words. Further, it dawned on me that the the whole sink-or-swim for this spot had somehow been deftly passed right down the line to me. If the ad failed, well then, it would be my fault! And this was not to dwell for even a nanosecond on how the whole shebang had managed to get this far without the Big Cheese making at least some little squeak about his unhappiness with the religious tone of the whole affair. It’s not like they were hiding it from him!

Phil then went on to say that there was no intention, not even the merest suggestion, of altering the tag line ‘The Chosen Cheese’. This was most definitely not to be touched. It had been sold through to the client as the catchphrase for the whole campaign. Are you with me here, as I try to comprehend the inscrutable insecty thought processes of the Advertising Hive Mind?

So, in the next few hours, after a short break taken up mostly by uncontrolled alternate fits of sobbing and laughing, I found myself wheeling out the French horn and crash cymbal samples and vainly attempting to conjure Das Rheingold. It didn’t work terribly well. Now God simply looked like an interloper at a bad Salvation Army Band fundraiser. I considered phoning Phil and suggesting they have the hand take out a giant box of crackers and a plate of lamingtons as well. It certainly couldn’t have made things any worse.

After a few days, the digital image amendments had been completed and Phil, and all the other hangers-on that an advertising campaign seems to involve, turned up to take a look at what I’d done with the music.

“Hey, that’s not too bad!” he exclaims. “It says Thor, the God of Thunder for sure! What do you reckon, mate?”

Now I hate it when advertising people ask for your opinion, because you can be sure that the one thing they never really want to hear is your actual opinion.

“Sure,” I say, crossing my fingers behind my back. “Sure, everyone will think it’s Thor, the God of Thunder. You guys have done amazing things with the digital work. Unmistakeably the Thor of the Norse Pantheon. Only an idiot wouldn’t get that!”

All the while I was imagining the cheque for my fee fluttering like a tired homing pigeon into my bank account, and the numbers clocking up like the meter on a Sydney taxi heading off along the Eyre Highway.

They eventually did put the ad to air, much to my complete amazement. Evidently the Big Cheese had forked out so much money he needed to explain to someone where it all went. A few days later my mother, who knew nothing at all of the above debacle – only that I’d written the music on a Brand X Cheese ad – called to say she had seen ‘my’ ad on air.

“It was really good!” she said, in the way that faithful mums show their undiscriminating devotion, “But there’s one thing I don’t understand – why was God’s hand so dirty?”

  1. For that’s what it was in those days – a commission. Jobs were awarded on merit and talent, and advertising agencies actually sought out creative people based on their reputation. That concept, in Australia at least, has become a thing of the past, and is one of the reasons that I’ve moved on. []
  2. I kid you not. I totally swear I’m not making an ounce of this up. []
  3. This has to be one of the most duplicitous job descriptions in existence. In my experience, advertising Creative Directors seldom know their asses from their elbows when it comes to any level of actual creativity. Mostly they are pop-culture sponges who suck ideas out of other, better pieces of work and re-tool them (usually badly) to fit their own agendas. []
  4. For reasons that are obvious, the names of the products and personnel involved in these escapades will remain anonymous. I don’t really care if you infer any of the details, but knowing the litigious tendencies of this business, I don’t aim to get myself sued… []

Even though that last story was told as an amusing anecdote, it points, as some of you quickly realized, to some fundamental and important ideas about sound and the way we perceive it.

The question “What if we could have the sound of nothing, rather than silence?” is not a question about sound. It is a question about psychology. Many questions about sound are.

My director continued:

“What I mean is that sound, you know, when you’re out in the middle of nowhere and there’s nothing there… You know, not silence, but an absence of sound.”

And, although there’s a complete logical stump-jump here, I do in fact know exactly what he means.

Of course there is no such thing in the natural world as ‘an absence of sound’.

The quietest natural environment in which I’ve ever been was a cave in Jenolan in Eastern Australia. I was helping some friends complete a geographical survey. They were also divers, and needed to survey a section of the cave that was underwater. I couldn’t help much with that part of the exercise so I sat in the cavern as they disappeared into the inky black water and listened as their scuba bubbles trailed off into… silence.

There was no sound. No water lap, no dripping, no wind, no airconditioner, no next-door tv, no conversation down the hall, no computer drives, no distant traffic. Nothing. After a while, if I moved, any little noise I made sounded unnaturally loud. It was dead, dead quiet. Silence. Well, no actually. Not silence. I could hear my breathing. I could hear my blood moving. I could hear my heart beating. Wow, after a while it was actually noisy. I knew at that moment that human beings never, ever know true silence.

But we nearly all have some experience of that deep contemplative quietness of nature, or the dark black hush of the early morning hours, or the unbearable silent weight of gaps between speech at a funeral.

The question my director is really asking, then, is a different one: “Is it possible for us to have our audience feel that kind of mental silence within the bounds of what we are doing?”

And the answer, in my educated opinion, is that in this particular excercise we will achieve that effect. Because it’s not about the sound we put there, in that place where silence is, but rather, how we get there and what we have encouraged people to be thinking at that time.

Listening is only partially about hearing.

Black...

OK. I’m working (for free) on a small but very tasteful commercial for a major world charity. The sound is subtle but significant. At the very end of the ad, the pictures fade to black, and a simple piece of explanatory text appears.

This morning I’m playing what I’ve done to the director, an awfully nice but very intense chap.

“So, what do you think for the end when we fade out, then?” he asks.

“Oh, I dunno. Silence I guess. I thought that worked pretty well. Unless you want some other kind of thing there…”

He looks deeply thoughtful, and runs his hands through his hair.

“I was thinking, rather than silence, maybe we could just have, you know, the sound of nothing.”

“Uh-huh,” says I. “And that would be different to silence in exactly what way?”

Oooh. I’ve just come over all weak at the knees. Some kinda strange guy, Michael B. from foreign shores (ie the grand ol’ US of A) just wrote from out of the blue to tell me that he found my CD Houdini in the Apple iTunes Music Shop. This is news to me, ’cause I had no idea it was happening (that’s record companies for you). Seems like an opportune time for a plug then.

This is what people who aren’t just my friends and family have said about Houdini: [Link]

Sure, it’s in the Classical section (wha…?) and it looks like Michael made the first purchase, but heck, it’s better than being in the Bargain Bin at K-Mart (isn’t it?).

The Cow Instructs: Go buy it. Tell your friends to buy it. Tell them to tell their friends to buy it.

And rest secure in the knowledge that every cent of profit goes toward maintaining my single-malt whisky addiction.



A Long Story Involving Music, Death, Snow and Coincidence

One Saturday morning in late 1991 I was woken from a deep sleep by the most ethereal of sounds. It was a perfect pure human voice singing Rachmaninoff’s ‘Vocalise’… no wait a minute, it’s wasn’t a voice, it was… a violin… and yet…

I came into full consciousness too late to catch anything much of the back-announce, except for the name of the artist: Clara Rockmore. It was enough to chase down the recording. It turned out that the sound I heard wasn’t a voice, or a violin, but that most enigmatic and fascinating of electronic instruments, the theremin.

As a teenager I had a fleeting interest in theremins, and even tried to build one out of an old electronics kit I hacked for the purpose. It wasn’t too successful, and I really didn’t have the chops to do it properly. Besides, I had bigger fish to fry; I had become obsessed with the gadget that had newly arrived in the local music shop – a music ‘synthesizer’ called a MiniMoog.

Long story short: MiniMoog → rock & roll band → sound & music for school plays → film school → my own film company → lying in bed listening to Clara Rockmore effortlessly play the theremin, perhaps one of the most difficult-to-master instruments of all time.

I tracked down that recording of ‘Vocalise’ and discovered to my mild surprise that it had been produced by Robert Moog, inventor of that MiniMoog that had set me on my career path, and a man considered by many to be The Father of Electronic Music. As it turned out, Bob’s own career was directly related to his interest in, and manufacture of theremins as a teenager.

The comprehensive liner notes with the CD outlined the amazing story of Lev Sergeyevich Termen (Leon Theremin) and the invention of his extraordinary electronic musical instrument. That’s a different long story, and way too fascinating for brevity, but you should read it on Wikipedia sometime. What was most astonishing to me was that, at the time, Leon Theremin was still alive, at the grand old age of 95. And, as far as I knew, there was no filmic document of this important man and his contribution to music and technology.

I was very well placed to set up such a documentary, and I immediately started collecting information. I got in contact with a number of people and soon enough with a chap at Berkeley who told me in an email “I think someone’s already making a movie – you should speak to Bob Moog”

And I did. Yes, said Bob, a fellow called Steven Martin had almost completed his film Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey, after a difficult three year process. In keeping with my inept abilities as a surfer I had sensed the wave coming too late, and Steven Martin was already riding it to shore. Tarnation.

I had a number of very nice conversations with Bob though, so I didn’t feel too bad about losing the doco, him being a hero of mine and all. I also discovered that through his company Big Briar (now Moog Music), Bob was making theremins again. It was too good an opportunity to miss and I browsed their catalogue and arranged for Big Briar to make for me one of their beautiful cherry wood Model 91Cs.

As fate would have it, the proposed completion date for my theremin would see me in North Carolina where I was to meet up with my business partner at the time, Alex, on the set of the new film he was directing, the soon-to-become ill-fated The Crow.

Big Briar/Moog Music is located in Leicester in NC, and it was a simple matter to arrange a slight detour at the end of my trip to collect my theremin in person. More importantly of course it would allow me the exciting opportunity to meet and shake hands with the man whose name was synonymous with electronic music.

It was never to happen. 1993 saw one of the worst storms to ever hit the east coast of the US, with North Carolina copping one of the biggest snowfalls in its history. The day before, I arrived with my travelling companions in Asheville NC, about a twenty minute trip to Leicester. The fairy-tale sprinkling of snow that started on that night was a big novelty for us Australians. “How very Winter Wonderland!” we cried, as we grappled with the concept of driving in treacherously icy conditions and on the wrong side of the road. It became something less of a novelty the next day when we had to dig down through several feet of snow to our rental cars. That was just to get our luggage. Those cars weren’t going nowhere. Neither was anything else in Asheville.

We stuck it out in Asheville for three days but things weren’t getting better in a hurry. Leicester was completely cut off from the world, and any possibility of getting there and back in time to meet our flight back to Oz was remote. We had no choice but to grab the first local flight out of Asheville (after a terrifying drive-cum-slalom in a taxi to the airport) and head back to a country where there isn’t ever much snow. Certainly not enough to bury cars.

My theremin was shipped to me not long after, and Bob phoned several times to chat, and make sure everything had arrived in good condition.

Steven Martin’s documentary was completed in 1993. It was an insightful and moving account of the story of the theremin. Lev Sergeyevich Termen died not long after the film’s release at the age of 97. Bob Moog sent me an email on that day. It said:

I thought you would like to know that Lev Termen died today, at the age of 97. Lately, he has been working on a device to reverse the aging process. Sadly for all of us, he was not able to finish that work.

I was very saddened to hear that Bob Moog himself died last Sunday. The enormous grief in the electronic music community can be felt on the Moog Music site, and on the Caring Bridge site, where thousands of people have left their condolences and sympathies, as well as thoughts and reminiscences about Dr Moog.

Unlike Leon Theremin, Bob Moog runs little risk of being forgotten. His legacy to the musical world is imprinted so strongly that the word ‘moog’ is almost a generic term for an analog synthesizer. And now, his instruments have been created virtually, as software emulations, for a whole new generation of sound-makers to discover.

So, at the end of this lengthy post, I would like to bid a personal farewell to Dr Robert Moog, the great man who I almost met. So long Bob. I feel I knew you well enough to call you a friend. Forgive me if that’s presumptuous. I’m not so presumptuous as to speculate on whether there is a heaven or not, but in my mind’s eye I cannot help but see you ascending a glittering stairway to some such place, dressed in a magnificent white tux, and accompanied, in a manner befitting your stature, by a chorus of a thousand angels playing perfect theremin.

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