A Powerful Theme: an exploration of theme tunes by Night Terrace’s David Ashton

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Recently, I’ve been very excited by a new Kickstarter project –  the SF comedy radio serial Night Terrace, about Anastasia Black (Jackie Woodburne of Neighbours fame) a retired world-saving adventurer who finds her quiet life irritatingly interrupted when her house starts inexplicably travelling through space and time. Stuck with her (or indeed the other way around) is Eddie Jones (Ben McKenzie), who was trying to sell her something at the time.

Of course, the show needs funding first!

Music is an important part of the TV and radio experience (and I hope to the reading experience of Kitty and Cadaver!) With this in mind, I’ve asked David Ashton, responsible for the theme tune and other sounds of Night Terrace, to write about TV and radio theme tunes. Read on! (or skip straight to pledging support for Night Terrace at Kickstarter.)

A POWERFUL THEME

by David Ashton

I have the ‘Sound Designer’ job for Night Terrace. If the project meets the Kickstarter goal then I’ll be making whizz-bang spacey sound effects and stuff. Kind of like the BBC Radiophonic Workshop working on Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy.

In other words, this is pretty much my dream job.

I also have to come up with a theme tune. Television and radio themes are among the most evocative pieces of music there are. Once, when I was working at the ABC, I unexpectedly heard the BBC Match of the Day theme wafting across the airwaves, instantly transporting me back to childhood Sunday teatimes listening to the UK soccer results. When I mentioned it to the broadcaster he said that several people had called in to say the same thing – obviously I wasn’t the only one with an English Dad.

Theme tunes do a vital job of setting up the mood and tone of a series. Take Nerf Herder’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer theme for example. It starts with an ominous descending pipe organ riff – the kind of thing you’d expect to hear in a Vincent Price movie – before suddenly becoming an upbeat, punk-ish guitar instrumental just on the ‘edgy’ side of mainstream. What better way to say “we’re going to take all your boring old ideas of what a vampire story is and replace it with something clever and youth-oriented”?

Or compare the ‘adventure in space’ theme from the original 1978 Battlestar Galactica (by Stu Phillips and Glen Larson) to the elegiac theme to the 21st version of the series (by Bear McCreary) and you’ll know immediately all you need to know about the two approaches to the same story.

Sometimes a really good theme tune can lift less-than-stellar material too. The Walking Dead is too often a mediocre series but usually the best moment in any given episode is towards the end of the cold open when the arpeggiated violins start to fade in.

I should admit at this point that I’m enough of a theme tune nerd that I don’t just have favourite theme tunes, but favourite moments in theme tunes. I even have a favourite hi-hat hit in the Cowboy Beebop theme (its at about 29 seconds if you’re interested.)

My favourite era of TV themes is probably the ‘spy-fi’ era of the sixties (with some overlap to the fifties and seventies). Shows like Danger Man, The Man From Uncle, The Prisoner, The Avengers and so on. These programmes manage to pack more action and intrigue into their theme tunes than most shows manage in a whole series. If you’ve wondered how Tom Cruise keeps having hits with those Mission Impossible films – well, you can thank Lalo Shifrin for that.

I want to make a special mention here of Barry Gray, who created the many classic theme tunes for Gerry Anderson’s TV series. He’s best known for the military bombast of the Thunderbirds music, but his U.F.O. theme is classic spy-fi and the Space 1999 theme is spy-fi given a wakka-wakka disco groove for the 1970s. My favourite of his, though is the absolutely manic theme for Stingray. “Anything can happen for the next half hour” goes the voice-over, but really that promise is there in the theme tune.

Here are six Fun (And Slightly Opinionated) ‘Facts’ About Theme Tunes You Might Not Already Know:

  1. The singing in the theme music for the Battlestar Galactica re-boot is actually real lyrics in Sanskrit.
  2. Hollywood composer John Williams began his career writing theme tunes for television, including the great themes for Irwin Allen’s TV productions such as Lost in Space and one of my favourites The Time Tunnel. Back than he was credited as “Johnny Williams.”
  3. The original version of the Doctor Who theme was made in 1963 – before synthesizers had even been invented. Delia Derbyshire, working at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, realised Ron Grainer’s composition by taking a lot of individual sounds (including some made by electronic testing equipment and some made plucking a piece of string) re-recording them at different speeds to create the right pitches and the sticking all the resulting pieces of tape together in the correct order to make the tune.
  4. Douglas Adams was a brilliant writer with terrible taste in music, but he did good when he picked Journey of the Sorcerer by The Eagles to be the theme music for the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy radio series.
  5. The theme to Futurama is heavily inspired by the 1967 track Psyché Rock by Pierre Henry. The opening theme and animation for Archer is just a straight rip-off of Cowboy Beebop.
  6. One theme tune to have an impact on the pop charts was Angelo Badalamenti’s theme to Twin Peaks (with vocals by Julee Cruise.) What you might not know is that the Badalamenti/Cruise/David Lynch style of spooky twangy jazz actually came about when Lynch wanted to use This Mortal Coil’s version of Song to Siren in his movie Blue Velvet. When they couldn’t afford to license that track they instead went about re-creating their own version of ethereal-vocals-and-guitar pop, which then carried over to become the musical identity of Twin Peaks.

WHAT IS NIGHT TERRACE?

Night Terrace is a new audio comedy from the minds behind ABC1′s Outland, ABC2′s Bazura Project and the hit podcast Splendid Chaps. It follows the adventures of Anastasia Black (played by Neighbours veteran Jackie Woodburne), who used to save the world for the government but now just wants a quiet life in retirement. So when her house inexplicably starts travelling in time and space she’s understandably miffed. She’s also not exactly thrilled about Eddie Jones, who happened to be on her doorstep at the time and is now her unlikely fellow traveller. University hasn’t prepared Eddie to cope with other worlds or time paradoxes, but he still thinks they’re a step up from selling electricity plans door-to-door.

Together Anastasia and Eddie will face alien invasions, hideous monsters, and a shadowy figure known only as “Sue”. All the while hoping the house will eventually take them home…

The team are crowdfunding the first series of Night Terrace right now. Jane Badler, chanteuse and actress (the original Diana of the original V!) is also slated for a role if the show is funded. They’re over two thirds of the way to their goal – and you can help them reach their funding goal at Kickstarter. I have a Key to the Terrace, but if you’re really keen you can be listed as a producer!

What’s your favourite theme tune (or Kitty song?) Feel free to leave a comment!

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Cranky Ladies: Euphemia Allen and Chopsticks

cranky ladiesIn March, I am writing about some Cranky Ladies of History across my Kitty, Mortal Words and Adventurous Hearts blogs, in honour and support of the Cranky Ladies of History anthology Pozible campaign. The contents of the book haven’t been finalised, but the anthology has submissions from amazing writers like Karen Healey, Jane Yolen, Rob Shearman, Foz Meadows, Kirstyn McDermott, Garth Nix and Deborah Biancotti!

Like countless children before me (and no doubt, after) one of the first things I learned to do on a piano keyboard were the simple (and simply irritating) notes of the tune called Chopsticks. The first few bars of it, at least

At the time, I had no idea there was any more of the thing. In fact, as far as I knew, that particular collection of notes was all there was, and had existed for all of time (or at least, throughout the existence of pianos). But of course, unless you’re talking quantum physics, or how cats apparate in and out of rooms, nothing ever springs from nothing.

In the course of my internet wanderings, I came across a reference to one Euphemia Allen, a British woman credited as the composer of the ‘Celebrated Chop Sticks Waltz’. She wrote it when she was 16 and it was published in 1877 by her brother, Mozart Allen (yes, really – his brothers were named Haydn and Handel). The work was published under the name Arthur de Lulli and she is not known to have written or published anything after. She lived until 1949, however, so who knew what she got up to in her free time.

To tell the truth, I don’t know if she was a particularly cranky lady of history, but in my investigations I was intrigued by a 1932 article by Alfred V Frankenstein (again – yes, really) in The American Mercury, called “Chopsticks – A Musicological Mystery.”

Frankenstein writes unflatteringly of swathes of bad music written to be easy for amateurs to play, and categorizes the Chopsticks waltz as more a parlor trick than a piece of music. This is partly because the piece is meant to be played in a chopping motion with the side of the hand – hence its name, which has nothing to do with Chinese eating utensils.

Frankenstein notes that the piece was originally published as ‘arranged by Arthur de Lulli’ and later as composed by Euphemia. Frankenstein is disinclined to believe that Euphemia did more than arrange the piece, but confesses his inability to discover the original work and who may have composed it. Mozart and Euphemia, both still alive at the time of the article (Euphemia was by then living in Glasgow) failed to satisfy his curiosity on that issue.

A similar piece was put together by a Russian composer with the aid of a daughter who playing the opening chopping section, in the year of the original’s publication. Liszt took an interest in the piece later on.

I’m no music historian, but perhaps Frankenstein is a little churlish to claim the waltz could not have been written by this girl, especially since he couldn’t locate an antecedent. It’s just as likely that she did, surely, and thereby reached the limit of her musical skill, and even indulgent brothers with a music publishing house couldn’t be persuaded to unleash her creations on the world at large.

But it’s there in print that Euphemia wouldn’t answer Mr Frankenstein’s questions, so I imagine she might have been just a little cranky at the assumption that she didn’t write the wretched thing.

What cranky musical ladies of history do you know of? Please comment and share the joy!

Strung Out in Heaven’s High

Death_to_VinylDeath comes to us all. If you’re comfortable with this thought, or at least a forward planner, you’ll have made notes on how you want your send-off to be. You’ll have selected the music (I myself has a Requiem Song List, which I may discuss at another time) and even the type of casket.

For music lovers, And Vinyly offers something a bit more… lavish. Or outre. Or just grotesque, depending on your attitude.

For a stately fee, UK-based And Vinyly will press your ashes into a very limited edition vinyl album, with the soundscape of 12 minutes a side provided by you. For an extra cost, you can have bespoke (‘bespook’) portraits and music, and even international distribution.

If you’re not ready to go yet, but your beloved pet has shuffled off this mortal coil, you can always try it out with the cremated remains of your companion animal.

For £10,000 they’ll even officiate at your funeral for you.

Honestly, I don’t know whether to be amused or mortified (heh, heh, pun) by the fact that I find this idea so appealing!

What’s your vote?

(And yes, the post heading is from David Bowie’s Ashes to Ashes.)

New to Kitty and Cadaver? Find out about the project in About Kitty and Cadaver or start from chapter one at Read the Book.

I <3 Vampire Songs

I love a good song about vampires. Note I said ‘good’. Things like Dracula, Cha Cha by Bruno Martino are good as novelty songs, but really, I’m all about the heartfelt odes to bloodsuckers of the night.

Back in the day, I was a huge fan of Jon English. He sang songs about murder (Hollywood Seven) and gift-giving for the impoverished and in love (Six Ribbons) – and this lovely song about Carmilla, presumably named for the character in the 1872 novella by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. Carmilla predates Dracula by a quarter of a century and is a whole lot more lesbian than Stoker’s book.

(The aspect ratio is out on this video, but the other version I found was out of synch. Sigh.)

Next: okay, it may be obvious, but Sting’s Moon Over Bourbon Street is great. Moody, stylish and full of longing.

Anyone who knows me also knows what a big fan I am of Fall Out Boy. They play with horror imagery all the time, especially in the clips related to their new album, Save Rock and Roll. That album contains Alone Together, with its giveaway lyrics of “we could stay young forever’ and “I’m outside your door, invite me in”. The video is the fourth of the proposed 11, one for each song on the album. The videos viewed together, in order, tell a story. A very worrying story. Possibly of a band that ate a bad prawn before coming up with the idea. (Well, I say that, but I still love the wild excesses of each of the clips. Maybe I just have a thing for Captain Hook!Crazy-Eyes!Patrick Stump.)

But first there was the video for A Little Less Sixteen Candles, A Little More ‘Touch Me’. (Note that it starts with a lot of screaming, so you might want to have the audio down if you’re at work.)

What are your favourite vampire songs! Gimme linkage, people!

New to Kitty and Cadaver? Find out about the project in About Kitty and Cadaver or start from chapter one at Read the Book.

Melbourne Festival Review: Rhythms and Riffs

melbourne-festival-2013-logoExperimental theatre; peculiar music; outre themes; uncomfortable ideas; puzzling artistic decisions; and the occasional mainstream surprise. Phrases that could apply to either the sprawling Melbourne Fringe Festival or the more tightly curated Melbourne Festival that follows. There’s only one sure way to tell them apart: the budget.

Still, as we sat down at The Edge auditorium in Federation Square, it was immediately obvious which of the Festivals we were at. Six huge drum set-ups were ranged around the hard wooden planes and huge windows of The Edge, and the show, The Black of the Star, was only on for three performances.

BlackStarAlso, the program text – For six percussionists, tape and positioned astronomical signal broadcast – were a dead giveaway that we were once more at the Melbourne Festival.

The performance, by Speak Percussion and SIAL Sound Studios, was an hour long percussive interpretation of the signals emitted by the Vela pulsar. It’s hard to describe, except in opposing mash-ups – an unmusical musicality; arhythmic rhythms; unnatural naturalism. Huge drums, narrow planks of wood, gongs, cymbals, little bells, bows dragged along metal rims, sudden silences and crashing interuptions. It’s easy to see why, on first hearing the sounds of pulsars, scientists wondered if sentient life was behind them.

Sentient life was certainly behind this collection of tone and beat, and through the tall windows we had a view of the Yarra, the city, the sky and stars above. It may not be hip-hop, but it’s a stimulating and fascinating interpretation of the rhythms of the natural world, and pretty impressive.

What I wasn’t expecting the next night was British India at the Hi Fi Bar. I like British India and all power to them, but I guess I expect something much weirder at a Festival Show. They were terrific, and terrifically loud, and I didn’t stay till the end because I am a poor excuse for a rager.

SHE REX 2Having said that, their second support act, Sydney band She Rex, was a revelation. Kickass rock/hop-hop (ah, there’s the hip-hop!) with lead singer Nikkita Rast growling and singing her way through a set of songs both powerful and danceable.Tash Adams behind the drums was a dynamo to behold, and Sarah Julienne and Darcie Irwin-Simpson on synth and guitar respectively rounded off the fuck-they’re-good band. I’m off to iTunes to get their entire back catalogue.

Weird percussion and a whole new band to love? Definitely a successful Festival for me so far!

Both of those shows are over, but the Melbourne Festival continue until 27 October. Check their site for other shows.

New to Kitty and Cadaver? Find out about the project in About Kitty and Cadaver or start from chapter one at Read the Book.

Montreal and Music

One of the things on my agenda during my recent trip to Canada was to visit Montreal and scout it as a place for a potential future Kitty and Cadaver story. Montreal has a great tradition of music and performance, and several places and ideas came together to make a future story viable. I have notes and the start of a future book set there.

There are a lot of musical moments to choose from in Montreal – and I intend to incorporate as many of them as possible when the time comes.

For example, one night we were going to Les Foufounes Electriques, we stumbled across a festival for emerging music, so we stopped to listen to the DJ and dance for a bit.

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We went on after that to Les FouFounes as planned (its name means ‘electric buttocks’). No live music that night, but I listened to the DJs and reflected how it reminded me of a place called The Atomic Cafe I used to frequent in Perth in the 80s.

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On the Sunday, we went to two great regular Montreal events: the Tam Tams and the Piknic Electronik. The Tam Tams are a drum circle that sprang up spontaneously at the base of Mont Royal park in the late 70s. A drumming circle will be right up Yuka’s alley.

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The Piknic is a summer music festival that has weekly sessions on St Helen’s Island, underneath a giant, spindly sculpture that looks like an alien insect to me. Plenty of potential in both that and the festival, which encourages people of all ages to come and dance.

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One thing I loved about Montreal was its summer arts idea of putting pianos in random places around the city. I came across this gentleman playing and asked if I could film him. He gave me permission and after a while, started to sing. It was just lovely.

Montreal also has an underground city, where people can still shop and get around during the snowy winter months as well as reaching the subway trains. One intersection turned out to be a perfect little echo chamber. I sang a little of a song I wrote a while back called This Ghost.(15 second MP3 file)

The corridors near the train stations also have these signs showing the designated spots for buskers.

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I’m not sure yet how all of these elements will come together for a Kitty story set in Montreal, but they are all percolating away.

But first, I need to finish Not the Zombie Apocalypse, and the second planned story (tentatively about the London underground and maybe ghosts).

New to Kitty and Cadaver? Find out about the project in About Kitty and Cadaver or start from chapter one at Read the Book.