The Incomparable Christmas Special

Jason Snell’s The Incomparable podcast featured its second series of radio plays in the recent Christmas Spectacular episode. And, as with the show’s first foray into radio drama, I was asked to contribute theme and incidental music. Here’s a bit of background on that work (as always you’ll find downloadable versions of the pieces on the Music page—suitable for ringtoning and other non-commercial uses).

Two-fisted Tales of Tesla

David Loehr was once again the mind behind the episode—penning the pun-filled script. As he was now somewhat familiar with the kind of things I can do, he felt comfortable making requests. In this case he wanted something that was a bit bolder and in the style of the Dr. Who theme.

While I suppose there are people who take offense at being told what to compose or play, I’m not among them. In the first go-round I created themes based on the original Incomparable theme that I composed a couple of years ago and I intended to use that crutch again. Directing me to Dr. Who made the theme all that much easier. 

I’m not a Whovian and therefore hardly familiar with how the show’s theme has changed over the decades. So I turned to YouTube, found a compilation of all the themes, and set about ripping off… er… becoming inspired by the 1963 version’s arrangement. The most notable portions were the use of the theremin as the lead instrument (the sci-fi “woooooo” sound old people know from The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”), the slap-back guitar tone, and a rhythmic figure that sounds slightly Celtic to me.

The theremin and slap-back guitar parts were easy. Just play the Incomparable theme fairly faithfully the first time through, do it a second time with some variation, and finish it with an ascending line that equates to “TA DA!” in the TV theme show music business. The rhythmic component was more fun. Essentially I hit it from two directions. 

In the mid-to-late 70s I listened to a lot of German synthesizer music from Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze. Rather than relying on percussion, they featured swirling ostinato patterns to give the music its drive and feel. Tesla got a strong dose of the same, which you can hear as a mid-high repeated A-G-A-D1-D2-C-D2-D1 synth pattern (the first five notes also begin the Incomparable theme).

But it wasn’t “bold” enough. And so I added four percussion tracks, all pulled from Logic Pro X’s Orchestral Percussion bank. I wanted to play up the Celtic feel and so created something similar to a drum corp to bang the hell out of the rhythmic pattern. Not subtle in any way, but it got the job done.

Lohengrin Beer spot

A Lohengrin Beer commercial appears part way into Tesla. As Lohengrin is an opera by Wagner I sought to grab a recognizable theme and play with it, meaning that I couldn’t reuse the Incomparable theme for this one. 

The difficulty here is that Wagner did not compose a lot of hummable themes. His work is characterized by shifting chords that seem to flow one into another without a lot of care for any root key. So, in large part, he was a texture rather than melody guy.

However, his most recognizable melody is found in this opera—”Treulich geführt,” better known to the rest of us as “Here Comes the Bride.” That naturally made the tune the prime candidate for the commercial. But it was also completely inappropriate because of the event we associate it with. If you’re unaware that the Bridal Chorus comes from Lohengrin, the joke makes no sense in the context of a beer commercial.

My solution was to go half-way. I created a polka to accompany the commercial with traditional clarinet, cymbal, accordion, tuba, glockenspiel, and bass drum accompaniment and noodled out a melody played over the chords of Treulich geführt. 

Yes, I understand that it’s a joke no one will get, but it provided a structure, which made composing the thing easier.

Hostgator spot

This is a real commercial spot that falls after Tesla. This is jazz variation of the theme that I composed for the first radio drama (it appeared as background lounge music). Only notable thing about it is that Jason, who edited the bulk of this very complex episode, slowed it down to span the length of the commercial. I was surprised that doing so didn’t produce a load of artifacts, but it sounds fairly natural.

The Spooky Twist

The instruction for the opening theme was “do something like the Twilight Zone.” In this instance “like” is generous. In fact, I ripped off everything but the opening chord clusters (which, again, are the first notes of the Incomparable theme). Jason extended it to cover the length of the intro by copying and pasting the first few beats of the plucked strings.

Note to Apple: Please include a bongo roll in the next set of Logic instruments. Doing them by hand is a pain.

Cornet Blue Facial Tissues spot

David based this on a real commercial from the 60s. The setup is that famous trumpeter Harry James placed a Kleenex tissue over the bell of his trumpet, spritzed that tissue with water, and then blew his brains out in an attempt to rend the tissue. Amazingly, it held up!

It looks impressive, but it’s a stunt. If you hold your hand over the bell of any brass instrument while it’s being played, you’ll feel no breeze coming from it. Any pressure is directed at the mouthpiece. By the time that air has traveled through the horn’s many twists and turns it’s reduced to next to nothing, which explains why the tissue doesn’t break.

Aside aside, I just played a jazzed up single-note version of the theme using Logic’s Orchestral Trumpet patch. (Regrettably, Logic doesn’t include a cornet.) And no, the two horns aren’t the same. They have different bores with the cornet having a mellower tone.

Kleinman’s House of Music spot

The commercial (beautifully intoned by Andy Ihnatko) is for “anonymous music”—the kind of thing that you’d hear in a dentist’s office. And to me that can mean only one thing—Kenny G. Fans of soprano sax, tune in.

The Lives of Paul Citron

“Zither,” Jason wrote. “Lots and lots of zither.”

This may be the show’s most sustained obscure joke. This sketch is based on “The Lives of Harry Lime,” a radio program based on Orson Welles' adaptation of Graham Greene’s The Third Man. For reasons best known to lord-knows-who, the music for the movie (and later, the radio drama) was composed and performed by zither player Anton Karas. Listen to some of these old programs and, like me, you’re sure to wonder “What the hell were they thinking?” but it worked to the point where Karas became a reluctant pop star of his era.

So zither it was and thankfully Logic’s library delivered in the form of its Turkish Saz Zither patch. I used it for the main theme (again, a variation of the Incomparable theme), a few stingers, and a couple of other tunes that were sprinkled throughout. Musically, most of them make no sense, but then neither did the original Karas tracks.

Auld Lang Syne

This appears somewhere in the background of one of the sketches. Jason suggested it could be as simple as a piano playing the background but I wanted something more Guy Lombardo. It’s a straight rendition of the verse. It’s one of my favorite bits because I got the phrasing right. It sounds as if it could have been played by a real clarinetist rather than banged out on a synthesizer. Lesson learned years ago when replicating “real” instruments on a synthesizer: The parts sound unnatural if you don’t give the player moments to take a breath.

Marjorie Carter, Freelance Adventuress

I heard the recorded introduction to this (Jason Snell’s place-holder reading rather than the Dan Moren version used in the podcast) and as it quickly filled in Marjorie’s past and present achievements, it seemed that a march would be the most appropriate way to cover the theme. 

The idea was to have the music march triumphantly in from a distance—starting at low volume with a DUM-DA-DEE-DA drum cadence accompanied by low old-time-radio organ chords the first time through. The second time increased the density of the drums and jumped the organ up an octave and added a Leslie effect. Finish it off with a marching band’s RUM-PA-TEE-TUM.

The Fog on out

Another edition of The Fog rounds out the podcast. All musical material here was pulled from stuff I composed for the first radio drama. After having used the theremin for Tesla (where it was most appropriate) it made sense to redo The Fog theme for this go around but I never got to it. And given that it’s now been used twice, I probably never will.