DATE November 21, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Film editor Dede Allen talks about her career in the
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Dede Allen, is considered a master film editor. One of her
achievements is editing the classic pool-shark movie, "The Hustler."
(Soundbite of "The Hustler" with music and pool shots throughout soundbite)
Mr. PAUL NEWMAN: Two ball, side pocket. Very good shot. You know, I've
got a hunch, fat man. I've got a hunch it's me from here on in. One ball,
corner pocket. Has that ever happened to you, when all of a sudden you feel
like you can't miss?
And I dreamed about this game, fat man. I dreamed about this game every night
on the road. Five ball. You know, this is my table, man. I own it.
Seven ball. Four ball.
Unidentified Man #2: Game.
Mr. NEWMAN: Eleven ball. Rack. Ten ball in that corner.
One ball in the corner pocket.
Unidentified Man #2: Game.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: That was Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason. Some of the other films Dede
Allen has edited include "Odds Against Tomorrow," "Bonnie and Clyde," "Dog Day
Afternoon," "Serpico," "Night Moves," "The Missouri Breaks," "Reds," "The
Breakfast Club," "The Addams Family," and "The Wonder Boys," which has just
been re-released. She received the 1999 Career Achievement Award from the Los
Angeles Film Critics Association. She was the first editor to ever receive
Editing is essential in shaping the narrative and rhythm of a film, yet we
often aren't conscious of it. But in the film "Bonnie and Clyde," the
editing of the final shootout was remarkable. The two bank robbers were hit
with dozens of bullets and we saw their bodies twitch and jump with the
impact of each hit. Adding to the impact were the rapid edits that conveyed
the fury of the bullets and also showed the action at varying speeds.
(Soundbite of "Bonnie and Clyde" of bullets being fired)
GROSS: You know what's always interested me about that scene. There's
really so little blood for so many bullet holes. It's almost as if there's a
double standard in what violence is acceptable--that the bullets were OK, but
not the blood.
Ms. DEDE ALLEN (Film Editor): Well, an interesting thing, which is a parallel
thing to this is when we saw it, it was at a preview. And Arthur almost died
because everything was so bloody and so red. And I spent 11 more days at
Technicolor to get the tone that Arthur wanted. I mean, he was just
distraught. It was a great preview. You know, it saved our lives, that
preview. But the color was pretty heavy and dense and the blood was very,
very dark. And I don't know how that quite relates to the bullets, but,
certainly, I don't think Arthur was ever interested in having violent blood
spurting out, unless there was a real reason for it because, basically, this
was a film that he made after the Kennedy assassination. And I've always felt
that that last scene was a kind of a symbolic scene about the violence in
America, which, of course, still exists.
GROSS: You're one of the first successful women film editors. How did you
first get your foot in the door in the 1940s?
Ms. ALLEN: Well, I was going to college at a place called Scripps College in
Claremont, California. I'm not from California, but that's where I went to
college. And between my sophomore and junior year, it was 1943, the middle of
the war. Faith Elliott Hubley and I were the first two girl messengers hired
at Columbia when the guys went off to war that summer. And I never finished
college. I just stayed messenger for 10 months, and then I was four years in
sound before I ever got a chance to touch picture. And I never did that in
the four years at Columbia. I was sound effects editor, and I think that has
a lot to do with whatever rhythm people say I have.
GROSS: So how do you think learning to edit sound effects influenced you as
a film editor?
Ms. ALLEN: Well, I think tremendously, because I have no fear of sound. I
worked when it was optical. You used to look at the stuff and see it. And
then later we went to Mag(ph) when it was in New York. You know, it's just as
easy. You just learn a different--you don't look at it. You just hear it.
And sound has always been very important. It is very important to me. I
don't like to show even the first cut unless it plays soundwise. And, of
course, in those days it was hard to make it play soundwise because you had
one track. You didn't have two or three tracks. You didn't have an
Abbott(ph) or any of those things.
GROSS: An Abbott is a digital system of editing.
Ms. ALLEN: It's a digital system, yes, although it goes to film, ultimately,
you know, when you screen and go to prints. You're cutting on numbers and
little pieces of information which come out as a picture.
GROSS: When you were first learning how to edit film, were there certain
rules that you were told were, basically, unbreakable that you've subsequently
Ms. ALLEN: Oh, yes. I remember one man, a very, very generous man who was
doing Ann Miller pictures. And he took me in and said, `I want to teach you
something.' He said, `You always start with a long shot, then you move in to
an over shoulder or a group shot,' and he said, `And you never change that
order.' Of course, when I started cutting in the years in New York before I
could get features, I was working in what was called a spot house. And I was
doing industrials and things. And somehow or other I was breaking the rule
constantly. I was doing medical films where, you know, I just didn't seem to
think about that that way.
When I got a chance to cut for Bob Wise, I was terrified. He was, after all,
Orson Welles' editor, you know, and I was very impressed. This was the first
picture he, also, was in charge of producing. Harry Belafonte was producing a
picture called "Odds Against Tomorrow" in 1959. And I was by then 34 years
old. And I had started when I was 18, so that was a long route to get there.
But the first Saturday that I ever showed Bob Wise my first scene--the scene
up on Riverside Drive in a clunky apartment where Ed Begley and Robert Ryan
first meet with Harry Belafonte. And Robert Ryan plays a very racist bank
robber. And I worked that scene over and over and over again.
And in those days, you had hot splicers, meaning big foot splicers where, if
you lost a frame, you had to slug it in black. And so the first sequence that
I showed him, it had what I used to call `little blackies' in them, you know,
little black slugs in them. And he looked at the scene and he punched me on
the arm and says, `Good girl. I like to see you've been working with that.
Never be afraid.' I said, `Oh, I was so afraid all my mistakes would show.'
He says, `No.' He says, `You've been working this scene.' It wasn't like a
time know where, with the Abbott or something, you can do it any one of a
dozen ways and nobody sees your mistakes. He was just so encouraging. I
mean, I couldn't have had a better mentor as my first big feature.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is film editor Dede Allen. Among
the many films she's edited include "The Hustler," "Bonnie and Clyde,"
"Little Big Man," "Dog Day Afternoon," "Reds," "The Addams Family," and the
current film, "The Wonder Boys." She received the 1999 Career Achievement
Award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. She's the first editor
to get that honor.
Let me ask you about the film "The Hustler," one of the early films you
edited. This is the 1961 classic about pool hustlers...
Ms. ALLEN: Right.
GROSS: ...starring Paul Newman, George C. Scott and Jackie Gleason. It was
directed by Robert Rossen. In the pool scenes, there's a real great rhythm
between the pool shots, the view of the table and the cutaways to the
reactions of the players and the spectators. And in some scenes, the pace
seems to just escalate as the game goes on and tension increases. Can you
describe your approach to editing those pool sequences through the film?
Ms. ALLEN: Yes. Actually, the pool sequences were the first things that were
shot. We were in Ames Pool Hall(ph) for a long time. And I was back in my
cutting room cutting it. And when we shot what became montages and even the
ones that weren't montages, as the pace increased in that whole sequence at
the beginning of the first big game that Minnesota Fats wins, it was long, but
it played. This is the point I think I'm trying to make. It played. It
played long. And then when we started montaging it, I would take the black
and white without even going to what was then called a fine grain, which was
where you would put it out in a black-and-white film, ultimately. You would
go to a finer grain and then re-photograph it from that. I would take the
black and white and do what I call quick and dirty montages. And that's the
manner in which we did the first one. Once it was, say, a full reel--and I
got it down to, then, a half a reel. And then, you know--this is for each
montage. Some of the montages were faster. It was a process. It's all a
But if a scene played, Rossen would then tell me--well, it's kind of a--he
said, `Don't piss in the mustard.' It's kind of a dirty expression. I don't
if you can use that. Don't improve it into a disaster. But he was a
fantastic story man. I mean, he really knew. We would switch scenes around.
We would go up and just switch scenes, play them differently. And we had to
lose one of the best scenes--Paul was just heartbroken--in the pool hall
because it was very similar to what the story told in another scene. And even
though it was, as far as Paul was concerned, a better scene for performance,
it had to go. And that was the kind of thing Rossen was good at. We just
never had a chance to totally finish it, cutting down. And, as I said,
sometimes he didn't want refining scenes.
GROSS: Who explained to Paul Newman that the scene had to go even though he
loved it? Did you do that?
Ms. ALLEN: Oh, probably Rossen; probably Rossen.
GROSS: You were spared from that yourself.
Ms. ALLEN: No, no. I didn't--I mean, you know, he came to all the dailies
and--well, I could tell--I'm sure Paul wouldn't mind if I told this funny
story on Rossen. He would sit with me, and Paul would come up afterwards and
he would start telling me how he felt about the scene, what he wanted. And
then Rossen once said to me, `Never pay attention because he wants Eddie
Felson to be a good guy. Actually, he's not a good guy. Bobby Darin could
have played him. I mean, you know, he's that kind of a bad guy.' And he says,
`He wants him because he's such a good person himself, he wanted Eddie Felson
to be nicer than he really was.'
GROSS: That's interesting.
Ms. ALLEN: Yeah.
GROSS: Does it ever happen that you have a scene and no matter how many
takes you did, there was always one actor for whom the scene worked and
another actor that wasn't at their best? And then in the final...
Ms. ALLEN: Oh, it happens all the time.
GROSS: Yeah. And in the final edit, you have to decide which actor is going
to get their good performance in the scene and who's going to get their...
Ms. ALLEN: I don't think you think of it as an actor...
Ms. ALLEN: ...whose good performance is there. I think you have to protect
actors always. I'm a great believer in never allowing--even fine actors,
sometimes, have tics that they do they don't even know they do, you know? And
once in a while I'll see them in a movie, and I think, `Jesus, why did the
editor not, you know, help that actor a little?' That's not, I think, what you
do. You play the scene for the scene, and if there's a weak actor, generally,
you just play it slightly differently. You know going in that--you've seen
the dailies enough. I memorize all my footage and I put them all in a certain
order and memorize them. And I know where the weak parts and the strong parts
are. And if you don't have all equal actors, you wouldn't even think of
trying to do that unless it helped the scene to do that at that occasion, you
know, or once in a while you'll use a mistake or something that isn't quite
right to make a point. It just completely depends--always a matter of choice
when you're starting. Who do you--how do you decide who to play what line on?
GROSS: You know...
Ms. ALLEN: I don't--I'm not intellectual that way. I don't sit down and
graph it out. I go completely by gut.
GROSS: So you like to be at the rehearsals, if possible. You like to be on
the set. You like to see the dailies. Do you ever worry that that will
influence your decision that--in other words, that--when you're actually
editing a movie that a scene might look different than your memory of it or
than the way it played on the set and that you'll be kind of too influenced
by the way it played on the set as opposed to...
Ms. ALLEN: Well, that's a good question.
Ms. ALLEN: That's a very good question because, actually, I don't like to be
on the set. I don't want to know who's fighting with who, who's screwing
who. I don't want to know any of that. That doesn't interest me in any way.
I'm only on the set when I'm called on the set.
Ms. ALLEN: Otherwise, I don't really go on the set. I never go on the set
because I like to look at the film. And for me, it's fresh.
Ms. ALLEN: And I don't have to know any of the baggage that goes with making
GROSS: My guest is film editor Dede Allen. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of "The Hustler" with pool shots and music throughout the
Mr. NEWMAN: Four ball.
Unidentified Man: Game.
Mr. NEWMAN: Eleven ball. Rack. Ten ball in that corner.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: My guest is film editor Dede Allen. Her movies include "The Hustler,"
"Bonnie and Clyde," "Dog Day Afternoon," "Reds," and "The Wonder Boys," which
has just been re-released.
What should a good editor do to watch out for an actor?
Ms. ALLEN: Well, you just don't put anything--you never make an actor
look--for instance, it's--if a woman is going up a staircase and there's a
camera following her and it's someone who's being photographed, even if they
have a very slender figure, sometimes they can look a little wobbly in the
rear end. You would never put a shot like that. And I've sometimes seen
things like that where actors weren't protected as much as they could, or an
actor has a bad tic or they take a breath or they take that pause that you
know is a preparation. And I've sometimes seen those left in films. And
that's someone who just didn't know that they could get rid of that and cover
it and not show where an actor, basically, paused because they were doing a
prep. You have to know when they're really into the character and when
they're not. It's a matter of knowing good acting, I guess.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. You've seen the technology of film editing change a lot
since the 1940s when you started as an apprentice. Tell us how you made an
edit when you first started and how you make them now, digitally.
Ms. ALLEN: Well, when you first start, you make an edit on film. You cut it
on a splicer. And the splicers have all changed, too, because they used to
be--or you'd do it with a scissor. I beg your pardon. I haven't gone back
far enough. You'd do it with a scissor and you would lose one side of the
frame. You would lose a frame between each cut.
Ms. ALLEN: And so you had to put--the are some, even, I think, in
16 mil when we would lose two frames. I can't quite remember. But that's
what I meant when I was talking about the Bob Wise--first scene I ever cut.
Ms. ALLEN: If you lost the frame, you had to slug it. And you would slug it
in black because that shows better than white. You wouldn't slug it in white
because that would flash bright. So you would see the thing chatter with
these little black things going through. I remember at Columbia, where I
first started--I never got into the picture department there, but I remember
before a preview there would be these--I would go up sometimes and be called
in to help clean the film. They would clean the film within an inch of its
life and replace any slug that was in it for the preview. And you would have
your hand in a big double tin of carbon tet, which became very dangerous
later. And you would squeegee it through various velvets very, very slowly
to clean it up for the picture.
GROSS: Carbon tet is like a dry-cleaning fluid.
Ms. ALLEN: Yeah. Well, it's something that used to be used for cleaning
film, but it's a noxious one. I mean, it's not--you know, you can get very
sick from it.
Ms. ALLEN: But we didn't know that in those days.
GROSS: And now you're editing digitally.
Ms. ALLEN: Now I'm editing digitally. Then there was the period when you had
tape, of course. You know, you spliced it and you had--then you had the
period of the Carlos Revitz(ph), which is a straight splicer where you only
have to put one sprocket. And then Walter Murch developed one where you only
had to put a half a sprocket; a little tiny thing where you never saw the
tape. I mean, each generation contributes. It's wonderful.
GROSS: Did you ever find yourself resisting change and preferring it the old
way or did you go along with all the changes and welcome them?
Ms. ALLEN: You can't work in this industry if you resist change. I happen to
love equipment. I mean, you know, I lived with my grandparents the last three
years of high school. I would fix the plumbing and stuff like that. My
grandfather was a surgeon. He wouldn't touch anything like that. So I was
always--had fun with my--mechanically, so I had no trouble with Moviolas and
things like that because, mechanically, I kind of liked them.
GROSS: When you started off in movies, you were hoping to, one day, direct.
But you stayed in film editing. What did you love and what do you love about
Ms. ALLEN: It's a very exciting profession because you really get to play
other characters. You get into a story, and that story becomes real to you,
sometimes at the expense of your own family, to be honest. And I suppose
it's like an escape. I think movies were always an escape for me. And it's
an escape into something that I was so privileged to be allowed to get into
and to do. And I was always so grateful for the opportunity of getting that,
that I never got tired of it.
But, also, my husband, in a different field--he was in public affairs. He
became a director. He was a writer who became a director and producer and so
forth. And there came a period in our lives when our children were teen-agers
where I would never have thought of, you know--I had a chance to start
directing, maybe, twice--that were a real chance. And I decided it was not
the time to start competing. A marriage, when both people were working, is
competitive enough. And at that point, I just--then, maybe, it was too late
in my career. I was probably well into my 50s before I got my first chance.
GROSS: Now you told us that at the beginning of the career; where you first
got into the editing room, it was during the war and a lot of men...
Ms. ALLEN: Second World War.
GROSS: Yeah. And a lot of men...
Ms. ALLEN: We have to say that these days.
GROSS: Yeah, that's right. And a lot of men who had had jobs were off
fighting the war. So there were more openings. Do you think anything was
more difficult for you as a women? Were there any obstacles put before you?
Were people willing to mentor you, in spite of the fact that you were a woman?
Ms. ALLEN: That's a word that wasn't used in those days. Nobody--I used it
in terms of--I think I used it earlier in the interview because I've heard it
so much lately.
Ms. ALLEN: Obviously, there are people who encourage you. I mean, I never
would have been able to get ahead in anything, because I was working mostly
with men, unless the men who helped me were encouraging. I mean, that's--as
far as I'm concerned, it takes--it took, in my generation, certainly, men to
help women. You just couldn't go blasting your way. After all, you had
to--the hardest thing to do is to be able to learn everything of what goes on
in a laboratory and not be considered, you know, an `overbearing ball buster'
is the word they used to use. I guess they still do. They use worse words
now. Anyway, it's very hard to retain yourself as a woman and still be
knowledgeable. And the only way you can do that is to learn everything you
have to know about everything so that nobody can fool you.
And laboratories were a wonderful place, because I ended up with great
relationships with people in the labs because I had come from having cut
commercials and industrials and laying out my own opticals, so I knew labs and
I knew the people who did the opticals and I knew what you could do. And when
you know your stuff, they respect you. They don't think of you as a man or a
woman. But it took in every new relationship--in the early days, it took
going through that period of their learning that I really did know what I was
talking about. So you had to work harder. I mean, I think it's as simple as
that. I'm not sure that isn't still true today. I don't know.
GROSS: Film editor Dede Allen. She's now editing the film "John Q," starring
Denzel Washington, directed by Nick Cassavetes. She recently edited the film
"Wonder Boys," which has just been re-released.
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of music by Andy Biskin)
GROSS: Coming up, we talk with clarinetist and composer Andy Biskin. He puts
a new spin on polkas, marches and parlor songs. We're listening to his
quintet now. Also, rock critic Ken Tucker reviews the new CD from P J Harvey.
(Soundbite of music by Andy Biskin)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Clarinetist Andy Biskin discusses his music and his
new CD, "Dogmental"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
A few weeks ago, our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviewed the debut CD of
clarinetist and composer Andy Biskin. We liked the music so much, we started
playing it on the show. Then we decided to invite Biskin to talk with us
about it. As Kevin said, Biskin's compositions recall early jazz and old
social music, short solos alternate with tightly arranged passages. The
rhythm section sometimes plays two-beat oompah rhythms and his quintet has a
trumpet, clarinet and trombone front line like an old New Orleans jazz band.
Even so, the sound he gets from those old ingredients is quite fresh.
Biskin's new CD, "Dogmental," is on GM Records, the label founded by composer
and conductor Gunther Schuller, who praises Biskin's originality and
sophisticated human. Here's Biskin's composition, "Sad Commentary."
(Soundbite of "Sad Commentary")
GROSS: One of the things you do as an arranger and composer that I like is
that, you know, you take the tune that you wrote and you very quickly put it
through different distortions and permutations. In fact, you know, I was
listening to your record while watching the timer, just to see--like, 'cause I
sometimes do that for the show. We might play a minute or a minute and a half
or something. And by the time you're, like, 40 seconds into one of your
tracks, it's often gone through, like, two or three different permutations.
Mr. ANDY BISKIN (Clarinetist): I think I'm approaching composition as an
improviser because I spent a lot of time improvising before I ever attempted
to write music. And when I'm writing music I try to be in that sort of
mind-set where you just write down the first thing that comes into your head.
You know, maybe I actually--if I'm looking for the next thing to do, I just
start playing the song and say, `Well, if I was playing a solo on this song,
what would I do next?' And so I try to capture that spontaneity and then fix
it on paper.
GROSS: I'm interested, too, in the speed in which the changes happen. I
mean, it's--What can I say?--short attention span music in the best sense of
Mr. BISKIN: Yeah, I agree, and I am--maybe because I have a short attention
span and I go hear a lot of music and I get bored. You know, I'm really happy
at the beginning of the tune when you're hearing the stuff that was written
out and then there's all these long solos and I'm kind of wishing that more
stuff was written out. So I guess I'm catering to someone like me that's
sitting in the audience that wants things to keep changing. And in the old
days, people probably could concentrate for much longer, but not me.
GROSS: In the liner notes for your new CD, you talk about when you were young
and you had a band and you bought a sheet music book featuring the music of
Harry L. Alford's(ph) "Hungry Five."(ph) This sounds like a really odd little
book of sheet music and 22 sets of wisecracks plus additional patter. What
was this about? What? Did it have wisecracks in it for you to learn?
Mr. BISKIN: Well, this was music that Mr. Alford put out, I guess, in the
early '50s. And I stumbled upon it by accident. I was rummaging through a
local music store. And, you know, I was in my high school band and I was
looking for some other kind of band that I could start on my own. And they're
funny little arrangements, you know? You know, a lot of it is oompah-pah
music like waltzes, polkas and things. And there was actually another book
that I found that had more interesting arrangements that had arrangements of
classical tunes, overtures and waltzes. There was the "Poet and Peasant
Overture," "Merry Wives of Windsor," "The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies."
And there's something kind of nice about this combination of two clarinets,
trumpet, trombone and tuba. It's sort of like taking a concert band and
shrinking it to the very smallest essence that you could have. And there's
something kind of naive and charming thinking about this little miniature band
trying to play Tchaikovsky or Von Suppe. And I liked that. So, you know, I
got some like-minded souls from the high school band and we just to have
rehearsals in the living room and eventually, you know, we had a band. And we
got some little gigs and figured out some shtick.
I guess the idea of the "Hungry Five" was that you would play a polka and then
you would tell these horrible jokes and then play another polka. And we tried
doing some of that. The jokes never really went over very well, but they were
GROSS: Did you use jokes from the Harry Alford songbook?
Mr. BISKIN: We did. You know, it was jokes like, `I hear your landlord's
going to raise your rent. Well, that's good, 'cause I certainly can't raise
it,' that kind of stuff.
GROSS: Oh, boy.
Mr. BISKIN: Yeah.
GROSS: Not good. Were you the one who had to tell the jokes?
Mr. BISKIN: Well, we assigned, you know--there were different parts and, you
know, each person took on one of the voices. And when I was writing the liner
notes for the album, I was thinking about where this combination of trumpet,
trombone, clarinet came from, and, you know, it is the front line of a
Dixieland band. But I realized that really the way I had gotten the sound
into my head was from the old "Hungry Five." So I went back and actually, you
know, for some reason I had saved this music and I looked it up and, you know,
there in pencil were all of our phone numbers and little notes between the
tunes about who was going to tell which joke and everything. It was all
there, and it really took me back.
GROSS: Who were you performing for then? I mean, this is the era where
people had garage bands, not...
Mr. BISKIN: Yeah. Well, we played at some, like, PTA meetings. We played
at, you know, parties that our parents were giving. One funny...
GROSS: Are you suggesting no one your age wanted to hear the music?
Mr. BISKIN: Well, there was one funny thing that happened. You know, I grew
up in San Antonio, and there's a big Latino population. And somehow we ended
up playing on the talent show for Lanier High School which was, you know,
basically a Mexican-American high school. And we got out there in our
lederhosen and we started playing this polka, and everybody in the audience
went wild. I mean, it turns out that polka, you know, is a big part of
kahunta(ph) music and they related to it in a way that, you know, we didn't.
And suddenly we thought that we were going--you know, they'd be throwing
tomatoes at us and they loved it.
GROSS: My guest is clarinetist and composer Andy Biskin. His new CD is
called "Dogmental." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Andy Biskin. He's a clarinetist and composer, and his new
CD, his first, is called "Dogmental." Let's hear another track from this CD,
and this is called "Flim Flam." And I read that you like it a lot. It's kind
of circusy and marching bandish. Let's give it a listen.
(Soundbite of "Flim Flam")
GROSS: Anything in particular inspire that composition?
Mr. BISKIN: Well, I think there's some Nino Rota there. I mean, it's sort
of like a--I think of it as a little miniature film score or something. I'm
not sure where it came from. It was one of these tunes that just came to me
very quickly. And, you know, I started writing it, I wasn't even sure what
key it was in. You know, I said, `Now I've got to write a bass line to it,'
and I'm still not really sure what key it's in. But I liked the idea of going
to this waltz in the middle of it. I had this waltz that I was trying to
figure out something to do with, and I thought, `Well, let's let the song just
kind of fall apart and get quiet and suddenly we'll be in the waltz and then
we'll go back to the march.'
GROSS: Were you in a marching band when you were young?
Mr. BISKIN: Oh, yes. In my high school, the music program centered around
the marching band. The reason that there was a music program was because it
was an adjunct to the football team. So I was out there at 7:30 in the
morning during football season marching and I hated it. I really did. But
one thing about the band program is that you get exposed to a lot of different
kinds of music and, you know, we played a lot of adaptations of classical
pieces and these kind of contemporary, weird things that people were writing
for modern bands and then some of the classics, the Sousa marches. So it was
fun, and I think that it was a big influence on me.
GROSS: Did you think playing in a band gave you an affection for marchers
that you might otherwise not have had?
Mr. BISKIN: Yeah. You know, I mean, I have to say one thing is that, you
know, my father was a musician. We were not a family that was into sports,
but he would watch football and he would kind of sleep through the game. And
when the halftime show came on, he'd turn up the volume and everyone would
have to be silent. And he was into bands. He was into parades. And I think
I got some of that from him.
GROSS: How did clarinet become your instrument? Where you assigned it in
Mr. BISKIN: Well, it was chosen for me by my parents and I'm not sure--I
didn't have much to do with that decision, but I came home from school one day
and there was a clarinet sitting on my bed. And my father announced that this
was going to be my instrument and, you know, I said, `Well, what is it?' And
he said, `This is a clarinet.' So I accepted that. I was nine years old. I
liked the way it looked. I liked the way it sounded. And, you know, soon I
was taking lessons from one of the clarinetists in the orchestra and working
my way through the method books and scales and arpeggios and etudes. But, you
know, I don't really remember not playing the clarinet. It's something that's
always been there.
GROSS: Did you ever ask your father why he thought clarinet should be your
Mr. BISKIN: Yeah. You know, it wasn't, like, they had done this in-depth
study about it. I think you could buy a clarinet for not much money. They
liked the sound of it. It wasn't as annoying as the violin. You could play
in the band. You could play in a symphony. There was a good teacher in town.
But I think also they thought that it somehow fit my personality.
GROSS: Now you have a forthcoming CD that features mostly songs by Stephen
Foster. And I'm wondering what it's been like for you to go back to songs
from the early days of American popular song and play them and rearrange them.
Mr. BISKIN: It's been a really incredible experience. I've been writing my
own music for a long time, and I never really have attempted to arrange
anybody else's music. I was doing a gig once with a piano player and we were
just leafing through a songbook and we came upon "Jeanie With The Light Brown
Hair." And we played it and I said, `Well, you know, this is a beautiful
song.' And there's something about these tunes. They're like folk songs
except they all happen to be written by the same person. They were all
written in the 1860s, and they're so ingrained in our unconscious that you can
do so much with them and they still maintain their identity. I do this
version of "Old Folks At Home" that's a little bit out there but somehow, you
know, the song still comes through.
GROSS: Did you like Stephen Foster songs as a kid or did you just consider
them to be cliches or old-fashioned?
Mr. BISKIN: I did consider them to be cliches and it was something that I
think I really didn't appreciate until I was an adult, but, you know, I'm
interested in the idea of a musical cliche. That's something that really
fascinates me. I have this book called--I forgot. It's "The Book of
World-Famous Music" by James J. Fuld. And it's an incredible book. It's
just a--it's like the canon of every familiar melody that we have in our heads
here in Western civilization. It has everything from, you know, "Three Blind
Mice," "What Do You Say To A Drunken Sailor," plus a lot of classical stuff
"Wherales,"(ph) Santa Luchia(ph) "For He's A Jolly Good Fellow," "Shave And A
Haircut, Two Bits." And you think about these things and they're these
melodies that have somehow survived through natural selection or something
that they're just part of our vocabulary, that are just in the air, you know,
that everyone knows and we don't even know why they're there. But if you go
bump, ba-dah, bump, bump; bump, bump, everyone knows that you're referring to
"Shave And A Haircut, Two Bits."
GROSS: Yeah, well the interesting thing, too, about those old songs that are
just kind of in the air, is that whether you like a song or not, there's
something that a familiar line of music does to your brain that's just unique.
And there's a certain pleasure in familiar music, even familiar music you
don't like. So I think even if you, as a composer or arranger, take a piece
of familiar music and you rework it in an unusual way, there's the pleasure of
a listener has of taking this familiar thing and making it different, but that
familiar thing just gives you this common language to work with.
Mr. BISKIN: I think that's true, and I think a lot of what makes a
composition interesting is this whole interplay between the familiar and the
new. And, you know, it works in improvisation, it works in composition. But
when you're playing, you're playing with people's expectations, you're giving
them things that they know and understand and, you know, find comfort in, but
you have to keep them stimulated, and there has to be a certain amount of
novelty, and I think these tunes are great for that. Because everyone
knows--you know, they know what's going to happen, but they really don't know
how you're going to get there.
GROSS: Your Stephen Foster CD is recorded, but it's not nearly ready to be
released. You're actually still looking for a label to release it on. But
maybe we could just play a preview of it. Do you want to choose a song?
Mr. BISKIN: Yeah, let's listen to "Camp Town Races."
GROSS: And what have you done with this?
Mr. BISKIN: I guess it's sort of like a theme in variations. I've basically
just worked my way through the tune in two or three different ways, and it has
some little twists and turns and eventually you get to the end.
GROSS: Oh, great. Let's hear it, and I want to thank you so much for talking
Mr. BISKIN: Thank you, Terry. It's been great.
(Soundbite of "Camp Town Races")
GROSS: Andy Biskin's interpretation of the Stephen Foster song "Camp Town
Races" from an unreleased CD. His new CD is called "Dogmental." Coming up,
Ken Tucker reviews P.J. Harvey's new CD. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: P.J. Harvey's new CD, "Stories from the City, Stories from
TERRY GROSS, host:
P.J. Harvey, the group named for the rock band lead by British singer and
songwriter Polly Jean Harvey, has released its sixth CD called "Stories from
the City, Stories from the Sea." Harvey wrote most of the songs on this album
during an extended stay in New York City, and rock critic Ken Tucker says the
change of creative venue has altered the sound and mood of Harvey's music.
(Soundbite of song)
Ms. POLLY JEAN HARVEY: (Singing) I can't believe life's so complex, when I
just want to sit here and watch you undress. I can't believe life's so
complex, when I just want to sit here and watch you undress. This is love,
this is love that I'm feeling. This is love, this is love that I'm feeling.
This is love...
KEN TUCKER reporting:
If you're not acquainted with Polly Jean Harvey's music, let me tell you,
hearing here chant `This is love, this is love that I'm feeling' is very
atypical, a bit funny and not a little thrilling. Harvey made her reputation
by playing commandingly rough lead guitar and singing eloquent feel-bad songs
on either a low growl or a muttered moan. She spent the '90s being a prolific
melancholic, chronicling disappointment, betrayal and regret, and questioning,
always questioning, her own motives and feelings. Not by mistake does her
best album's title take the form a question, "Is This Desire?" but "Stories
from the City, Stories from the Sea" states Harvey's current mood very
clearly. It surges with a new exhilaration and power.
(Soundbite of song)
Ms. HARVEY: (Singing) Looking ahead, see danger come. I want a pistol. I
want a gun. I'm scared, baby. I want to run. This world's crazy, give me
the gun. Baby, baby, ain't it true, I'm immortal when I'm with you. But I
want a pistol in my hand. I want a gun to ...(unintelligible). I met a man.
TUCKER: That explosion leads of Polly Jean Harvey's new CD, and like "This Is
Love", its headlong music stresses the sentiment in the lyric as Harvey yells
to her love, `I'm immortal when I'm with you.' Typical of her work, however,
is that even in the throws of erotic bliss, she also tosses in meditations on
the end of the world and the death of everyone except Polly Jean and the
object of her affection. "Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea" isn't
Harvey's best or most consistent collection. In fact, it's the first one in
which this unique artist proves she's not unique, echoing on this song, for
example, the tone and phrasing of Patti Smith and The Pretenders' Chrissie
Hynde. Listen for them.
(Soundbite of "This Is Love")
Ms. HARVEY: (Singing) Threw all my bad fortune off the top of a tall
building. I'd rather done it with you. Your voice, smile, 5 in the morning,
look gentle in your eyes and I was really in love. In Chinatown, hungover,
you showed me just what I could do. Talking about time travel, and the
meaning, just what it was ...(unintelligible). And I feel like some bird of
paradise, my bad fortune slipping away. And I feel the innocence of a child,
everybody's got good something to say.
TUCKER: "Stories from the City" climaxes with two magnificent P.J. Harvey
songs--"Horses In My Dreams," which moves with the slow languorousness of a
late-night dream from which you cannot pull yourself free--and "We Float," a
composition whose unfurling beauty imbues its dime-store refrain, `We float,
take life as it come,' with an unexpectedly deep emotionalism.
Taken as a whole, "Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea" is like a
volume of short stories that cohere as a novel of rare, romantic realism.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed
P.J. Harvey's new CD, "Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea."
(Soundbite of "This Is Love")
Ms. HARVEY: (Singing) ...dirty little secret, want to keep you so. Come on
out, come on over, help me forget. Keep the walls from falling as they're
tumbling in. Come on out, come on over, help me forget. Keep the walls from
falling as they're tumbling in. Keep the walls from falling as they're
tumbling in. This is love, this is love that I'm feeling. This is love, this
is love that I'm feeling. This is love, this is love that I'm feeling. This
is love that I'm feeling. This is love, love, love that I'm feeling. This is
love that I'm feeling. This is love, love, love that I'm feeling in. This is
love, this is love that I'm feeling.
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