Monday, August 24, 2009

awestruck: what The Beatles and Aaron Sorkin have in common

Ah, my poor neglected blog! I was hoping to get a post in sooner, but as they say, "better late than pregnant"...

The other day I was in my car. I had forgotten to bring my audiobook with me, so I popped in Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. I hadn't listened to it in ages.

I grew up listening to the Beatles. They were extended members of my family. My brothers are musicians and one is a recording engineer because of the Beatles. I can sing their harmonies, play any of their songs on my guitar (provided it's in the key of G, E, D, or A -- in other words, the easy stuff), and more. I'm no stranger to Pepper.

But the other day, something struck me. I heard something that I'd never really paid attention to before -- the guitar overdubs in the Reprise had a distinctive sound as opposed to the bass and drums. Naturally, I called the Pepper guru (my brother Mike), and asked him about it. It turns out that my theory of how it was done was close to how it was actually done, and I was quite pleased with myself for having such a perceptive ear. I was equally pleased to be able to have a conversation with Mike and not sound like a complete idiot. I love to hear him talk about it. The passion in his voice is as inspiring as the album itself.

Mike and I continued to discuss other technical nuances, and once again I marveled at the final product of this album. The Beatles get credit for the great music -- that's where it all starts. But Geroge Martin, Geoff Emerick, and the assistant engineers get all the credit for going beyond the bounds of recording and asking "How can this be done?" instead of settling for "It can't be done" or "It's never been done before." I am simply astounded by the engineering, the sound of it all, not to mention the hows and whats and whys of it.

Meanwhile, I've been watching Season 1 of The West Wing since buying the DVD box for a fab price at a used bookstore (all I need are Seasons 2 and 4, and Sports Night!)

I watch episodes of The West Wing the way I listen to Sgt. Pepper: in awe.

So many episodes of TWW -- in Season 1 alone -- stand alone as short films, cinematic pieces of art. Just as Pepper starts with the music, TWW starts with the writing. I will never stop talking about Aaron Sorkin's talent, his orchestral-like compositions of dialogue, his penchant for telling a story and/or putting two characters into a room together who disagree on something. Sorkin considers himself a playright first and foremost, and so many episodes of TWW can be performed as such. When he left the show at the end of Season 4, the show kept being nominated for Emmys and was one of the better dramas on television. But that's all it was for me-- another drama on television. It had lost its heart and soul, as far as I was concerned. Imagine the Beatles without John Lennon.

But what makes TWW so great are all the other elements -- acting, directing, music, lighting, set design, props, etc. These are the equivalent to the reverbs, overdubs, mic settings, orchestral arrangements, track bouncing, etc., of Pepper. And, like all those who worked on Pepper, each one is at the top of his/her game. It's downright synergistic.

And don't get me started on rhetorical appeals. TWW is so fabulously rhetorical and so full of pathos that I must stop myself from taking Season 1 to class with me and doing a complete analysis for my students (I'm afraid I'd be the only one in the room having any fun.)

Recently on the Aaron Sorkin forum "Questions for me" on Facebook, Aaron Sorkin himself responded to a conversation between a couple of writers about listening to music while writing. Two of us, myself being one of them, commented that we couldn't listen to music while writing (what we had failed to clarify was that by "writing" we meant "typing").

His advice:
"Don't do it while you're writing--do it while you're thinking. Or not thinking. Listen to music in the car. You'll hear an old song you liked when you were in high school and suddenly the lyrics will mean something new to you."

He's right, of course, and so much of this kind of musical interaction serves as the inspiration for a scene or bit of dialogue or a character's motivation. Pepper doesn't necessarily inspire the ordinary. Pepper inspires synergy. It piques my curosity, and makes me want to break each song and listen to it piece by piece.

As does TWW. Such works of art inspire me to be at the top of my game while simultaneously taking my breath away. Better still, they bring me joy and keep me close to people I love.

My point?
I'm not sure. I suppose it is this: find your own Sgt. Pepper or West Wing. Find the creative masterpiece that knocks your socks off, and draw from it like water from a well. Let it quench your own thirst to create, and sustain you through the dry spells. Let it taste good and cool you off or warm you up and feel all gooey and happy inside and out. Swim in it. Bathe in it. Or just float.


Elspeth Antonelli said...

Of course, with me you're preaching to the converted! I never tire of watching The West Wing. It shows what's possible when the best of everything comes together. And then there's the writing...

My greatest joy is his genius in the inclusion of comedy in every episode - maybe only for a line, but it's there. The love those people have for each other leaps through the camera.

That first season is 10 years old. You'd never know it. What a legacy for all involved with that series. Not too shabby.

Dana Friedman said...

Keep in mind that Pepper was a "story" album, with the story having been conceived by Paul. John thought it was all very corny.

Also, if you pan right on "Pepper" (the opening track *or* the reprise), you'll hear George's cool licks and less vocal. Much better than any "Rock Band" type thing could ever be :).

Elisa said...

Excellent point, Dana! All the more reason to love it -- the idea of music being a storyteller.

And Elspeth, I cannot believe that it's been 10 years. It's timeless, as far as I'm concerned.