Friday, March 25, 2011

Aural Tradition - BJ Leiderman's Unique Way of Composing and a Glimpse at the Man Behind All Those NPR Tunes

BJ Leiderman, Public Radio Theme Composer and

Guest Artist at Orchestra Nova's Celebrating San Diego's KPBS

Concerts: April 1 - 4, 2011

Erica Malouf of Orchestra Nova: What are your top two favorite theme music scores from television or radio (you can’t choose your own)? BJ: My TV theme heroes are Mike Post (Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, NYPD Blue) and W. G. Snuffy Walden (Thirtysomething, The West Wing). These themes set the emotional stage for what was to be on that screen for the next 30-60 minutes. Producers, on the whole, don't take enough time these days to let the music do it's magic.

EM: Your composer credits include the theme music for some of the most recognizable tunes in America, such as for “Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me,” “Car Talk,” “Marketplace,” “Morning Edition,” and “Weekend Edition.” But you’ve never written music in your life! How is that possible? BJ Leiderman: I took piano lessons for a while as a kid. But I also used to memorize and play Beatle songs. That taught me a lot of the chords, melody, harmony and song structure. Then I just started banging out simple tunes on the piano, using the chords that the Fab Four had "turned me on to." Since I was used to playing by ear, I never got around to putting notes on paper.

So, when I began to produce scores for NPR, I would first record multi-track demos on my computer workstation and my learned friends would transcribe these demos into scores. For the second arrangement of Morning Edition, NPR introduced me to A-List NYC Session trombonist and arranger Jim Pugh. My music, and my life, have never been the same. Jim's arrangements are an extremely important part of my writing. He takes my simple tunes, fleshes them out, and breathes life into them. He takes my charcoal caterpillar sketches and turns them into gorgeous, colorful butterflies.

EM: What do you admire about the Beatles? BJ: The Beatles are the first band to succeed in constantly evolving their music while taking their audience with them. And in such a short period of time! From I Want To Hold Your Hand to Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds was only THREE YEARS!

EM: You call yourself an entertainer, so what is your favorite joke to tell? BJ: Three mothers bragging to each other about their sons. The first one boasts of how much money her son the doctor makes. The second mother, not to be outdone, says that her bubbie the lawyer makes even more than that. "That's nothing," responds the third mother. "My son pays $300 every week just to talk to somebody about ME!"

EM: In elementary school, you were in a band called Lively Sound Dimension, otherwise known as LSD (which you mentioned was painted in psychedelic colors on the bass drum head). How did that go over with the ladies on the playground? BJ: Band leader David Lively, my longtime friend and Chicago stage actor, was the pretty boy in the band. I had to run around in the light just to be seen. Much later in life, however, the LSD came in quite handy. This, from stories I have heard, mind you.

EM: If we play your melodies backward will we hear a trippy message? BJ: Morning Edition played backwards yields "Turn Me Over, Dead Man." (he's joking)

EM: You spent some time as an ad man in New York. Is it as glamorous as AMC’s “Mad Men” would have us believe? BJ: Hardly. There is so much talent and money wasted in that industry. Instead of brainwashing us, they should be informing and educating us about the product or service, so we can make up our own minds. Instead, they create a "need" that does not exist in the natural world, and in the process turn our young people into robots who blindly buy these things in order to be accepted or to be cool.

EM: What is the best advice that you got from any of the “theater gods” at the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) music theater workshops you were invited to attend in New York? BJ: Stephen Sondheim reminded me to make sure the lyrics kept the storyline moving during the songs. Paul Simon also harps on keeping the music in your songwriting interesting...not too repetitive or predictable.

EM: Do you have any advice for aspiring composers? BJ: Become the best you can be on your instrument. You will have to actually go out and play your stuff one day. Everyone mimics their heroes when first learning how to write songs. But eventually, force yourself into uncomfortable territory. Don't be afraid to change lanes and BE DIFFERENT. And by all means, don't let anyone tell you "you can't do this" or "this won't sell." As my good friend and monster songwriter Robbin Thompson is fond of saying, "Nobody knows what a song will do until you Put It Out There." So, GETITOUTTHERE!

EM: If Hollywood made a movie about your life, who would play you? BJ: I would, of course. (I need the money).

EM: For all the foodies out there, if Jung-Ho were to come to your home town, where would you take him to eat and what is your favorite home-town dish? BJ: No-brainer (I cannot BELIEVE I just used that most lame catch phrase)... I would take him to Steinhilber's Thalia Acres Inn. My parents took me there starting when I was just old enough to throw my food into the adjacent booth. There, he would lose his mind over their specialty, and still my favorite dish...Fantail Fried Shrimp dipped in their Special Sauce. Apologies to Owsly (may he rest in peace), but he will see colors.