I know this is supposed to be a consumer column, but let’s face it. We have all just spent the last few weeks preparing, cleaning and shopping until our credit cards begged for mercy and our family members have started wondering if Windex is our new signature scent. The last thing anyone wants to be thinking about right now is buying more stuff, making home improvements or otherwise planning ahead. It is Pesach, the celebration of our exodus from bondage, and just as our forefathers emerged from the slavery of Egypt into freedom, this is a great opportunity to relax after weeks of effort and planning. Put your feet up, enjoy the fruits of your labor and possibly even a tall glass of lemonade (adorned, of course, by a frilly paper umbrella) while we relax, unwind and contemplate one of the greatest treasures ever bequeathed to mankind: the gift of music.
Over the years we have been privileged to enjoy some incredibly wonderful songs, which have woven their way into the fabric of our lives. Some are special to us for personal reasons, others become popular hits, but oddly enough, while we may know the songs and possibly even the names of the singers who popularized them, few of us know little if anything about the many people who are responsible for the music we know and love.
It is hard to believe how many hundreds of hours it takes to produce a single song and how many talented people are involved in each and every note. The composer, who literally gives birth to the song. The arranger who further refines the song, deciding its mood, the best instruments to enhance it, also composes an introduction, practically a song within a song. The skilled musicians whose talents provide the orchestration. The vocalist who is the “face” of the song. The producer, who hand picks every person involved in the process in order to make the most out of every second. The engineer who puts the entire package together and produces the finished product. Throw in a lyricist if there are original words involved and choirs, if they are being used, and a single song can involve dozens of participants, each of whom uses their considerable talents to produce the music that fills our iTunes. Yet for most of us, other than the singer, the many people who are an integral part of each song are, for the most part, nameless and faceless.
All that is about to change as a few of the best and the brightest in the Jewish music business share their thoughts on what goes on behind the scene.
For composer Yitzy Waldner, there is no way to define the process of creating a song.
“People have asked me to tell them how I compose a song, but I don’t have an answer,” explained Waldner. “You just try, although I suppose it helps to have some sort of musical ability. Many, many times things just fall into place, like Yaakov Shwekey’s Ma Ma Ma, which wrote itself in thirty seconds. There are others that I worked on for a long time, like Shwekey’s Eishes Chayil, which all in all took about seven months to finalize.”
Waldner finds that the lyrics help inspire the creative process.
“The first song I ever wrote for Shwekey was Shema Yisroel,” said Waldner. “He had an idea for the song and had a low part that he liked but needed a high part to go with it. He started describing to me someone who was going around to monasteries, collecting Jewish children after the war. I went down to my basement, turned off all the lights and I envisioned this young boy and the song wrote itself in about twenty five minutes. It was literally divine inspiration.”
You never know when inspiration will strike, reports composer Elimelech Blumstein, who composed his first song in fourth grade and since that time has written thousands of songs.
“I can remember where I was and what I was doing for every song I wrote,” confided Blumstein. “I could be anywhere, working to walk or on a train. Someone once texted me lyrics and asked me to set them to music just as I was going into the subway. It was a great opportunity, no one to interrupt me with emails or phone calls. I recorded the song on my phone while on the train and sent it out as soon as I came out of the subway. Yes, there were people on the train giving me funny looks, but that was fine. There was one guy playing guitar, another chewing gum and blowing bubbles. Why can’t I sing to myself?”
The prolific composer does not play any instruments and has never studied music theory.
“Composing just came naturally to me. I love music, always have, even when I was a little, little kid. It is in my blood and I am a big fan.”
Like Waldner, Blumstein likes to take his inspiration from the lyrics.
“I like new words, or putting a new twist on words that people are familiar with,” said Blumstein. “Sometimes I have a lyric that appeals to me and the song just pops into my head. Mamleches Kohanim on Benny Friedman’s Yesh Tikva album, I just had the whole thing. And Batuach Ani on Shwekey’s Cry No More album came to me one year on Yom Kippur during Neila. I recorded it the minute I came home.”
The best part of being a composer?
“There is nothing more enjoyable than hearing thirty or forty guys at a kumzitz singing my song,” confessed Blumstein. “I feel blessed that I could be the shaliach that brought this song to the world.”
While every singer is always hoping for the next big hit, according to producer Yossi Tyberg, the most important part of any song is finding a composition that is well suited to the singer.
“You have to make sure that what an artist is singing is right for him,” explained Tyberg. “The same song and the same arrangement could be amazing for one singer but less successful on another. A song has to be suited to a singer’s voice, his range and his style. It also has to resonate with the singer himself. If a singer doesn’t feel a song, then it isn’t for him.”
Each song has its own personality according to Tyberg and for every song, the right decisions have to be made to maximize the song’s potential. The process is complex, painstaking and incredibly time consuming.
“There is a general template for every genre of music, but you always try to be creative and innovative and keeping things fresh is challenging. For every song there are always so many decisions to be made, aside from picking an arranger and the musicians. Should there be a choir and if so should it be an adult choir or a kids choir? Should there be another soloist? Sometimes even the smallest details add a touch of the ‘wow’ factor to the song. So much of what I do is very tedious, listening to tracks over and over again to find the best parts of each one. What motivates me is the end result. Music brings tears, it brings emotion, it brings simcha to the world. There is no question that it is a higher power.”
Both Tyberg and producer Avi Newmark compared the process of producing a song to that of constructing a house.
“It is literally like building a house from the first step, all the way up,” explained Tyberg.
“When you produce a song you have to have a vision, in the same way that an architect has a blueprint,” added Newmark. “Just like a contractor hires the best man for each and every component of the job, every detail of a song has to come together, from understanding which song best suits a particular singer’s strengths to which arranger is best suited to a particular song, to which musicians would do it justice.”
Unlike Tyberg, Newmark feels that is the producer, not the singer who should have the final say in song selection.
“As a producer, you can objectively view a singer’s strengths, giving you the ability to find songs that play to his strong points,” explained Newmark. “When you pick a song for an artist, you have zero ulterior motive because if the song goes well, it is the singer, not the producer, who ultimately gets all the credit from the listeners. I have produced songs that have become mega-hits, that have catapulted singer’s careers, despite the fact that the singer initially didn’t care for either the song or the arrangement.”
Newmark firmly believes that while a producer’s strongest skill set is identifying the right person for each job in order to turn out the best possible finished product, there is a certain innate talent to being able to orchestrate the entire project to its fullest potential.
“Knowing when a song is finished, when everything is perfect and it is time to stop is just something you have in your gut,” said Newmark. “People ask me all the time how to produce a song, but like the ability to be a singer or a musician, if you don’t have it inside you it can’t be taught.”
Newmark also discouraged singers from attempting to produce their own albums.
“Like a lawyer who tries to represent himself in court, it just isn’t a good idea. Not only may it not be something that is in your skill set, you lack the objectivity that is part of any creative process.”
If a composer gives birth to a song, it is the arranger who breathes life into it.
“The arranger decides the form of the song, which instruments to use and writes out the music for those instruments,” explained arranger Leib Yaacov Rigler. “Everything gets conducted in the studio, turning what was originally just a song into a beautiful piece.”
The arranger also writes an introduction for the song and possibly some bridge pieces to further complement the existing music.
“Generally, I like to take some idea that I hear in the melody and put that into the introduction, in a sense feeding off the original song,” said Rigler who noted that sometimes people ask him to write an arrangement that echoes a popular song they enjoy. “I find that I am most successful when I am given a general idea of what to do, along with free reign to work from there. I ask myself, ‘If I were a violin, what would I want to do here?’ I try to use music to reflect what is in both the lyrics and the music of the song.”
While some songs require more effort, in other cases the music just flows.
“Ultimately, it is up to Hashem what will be popular with listeners but a good song can become a great song with the right arrangement.”
Batting cleanup in the studio is the engineer, who is responsible for taking thousands of hours of music and turning it into the finished product that finally ends up in the hands and ears of listeners.
“After the singer and all the musicians are done, we start cleaning up the tracks like there is no tomorrow, removing unnecessary noise and only then can you start upgrading the actual mix,” explained engineer Ian Freitor. “Sometimes a vocalist can do a song maybe seven times through and you do a super take with the best parts of each one, cleaning each one as you go. For drums alone you can have twelve separate microphones going; you have to consider each one of those microphones on every take. It is very complicated.”
As someone who is in recording studio from the very first day of a project until the last, Freitor, who has worked on over 200 albums, has the unique opportunity to be part of the entire creative process.
“People have no idea what goes into a song,” observed Frietor. “It could take months, even years of input from the start until the end. Jewish music has started to change over the last five years as both artists and listeners continue to look for innovations, as music continues to evolve and build on what is already out there. The wheel was invented many years ago, but we still use it, incorporating it into new designs and new technology. It is the same thing with music. People need to be educated in what is going on in the world of music and how we can best use it to create new and exciting music.”
The ultimate satisfaction for anyone in the music business is hearing how his or her efforts have had a positive impact on someone’s life.
“I heard one story of an Israeli girl whose family wasn’t religious and whose father struggled to bring Yiddishkeit into their lives,” recalled Waldner. “One day when she was fifteen, she heard Shwekey’s Eishes Chayil and she asked her father to sing the song to her mother on Friday night. It was a turning point in their lives and the girl, who is now completely religious, credits this song, that I wrote, with changing her life. All this from a song whose origins came to me one day while I was walking down the steps.”
“I hope that what I am doing brings nachas ruach to the Ribono Shel Olam,” added Waldner.
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