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Inside the Music of "The Simpsons"

Composer Alf Clausen is the man behind the music of "The Simpsons." There's a new compliation CD of music from the animated cartoon TV series, "The Simpsons: Songs in the Key of Springfield" (Rhino).


Other segments from the episode on May 14, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 14, 1997: Interview with Peter Balakian; Interview with Alf Clausen; Commentary on language and computers.


Date: MAY 14, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 051401np.217
Head: Black Dog of Fate
Sect: News; Domestic and International
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Poet Peter Balakian grew up in suburban New Jersey in the '50s and '60s in a prosperous family of Armenian descent. It wasn't until he was a young man that he learned that some of his relatives had survived what's often described as the Armenian genocide of 1915.

The history of 1915 is highly controversial. The Turkish government denies there was a genocide, but does admit that more than 500,000 Armenians died when they were forced to evacuate their homes in Turkey and marched to a camp in Aleppo, Syria. They say the Ottoman government relocated the Armenians because they were siding with invading Russians.

Armenians see it as ethnic cleansing of a Christian minority and claim that more than 1,000,000 Armenians were murdered by the Young Turk government or perished during the death march, and another 1,000,000 were exiled.

Peter Balakian's new memoir, "Black Dog of Fate," is about what it was like to uncover the hidden history of his grandmother who helped raise him. She survived the death march, along with her two young children, Balakian's aunts. Balakian's father was also an Armenian exile.

PETER BALAKIAN, PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH, COLGATE UNIVERSITY, AUTHOR, "BLACK DOG OF FATE: AN AMERICAN SON UNCOVERS HIS ARMENIAN PAST": I think my first real wrestling with the Armenian genocide past and its impact on my family came when I wrote a small poem when I was in my early 20s and teaching in a high school, in a prep school in Englewood, New Jersey.

And it was a strange event, because my mother wanted me to attend my grandmother's 10th anniversary -- the 10th anniversary commemoration of her death. "Hokeehonkeist" (ph) is the Armenian word, and I -- I was too busy to do that.

I had a weekend planned with my girlfriend up in Cambridge, Mass., and I said no, I'm off, and I'm going to do my own thing. And I came back after that weekend, feeling a kind of remorse and guilt when I returned home. I hadn't felt any all weekend.

And I sat down and I wrote a poem called "Words for my Grandmother" and it was a very -- it was a strange experience, because I did not set out to write a poem about anything, but was sort of led -- I should say, about anything political or historical -- I was simply led by images of my childhood with my grandmother.

And that poem ended up being the first real shovel in the dig, in the excavation, if you will, into the Armenian past, into the genocide past.

GROSS: I think one of the real pivotal parts in learning about your family's past and the Armenian genocide was getting your Aunt Gladys to talk, and she had been a baby, I guess, during the death march, that she, her sister, and your grandmother survived. How did you get her talking about the past?

BALAKIAN: Well, that was an interesting story because, you know, there was no open conversation about the Armenian genocide in my family when I was growing up. And the things that were passed on to me, I believe, were passed on in coded and symbolic ways, complex ways -- ways that I'd come to put together, you know, after I understood more literally the history.

And my Aunt Gladys, who was a two year old on the death march and survived and then lived in the Armenian genocide refugee quarter in Aleppo as a young girl, never talked until one day when we were in Paris together. This was 1977.

I was already in graduate school. I went on a small trip with my aunts to Europe. And I think it had something to do with being in France, and something to do with being, I don't know, somehow maybe back, you know, in Europe and around our French cousins and French relatives.

But one morning on our -- in our fourth or fifth day in Paris, we were in a hotel and she saw I was reading a book about LBJ, and she said, you know, she said to me, "you know I think LBJ had something to do with Kennedy being killed."

And I said, "oh, that's an incredible idea." And she said, "well, that's the way they do it." She said "that's the way crimes happen." And I -- my eyes opened up, because I'd never heard my aunt talking like this. And she went on to say to me, "well, look what they did to Armenia. Look what happened to Armenia."

And at that moment, the whole door opened. And I said, well, what do you mean, Auntie Gladys? Tell me -- you've never talked to me about what happened -- what happened to granny, what happened to you, the death march, and so forth. And she began to talk, and she began to tell me the story that she remembered -- the fragments and images she remembered.

GROSS: Can you share some of that story with us?

BALAKIAN: Well, among the things she conveyed to me that day in a hotel room in Paris were the first -- the first images she had of being in Aleppo and the image of her father dead in a coffin, her -- because my grandmother's first husband died on the death march. And the images she conveyed to me were so spare.

They were -- they were poetical in the sense they were just wrenched down and austere. She remembered something about the refugee quarter in Aleppo. She remembered her grand -- her mother, my grandmother, in a hospital dying -- being told by the German nurses that her mother would be dead the next day -- that she had contracted cholera and could not survive the night.

And she remembered being led out of the hospital, and she remembered the two days later, my grandmother walked through the door, alive and chipper, actually. And then she remembered the passage that they took from the Middle East to Marseilles, and she remembered the excitement of being on that steamship.

And there were only women -- Armenian women and children on this steamer, because all the men had been killed and most of the survivors were women and children. And she remembered something of the strangeness and the excitement of that -- that sense of going somewhere, of somehow some kind of liberation.

And then, she told me that extraordinary story about sleeping in the churches along the harbor in Marseilles because, of course, there were no places for the refugees to sleep. And at night, she noticed that none of the women went -- none of the mothers went to sleep.

And she asked her mother: "why aren't you going to sleep at night, mama?" And her mother answered: "if we go to sleep, the ceiling will open and dead bodies will fall in on us."

GROSS: Incredible image.

BALAKIAN: And I have to -- extraordinary image. And I have to say that when I heard that image, I just -- I knew that this was something for poetry. I mean, that it was bigger than poetry, but it was something that was so rich, symbolically and literally. And it blew me away.

GROSS: There's actually -- that line shows up in one of your poems which I hope you'll be able to read for us later in the program. One of the things that your aunt did when you were having this long conversation with her is that she showed you a copy of your grandmother's suit against Turkey -- a lawsuit against Turkey suing for damages, and suing for all the possessions that were her family's that were, you know, confiscated by the Turks.

You reprint an excerpt of that document in your new memoir, and I'm hoping that you can read some of that for us now.

BALAKIAN: Yes, I'd love to.

"It wasn't for another few years that my aunts allowed me to see that document. I don't know why, but things were unveiled to me slowly. And the document is extraordinary because here this woman who has lost everything -- everybody in her family, her husband, all her possessions, her house, her nation -- comes to Aleppo as a survivor and she became..."

GROSS: This is Aleppo, a refugee camp in Syria?

BALAKIAN: Yes, that's right. In this city, in the quarter, in one of the old quarters of Aleppo, the Armenians who did survive, you know, took refugee there for a while.

So, she begins filing -- she begins compiling all the complex legal layers for this human rights suit then, around circa 1916 and she files the suit officially in the United States in 1920 in Newark, New Jersey, shortly after her arrival in the United States.

And I would like to read from question 63 of this suit, which is a claim against foreign governments, it's called, and because her husband was a naturalized U.S. citizen, she felt she had an extra right to make this claim in the United States. It was a State Department official document.

She writes in the answer -- to answer this question: "state in detail the facts or circumstances attending the losses or injuries enumerated in answer 55."

My grandmother records: "after three days journey, they killed, one by one, the man deportees of whom only a few were saved. So were killed mercilessly my brothers and sisters and other relatives mentioned in the answer 55. My husband, in spite of that he was a citizen of U.S.A., was forced to be deported with us, his naturalization paper and passport being taken off him by the gendarmes."

"As he was feeble and indisposed, being subjected to such conditions and seeing our relatives killed unhumanly, he could not support the life and died, leaving me a widow with my two orphan daughters named Zivart (ph), seven years old, and Arshaluis (ph), five years old."

They became Gladys and Alice, by the way.

"We, the remaining of the deportees, women and children, were forced to walk without being allowed even to buy some bread to eat. Frequently, we were robbed by Turks and the gendarmes as if they would carry us safely to our destiny, which was entirely unknown to us."

"So for 32 days we were obliged to wander through mountains and valleys. Fatigue and hunger enforced by the whip of the cruel gendarmes diminished the number of the deportees."

"After many dangers, whose descriptions would take much time, a few women and children, included I myself, arrived at Aleppo, Syria in the beginning of September, 1915. Since then, I am supported by the honorable consulate of U.S.A. in Aleppo, Syria."

"The deportation itself and the fiendish steps taken against the Armenians in general being well-known by the civilized world, I do not mention other evidence concerning this matter."

"Only I assert that: one, the Turkish government is responsible for the losses and injuries happened to, because I am a human being. I am under the support of human and international law."

GROSS: Whatever became of this suit? Did she get anything that she was suing for? Did she get any response from the Turkish government at all?

BALAKIAN: As far as we know, nothing became of this. She filed it in the law offices of Joseph J. Durna (ph) in Newark, New Jersey, and we know nothing -- nothing else except that it sat -- after that, it sat in a dresser drawer in my aunt's study for 60 years, and she never spoke about it with anyone.

And near the end of the book, I speculate on how much horror and pain must have followed the making of this suit and the finding that it couldn't be listened to in 1920 -- as I think it can be listened to in 1997.

GROSS: Why do you think it couldn't be listened to in 1920? What do you mean by that?

BALAKIAN: Well, I mean, it seems to me that the whole concept of human rights was a new one and -- in 1920 -- that the international notions of human rights were just evolving, and that the Armenian genocide, being the century's first genocide, being a kind of watershed event for modernity, had to wait a while before more history of the 20th century caught up with it.

And you know, I think after the Holocaust -- I think after the Cambodian genocide, we've come to understand a lot more about genocide and human rights. And of course, the United Nations proclamation about the meaning of genocide didn't happen until 1948, so that I feel in some sense, my grandmother was way ahead of her time realizing that she could make a human rights claim for the Armenian genocide.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Peter Balakian, and he's written a new memoir called Black Dog of Fate: An American Son Uncovers His Armenian Past.

Peter, let's take a short break and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

My guest is Peter Balakian, author of a memoir called Black Dog of Fate: An American Son Uncovers His Armenian Past.

When you were young, you knew that there was something different about your grandmother, and you thought that what was different was that she was from the old country and she cooked different foods and she spoke a different language, and told different kinds of stories.

But, you knew nothing about the genocide. You knew nothing of how she survived. You must have been shocked when you found out what it was that really set her apart.

BALAKIAN: Well, I was. And at the same time, she was -- she was a marvelously colorful, interesting woman and a great friend and my companion in so many ways as a young boy. There were strange little leakages of symbolic tales, folk tales, and an occasional parable, and even once a kind of a flash-back that I had experienced from her.

And while those were not direct, she certainly never spoke to me directly about the genocide -- I suppose my head was already filled with some other kinds of tremors from her imagination. But you're right, I didn't really have any direct, historical knowledge of what had happened to her. And so when I did discover it -- it put so many things together for me, and it resolidified my whole relationship with my grandmother.

She was my -- she is the only grandparent I had, so it was an extra-special relationship. And to find out that she had undergone this really -- is something that has changed my, you know, my life.

GROSS: Even though your grandmother didn't really talk about the genocide, she had a nervous breakdown after Pearl Harbor. Was there a connection to her between the outbreak of war and what she had survived?

BALAKIAN: Yeah, I think absolutely. I mean, it seemed like a -- perhaps a classic of a kind of post-traumatic stress experience. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, my grandmother had a breakdown and it was the first time since the genocide, since her death march experience, that she began to talk now about the Turkish experience -- about the Turks' coming.

She kept saying "the Turks are coming" -- "it doesn't matter," she kept saying to her daughter. "It doesn't matter what you do. We're all going to be dead tomorrow. We're all going to be dead tomorrow."

And she collapsed entirely. She was obsessed and paranoid and had flashbacks and so on. And my Aunt Gladys was able to secure for her electro-shock therapy treatment, and it worked. And she came out of that, and again, went back into a complete numbing.

She never talked openly about the genocide experience after that. But it's so interesting that that catastrophe of the U.S. entry into World War II did prompt this post-traumatic stress syndrome.

GROSS: Peter, you grew up not knowing about the Armenian genocide and about your family that perished and the members of your family that survived. How much did your parents know about it?

BALAKIAN: Well, I think that my father was the most interested and had the most knowledge about the genocide. And I think my mother, you know, had less historical knowledge of the details of history, although she knew very well the trauma that her mother's life had involved, because her mother was a death march survivor.

So I think both of them, you know, had different kinds of relationships to the genocide, and both of them found it very difficult to talk openly to any of us about that. There are a few moments -- I recount these in the book -- where my father brings me to the water.

You know, he wants me to understand something happened of huge importance in 1915, to our people. And yet, each one of those situations results in a kind of broken circuit. We can't quite come to talk about them.

GROSS: What's an example of what you mean?

BALAKIAN: Well, there's a almost bizarrely comic moment when I'm in eighth grade and I'm assigned a term paper to do on a Middle Eastern culture, and my father gets very excited and he says: this is marvelous. He says this is a real moment for you to understand something about Armenia.

So I go to do my dutiful research and I go into the encyclopedias and I go into some reference books in the library. And I can't find anything about Armenia. There's almost -- there's so little in there, you know, and there's nothing about any tragedies.

It's just little kind of entries. And so I say to myself, well, if I can't find about Armenia, I know that Armenians once lived in Turkey, so why don't I go and write about Turkey?

So I go and I write -- and time is running out now and I have to get this term paper done. So I, you know, I work hard as I can against the deadline and I write this term paper about Turkey. And I bring it home, and I've gotten an "A" on the paper, and my father looks at it and he's just devastated.

And he says to me: "why have you done this? Why have you written about Turkey? Don't you know what the Turks did to the Armenians?" And I say, well, sure, yeah, sure, I know -- and there's a humiliating moment, and I run -- I leave the table and he says nothing to me after that. And we just leave it there, a kind of broken dialogue.

And there are a couple of episodes like that in which my father wants me to know, and then he can't quite bring himself to tell me. I was 13 at the time in that particular episode.

GROSS: Peter Balakian's new memoir is called Black Dog of Fate: An American Son Uncovers His Armenian Past.

We'll talk more in the second half of our show. This is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Peter Balakian, author of "Black Dog of Fate: An American Son Uncovers His Armenian Past."

It's about how he learned members of his family survived what Armenians call the Armenian Genocide of 1915. The history of 1915 is very controversial. The Turkish government denies there was a genocide, but does say that more than 500,000 Armenians died when they were forced to evacuate their homes in Turkey and marched to a camp in Aleppo, Syria.

Balakian's grandmother and aunts survived that march.

You write in your memoir that the journey into the Armenian genocide was, for you, inseparable from poetry. Poetry was part of the journey, of the excavation. I'd like you to read one of the poems that you've written about the genocide.

BALAKIAN: I'd be happy to. I've reprinted two of my poems in the memoir, and I'd like to read from a poem called "The History of Armenia," which I wrote almost immediately after talking with my Aunt Gladys that day in Paris in 1977, and it was a poem that really changed my sense of what poetry could be. It changed the direction of my writing.

It goes like this:

Last night, my grandmother returned in the brown dress
Standing on Orettin (ph) Parkway
Where we used to walk and watch the highway being dug out
She stood against a backdrop of steam-hammers and bulldozers
A bag of fruit in her hand, the wind blowing through her eyes
I was running toward her in a drizzle, with the morning paper
When I told her I was hungry, she said:
"In the grocery store, a man is standing to his ankles in blood
The babies in East Orange have disappeared
Maybe eaten by the machinery on this long road."
When I asked for my mother, she said:
"Gone. All gone."

The girls went for soda, maybe the coke was bad
The candy sour. This morning, the beds are empty
Water off, the toilets dry
When I went to the garden for squash
Only stump was there
When I went to clip parsley, only a hole
We walked past piles of gray cinder and cement trucks
There were no men. She said:
"Grandpa left in the morning, in the dark
He had pants to press for the firemen of East Orange
They called him in the middle of night
West Orange was burning
Montclair was burning
Bloomfield and Newark were gone"

One woman carried the arms of her child to West Orange last night
And fell on her uncle's stoop
Two boys came with the skin of their legs in their pockets
And turned themselves in to local officials
This morning's sun is red and spreading.

"If I go to sleep tonight," she said
"The ceiling will open and bodies will fall from clouds
"Yavrey (ph), where is the angel without six fingers
And a missing leg?
Where is the angel with the news that the river is coming back?
The angel with the word that the water will be clear and have fish?"

Grandpa is pressing pants
They came for him before the birds were up
He left without shoes or tie, without shirt or suspenders
It was quiet. The birds -- the birds were still sleeping

GROSS: Is this your poem imagining if there were a genocide in New Jersey when you were growing up?

BALAKIAN: Well, it is a poem, you know, you're absolutely right, it is a poem that is set in the New Jersey of East Orange and Newark, where my grandmother lived and where I used to go and visit her, particularly in East Orange on Orettin Parkway, where the Garden State Parkway was being built in the late '50s.

And what I wanted to do in this poem was to really bring the past into the present -- to fuse and blend the genocidal past with the New Jersey present, and to do what Faulk -- you know, as Faulkner said, bring the presentness of the past alive, because the past isn't over. It isn't even past.

And I suppose in that way, the poem also wants to really explore trauma and the ongoing afterlife and aftermath of traumatic horror of the kind that my grandmother lived through.

GROSS: You know, your book is, in part, about growing up in a very prosperous suburb in New Jersey during the time of the real, like, American suburban dream.


GROSS: And then finding out about what your real past was, and the vast kind of gulf between the suburban optimism and the genocide your family, or members of your family, survived. Does that seem still pretty irreconcilable to you? Do you know, the...

BALAKIAN: Well, I think it's -- I don't know if it's irreconcilable, but I -- what I -- I think it's an interesting and complex tension, and I think these kinds of interesting and complex tensions are so much of what make the United States such a vibrant and interesting culture.

Because I know that Armenians -- Armenian-Americans are one of many peoples in this culture who live in those odd collisions of dark pasts and trauma and bright presents and happy affluence.

So, I think that when I understood the Armenian genocide past, I came to see our life in suburbia as affluent, upwardly mobile, upper-middle class Americans as more interesting and richer.

I mean, we weren't just there to climb the ladder of success. We were there because this was a moment of rare and beautiful security, in some way, for peoples who have endured such extremity and pain, and had made such a long journey out of the hellishness of the genocide to this new world, where life really had so much to offer.

And I think it made my sense of the American -- the brightness of the American dream a richer one.

GROSS: Peter Balakian, thank you very much for talking with us.

BALAKIAN: It's been my pleasure. Thank you.

GROSS: Peter Balakian's new memoir is called "Black Dog of Fate."

Coming up, the Simpson's song parodies, now collected on CD.

This is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Peter Balakian
High: Poet Peter Balakian is professor of English at Colgate University, and the author of a new memoir "Black Dog of Fate: An American Son Uncovers His Armenian Past. Balakian grew up in an affluent New Jersey suburb, unaware of the tragedy that was part of his family's past: how his grandmother and aunts were forced by the Ottoman Turkish government to march from their home in Turkey to a camp in Syria. Though the history is controversial, some claim more than a million Armenians died. His grandmother brought a human rights suit against the Turkish government. Balakian has also written four books of poetry.
Spec: Literature; Books; History; Europe; Armenia; Turkey; Holocaust; Ottoman Empire; Deaths; Military
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact WHYY at (215) 351-1200
End-Story: Black Dog of Fate
Date: MAY 14, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 051402np.217
Head: Songs in the Key of Springfield
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:40

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Lots of people consider "The Simpsons" to be the funniest show on TV. It's not just the great animation and knowing satires of dysfunctional families that make the show so funny, it's the song parodies, like this excerpt from the Simpsons musical comedy version of "A Streetcar Named Desire."


SINGER: Stella! Stella! Can't you hear me yell-a?
You put me through hell-a, Stella! Stella!

GROSS: Now, many of the Simpson song parodies are collected on the new CD "Songs in the Key of Springfield." Guest artists like Tony Bennett and Robert Goulet are featured alongside Bart, Lisa, Homer, and Marge.


MARGE SIMPSON: Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.

CHORUS: You can always depend on the kindness of strangers
To (Unintelligible) your spirit and shield you from dangers.

MARGE SIMPSON: Now here's a (unintelligible) that you won't recall.

CHORUS: A stranger's just a friend, you haven't met
You haven't met


GROSS: My guest is Alf Clausen, who composes and arranges most of the music on The Simpsons. He also is the composer for the TV series "Moonlighting," "The Donny and Marie Show," and "The Mary Tyler Moore Variety Hour."

I asked him how he works with The Simpsons' writers who come up with the lyrics.

ALF CLAUSEN, COMPOSER: Very closely. It's a collaborative effort in creating the songs. I'm usually given a set of script pages that contain the lyric, and I'm usually given enough pages in front of the lyric and behind the lyric, so that I know what the setup of the scene is supposed to be.

And once I'm given the lyric, I'll be in conference with the producers, and I'll get a scan from them as to the pacing of the lyric; what the intent of the scene is; what the ambience of the song should be.

There are times at which the lyric doesn't always match up pacing-wise, line to line to line, and at that point, I'll pick up the phone, talk to the producer who wrote the lyric, or if it's a combination of producers, we'll have a conference call.

And I'll say, you know, line number 15 has seven words, and line number three has four words, so what can we do to make those match so that from a song standpoint, it's easier for me to create something in a song form.

So, it's a collaborative effort. They're very cooperative that way. We get the lyrics honed down to where the pacing feels right, then I proceed to compose a song from there.

GROSS: Let me move to another track on the Simpsons' Songs in the Key of Springfield CD, and -- you wrote a theme for the Springfield new show "Eye on Springfield" with Kent Brockman (ph).


GROSS: Tell me about writing this theme and what you think of TV themes and news themes that you hear?

CLAUSEN: I think that my take on TV news themes in general now is that somewhere along the way, there has been a God of rock and roll that has reached down and grabbed every news director by the neck and said: our news theme must contain rock and roll, and our news theme must be synthesized, because that's what the public relates to now. It gives us all this excitement.

And that's what I tried to reach for in the Eye On Springfield theme -- the rock groove, plus the electronic synthesized music that everybody has come to know and love.

GROSS: Well, let's hear -- let's hear your version of this -- the Eye on Springfield theme with Kent Brockman.


KENT BROCKMAN: Hello, I'm Kent Brockman and this is Eye on Springfield.


HOMER SIMPSON: Wow. Info-tainment.

GROSS: What are some of the for-real TV themes that you've written over the years?

CLAUSEN: Well, TV themes has not been my bailiwick, as they say. I co-wrote the theme to the "Alf" series, and other than that, I have been basically known as an underscore music person, not a theme writer.

GROSS: And what is "underscoring"?

CLAUSEN: Underscoring is all of the music that you hear within the body of the show, other than the theme -- underscore music that accompanies dialogue; underscore music that takes us from one scene to another; underscore music is often feature music that really is designed to complement the mood of a particular scene.

GROSS: And how much underscoring do you have to do for The Simpsons?

CLAUSEN: It's quite extensive. On my normal schedule, I have about 30 music cues to write for an episode, and I have about a four-day turn-around for that. And the music is all written for a 35-piece orchestra, so it's pretty intense.

GROSS: I want to get to another song on The Simpsons CD, and this is actually a parody of a song from "School House Rock," the song "I'm Just A Bill on Capitol Hill" and this was a song written by Dave Frischberg (ph) that's supposed to describe -- I mean, that does describe -- how a bill becomes a law. And this is a really clever parody of that, by a demagogue.


You know, sung in the persona of a demagogue. And Jack Sheldon (ph) who -- the trumpeter who sang the original version, sings this one as well. Tell us how this one came about?

CLAUSEN: Well, again, the lyric originated as part of the script, and when I was given the sample that this was supposed to follow, when I heard the original, my first comment was, well, that's Jack Sheldon singing. And the producer said: do you know him?

And I said, oh yes, he's a friend of mine. He's worked for me many times in the past. He worked for me on "Moonlighting," playing some of his beautiful, beautiful trumpet solos. He's one of the best jazz trumpet players in the world.

And I said, wouldn't it be funny if we could get Jack to sing on our parody, as well as the original, and the comment was made of -- do you think we'd be able to get him? And I said, sure, let me make the call. I called Jack, and Jack said "I'd be glad to do this."

So it really, I think, makes it come that much closer to home and gives the bite that much more significance.

GROSS: What did you have to do, musically, to make it not exactly what the original song is? I mean, Dave Frischberg who wrote the original probably wasn't going to sue you, but is that the kind of thing you have to worry about?

CLAUSEN: It's an interesting challenge. By the way, Dave's an old friend of mine. He and I used to play casuals together when I was still playing.

GROSS: "Casuals"?

CLAUSEN: And before he -- casuals. You know, weddings, dances...

GROSS: Oh. Oh, no kidding.

CLAUSEN: ... stuff like that. I was a bass player. He was a piano player, and we played some jobs together before he moved to New York and became a famous songwriter.

It's always an interesting -- interesting challenge to try to walk the line of creating an homage to someone, but not duplicating it note for note. So obviously, I'm always concerned about the fact that what I want to do is original, but nevertheless brings back the ambience of the selected parody piece.

It's tricky, but I think we got it to work.

GROSS: Well, let's hear the parody of "I'm Just A Bill" -- the parody is called "The Amendment Song," and this is from an episode of The Simpsons called "The Day the Violence Died."


BOYS VOICE: Hey, who left all this garbage on the steps of Congress?

JACK SHELDON, SINGING: I'm not garbage
I'm an amendment to be
Yes, an amendment to be
And I'm hopin' that they'll ratify me
There's a lot of flag burners who have got too much freedom
I want to make it legal for policemen to beat 'em
'Cause there's limits to our liberties
Least I hope and pray that there are
'Cause those liberal freaks go too far.

BOYS VOICE: But why can't we just make a law against flag burning?

SHELDON: Because that law would be unconstitutional. But if we change the Constitution...

BOYS VOICE: Then we could make all sorts of crazy laws.

SHELDON: Now you're catching on.

BART SIMPSON: What the hell is this?

LISA SIMPSON: It's one of those campy '70s throwbacks that appeals to Generation Xers.

BART SIMPSON: We need another Vietnam, thin out their ranks a little.

BOYS VOICE: What if people say you're not good enough to be in the Constitution?

SHELDON: Then I'll crush all opposition to me, and I'll make Ted Kennedy pay -- if he fights back, I'll say that he's gay.

ADULT MALE VOICE: Good news, amendment. They ratified 'ya. You're in the U.S. Constitution.

SHELDON: Oh, yeah. Door's open, boys.


GROSS: When you're writing a song parody, are you trying to write it as if it were serious? As if it were really a Broadway show? Or really a movie theme?

CLAUSEN: Absolutely. Absolutely. I'm very, very serious about this. And I hearken back to another phrase that an old trumpet player friend of mine told me a long, long time ago: "you can't vaudeville vaudeville" -- meaning that if something is funny already, if you try to put something funny on top of it, it will dull the issue, rather than enhance it.

Therefore, not only in creating the songs, but in creating the underscore music for The Simpsons and trying to give credence to the emotional content of what the characters are saying, I'm always extremely serious.

And I think what happens is that the listener and observer gets pulled into the situation more effectively once the music is serious, so that when the gag finally comes, the gag then becomes twice as funny.

GROSS: The characters on The Simpsons have to sing. That is, the actors have to sing in character. Do you have to work with them on their singing voices? It must be hard to sing in character as Homer or to sing in character as Bart.

CLAUSEN: Well, that would be my reaction, too. I would think that it would be extremely difficult. And yet, Dan and Nancy and all of the other cast voices make it look so easy, and my hat is off to them, because I start to write some very, very challenging material for them.

The minute I found out that they could sing as well as they do, then the sky was the limit for me as far as being able to write challenging material, knowing that they would rise to the occasion.

They probably curse me when they go home at night, but they really do rise to the occasion. They make it look so easy. So I -- it doesn't seem hard to me.

GROSS: What's an example of that on the new CD?

CLAUSEN: Oh, boy. I think the track of "See My Vest" with Mr. Burns is a great example of that, because that particular track goes in and out of tempo, and speeds up and slows down, and it's very, very Broadway show-oriented, and I think the performance was absolutely wonderful.

GROSS: Alf Clausen composes and arranges for The Simpsons. The new Simpsons CD is called "Songs in the Key of Springfield." Here's "See My Vest," parodying "101 Dalmatians" and "Beauty and the Beast."


MR. BURNS: See my vest, see my vest
Made from gorilla chest
Feel this sweater, there's no better
Than authentic Irish setter
See this hat, twas my cat
My evening wear of vampire bat
These white slippers are albino African endangered rhino
Grizzly bear underwear, turtle's necks
I've got my share
Puree of poodle on my noodle it shall rest
Try my red robin suit, it comes one breast or two
See my vest, see my vest, see my vest.

Like my loafers, former gophers
It was that or skin my chauffeurs
But a greyhound fur tuxedo would be best
So, let's prepare these dogs...

UNNAMED FEMALE: Kill two for matching togs.

BURNS: See my vest, see my vest -- oh, please, won't you see my vest.

I really like the vest.

UNNAMED MALE: I gathered, yeah.

LISA SIMPSON: He's gonna make a tuxedo out of our puppies.

BART SIMPSON: Nah, nah, nah. Nah, nah, nah. Nah, nah, nah.

LISA: Bart!

BART: Sorry. You got to admit, it's catchy.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Alf Clausen
High: Composer Alf Clausen, the man behind the music of "The Simpsons." There's a new compilation CD of music from the animated cartoon TV series, "The Simpsons: Songs in the Key of Springfield."
Spec: Music Industry; Media; Television; The Simpsons
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: Songs in the Key of Springfield
Date: MAY 14, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 051403np.217
Head: Talking Blue
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:53

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Last weekend, chess master Garry Kasparov lost his match to a computer -- perhaps the most important single symbolic moment in the history of the computer.

Linguist Geoff Nunberg says that what turns out to be really unattainable for computers, though, isn't what only a few people like chess masters can achieve, but the things that we all take for granted, like language.

GEOFF NUNBERG, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: One of the things that makes us human is that we don't like to lose. So, it isn't surprising that people have been coming with a slew of excuses and explanations for Deep Blue's victory over Garry Kasparov last weekend.

The machine wasn't really thinking, they say, as if that were a kind of cheating. Or they say the outcome would have been different if Kasparov had had more time to rest between games, or if he'd gotten a look at Deep Blue's previous play before the match.

But there was no way to set up the rules of this confrontation even-handedly. It's like staging a boxing match between Mike Tyson and a kangaroo. There wouldn't be any ring size that would work equally well for both competitors.

However you explain it, it was still a great moment in the history of the computer and a poetic comeuppance for all those philosophers and pundits who were saying 20 years ago that a computer would never be able to meet a human chess master.

Still, let's not get all apocalyptic about this. What the match proved in the end, after all, was only that a computer that had been training with a grand master could beat a grand master that had been training with a computer.

And there was never that much difference between the parties to begin with. In the vast landscape of the human condition, the chess players and the computer programmers live in pretty much the same neighborhood. And what's more, it's something of a gated community.

If the ability to write C-code or to appreciate the subtleties of the Sicilian defense were emblematic of humanity, most of us would be disqualified at the outset.

That's why I was sort of pleased that Deep Blue won -- not because IBM needed the money, but because it might help to focus on the things that really make our species special; not the recondite mental gymnastics of tournament chess, but the ordinary stuff we take for granted -- like talking.

It mystifies me that people have such trouble understanding this. Every few months, some software developer announces a breakthrough program that's duplicated some basic linguistic capability. It can converse in ordinary language.

It can translate French into English. It can recognize speech. And people buy this story hook, line, and sinker and drive up the stock price for a couple of months, until the program turns out to be a hack like all the others.

It's true that researchers have achieved some local victories in this area, but in the large, language is really hard to get right. Why is language so hard? For one thing, the rules are extraordinarily complicated. They bear the same relation to chess as the federal tax code does to the rules of a Publishers Clearinghouse Sweepstakes.

Then, too, the use of language doesn't stand on its own. It rests on a rich background of knowledge of the world. I was reminded of this the other day when I heard somebody whistling "Blowin' in the Wind," and somebody else said: "you know, he's got a new album out."

Think what you'd have to know to figure out just who that pronoun "he" was supposed to refer to.

And then there's the fact that language isn't just a question of brains, but bodies. I don't know if a computer can think or whether it can be conscious. It's hard to say what would be proof of either. But it's unlikely that we'll ever know what it means to be rueful.

You might teach it to realize that it had made a mistaken move in chess and maybe even cause it to dwell on the fact excessively, but it's never going to feel its heart sinking in its chest the way Kasparov must have in game six.

Will computers ever be able to converse the way we do? Well, the Deep Blue episode should warn us off making categorical predictions, but it's a safe bet that nobody alive today will be around to see it. And the one thing that's certain is that computers will never do language any better than we do -- no more than they'll ever be better at singing saloon ballads.

Those are our games, and you have to play them by our standards. Kasparov is a great phenomenon, of course, but he isn't the hope of humanity. That honor belongs to the kibitzers (ph) at ringside.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist at the Zero Palo Alto Research Center.

I'm Terry Gross.

Dateline: Geoff Nunberg; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
High: Linguist Geoff Nunberg on the computer Deep Blue.
Spec: Computers; Games; Sports; Chess; Technology; IBM; Deep Blue
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: Talking Blue
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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