The Incomparable project

The fact that you’re brushing your eyes over these words hints that you’re here because you’ve read one tech piece or another that I’ve written. And therefore it’s just as likely that you’ve heard of Jason Snell’s The Incomparable podcast—a pop-culture-for-geeks program for which I composed the opening theme. Last March Jason approached me about putting together some musical bits to accompany the April Fools episode. The hook was that it would be presented as a series of old-time radio dramas. “Maybe,” he suggested, “you could do a variation on the original theme that fits the genre.”

How could I resist?

He sent a sample script from the first program, “Timmy Preston: Galaxy Scout.” Pretty simple. Take the original theme, conform it to a military march to reflect the program’s heroic-yet-cheesy underpinnings, use an old-time theater-organ sound to give it the flavor of the era, and boost the upper frequencies and notch out the bass to provide the necessary lo-fi quality. Done. And fun.

But now I was hooked.

I knew the episode would include other mini-dramas as well as commercials. Why not create additional variations on the original theme for each element? Doing it in a non-obvious way appealed to my sense of humor plus it offered one of those appealing “I wonder if I can do this” creative challenges. 

(You can find all these audio files on the Music page under "The Incomparable Project" heading.) 

Theme and variations

As can happen, the project began with a fundamental mistake. I hadn’t listened to the original theme in over a year and misremembered the key and chord arrangement. The original was in Eb and based on a four-chord progression: Eb, Gbmaj9, Db, and Ab and then resolving back to Eb. (I’m fond of flat keys not because they’re easy to play but rather I like their round tone.) 

Yet somehow I’d gotten it into my head that the theme was in G and that it was just three chords resolving back to the root and that the second chord was a major third down instead of a minor third up: G, Ebmaj7, C, Gmaj7. Not a huge deal as it was unlikely anyone listening to the episode would pay that kind of attention, but it’s one of those continuity errors that gets under your skin if you’re the person responsible for it.

Aside from a collection of action hits, I had seven themes in mind: “Jenny Lane, Girl Detective,” “The Fog,” “Two-fisted Tales of Tesla,” a polite-English-countryside variation to go with a Downton Abbey-themed commercial, a cartoony version to go with another commercial, and loungey and country versions that would serve as appropriate background music the characters talked over. Here’s the thinking behind each in the order they were created.

Lounge theme

Just as I was starting the project I had the ambitious idea of creating a Vegas-style theme, complete with lyrics and Nelson Riddle orchestration. As in…

Not from here to Mars,

But beyond the stars,

Darling, you’re incomparable.

Though it seems to be,

You’re a stranger to me,

Sweetheart, you’re incomparable.

Realizing I didn’t have all the time in the world I put that aside. I also shelved the idea of creating music that was faithful to the period. I wanted the music to sound like it fit, but wasn’t necessarily created and recorded in the 1940s. So, no more EQ-ing the bejeezus out of the stuff to make it sound tinny.

I was still interested in creating something swingy and hoped there’d be a place for it. Thankfully Jason found one. The arrangement included drums (a Logic jazz loop), stand-up bass, and piano. Vibes took the lead. The theme is straightforward, though syncopated the first time through, and then I solo over the chords the second time.

Cartoon commercial

Next up was the cheesy commercial theme. As I understood it, the ad was for a hyper-charged brand of coffee and so I wanted the music to be cartoonish. To help that along I used the goofiest (though recognizable) instruments in my Logic collection. The bass is an oompah tuba, rhythm instruments are trombone and accordion, and the melody is carried by a very twanky marimba. While the chord progression remains faithful to the original, this is the first variation that breaks away from the melody. It’s more-than-hinted-at in the intervals used, but you couldn’t claim the two were anywhere near identical.

Downton Abbey theme

The feel I was after was the kind of polite English classical music that typically accompanies PBS manor-house dramas. This was reflected in the instrumentation—bowed bass, plucked violas, and harpsichord to produce a basso ostinato pattern. A lilting flute and oboe carried the melody and counter-melody respectively. The melody is close to the original though I tried to resolve it at the end of the two phrases so that the Gmaj7 sounded more major and absolute than tenuous. 

The trap in this one is that music in this style doesn’t stray from its mode—it’s either very definitely major or minor. The G to Ebmaj7 chords are confusing in this respect because you’re not quite sure which mode you’re hearing. Rather than fight it by changing the character of the chords, I went with the tension in the instrumentation and introduced swelling cellos to emphasize those chords.

Jenny Lane

Jenny is an example of what can happen when you fall in love with a sound and choose it over being faithful to the concept you’re composing for. When working on the Timmy theme I found this crazy organ sound in Logic—just a ridiculous-sounding thing that harkened back to the soap-opera organ sounds of the era but modulated in bizarre ways. I couldn’t use it in Timmy but, by god, I was going to use it somewhere. Jenny was it.

But its oddness meant I couldn’t use it as a lead tone. Instead, I went back to the trombones I found for the cartoon commercial and had them oompah their way through a very broad interpretation of the theme. Just to add that extra touch of “Wha!?” I accompanied the thing with a chorus of plinking banjos. Jenny was not well served by this theme, but I loved making it.

The Fog

This one called for a Lights Out theme—spooky with appropriately cliched instruments. And what can be more cliche than a church organ and theremin? The tension of the chords worked well in this case, but to make it darker I changed the last chord to G minor.

Timmy background

By this time, Jason had sent me a rough mix of the Timmy cast recording and I realized I needed something to serve as “traveling music” as a scene changed. I returned to the original Timmy theme, stuck with the march tempo, and thinned out the arrangement by using just the cheesy reedy organ sound.

Tesla theme

This one wasn’t written specifically with Tesla in mind, as I didn’t have the script and wasn’t sure what the feel of the thing would be. I went with a machine-music feel—grinding, clanking, repetitive elements. And theremin. This variation is hardly a variation at all. It’s based in G but it never moves to the other chords. There are a couple of interval leaps in the theremin reminiscent of the main theme, but there the similarity ends.

Square dance theme

This was the last of the major variations I recorded and one of the most fun to do. It was to accompany a square dance scene and so included the instruments you’d expect—freight-train-brushed acoustic drums, gut-bucket bass, banjo, accordion, and a couple of fiddles taking the lead. I was faithful to the theme and chords on the first go-round but quickly abandoned them. This kind of music cries out to be in a major key so I switched to a predictable G, C, D, G pattern on the repeat. I also threw in two country cliches. The first is the arpeggio pattern typically performed by two fiddles. And who wouldn’t be tempted to end with “Shave and a Haircut?”

Action 4

I finished up by recording hits and small action bits. The only one I care to point out is Action 4. This wasn’t based on the theme or a typical stab but rather the brassy arrhythmic dissonant sound you often find running behind action scenes (particularly in bad movies and TV shows of the 50s and 60s). On its own it doesn’t work as something you’d particularly care to listen to. But put it in the right context and you’ve got something. (Gratuitous Carl Palmer gong included.)

And done. In addition to it being something fun to do, it was gratifying that many of the  people involved in the project didn’t initially hear that each musical bit was a variation on the original theme. But, as Jason said in a “behind-the-scenes” follow-up, “Once you hear it, you can’t unhear it.”

+1 for the gotcha.