There is a song, a pop classic, actually, a signature pedal steel tune from the 1950’s, called Sleepwalk. This is not that.
I wrote MY Sleepwalk in 1994, but my original vision for it did not get recorded until 2007, when The Slow Club Quartet was assembling material for our second CD Expressionism. It wasn’t even a song we performed as a quartet, as the arrangement is for an entirely different set of instruments, but an unexpectedly fortuitous thing occurred just as we were putting the album together, and there was no way I was going to lose the opportunity.
Let’s start at the beginning. Sleepwalk is spoken word, but I had a very specific instrumental underscoring in my head for it. I was a singer and marginal songwriter at that point in my life (hell, maybe I still am). I could write a chord chart, but my only background with instruments were the years of piano lessons as a kid. Yet I heard this instrumentation in my head, had listened to enough symphonic music in my life, and decided to rise to the challenge. Henry Mancini, the 1960’s, cool jazz, all of that was the general vibe I was hoping to cop, a sort of slinky Pink Panther-esque thing to accompany the libretto, a cracked bit of flash fiction (not even a term yet in 1994) meant to be absurd and humorous. I even signed up for a semester of harmony and theory at Pasadena City College for the express purpose of getting a sense of how instruments talk to each other, and relate to each other. I got a little cheat sheet that tells you the ranges and clefs of different instruments of the orchestra. I could not have been more hanging on the edge of the ledge by my fingernails in trying to compose and orchestrate a piece that actually made sense and worked.
My new Korg synthesizer (circa early 90’s) aided me in laying down the parts, so that I could hear whether certain lines worked against each other or not. Real orchestrators will surely cringe to read this. For them it’s all about “seeing” how the parts and lines work with each other on a score.
But when all was said and done, I was tickled by the piece, composed for acoustic bass, muted trumpet, trombone, 2 flutes, drums, and voice. A very sparse piece. Lots of space and air between notes. The bass is the lead instrument. And every note is written. This isn’t the case of a chord/rhythm chart, where the rhythm section merely uses the skeleton, and they comp within and around it. There’s something very cool to me about that kind of songwriting, because each time the piece is played by a different set of players, the notes played are of a most unique, unrepeatable nature, and in that sense the song is reinvented with each playing. But with orchestrated pieces, the notes are the notes. What’s going to give each performance its unique resonance is the intention, dynamics, and emotion behind it.
So, there it was. My composed piece. My tiny little nugget. It would turn out to be years before I would ever get to hear it played by real instruments, to truly get confirmation on whether it worked.
After it was completed, it sat on the proverbial shelf for about another 4 years, until I found myself in 1998 the lead performer in the most innovative of musical projects, Elvis Schoenberg’s Orchestre Surreal. The project’s leader, composer, orchestrator, and conductor is Ross Wright, a student of the music of composers such as Arnold Schoenberg and the New Music school, as well as a devotee of Frank Zappa, and that peculiar mixture of Ross’s musical influences has most definitely shaped the vision that is the Orchestre Surreal.
In the beginning I was just a vocalist with the orchestra, singing incredibly challenging parts, and devising and developing a character (“The Fabulous Miss Thing”), in order to front this wacky, larger-than-life creation. Then one day I showed Ross my score for Sleepwalk, a piece never played. Ross is the real deal, so I can’t honestly say he looked at it with any great awe. I’m sure my little orchestrated piece was precious to him. But he liked it as a concept, thought it would fit the nutty nature of the Orchestre Surreal, and suggested that he re-orchestrate it for the 30 pieces. I was thrilled by the notion. There would be an Angela Carole Brown original as part of the illustrious Orchestre Surreal.
The first time the piece ever got played, and then for years after, of performing with the OS, it was Ross’s arrangement, a big, bad, brazen and formidable thing, that we performed.
To this day, I love what Ross did with it. It climaxes into a sort of Ornette Coleman-esque insanity. It’s been exciting to have realized, and we not only added it to the show but recorded it for the Orchestre Surreal’s debut album Air Surreal.
And yet as much as I loved this lion of an arrangement, I still yearned to hear the piece realized in the vibey little intimate and sparse way I had originally conceived of it. To know, definitively, if I actually had it in me as an orchestrator and realizor of a vision. I honestly didn’t know if there would ever come the opportunity, because I didn’t have a project of my own (The Slow Club Quartet and The Global Folk were developed some years later), and even if I did create a project of my own, it certainly wouldn’t be with the instrumentation of trumpet, trombone, flutes and bass.
Fast forward to 2007, and now I was leading my own jazz ensemble, The Slow Club Quartet. We were amassing material for our second album together, and Sleepwalk hadn’t crossed my mind in some years. Then one day during this time I was speaking with Ross Wright on the phone, and talking about the record I was about to make, and I just happened casually to mention that I wished I hadn’t lost the original score I’d written on it. That as much as I loved the Orchestre’s version of it, I still wished I’d gotten the chance to hear it the way I’d originally written it, but that I didn’t have a clue where the score was after all these years. Probably gone the way of my old, beaten up, obsolete (by this point) Korg synthesizer. And Ross promptly said, “Oh I’ve got it. I guess I didn’t realize that I never gave it back to you after I re-orchestrated it. But yeah, I still have your original score.”
I literally squealed, thanked Ross for never throwing it out (my assumption), and promptly made the executive decision to include it on The Slow Club Quartet’s Expressionism, even though the only members of the quartet who would play on it would be the bass player and drummer, and even if the likelihood of it ever getting performed live somewhere was practically nil. I found a way to squeeze in a session for trumpet, trombone, bass, 2 flutes, drums, and me, in the midst of the quartet’s recording. And my heart raced with the nervous anticipation of finally, after 13 years, getting to hear what my piece was always meant to sound like.
Craig Pilo, the Slow Club Quartet’s drummer, was producing the album and doing some of the recording in his own studio. We had to record the whole thing part by part. Craig laid down a drum track of sizzling brushes, a kind of fluid comping-and-keeping-time as one entity, as a framework for everyone else to play against, along with the SCQ’s bassist Don Kasper on upright. The bass part, being the lead instrument on this piece, is really just playing a walking bass line, but the specific “road” I wrote for it is somewhat theatrical, operating in accord with the story’s rhythmic arc. Next, we brought in trumpeter Dave Scott, a recommendation of the SCQ’s pianist Ed Czach, who lived in New York but was in town for a bit. Dave brought just the right about of “bent” to the proceedings. Even though he strictly played the notes on the page, there was an energetic edge to his playing that I absolutely loved. We brought in flutist Bill Esparza to do what had to easily be THE simplest flute parts he’s probably ever had to play in his life. And I sent the trombone part to my friend Ira Nepus, who took it into a recording studio of his own choice, laid down his part, and sent the file back to me (so modern!). And finally, lastly, my spoken word part, the story, the crazy little fiction I’d written about a doomed hermaphrodite. Theatre of the Absurd at your service.
As it came together, layer by layer, part by part, after 13 years of waiting and wondering, I could not have been more gratified with how my original vision was sounding as played by real, living, breathing, feeling musicians.
What’s truly cool is that I now have two very different versions of Sleepwalk forever documented and on two very different kinds of albums. I highly recommend checking out The Orchestre Surreal’s album Air Surreal, and their version of Sleepwalk. But for my purposes here on the Song Series, my original vision, the version found on The Slow Club Quartet’s Expressionism (the only original on an album of covers), is the one I want to share here. Because it’s my baby, my arrangement, my orchestrating, my singular example of stepping outside of my own comfort zone and abilities, and forcing myself to rise to the orchestrating occasion. Like I said, to any real symphonic composers out there in the world, this little arrangement is sure to seem precious. But I am very proud of it. It creates exactly that sense of Noir Bizarre that I was intending.
Please enjoy Sleepwalk.
click here to listen on Bandcamp
Angela Carole Brown is the author of three published books, The Assassination of Gabriel Champion, The Kidney Journals: Memoirs of a Desperate Lifesaver, and Trading Fours, and has produced several albums of music and a yoga/mindfulness CD. Bindi Girl Chronicles is her writing blog. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram & YouTube.