Here, There & Everywhere: Micah Altshuler Sings About A La La Dream…

July 31, 2012

By Don Heckman

When iRoM’s London-based, European correspondent Ella Leya told me she’d written a song for her ambitious teen-age son, Micah, I was intrigued.  I knew Ella was a gifted singer/songwriter – her songs have been featured on such films and TV shows as Ocean’s Twelve, PU-239, My Sassy Girl, Dirty Sexy Money, and Samantha Who.  But I didn’t know that musical ambition had arrived in the next generation.

When she sent me a video of Micah doing the song, I was even more intrigued.  I’m not familiar with the music aimed at young teen demographics, and I was surprised by the relatively mature subject matter of the song – until I discovered that today’s young teen music is not about prom nights and puppy love.  And Micah, in his stoic, but charming way, tells the song’s story with exactly the right trace of detached intensity.   Here’s a colorfully atmospheric video of Micah and the song.  Posted on a special day.

Happy birthday Micah…


A Russian/Californian in London: “Madame Butterfly” by the English National Opera

May 16, 2012

With this post, writer/composer/singer Ella Leya begins her International Review of Music reports on the cultural view from London and beyond.

By Ella Leya

London.  It’s been a few months since I left the gold-and-sapphire paradise of the Southern California Rivera and arrived at the rainy, smoky, dressed-in-tarnished-iron and moldy stone banks of river Thames. A move much desired and anticipated since the first time I crossed the Atlantic Ocean twenty years ago – an emigrant from the then Soviet Union – and landed in… well, Norfolk, Virginia. Neatly cut grass lawns, smiling faces, suburban flare – everything I had never seen before, neither in my hometown Baku, nor during my jazz tenure in Moscow. But not exactly what I had envisioned to be America.

Soon after, I progressed to Chicago, IL., then Laguna Beach, CA, all while missing dear old Europe with its cultural abundance and familiar non-American uncultivated lifestyle. Of course, in the process I failed to notice how American I had become. Indeed, we humans make those kinds of transformations better than lizards – shed our tails at dusk and grow a new one before dawn.

Mine grew so California lavish and Chicago comfy that it instantly got clipped as a part of London’s no-nonsense welcome. A huge, self-absorbed, swarming beehive of people from all over the world – half from Arabia and the other half from Eastern Europe.  Young, ruthless, with strong fangs, indoctrinated with Mark Zuckerberg ambitions and quite often blessed with Maria Sharapova looks. All going about their business amid a nucleus of rigid, proper, Elizabeth the First’s England.

I tried to escape into long desired and missed cultural abundance, but got drowned in a big puddle the moment I stepped foot in the West End. My head spun as I tried to follow a kaleidoscope of theater bills with their repetitious quotes from the same three papers, in which a handful of critics gloated with praise – “the best ever,” “the first time ever,” “triumph of theatrical experience,” “the most innovating,” “the never before seen…”

How in the world could I make a decision? After all, In California, I was accustomed to a schedule of four-great-dances and a couple of concerts packaged for me and delivered to the conveniently nearby Orange County Performing Arts Center.

Drenched and frustrated, I came back to my London flat and began packing my suitcase, ready to depart for the safe enclave of my home in Laguna Beach. But, as I was ready to send Time Out London magazine into the trash, a beautiful picture caught my attention. A woman wrapped in red silks against the red glow of a sunset. Madame Butterfly.   Opera by Puccini, performed by the English National Opera at London’s Coliseum. In English.

What? A Puccini opera in English? Didn’t make sense to me.

The London Coliseum from the Dress Circle

But I went. Last Saturday. And London will never be the same for me.

First of all – the Coliseum, a majestic palace and London’s largest theater.  It rose at the beginning of the 20th century on St. Martin’s Lane, featuring my favorite art deco elements. And it felt like my new home the moment I landed at my seat in the center of the Dress Circle.

Mary Plazas as Cio-Cio San

Then the magic began. With that very image that had spurred my interest. Mary Plazas as Cio-Cio-San, dressed in a traditional kimono, in a slow, eloquent dance with two golden fans, emerged on stage, out of a red glow of sunlight.  A beautiful butterfly, her wings caught in the flames of love, trailing, being wrapped into long red silks of blood. With no music. With lots of air. An introduction to the show and a quick synopsis of Madame Butterfly’s story.

The captain of an American ship, while stationed in Japan, marries a young geisha for convenience. Soon the captain, portrayed effectively by John Fanning, departs for America. For three years Cio-Cio-San longs for his return, bears their son, then gives the child up to be raised in American prosperity by her wretched, disloyal husband and his new lawful American wife. While she commits hara-kiri.

The production was sweepingly cinematic.  Not like on a huge Cinerama screen but in a three-dimensional way, with no sense of stage limitations. And minimalist to the bare bone. With no palaces, forests, and ships cut out of plywood and propped on stage to look fancy. Nothing but the dark, shiny, ascending floorboards of the stage.  A large, sloped mirror ceiling reflecting the characters.  Brilliant light bursting through a rectangular, letter box gap, rivaling the sunset and the sea, with a few moving Japanese screens and flying lanterns. And, of course, gorgeous traditional Japanese costumes detailing every flower in a blossoming spring garden.

But the character who stole my heart was Madame Butterfly’s son, a puppet manipulated by three ascetic figures in black. So tender and expressive were his movements as he picked up the flowers for his mother, rested his head in her lap, stared lovingly at her, that I had tears in my eyes, wishing for my own son to communicate even a small portion of that same tenderness.

Not once during two and a half hours of the show did I question the sincerity of Cio-Cio-San’s love. (Though, once or twice, when her American lover aimed at a high vibrato note, I wondered why she would love him.  But that’s me – not a big fan of the leading tenors.)  Nor did I question Puccini’s tuneful melodrama, in part thanks to the smooth, sophisticated cruising through the score by the ENO Orchestra with charming Oleg Caetani at its helm.

But most of all because of the genius of the late Anthony Minghella, who directed this stunning masterpiece, together with his wife, Hong Kong-born choreographer Carolyn Choa. Unfortunately, it was Anthony Minghella’s only opera, Instead, he’s been known and  hailed internationally as the Oscar-winning director and writer of English Patient and BAFTA-winning The Talented Mr. Ripley, two of the most captivating films of the last fifteen years.

As I was leaving the Coliseum, into the sun and the crowds of people in St. Martin’s Lane, I stopped by the box office and bought tickets for every show of the English National Opera and Ballet for the rest of the season. A good place to start sinking my teeth into big, wondrous London.


Q & A: Singer/Songwriter Ella Leya’s “Secret Lives of Women”

December 1, 2010

By Don Heckman

Azerbaijani-born, Hollywood composer/singer/pianist Ella Leya (Naroditskaya) has released her new CD, “Secret Lives of Women.”

Her previous two recordings, “Queen of Night” and “Russian Romance” received high praise in Billboard Magazine, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times.  Borders named her “Russian Romance” one of the Ten Best World Music recordings of 2006.  Her songs have appeared in such films and television shows as “Ocean’s Twelve,” “PU-239,” “Samantha Who,” “Dirty Sexy Money” and “My Sassy Girl.”

Ella lives in Laguna Beach, California and London.

DH: Let’s start at the beginning.  How did the idea for this collection of songs, inspired by some of the most remarkable women in history, come about?

EL: The idea came to me as I stood at the Place de L’Alma in Paris, just a few meters away from the site of Princess Diana’s fatal crash. I was thinking of all of my beloved heroines – labeled by “male” history as Femmes Fatales. What if I try to give them voice? So they could reveal their side of the story, so they could stand up for their lost causes. And, hopefully, this time win. That’s how the idea of Secret Lives of Women was conceived.

DH: Princess Diana never made it to the throne, but Anne Boleyn did.  And in “Touch ’n Go Game” you describe what it cost her.

EL: I imagined Anne Boleyn the night before her execution. In the Tower of London. In the same room where she had spent the night before her coronation, just three years ago.

DH: And your lyrics are darkly descriptive of what she experiences:

My tears dry before they shed, I am about to lose my head.

The stone is cold, my hands are tied, I’m on my knees stripped of pride…”

EL: What was she thinking about?  How could she comprehend this meteoric change — from the throne of England to the block?  From being the king’s one and only beloved wife and queen to a witch, traitor and whore. All these because she had a strong mind, sharp tongue, and… couldn’t deliver a male heir:

“You kicked me to the curb of hell to cast away my wicked spell,

And here it is, the final chord – I’m on the block, you hold the sword…”


EL: So here’s the queen of the thousand days — most of that time drained by pregnancies.  And it was she, not Henry VIII — schizophrenic, impotent and probably affected by syphilis — who reshaped the entire future of England and the world. And, not to forget, who gave England its best Queen, Elizabeth I.

DH: I’m also fascinated by your choice of women who reach back into the pages of ancient history – Sappho and Cleopatra.

EL: The album’s opening song, Wish I Could, is a never-written verse by Sappho, the Greek poetess from the Isle of Lesbos:

“You’re just a cloud passing through my sky…

You’re just a song spinning in my head…

You’re just a dream haunting through the night”

She writes it to her lover. Yet, according to legend, she — history’s first lesbian — threw herself from a cliff after being rejected by a young sailor.

DH: And what about Cleopatra?  Her story may have had a larger impact upon the history of the world, but it’s no less tragic.  How did you choose to interpret her through song?

EL:  It’s called What Goes Around, and it’s a contemporary take on the notorious Queen of Egypt, who was an astute political player in dangerous games with Rome, but who also had a soft spot for Roman generals. The song was inspired by her two affairs — with Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony – both of which ended in disaster:

“Traveled with you to the end of the rope…

Laid sleepless in bed while you poked around…

Cut into shreds my unworn wedding gown…”

DH: Then there’s Mata Hari, who seems a more enigmatic figure to me.

EL: She’s the ultimate archetype of the femme fatale — exotic dancer, a courtesan and alleged World War I spy.  And Femme Fatale is her anthem:

“She is a mistress of deceit… before you know, you’re at her feet…

A secret alley of desire that takes you higher, higher, higher…

Until her scarlet kiss of death takes away your final breath’’

EL: The phenomenon, as well as the contradictions, of the successful woman. At the beginning of the 20th century, she was like a Hollywood star.  Basically a queen in her own right, manipulating powerful men and history. And like some of my other ladies, she was a woman who came from nowhere.

DH: Like Sarah Bernhardt?

EL: Yes. She also started as a courtesan.  And very soon became an empress of the stage. A brilliant actress with a golden voice. One of the wealthiest women of her time.  She toured the world, accompanied by a menagerie of leopards, lions and alligators. She slept in a coffin filled with letters received from more than a thousand of her lovers. And she accomplished everything on her own.

DH: Impressive.  Then there’s Princess Diana. Whose memory was the spark that triggered your Secret Lives of Women songs.  How does she fit in with the other ladies?

EL: Irresistible Lies is her tribute:

“You placed me on a throne and left me all alone…”

A musical parallel to a fairy tale that turned into a nightmare of deceptions, loneliness, and Princess Diana’s ultimate self-destruction As unlikely as it may have seemed in the beginning, Princess Diana eventually turned out to be a femme fatale for English royalty.  She diminished the snobbish detachment of British royalty and brought it to the front pages of magazines.

DH: Do you draw any similarity between Princess Diana and Anne Boleyn?

EL: For me, Anne Boleyn and Princess Diana resonate very strongly with each other.  Because if Diana lived at the beginning of the sixteenth century, she would probably have had her head cut off at the block, too.

DH: Hmmm…gruesome thought.  So let’s move in a different direction and talk about how, and if, Secret Lives of Women reflects aspects of your own life.  Would it be correct to say that it does so?  Specifically in some respects, more generally in others?

EL: Of course.  It reflects my own life, as well as the potential in every woman, in that it’s about taking matters in your own hands, and finding your way.  That’s the whole point of giving voice to each of these women, of letting it all out.

DH: You say it “reflects” your life, but how would you fit among these women?

EL: I’ve always thought that I could be any one of them.  I always knew that I could achieve and succeed.  I also – as much as I wanted to succeed – had this perpetual sense of fatalism. First you mobilize yourself to achieve, but at some point, nature almost takes over.  And I probably would have lost exactly the way every one of them did.

DH: : So all of the places you’ve lived seem to have brought you to the point where you really can relate to the women you’ve written these songs for?

EL:  Of course. Your journey is always the result of your previous experiences.  The women I chose are all associated with some of my previous experiences and amassed knowledge.  Of intellect and heart.  But there’s more.  Every creative effort one makes is also a reflection of something that’s missing, of questions unanswered.  And all those qualities are part of Secret Lives of Women.

DH: Thanks, Ella.  It’s been a fascinating conversation, about you and your ladies.

 


Q & A: Frankie Pine, Music Supervisor

February 24, 2010

By Don Heckman

Music doesn’t just magically appear on television shows and in films.  Composers have to write underscores, songwriters have to write songs, and someone has to bring them together with the producers and directors who make the TV shows and the movies.  Frankie Pine and her Whirly Girl Music company have been doing precisely that for the past ten years.  Her most recent film was “Tooth Fairy,” and her television assignments reach from “Brothers & Sisters” to “Army Wives,” “Dirty Sexy Money” and beyond.  She recently agreed to answer some questions about the way music makes its progression from a composer’s imagination to the motion picture and television screens.


DH: Frankie, I know you’re from Ohio, so I’m assuming you didn’t exactly get to a Hollywood sound stage overnight.  How did it all happen?

FP: Well, I grew up with family of musicians.  I played piano, was a singer, thought I’d be the next big dance star of the ‘80s.  My dad was a deejay and I knew even at a young age that I wanted to do something in music and promote music in some kind of way.  I actually got started when I was living in Orlando, working for the Mickey Mouse Club TV show.  I started helping the music coordinator for the show, picking the bands for music day for the Mickey Mouse Club.

DH: So that gave you a bit of experience in picking and choosing music.  But you were still in Orlando.

FP:  Right. And I told myself I was going to save my money, move to New York and get a job with a record company.  Which I did, working for Polygram, licensing out Polygram material for television clients.  Then I was offered the chance to move to Los Angeles, by a client of mine, Dawn Soler.  She had just gotten the Head of Music position at Polygram film.  So I actually just transferred from Polygram Records to Polygram Film.  That’s really where it all started.

DH:  Okay, let’s be clear about what “it” is.  How do you identify what “it” is that you do?

FP: I’m called a Music Supervisor.  It’s supervision of music on a film or television project, or any other media that is in need of music.  On a film, I’m involved in all aspects of music.  Working with the director on what style of music, what kind of underscore, the hiring of a composer — kind of bringing together the entire musical team.

DH: And that team would be…?

FP: Myself as the music supervisor, the composer of the film and the music editor.

DH: At what point does it all begin to come together?

FP: It depends on when I come on to a film.  If there’s any kind of on-camera needs – shooting music with a live band or somebody singing or dancing – then I’m usually brought on before they start shooting the film.  If there’s nothing on camera then I can be brought on either in the middle of shooting or towards the end of shooting, when post production is beginning to start. Sometimes I’ve read scripts and said ‘This is the direction I think we need to go.” Other times I don’t suggest a direction until I’ve actually seen the picture.  So it really can go either way.

DH:  How do you work with the director and composer in terms of what music is required, and how it will be composed?

FP: I never actually tell them how it should be composed.  My work begins before that, when I sit down with the director to discuss what the music should be.  Then I’m the one who sets out to find the right composer.

DH: That’s a pretty important step.  How do you go about it?

FP:  A lot of ways.  But basically, I obtain demo reels from different agencies and different composers, I compile what I think are the best possibilities and then submit those to the director so the director can make a decision.  Then I interview the composers to see which ones the director will feel most comfortable with.

DH: Do you find that there’s a wide range between directors and producers in terms of the amount of advice that that they need musically, or that they’re receptive to musically?

FP: Yes, they’re all different.  Some are very musical.  And some aren’t very musical at all.  As the Music Supervisor, you have to be kind of chameleon-like in figuring out what their needs are and what you can provide for them.

DH: So you have to understand their style, their way of working, their creative attitudes?

FP: Yes.  But there’s more. When I meet with a director, I don’t focus on what they’ve done in the past, what their previous films have been like.  For me it’s more about where are they from, how old are they?  Those things tell me more about what the personality of the director is, and where their head is going to be musically.

DH: Interesting.  You almost have to be a psychotherapist –

FP: [laughing] I always say I’m so thankful I have a sociology degree.  It’s the only part of my degree I actually use.

DH: Before a composer actually becomes part of the mix, directors often tend to use temporary music cues in editing pictures to get the feeling their looking for.  And now, with all the software that’s available, they can go beyond that, actually assemble stuff very quickly on their own, without necessarily having any traditional composition skills. And sometimes it winds up in the picture itself.  How does that affect what you do?   Or does it?

FP: It depends on the scope of the picture or the project you’re working on.  A bigger, epic picture isn’t something you’re going to temp score with Garage Band.  If you’re using a temp score for that kind of picture its generally taken from other epic pictures to get the same feeling.  If it’s a smaller project, like music for a trailer, then people do it on their own all the time.  But that’s really only on smaller, independent pictures and projects.

DH: And in the case of larger pictures, the music score itself has a value of its own, right?

FP: Yes.  Every studio wants to own the score to a film.  They’re hiring a composer, who basically gets paid on a work for hire basis, and the studio winds up owning the entire recording.  Some composers can make better deals, depending if it’s a big project or a small indy production.  Maybe it’ll be 50% of publishing, depending on the budget.

DH: Let’s talk about the use of songs in films and television.  It seems to me that it’s become much more prevalent in recent years.  How do you go about finding the right song for a specific film or television show?

FP: We probably get ten or fifteen packages of music a day in my office.  Much of it unsolicited. We try to listen to it and if it’s appropriate to a specific project, we’ll keep it with that project in mind.  If it’s not appropriate for anything specific, but we like it, we keep it, as well. If we don’t like it, it just goes away.

DH: How does a composer or a songwriter know what to send you?

FP: I tell everybody the same thing: do your research before you send your music to a music supervisor.  Right now, I’m not using a lot of rock music, so sending me rock music is kind of a waste of time.  My current projects just don’t call for it.  Right now I’m in singer/songwriter land.  Very poignant, melodic, nothing too fast, nothing real rockin’.  Those are the projects I’m working on right now.

DH: Would you say it’s a trend?

FP: Well for television, and knowing the television shows that are out there right now, yes.  Pop rock is very useful in promo spots, or in big pictures, like Iron Man and things like that.  But we do shows like Army Wives, Brothers and Sisters.  Then you have Private Practice, Grey’s Anatomy.  And all these shows are using the same kind of music – very poignant, hitting the heartstrings kind of music.

DH: Will you sometimes go to a specific composer in advance for a song?

FP:  Sure. One example. I needed something that had the feeling of “Night and Day,” but that was fun musically and a little kitschy sounding.  The picture had actually been cut to a specific existing recording of “Night and Day.”  So I needed a piece of music that would fit into that segment, have a certain number of beats per minute, and it had to hit the dance moves and the things that were happening picture-wise.  So I called Ella Leya, a very dependable songwriter, and she wrote the song – “I’m In Love.”   I wound up using it in the film, My Sassy Girl, as well as an episode of Samantha Who? And I’ll use it again the next time I need that kind of vibe.

DH: Let’s assume a songwriter has the most poignant song since James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain.”  Or a composer has skills that reach from large orchestral cues to electronica.  How do they approach you?

FP: It’s easy to look on the Internet Movie Data Base or some other kind of website to find out what Whirly Girl and Frankie Pine are doing.  If we’re working on a television show, there’s usually already a composer who’s been on it for as long as we’ve been on it.  So changes in television scoring don’t happen very often, although there can often be an opening for a song.  For film, if there’s a film coming up that I’m working on, find out where we are in that process.  It’s easy to make a phone call, find out what kind of music, what kind of style we’re looking for. Call our office, or call the production office. Talk to an assistant there who will tell you who the music supervisor is.

DH: That doesn’t necessarily open the doors, though, does it?

FP:  No,  I’d have to add that, for most composers, the best way to go to get your music heard is go through an agent.  It’s very hard for a composer to get a deal without being repped by one of the composer agents in town.

DH: And of course have good demo material.

FP: Yes.  Being a jack of all trades is definitely a good thing in the composer world.  But also be sure to put your best foot forward.  If you feel you’re on top of your game in electronica and my next movie is some horror movie and that’s the kind of vibe we’re going for, then give me electronica.  Don’t give me your light hearted romantic stuff, too.

DH: Frankie, you’ve had Whirly Girl Music for ten years.  Has the business changed much over that period of time?

FP:  Sure. There was a time when you were either a film music supervisor or a TV music supervisor.  And being TV wasn’t as cool as being film.  But now I feel it’s kind of switched.  Television is such a big arena of reaching such a mass audience that most people that are trying to sell me music want to get heard on television.  Newer music can get heard a lot sooner on TV because the medium works so fast.

DH: Fortunately, you work in both areas.

FP:  I do.  I’d have to say I’m just about where I want to be right now.

DH: Thanks, Frankie, for taking to time to fill us in on this fascinating area of the music business.


Song of the Month: Ella Leya’s “I’m In Love”

October 14, 2009

By Don Heckman

When singer/songwriter Ella Leya sent me the link for her single, “I’m In Love” and I saw the cover picture of her wearing a big Russian fur hat, I immediately recalled some old photos of Janis Joplin and Paul Simon wearing similar headgear. Of course, Ella brings a lot more authenticity to the wearing of this Ella I'm In Loveparticular kind of chapeau, since she was born in Baku, Azerbaijan when that Caucasian nation on the Black Sea was still one of the Republics of the Soviet Union.  In addition to which, she barely knew who either Joplin or Simon were while she was growing up, when she was far more fascinated by the individual stylings of Billie Holiday and Liza Minelli.

“I’m In Love,” however, owes a lot more to Peggy Lee, Nat “King” Cole, Frank Sinatra and the Swing era than it does to any of the luminaries mentioned above.  And it had an intriguing genesis.

“I was visiting my dear friend — music supervisor Frankie Pine,” explains Ella.  “She was working on a film and looking for a Peggy Lee-style song for the only happy scene in an otherwise pretty dark picture. I’m Russian, and, to be honest, I had no idea who Peggy Lee was. But I told Frankie, ‘No problem. I can write you a song in that style.”

At the time, Ella was about to leave on a trip to Europe, so she had little opportunity to do more than read about Peggy Lee and listen to several of her songs. But inspiration can strike in unpredictable ways.

“I was having my morning coffee and croissant at the Cafe De Flore in Saint-Germain-des-Pres,” she recalls. “A gorgeous waiter with a touch of typically Parisian disdain was doing his dance around me. I asked for a paper napkin and within the next five minutes had the lyrics down and the melody in my head. But I was so worried about forgetting it, I found a studio right away and recorded a very, very poor demo, with some accidental pianist from Lebanon. I felt quite embarrassed sending the demo to Frankie and was pleasantly very surprised when she responded.  ‘It’s a pretty bad demo,’ she said, ‘but the song is great.  Go ahead and record it’.”

Ella did exactly that and Pine quickly placed “I’m in Love” in French director Yann Samuell’s film, My Sassy Girl and in the ABC-TV television series, Samantha Who?.

As soon as I heard the combination of Ella’s engaging vocal — with her slightly exotic Russian accent — the jaunty, Swing-style rhythm, the catchy melody and sweetly universal love song lyrics, the Phil Woods-like alto saxophone solo from Wayne Wayne, I knew it was the kind of  song I’d been looking for to begin a new  platform at the International Review of Music.

Here’s the itunes link to check out “I’m In Love”.   It can also be downloaded as an MP-3, along with other songs by Ella at Amazon MP-3 Downloads Ella Leya.  Her two CDs — Russian Romance and Queen of Night — are also available from Amazon.

This new platform, “Song of the Month” at the  International Review of  Music, will be designed to draw attention to songs with qualities that reach beyond current trends, genres and styles and stand on their own, as uniquely memorable as the classics in the Great American Songbook.  The requirements for selected songs are simply that they have a timeless quality, simultaneously old and new, capable of being sung or played by almost anyone whose interests spring from a musical perspective.  Candidates and submissions can be sent – by MP-3 – to Don Heckman at dhscribe@gmail.com.

To see more Songs of the Month click here.



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