ON THE EDGE WITH EDDIE JOBSON

Apr 1, 2001 12:00 PM, Bryan Reesman

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It was a trial-and-error process of trying to make Voices of Life sound pleasant enough to Western ears and to people used to somewhat more high-fidelity recordings, without removing the real character of the choir.

Eddie Jobson is a man with parallel careers — art rock progenitor, contemporary instrumental forerunner, world music adventurer and cutting-edge television composer. The gifted multi-instrumentalist perennially seeks to expand the boundaries of music, unconcerned with the niche marketing mentality that has seized the record industry over the past decade. “My interest in music, since I was young, has always been in what was progressive,” asserts Jobson. “In other words, who was doing what was new. I've never had that much interest in music that was frozen in time.”

Unlike many progressive rockers who strive for a certain sound, Jobson seeks out new and exciting musical possibilities regardless of genre constraints. A recent trinity of musical works proves this — four seasons scoring the successful CBS series Nash Bridges; producing and remixing the recent Voices of Life compilation for the Bulgarian Women's Choir; and creating Legacy, a progressive rock opus. These projects may seem quite disparate on the surface, but they're not surprising given the eclectic musical path the British musician has forged for himself over the past 25 years: He's appeared on over 50 albums, from his early days with Curved Air and Roxy Music, his progressive adventures with UK and Frank Zappa, his two mid-’80s solo albums (including 1985's Theme of Secrets, the first album entirely performed and recorded on the Synclavier), on through to his recent work. He's also won CLIO awards for Best Score for work on Amtrak and Bermuda tourism commercials.

Jobson's most recent high-profile gig was scoring nearly 100 episodes of CBS' Nash Bridges. Star and series executive producer Don Johnson knew Frank Zappa's music fairly well and thus was aware of Jobson's musical chops. “It was his directive to do the score in a world music style,” explains Jobson. “He was persistent in his request for percussion, percussion and more percussion, especially African percussion. What became a bigger challenge was that many of the normal tools you would use for scoring were removed — such as harmony, melody, being able to use synth pads or strings. Any of the typical things that you would evoke emotion with in order to capture the sense of the scene were essentially forbidden.”

The composer relished the challenge, generating an utterly original palette of sounds. Jobson incorporated acoustic guitar, didgeridoo and quirky instruments such as a harmonica and a Jew's harp. “It was a great experience, because it made me learn a lot about certain types of music, from rap to mariachi, that I otherwise may not have fully listened to,” he says. “This whole process certainly expanded my understanding of musical styles.”

Some episodes were done with specific styles: One episode featuring Nash's MIA brother “started off as Chinese and ends up as Vietnamese in style,” Jobson notes. Other shows had only one dominant style, like bagpipes and Irish pennywhistle in the “Brothers McMillen” episode. Further, Jobson composed nearly all of the background music heard in various locations, be it a Chinese restaurant or a shopping mall or a low-rider's car.

Although he had a music editor, Jobson engineered all of his tracks himself. “I played all the instruments. The music was all programmed on the Synclavier but using external MIDI samplers and synths.” Working on Nash Bridges took up eight months a year for four years. “Television is a very tough medium for a composer,” Jobson says. “Everything is done under such pressure and deadlines. Demands are being made all the time to sound like record tracks, which people spend weeks, months, even years on, and yet, as a TV composer, you literally have to turn the track around in two or three hours. We did 1,500 pieces of music for Nash. I was making 15 cues a week, often with just two or three days to do it in.”

After the fourth season, which ended in the spring of 2000, Jobson decided to retire from Nash Bridges, because there were two other projects he needed to finish, both involving the Bulgarian Women's Choir. He had begun working with them in 1995 for his Legacy album — which was originally intended to be a UK reunion album but evolved into something bigger — as well as producing and remixing tracks for a compilation of the choir's music.

The pairing of Jobson and the Bulgarian Women's Choir was kismet. During the choir's successful U.S. tours between 1987 and 1989, Jobson was living on the Caribbean island of Montserrat, absorbing socca and reggae, completely oblivious to their music. But in 1993, friend and former UK bandmate John Wetton played him the beguiling, otherworldly sounds of the choir, and Jobson was awestruck. “The level of dissonance and harmonic complexity was incredible,” the composer recalls. “The fact that they could actually sing this was astounding to me. There was just such a rich musicality to it and [such] depth and history. It tapped into something from my childhood.” That connection was his exposure to a myriad of forms of Balkan folk music and African music through the still-active Billingham International Folklore Festival, co-founded by Jobson's father in his hometown in northern England.

As a curtain boy at the theater, Jobson was exposed to performers from Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Russia, Ukraine and Hungary. “At the time, I was a classical musician but was exposed to all of this rich, deep folk music — the accordions, the cymbalom, the gaida, which is a kind of bagpipe instrument, and double-reeded, Middle Eastern-sounding instruments. All of this was part of my upbringing.” It also tied into Jobson's love of Russian classical music. “Listening to the Bulgarians' music tapped into early feelings that I had about this music of the region.”

The choir's 2,000-year musical history further tantalized the accomplished musician. “They have parts of their singing that are still diaphonic,” marvels Jobson. “This is a vestige of early polyphony when Bulgaria was isolated from the rest of the world [for 1,000 years], just before polyphonic harmony developed in Western Europe. And the fact that you can still hear that in their music now — these diaphonic lines or soloists singing over a single drone — is fascinating.”

Even more compelling for Jobson was the fact that the choir has spent the last 50 years pursuing innovative ideas. “The Soviets brought in extraordinary, contemporary classical composers who have tried to do extremely cutting-edge things with the choir,” he notes. The Bulgarians' other collaborations also echo Jobson's own progressive predilections. They have worked with the Kodo drummers of Japan, the Tuuvan throat singers Huun Huur-Tu, the Moscow Art Trio and a flamenco singer from Spain. Add to that list an art rocker with an equally eclectic career. “It shows a good spirit of innovation that they're prepared to embrace all kinds of music,” he says.

Once he heard them, the mesmerizing sounds of the Bulgarian Women's Choir ignited Jobson's imagination. He began formulating a project that he felt would take progressive music into the next century. He had no desire to relive his days with UK, but he wanted to take what they had done and extrapolate where progressive music might have gone in the last two decades — beyond the jazz and classical influences that were paramount to ’70s prog rockers like UK, ELP and Yes. Inspired by the global village that modern technology was helping to build, Jobson began to look at bringing in music that had escaped the embrace of past progressive rockers — such as blues, funk, and most importantly, world music — as well as to free the style from a stringently structured, nearly academic viewpoint.

“What I came up with was what I now call ‘globe music,’” remarks Jobson. “The difference between globe music and world music is that world music tends to still be very ethnic and favors the Third World. Globe music recognizes somewhat more cultured musical styles and tries to incorporate them into an amalgamation of other somewhat more cultured musical styles.”

Integrating the Bulgarian choir into the Legacy project was far more complex than it sounds. Jobson faced a series of hurdles in taking his own words and making them singable by the choir. “The first challenge was understanding what their music was, where the style originated and learning all these stylistic elements that were combined into this sonic montage that is the Bulgarian Women's Choir.”

The second challenge involved translating his musical ideas into their own musical dialect. “Every little yelp and whoop and yodel was very precisely written using fairly archaic notation devices. There were inverted mordents, turns and other devices that I hadn't worked with or seen since studying music theory when I was 14 years old. But there it all was in the score. They're a highly disciplined choir. Even though they are traditional folk singers, they have a very strict regimen of classical study. They all read music extremely well.”

The third challenge was translating Jobson's poetry into Bulgarian words. He sought the talents of a Balkan poetry professor from Boston University, and together they worked out the poems into Bulgarian. “It's a very percussive language,” explains Jobson. “A lot of the words just don't seem to have any vowels in them, so I would ask him what a certain English phrase was, and he would come back with this machine gun staccato that was completely unsingable. Further, he said that some of the lyrics that they used were not only in Bulgarian, but they were from archaic Bulgarian folk poetry. So to really do it in the authentic style, we had to use phrases that would be typical of ancient poetry. I would come up with these phrases, and he would find interesting metaphors that they would have used a couple of centuries ago.”

The last step in scoring the music was writing the words in the proper alphabet. The choir reads in the cyrillic alphabet, so Jobson found a transcriber in New York to rewrite the score “because in vocal scoring, every syllable has to have a note assigned to it. Where you may have one note with a three-syllable word, that one note had to be turned into three notes with the right rhythm. So we had to rewrite the entire score [and integrate the] cyrillic words by hand, which was remarkable to watch.”

The musical and lyrical theme for Legacy was inspired by his trips to Bulgaria to begin recording the choir, to the Czech Republic to record the City of Prague Philharmonic, and by his observations about what had transpired there over the last 50 years and the aftermath of Eastern Europe's despotic regimes. “That's what the title refers to,” he says, “the legacy that's been left not only by the oppressors, but this spiritual legacy that has been retained by the people, despite so many years of hardship.”

The first recording sessions for Legacy took place in 1995. Jobson recorded the group in the Russian Cultural Center in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia, bringing in 14 cases of digital recording equipment from Floating Earth, a company that specializes in on-location classical recording. For the 1999 sessions, he rented a cathedral and brought equipment and recording engineer Mike Cox from Abbey Road Studios. Jobson miked the choir with four pairs of Schoeps microphones run into a Genex 20-bit hard disk system. He utilized a Tascam DA-88 for playback. Because the two Legacy vocal numbers were to be later integrated into rock songs, the conductor required the use of a click track.

The recordings were contained to just eight tracks. “I didn't want to get into too many microphones,” Jobson remarks. “We wanted to keep it fairly pure, so we just had a couple of solo mics down in front of the choir, and then the main two fairly widely spread close mics. Then a couple of higher overheads, and then a couple of ambient mics.” Mixing the tracks was relatively easy: “I usually found that just two of the pairs were enough, usually the close mics and one of the ambients mixed in was enough, if you had the right placement.”

After beginning work on Legacy, Jobson became sidetracked with scoring Nash. Then the Bulgarian Women's Choir record label in Germany approached him about releasing future albums by the group, especially as Jobson had founded a label for the difficult-to-market Legacy project called Globe Music Media Arts. He suggested assembling a compilation of their best live and studio performances, basically a mixture of released and unreleased material. He would later add three tracks from the Legacy project — “Zavesata Pada (The Curtain Falls),” “Utopia” and the instrumental album intro “Nov Den (A New Day)” — but in a form more befitting their style.

For the Voices of Life album, Jobson spent two months in his L.A. studio remixing the older recordings to clean out noise — “air conditioning buzzes, lighting hums and even a lot of coughing from the audience, which was very difficult to remove,” he explains. “A lot of it came down to clever manual editing on Pro Tools to remove sounds and then trying to extend sounds from other places or even time-expand sounds in order to fill gaps that we'd taken out; sometimes editing in-between phrases and filling the phrases with high-quality digital cathedral reverb. A lot of the work on my part was in trying to make the recordings sound like high-fidelity, full-sonic recordings, whereas many of the original recordings didn't. I did that just by extensive EQ'ing.

“The choir's tonality is very difficult to record, especially when it's not miked terribly well,” he continues. “You end up with a lot of shrieking formants in the sound, and these can really combine to create this dense, high-pitched whistling in the sound that on speakers can be pretty unpleasant. It was a very difficult job, because I had to take very narrow Q's on those harmonics and isolate them and notch them out. But there were so many of them within the one sound that by the time I got through it all and notched them all out, a lot of the presence of the track would disappear. So then I'd have to rebuild it back up again with a more pleasant top end, bring the presence back in without that obnoxious sibilance. It was a trial-and-error process of trying to make it sound pleasant enough to Western ears and to people used to somewhat more high-fidelity recordings, without removing the real character of the choir.”

Voices of Life, the dynamic Bulgarian Women's Choir compilation that also includes guest spots from King Crimson's Tony Levin (on Chapman stick), Bill Bruford (drums), Jobson (electric violin and surreptitious synths) and the string section of the Prague Philharmonic, has found a receptive audience in the States; the Bulgarian Women's Choir successfully toured the U.S. last fall. Jobson and the choir made numerous NPR appearances, and CNN taped one of their performances. In addition, they were selected International Artist of the Year on Amazon.com, and they have received critical acclaim from prominent newspapers, including The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

One hopes that the critical acclaim that the Voices album has garnered will also find its way to Legacy once it is finally released. But Jobson is concerned with staying true to himself, no matter where his muse takes him. “I suppose, when I look back, it does seem like I've gone in a lot of different directions,” he observes. “But for me, it's always been the same direction, it's just been in pursuit of new, interesting things. I try to stay on the cutting edge as best I can, both with technology and with whatever's going on musically, because that's what gets me out of bed in the morning: not getting too stuck on the same thing and going into a repeat formula mode.”

For more, log on to www.globemusic.com.






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