“Think of it as writing a one hour musical in a month while working a regular 40-hour-per-week job!”
That’s how pianist, composer and arranger Brent Bain describes writing songs and incidental music for The High Street Broadcast, an old-style radio variety show that airs new programs bi-monthly on KSAV internet radio.
Devlin Connors, a singer, writer, director and voice-over artist, decided in 2007 to revive the radio variety show, and in the years since he and his team have written, performed, recorded and broadcast dozens of shows. One key member of that team is musical director Brent Bain, who took the time to talk to me about how he got involved, and how Sibelius helps him to write the original music for each show.
Brent Bain has played the piano all his life, but his professional career took a different path: for a while he worked as in IT. However, he decided to return to music and went back to college to get a music degree. It was while he was enrolled at Moorpark Junior College that he got involved with The High Street Broadcast.
Brent takes up the tale: “I responded to a flyer looking for a piano player. Right away I offered to help out with a couple of the incidental pieces, and at the time I was writing them out by hand. After being involved with them for a couple months, I was approached to write all the music for one of their big episodes, August Circus. It was a learning experience and was my first experience using Sibelius, which was installed on one of the school computers. Ever since then I’ve been their music director — which actually means being composer, rehearsal co-ordinator, music teacher, band conductor, and piano player all rolled into one.”
Having cut his teeth on Sibelius at school, it wasn’t long before he got a copy for himself. “I got my own copy later that year as a Christmas gift and haven’t looked back since!”
Fitting in the work required to write all of the music for each broadcast is a challenge, even though the team have had to scale back the number of shows they produce each year. “We were doing 10 shows a year,” Brent explains, “but have dropped to six for a lack of funding. We were hoping for a weekly show but that is still waiting on a big sponsor to step up. We all work other jobs on top of the whole writing, developing and composing a new show. When we are on top of it a show is written in a month — think of it as writing a one hour musical in a month while working a regular 40-hour-per-week job!”
In the vein of the old-style radio shows it seeks to emulate, The High Street Broadcast is recorded in front of a live audience. “That means I need to have a very streamlined process. Sometimes I’m writing music the night before the show, to cover up anything that might come up last minute. Most times I have the music done by the Saturday tech rehearsal.”
Each show has a theme. For example, the episode that aired this past Sunday night on KSAV was a detective story (featuring private eye Joe Dugan in a story called “Real Men Wear Fedoras”), and there has also been an Elvis-themed show. “The Elvis show was a lot of fun. The premise was that Elvis is alive… oh, and he’s a secret service agent! I lived and breathed Elvis music for a month. We had a kick-ass band for that show, as I brought in two guitarists and an electric bass, a switch from our normal upright bass.”
Another favourite was a show themed around a similar premise to iconic radio drama The War of the Worlds. “It presented a unique challenge to come up with very thematic music, and probably the happiest song ever written about Annihilation! It was also the first time I wrote for piano and synth, using LiveStage from Apple to control the one keyboard. Because of this I also helped out with sound effects, creating several unique sounds for the aliens that just couldn’t be done by our foley artist.”
The preparation for each broadcast follows the same broad process. “First, the story writers will send me lyrics with an idea of the style, and often including a recording of them singing what they think should be the melody. Sometimes this fits in with a chord structure, and sometimes it doesn’t. This is where I have to make tough choices, sometimes changing what they wanted as the melody, and sometimes trying to come up with a new chord progression. I’ve gotten quite good at transcribing and getting a song done: my goal is a 24-hour turnaround on the songs, and I hit that four out of five times.”
The alien invasion show was a landmark for The High Street Broadcast. Devlin Connors and his team had agreed to make 30 shows and see where it was going. With no sponsors forthcoming, the team decided to call it quits. However, the City of Moorpark had other ideas.
“The City of Moorpark called up Devlin and asked him if he’d bring it back, and told him they would help find funding for it. Bringing back the show at Hallowe’en meant it had to be something special. The last 20 minutes of the show was a rhymed, metered poem about a scarecrow that comes to life for a night… only to fall in love. Of course! The entire script for the hour-long show was about 80 pages total. The full printed score for the last 20 minutes of the show was over 200 pages! It was a prime example of me frantically writing music at 3am the night before the show. There were musical cues during the performance that were never rehearsed. Of course it could have been better if we’d had more rehearsal time — but we pulled it off.”
Brent says that he finds Sibelius invaluable in the process. “I still find little things that Sibelius does to make my job easier. I use a couple of the plug-ins downloaded from the Sibelius website; for example, Exchange Staff Contents is one I use tons. The ideas library has saved me countless hours of work, both in helping generate drum patterns and in simply saving themes for characters that might come back. I even used one of the classical piano ideas in a show recently when I was up at 3am the night before a show and needed about 45 secs of underscoring done: changed it to harmonic minor, re-worked a couple of the chords, and it worked out great!”