Attention to Detail

Attention to Detail


I’m sure the trippy psychedelia resulting from the reflections of the Christmas lights the Law and Order crew installed in one of my windows was not the effect they were going for, but I enjoyed seeing it when I returned home in the evening.

In the this-is-so-completely-random-but-is-yet-another-example-of-how-weird-my-life-is department, last week Universal Network Television LLC paid me $200 so they could install Christmas lights in the windows of my apartment. An episode of Law and Order Special Victims Unit was being filmed outside the building where I live and the production crew wanted to plant various visible cues everywhere to suggest the holiday season. I normally never decorate at home, but my inner bah-humbug is easily assuaged by a monetary payoff and admittedly the cash is particularly handy this time of year. Still, I’m amazed at this level of detail and the amount of care that went into something that will probably only appear on screen for a very short amount of time. They actually started setting up shop for the shoot, which took place all day Thursday, on Monday, making sure that cars would not be parked there on the day they were shooting, making various cosmetic alterations to my building to make it look like a housing project instead of a co-op, etc.


By affixing a sign by the entrance of the co-op apartment building I live in, the Law and Order production crew transformed it into a housing project.

I’ve long been intrigued by Orson Welles’s obsession with minutiae during the filming of his second motion picture The Magnificent Ambersons from 1942—designing a set that included a house with walls that could be rolled back in order to shoot continuous takes and, my all-time favorite, constructing an entire block of buildings which only appears in the film reflected through the windows of buildings across the street. Welles’s over-the-top approach and way-over-budget production costs wound up getting him sacked by the film’s producers before the film was completed; they wrestled control from him and ultimately completed it themselves. The lesson I’ve always taken away from this cautionary tale from the annals of Hollywood lore—as well as from the similar story of Brian Wilson’s inability to complete The Beach Boys’ 1967 album SMiLE—is to work within a reasonable set of limits and to know when to let something go.

In my own music I’ve long been fixated with various issues that go beyond what most people consider reasonable limits—explorations of microtonal tunings, unusual metrical configurations and tempo transformations, non-standard instrumentation, etc.—and have also had problems with letting certain details go. For me, the details are sometimes the most interesting part of the process, even if they don’t make the least bit of difference to most listeners. But it’s not so much that I’m interested in creating stuff that most people can’t hear. Rather, making sure all the elements fit seamlessly together is extraordinarily pleasurable, akin to the delight of completing an elaborate jigsaw puzzle, solving a Rubik’s Cube, or (as I can only imagine since I’m terrified of needles) knitting a scarf or a sweater. Coming to the conclusion of such a process, when everything seems to be all lined up correctly, is somehow its own satisfaction. For me, hearing a performance that captures significantly more than just a fleeting essence of the processes I used in the creation of the music is the icing on the cake.

Somehow seeing the depth of care that the crew for Law and Order put into making sure everything was just right made me reconsider the caution I had internalized from the Welles and Wilson sagas. I seriously wonder how many people watching that television episode will notice the Christmas lights in my window, but it’s beside the point. Having them there presumably makes for a more complete visual narrative. And the same is true for music that is crammed full of specificities but whose universal perceptibility is doubtful. You may not be able to hear all of what’s in there, but you can intuit that there is some kind of carefully considered manipulation of sonic materials going on. One of the poems by Stephen Crane that I set in the song cycle I recently completed contains the line, “nine and ninety nine lie.” For my realization of that, I included a progression of 108 deceptive cadences. A series of metric modulations constantly changes the precise tempo indicated by a quarter note, but it all stems from a basic quarter note value of 108. For another poem which attempts to define truth, A = 440 (which is regarded by most musicians as the absolute truth but wasn’t always so), is sung only once, when truth is apparently clear. I know that these are things that few people, if any, will hear or even care about, but including them in the piece led me down compositional paths that I think ultimately served the poems appropriately and led to what I believe or at least hope is effective music that transcends the methods used to construct it.

Similarly, those Christmas lights in my window, while undoubtedly not the key to solving whatever mystery plot unfolded in the episode of Law and Order filmed outside my apartment building, were significant enough to the creators of the show that they spent days arranging for them to be installed and paid me a couple of hundred bucks to boot. Now if I could only get commensurate remuneration for every one of my metric modulations.


And wouldn’t it be nice if cars were always moved an appropriate distance away from wherever our music was being performed.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

One thought on “Attention to Detail

  1. Mark N. Grant

    Smartly said and observed, Frank. But the filmmaker most film historians cite as proverbial for taking infinite if unseen pains was not Orson Welles but Welles’s actor-director predecessor Erich Von Stroheim, remembered today if at all as Gloria Swanson’s butler (and washed up silent film director) in the 1950 film “Sunset Boulevard,” a role that lampoons his real-life reputation. In the 1920s Stroheim, according to Arthur Knight, “ordered $10,000 of special medals to be struck off for officers in the army of a mythical kingdom, had the royal crest embroidered on his players’ underclothes, and held up a costly scene for hours until the smoke from a single chimney was rising to his satisfaction.” He shot his masterpiece, “Greed” (1924), in 42 reels—about 10 hours of film! Of course the studio cut it to shreds. It’s still wonderful to watch in its mangled state. It’s like a living painting. Stroheim shot it on location in San Francisco, tearing up the interiors of entire buildings to get what he wanted.

    Does an audience “feel” the players’ unseen authentic underwear in watching a picture? Yes, as they “hear” the detail you refer to in musical composition. Such detail, when not merely coy and manneristic, often invests music with an authenticity and conviction of expression that is felt beyond cognitive analysis.

    Fitting elements “seamlessly together” as you well put it is an essential part of the art and craft of a truly skilled composer. Note Tchaikovsky’s many remarks about “seaming”—“Even in the works of the greatest master, the organic sequence can fail and then a skillful join must be made” and this: “Formerly I was careless and did not give sufficient attention to the critical overhauling of my sketches. Consequently my “seams” showed….”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Conversation and respectful debate is vital to the NewMusicBox community. However, please remember to keep comments constructive and on-topic. Avoid personal attacks and defamatory language. We reserve the right to remove any comment that the community reports as abusive or that the staff determines is inappropriate.