Van Dyke Parks

Van Dyke Parks is best known for writing the lyrics to a certain lost classic by The Beach Boys and as an arranger, composer, and original American eccentric - and that’s not even the half of it. His first arranging job was on The Jungle Book (where his addition, "The Bare Necessities," scooped an Academy Award nomination); he once sang "Stille Nacht" to Einstein; and back in the '70s he started the world's first record-company video department at Warner Bros. This dynamo of expressive, idiosyncratic musical ideas shows no sign of running out of juice. In recent years he’s woven his expressive arrangements around the music of Rufus Wainwright, St. Etienne, and Joanna Newsom, for whom he orchestrated her second album, 2006's Ys. Parks' music, by turns elegiac and psychedelic, stretches into the bygone age of a lost America and bursts into the wide-open plains of whatever he chooses to do next. In this lecture at the 2013 Red Bull Music Academy, he delves into the various corners of his rich history. You couldn't make Van Dyke Parks up, and if you did, no one would believe you.

Hosted by Benji B Audio Only Version Transcript:

RBMA

It really is an absolute special honor for us to be in the company of such a musical wizard and legend. Please join me in welcoming the amazing Mr. Van Dyke Parks.

Van Dyke Parks

 Well, I'm not the only wizard here. I know that we're in a sea of wizardry. I know that, and I appreciate it.

RBMA

So you selected that piece of music to kick things off today. What was it?

Van Dyke Parks

 There were 800 copies of a record just released for Record Store Day. And that is in that record. It begins an album called The Super Chief, which is to document my trip. An instrumental fantasy, as it were to document my first trip to California in 1955, on the Super Chief, the great luxury train. It took me three days to get from Princeton Junction to Pasadena, California. And that was the first piece from that fantastic, grandly irrelevant piece of music I wrote, called_ The Super Chief_.

RBMA

And there's definitely a cinematic theme in a lot of your arranging. One of your first breaks was actually working in the movie business, am I right?

Van Dyke Parks

 Well, I don't know if you call that a break. It might have been better to study engineering, or dentistry. But I chose music early and I went to a boarding school in Princeton, New Jersey. Outside of Princeton. At that time it was called the Columbus Boy Choir School. And I was immersed in music from a very early age. I was the youngest of four boys. We all played instruments. My first real instrument was clarinet. My brother played trumped, another played French horn. The oldest played double-barrel euphonium. So we made a racket at every Noel. We'd go around and we'd play our way through neighborhoods and in sometimes freezing weather. I was the only one with a wooden mouthpiece, so I felt rather superior and fortunate. If you've ever had brass on your lips in a snowstorm, you know what I'm talking about. So music was it. And to support that tuition, my father was a doctor. Much of his work was for nothing but for the love of mankind, which I don't think is a misspent aim. We had to raise the tuition. And I came into New York City repeatedly, in the '50s, to support my education in music. And it's all about music for me. It's the highest math. It's what brings us together today. It leads to the song form, the most portable piece of cultural baggage we can carry. We don't even have to pick it up. As long as it has melody, pardon me, a through-line, it needn't have melody. But sometimes it does, and when it does, it can escape with you as you exit a room, with a fantastic and powerful memory. So I think music is very butch. I love it. It brings musculature to my every social aim. And sometimes it's a velvet glove with a strong fist enclosed. Sometimes it's a consolation prize. But music has such potential to realize everything we want of the human spirit. Let's not be bothering Jesus with all this horse shit, but you get what I'm saying here. I believe so heartily in music. So those that are here that might suspect that it's other than a glorious ride, I guarantee you it's worth it, as I enter my eighth decade. I swear to that.

RBMA

And one piece of music that definitely, I think it's fair to say, brings us all together in the room, because I would find it hard to believe that there's someone here that hasn't been touched by this moment in their life, is one of the very first things that you worked on.

(music: Terry Gilkyson - The Bare Necessities / The Jungle Book soundtrack)

Van Dyke Parks

 Alright. That was 1963.

(applause)

1963, I got my first union job. That was the year... we had a Cold War. We had been recovering from Nikita Khrushchev banging on his shoe on the dais of the United Nations. We were in a Cold War. Unfortunately, my brother was in Frankfurt, at the vice-consulate of Frankfurt. And he died that year. And to get to his funeral, I got a job. And they gave me money to arrange that piece. I got a black suit and a two-way ticket to the grave. And if that isn't a burning bush, if that isn't God in action, I don't know what the hell is. And that was my first job. Basically, a glorified rhythm track, but it gave me the idea that there was money in music. And that's something I just found phenomenal. So, 1963, that was the year Bob Dylan came out with his first album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. That was the year The Rolling Stones co- opted the American delta blues in 12 x 5. That was a sea change in music. That's when everyman could sing. Sprechstimme ['speaking voice'], the thing that I'd learned as a child in the boy school, by people like Schoenberg, was now on the street. Anybody could sing. If he could play a guitar, he could get somewhere. And so I went from the coffeehouses that I'd played since '62, I went up and down the coast of California. I went into the studio and started exploring the opportunities in a studio. And that really became my laughin' place, the place that I loved to be. That's where I wanted to remain. Because I'd drawn a distinction between performance music and recorded music. I did that in 1948. I was 5-years-old, and I heard a Spike Jones tune, called "Cocktails For Two," filled with ear candy. Tuneful percussion. Things that I'd heard, like, only through Sousa, on parades, as people marched down the street in earshot on American holidays. Now it was in the studio, and tuneful percussion became a very important obsession for me in recording. It still is. You notice, with "The Bare Necessities," you're hearing a room sound. You walk into a room and the people that - probably was the first take - people look at music and they start playing together, and the room sounds. Well, technology of music, and I'm just starting to talk about it animated itself into a real sea change. Right about that time. About 1963, '64, we went from three-track to four-track tape. It was a big deal. And I knew there was a difference between recorded and live music. From going from a piece where the room sounded to a piece in which you could impose different perspectives on acoustic instruments. A mandolin might be triumphal in the foreground, in the face, with a wall of brass blowing their brains out in the background, because of micing. So, tell you the truth, I was at the right place at the right time to participate in all that wondrous journey that studio technology brought. And this hour, I figure, with your indulgence, I will stammer my way through a discovery of where that led me. All kinds of interesting places. That prove, once again, that production - that is, as a credit - is a failure in engagement, in contrast to arrangement, and really participating. Where you can define the proscenium of a piece. You can exalt what is humble. You can articulate what seems to the casual observer like a fuzzy, far-off event, as small as a YouTube download. So that's the end of the sentence.

(laughter)

RBMA

I think that sentence deserves a round of applause.

(applause)

So, obviously, we're a room full of musically-minded people, from all differing backgrounds of production and taste. But one thing that I would really love you to expand on in today's talk is what you just mentioned, which is the art of arranging. And maybe while we navigate through that, you could think of a few musical examples we could use to show, really, your experience in arranging. And maybe talk us through the process of what being an arranger is.

Van Dyke Parks

 Well, music seems to me like a tremendous remedy. Almost like the last thing on anybody's mind. In film work, it's the last thing done. In a vertical hierarchy, all the money is spent on blowing dust around, making people up, spending money on contracts, getting an extra trailer for a diva who just didn't want to be so close to her male co-star. Maybe falling out of love during an embrace in a picture. All of those problems can only be reconciled with music. So music is the great remedy to me. And it is also in arranging for basic tracks. Real interesting to me that two things are involved in the recording process, usually, although events now are stampeding ahead of me and I am in a state of perpetual wonder about whether Spotify is spotless, what's happening to fractional profits in music and so forth, and how to position myself as a mere survivor in this new era of music. I understand it far less than anybody here. But in my experience, two things happen that are very interesting in the equation of arranging. An extemporaneous process might meet head-on with a pre-meditated event. So you might come up with a bass, drums, and guitar, and a vocal, that need somehow to be - pardon me - enunciated, clarified, confirmed, in their certain truths and excellence. And somehow maybe, like, cosmetically cured, with distractions that only a good arrangement can offer. It's not true that an arrangement should always just be felt and not heard. Sometimes an arrangement should definitely be heard. And I've made great mistakes in miscalculating. Just as a personal aside, something that I think is very important to say: you must reserve the right to fail if you're gonna get anything done. You must continue aggressively to reserve the right to fail. You must keep learning from your failures. I see that. I see how shy I was. When I could afford to be shy. Because I was a brunette, and I had time to be shy. But soon you'll tire of being shy, if you are shy at all. If you're that victimized by the degree of self-loathing coming from your last failure. But you must continue to forgive yourself and reserve the right to fail. So, what happens is, the extemporaneous process then meets what's pre-meditated. Arranging, to me, isn't something like the design of a camel with a committee. Basically, everybody's gotta get lost while you think about what it takes to arrange. You're holding the bag. It's your job. You cannot, with the power of dialogue, do anything to ameliorate the crisis that is imposed on the arranger. You must face that alone. It's a monastic process. And that is what I love about it. That it is collaborative, but it's also terrifically solitary and confining. Hermetically sealed, in the case of my work a couple of days ago before I took the red-eye to Red Bull - my first red-eye, by the way; interesting, life is so full, always something new - but I did an arrangement in two days. But it felt like it could've been a year. I was so frozen, immobilized, in front of a computer. I no longer write because of an injury, from over-writing. Everything now is through sequencing, by the way. I use Digital Performer in my work as an arranger. It's a Luddite's last refuge. I do it because it's what I learned, and many, many things come into play in arranging that improve the facility, the speed of the event, but there's always an important ingredient in that. With that speed, comes the need for hesitation between inspiration and execution. So, often I find myself doing even up to 24 bars, and I'll finish that, drink some wine after I've finished the meal and cleaned up between every preparation - my wife thinks that "cook" is a noun - so between all of those events, I might get up the next morning and just wipe out that 24 bars and move on. So, I allow myself an arrangement of a song, and if you all are interested in a song form, and surviving as an arranger, and I recommend it, I allow myself five days for an arrangement, no matter whether it's a banjo and a Jew's harp or an entire orchestra with a lot of vertical responsibilities. Everybody has to have something to play. But I take those moments between inspiration and execution very seriously. You must have time to give pause while doing an arrangement. But both of those things fascinated me, you see, the business of extemporaneous work. If you go on YouTube and you look up my name - it's Van Dyke, is my first name - and go "Ry Cooder." If you punch in the word "Hollywood," "Ry Cooder Van Dyke Hollywood," you'll see a filmic event that is absolutely... it's gonna knock your socks off. It shows you how I get, occasionally in life, to participate extemporaneously, and how much I love it, how much joy it brings me. But that isn't the luxury I usually have. Usually, it's sitting at home frozen in front of a computer and doing an arrangement. I'll tell ya something. I think it would really be good ... what's the next thing that's up there? OK, so I go on from one thing or another, but I finally get an opportunity to do what I do best, and that is I like to articulate everything in strings. I use a lot of strings. I know it's very retro. But I love strings. To me, that's heavenly engagement. I don't play a fretless instrument. I spent one semester in school on a cello, and it was a painful experience for anyone who came close. It wasn't until my son played violin that I actually got a stringed instrument in my house. But this shows what I do most commonly. This is an early attempt at an arrangement. "One Meatball," on Ry Cooder's first album, which I co-produced. It's called "One Meatball," the record Ry Cooder.

(Ry Cooder - One Meatball)

Arch-liberal. Kind of left-wing, liberal, tree-huggin', Commie-sympathizin', lyrics there, from the Depression. All about the difference between being rich and being poor, and I've been both in New York City, I guarantee you that. So I understood the piece. And sometimes you notice that the violins at the top would support the melody, of a person so circumspect and so in doubt about his vocal ability that I felt it was appropriate to strengthen the melody. Sometimes I do that with the first violins. Now, it's interesting, are any of you interested in string arrangements? OK, here's the bit. This is what I do. This is what I've found. I didn't make this up, nobody taught me this. But this is what I do. I always record with three violin lines. I divide them. Three violins, two violas, one cello, and one bass. That's what I do all the time. And the reason for that is because, you see, with these five voices up there, the three violins and the two violas, I can have triadic events, I can have a line or an octave-duplicated line at the top, holding the thing together while these three interior voices, that would be the third violins and the two violas, all have a triadic opportunity. So what are you doing with strings all of a sudden? These strings are getting bold and beautiful. There's a physicality there. (imitates a line) You don't have to have a drummer going(sings a drum fill). You don't have to keep returning to the ubiquity of the trap set to get some rhythm. Maybe even if you put some rhythm in your strings, a drummer can find a way to lay back. And still be involved, with great economy. So that's what I found out. Three violins, two violas, one cello, one bass. Well, unfortunately, a violin is an instrument of infinite approximate pitch. And if you put two violins together, you're not really doing them a favor, because you're inviting intonational problems. So you must have three. That unifies the field and it starts to sound like a note. Sometimes that note is slightly out of tune; what the Brazilians call "desafinado." Agreeably out-of-tune. But that, to me, is the irreducible minimum for an orchestrating with an arranger who wants to bring the heat of the street into the parlor to meet the elite.

(applause)

It's nine violins and six violas, one cello will do, and one bass. My love for strings, it was so born of my own intimidation about the fact that I'm not a real musician, that everything I get musically just comes from blood, sweat, and tears. I sweat bullets to come up with everything. It's all due diligence with me. I want to prove to you what this secret knowledge... going to a boy choir school, learning music, listening to a lot of dead white guys, doing the drill, crying a lot, not getting laid, being lonely, being a musician, it was tough. To get the experience. To even enter the field of arranging. I want to show you where all of this knowledge paid off. And the academic results became clear. Please play "Good Vibrations." One cello.

(music: The Beach Boys - Good Vibrations)

So I went into a Beach Boys session, without any employment opportunity, went in there, and thank God, it occurred to me to suggest that a cello play. Tripletize fundamentals on the chorus. With a bow. And Brian Wilson reached in the control room - with great control, he had; such great control, and the gift of mutual empowerment, which is a requisite for any good musician - and he got on that control button and he said to that cellist, who was somewhat puzzled that he was looking at an empty music stand, and he said, "Jesse" - it was Jesse Ehrlich was in the band a generation beyond us - "Jesse. Barko." Jesse looked up from the music stand. "Barko?" He said, "No, Brian. 'Arco.' With a bow. Arco, with a bow." And this is what happened. And it became like the ruby slippers that clicked in the The Wizard Of Oz. The signature shot for that piece. And that got me eight months of infamous employment as a lyricist. So you never know where music's gonna take you, either. But that is, you see, the power of the rhythmic potential of a string section. In that case, it was just one player. But it speaks worlds about the physical possibility in string rhythms. And I really love that world. It's second nature to me. I feel like a boy and a dolphin. When I go into that world, it gives me all kinds of flotation. I just love it. And recommend it. As the beginning for all your ideas. Now, how do I get there? You might interested. Let me give you a trade secret, the one I use. I was once a pianist, an able pianist. I do everything in front of a keyboard now. I would be lost... I know a great arranger, Lennie Niehaus. He does halftimes at Super Bowls and endless numbers of play-ons and play-offs at Academy Awards show and so, a great tenor sax man, and has insinuated himself into jazz literature, arranged for Stan Kenton on a bus, with nothing else. Lennie would do an entire orchestration, I watched him in process, and he would turn the page to the next four bars, a full orchestra, and not have to look where he had left a flute, a second flute, or a bassoon. He just kept going. Maddeningly talented. I don't have the problem of talent. I take a long time. But I find that it just disgusts me how people privatize knowledge. I decided not to do that. I try to give away what it is that I paid dearly to learn. And here's such a lesson. If you're a pianist. You know, some of my favorite music of the American scene, and I had one lesson conducted by Aaron Copland, for example - I mean, I've had some great opportunities - somebody asked him, "What is American music?" He said, "Well, it's anything that was written in Amer0ica." Which I think is a wonderful way to just wrap it up. It came from America. That's what American musi0c is. So I think that there's a desperate attempt to brand all kinds of maverick music, whether it's in America, of America, or just McWorld, which is the American hegemony in its most giant, inappropriate form. The way to get there, from here, in an arrangement, if you're using strings - and then I'll wrap this up; I'm starting to sound like a dweeb, aren't I? I don't wanna sound like a dweeb. I wanna be very hip.

(applause)

But the way to get there is, if you're a pianist, my favorite American music is, let's say, Gershwin. And my favorite Gershwin is, let's just say, "Two- Piano Gershwin." And what you get in "Two-Piano Gershwin" it's available anywhere. I would listen to that if I were you, to see what happens in two piano assaults. Very interesting, because you get a very detailed and specific articulated left hands, and you also get all the decorative qualities that are available in tenor events and so forth. This is the way I construct strings. I get, basically, two treble-bass-braced pieces of information, and I study it. And it's from that that I deduct the strings. So, like, everything below a low C is wiped out as I study the viola possibilities. Then everything below a low G is wiped out as I study the violin possibilities. So it's then, with deductive reasoning, that you find yourself able to quickly - I mean, when time is the money of love, and deadlines are deadly - this is an easy way to get where you're going. And I recommend it. That you try that technique, to get quickly through a string arrangement.

RBMA

You touched on sort of classic American-sounding music, and of course, it is very easy to just say, "Well, that's any music from America," but you have been on record as sort of having a direct reaction against what you call the Anglo-cization of music in the '60s during the sort of Beatlesmania that was going on. And if you could pick a style of music that was classically American, I mean, you could do a lot worse than picking out The Beach Boys as a classic sort of American sound. Seeing as you raised this classic Smile session, which is probably one of the most folkloric recording sessions ever, a lot of people said that, you know, had this album come out at the time, that it would've been the American Sgt. Pepper's, or the equivalent. Could you paint us a picture of what it was like going into that environment, how you met Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys, and really what those recording sessions were like?

Van Dyke Parks

 Well, like I said, I mean, to wrap it up, what I learned was not so much musical as it was social. The social lessons turned out to be absolutely indelible. To see somebody, in this case, you see, I think the fascination is, those who give a damn about anything pre-Elvis, the younger, looking back on this, the most indelible impression I have is what came out of it as a social lesson in how to make music. One guy was in charge, and that guy, he was the most incredible... I mean, in terms of tonnage, he was the most powerful man in music production. As a songwriter, publisher, group leader, arranger and so forth. He sold more records than anybody. He was the top dog in the American pop music scene. And I define "pop" as something that happened after popular music died. And in that year, 1963, that year that Andy Warhol came out with his Campbell's soup can, all the arts went pop. It was a big deal in music, of course. So being in a Beach Boys session was very much like that. All the extemporaneous processes were played. The good thing about it is the usual suspects always showed up. So, there were people that had played together, there was a sense of what you call "repertory theater," musically speaking. Everyone had played together. They had a tacit relationship that was still very dynamic. Everyone respected everyone. And they also expected the unexpectable. And that's what I remember about [it], a much-unexpected event took place. I found myself once on my hands and knees playing the organ pedals. It was just too much velocity was required. I had to. But you'll hear one of those organ notes in "Good Vibrations." It's almost sub-sonic. It's just too hard to find. We don't need to go search it.

(music: The Beach Boys - Good Vibrations take #3 outtake)

(comments over music) But you notice there's an economy in the ideas, you see. This is chamber music, in a way. So I found that chamber sensibility very refreshing. What it took was the ability for the musicians to go along gladly. There was no time to feel superior. Nobody had time to feel superior. And I've learned something from that. You see, I escaped serious music by getting into un-serious music. Now, you see, you don't have a problem with that. I don't believe you have a problem with that. I think you will find that you can be taken seriously, even if you're doing music that you might think is just being thrown out there with feel-good potential. I think this is very interesting. But when I was coming up, there was a definite demarcation between serious and un-serious music. I wasn't going to be serious about Edgar Varèse anymore. I found possibilities of musique concrète right in that, if you listen to "Good Vibrations," just before that glottal "ah." that "ah" that hit, where the tape is cut. I found musique concrète in popular music to be much more interesting. I found non-serious music to have this political potential. That it would make a difference to be involved with music to which people were dancing, or communicating thoughtlessly. And to me that became the hardball game. The one I wanted to be swinging in. And, in short, it was a great opportunity. I was at the right time at the right place.

RBMA

And you wrote most of the lyrics on that album, right?

Van Dyke Parks

 Well, yeah. I wrote most of the lyrics. I found myself to be a lyricist, but still able to make a musical contribution. And I don't eat light bulbs. And I do believe that old caution, that "by no title, merit nor honor is any true man elated." And I think that that extends to women, too. I think titles are an absolute folly, when it comes to trying to figure out what comes from a collective endeavor. And what I love about that music and, darn it, just about everything that I've done in music that I can think of right now, it's all, ultimately, a collaborative confirmation. Isn't that interesting?

RBMA

Let's go further on that, and the difference between taking someone's idea or someone's creation, and then doing your interpretation, i.e. arrangement, on top of that, and the difference between being an artist yourself and the creative pressure that comes from having to do it all from scratch. Because after the Smile sessions were sort of abandoned, you recorded Song Cycle. Is that correct?

Van Dyke Parks

 Yeah, well, when I went on to a record called Song Cycle, and they sat on it for a year, and it was ignominiously put on the shelf, and then it appeared somehow, almost in a piratical move, on a juke box in Greenwich Village. I went out and got an electromechanical reproduction of a coin going into a machine. It reminded me of the time that I first put nickel in a jukebox. That was called "Memories Are Made Of This," the first time I ever put a nickel in a jukebox. So I wanted the coin to go in, and then at the end, of course, because I learned that it's possible to turn tape around, the coin comes out at the end. This I eviscerated, that is, I made waste of a beautiful diatonic - a do-re-mi thing - that was written by a very unpopular, Donovan was his name. They thought he was a Bob Dylan wannabe. And I felt kinda sorry for him, but I was absolutely impressed by his piece, called Donovan's "Colours." And I had at it, and this was what came out of my madness.

(music: Van Dyke Parks - Donovan's Colours / applause)

So yeah, but it's like Ted Turner said, "It only looks easy." I had to start with an ostinato. I didn't know where it was going, I didn't know when I would return to it. But I started with a repeated figure on that simple tune called "Donovan's Colours." The marimba, I thought, was very able. But nobody told me that by having the tape speed, I might reach an octave. And I learned that seat of the pants. And so I played the marimba part at half-speed and then brought it up to speed. I wasn't afraid to show my madness in that piece. I wanted to follow it wherever it would take me. But I had been in the Mothers Of Invention, and I had seen crazier people working out...

RBMA

Which was Frank Zappa's band.

Van Dyke Parks

 ...Frank Zappa's group. So I had no fear of being considered insane. And Warner Bros. got the results of that single record; I did it under a pseudonym 'cause I wanted to protect my family from the infamy of my musical criminology. I wanted to protect them, and I put that record out as George Washington Brown, a fictitious pianist from South America.

(applause)

They wouldn't permit me to sign on at Warner Bros. with an album, so I used my own name after that.

RBMA

I mean, the majority of that music at that time that you were involved with does feel very experimental for the time. And pretty trippy, almost. I mean, was it quite a psychedelic time at that period?

Van Dyke Parks

 Well, I had some psilocybin. But I never participated in this LSD stuff you're talking about. And I don't understand it when people talk about psychedelia. They don't know what they're talking about, but it's a good buzz word.

(laughter)

Look at "Ice Capades" and you'll see. This took me to the Moog synthesizer. I was one of four boys in town that had one, and I did these commercials. And this is when there was no keyboard. There was just a phalanx of wires, and you put them together. You started out with pink noise. That is every "hhhhh," every sound in the audible spectrum. And you came up with a note. And maybe that note would be, well, if it were an ambulance, it would be a sawtooth wave, with a sine control voltage. You'll hear what came out musically, where this desire to experiment in the studio took me, in this Moog music.

(music: Van Dyke Parks - Ice Capades (Moog Music '67) / applause)

It was tough. It was tough. It was tough. It was tough. That was for a commercial for Ice Capades. I actually did teach the synthesizer how to say "Ice Capades." And you go into a parking lot now, it says, "Please take the ticket." And you take artificial voices for granted. But in those days, I was just thinking about the medical potential. This was before I even heard the word "Stephen Hawking." I thought that this might really have some serious applications. I had too much to do to be psychedelic. I had to keep a roof over my head. And I had to be an arranger, and I arranged for a lot of people. Why don't you play the one I did for Bonnie Raitt? This reveals my love for calypso.

(music: Bonnie Raitt - Wah She Go Do)

RBMA

So that was your work with Bonnie Raitt.

Van Dyke Parks

 Yeah.

RBMA

And just going back to the album we played before, Song Cycle, which is referenced by so many artists through the decades as like a really critically acclaimed body of work. It's fair to say that it's not as commercially well- known as some of the other artists that you've worked with. I thought it'd be interesting to talk a little bit about the difference between being the artist and also being comfortable, as it seems, playing more of a background role in music.

Van Dyke Parks

 Well, "background" is a bad word to use. "Sidelines," I think, is a good word to use, OK? When you're an artist, you can do anything. You only must be true to yourself. And that truth shall make you whole. If you're just true to yourself. But when you're working for somebody else, Jesus doesn't give a damn about that. You have an obligation to somebody else, and to serve them and their expectations, however heightened they may be. So it's the absence of personality all of a sudden comes into play. You find that in film scoring, especially. Being nobody is often very important, than trying to be somebody. Being interested is essential. Being interesting is dullsville. I learned that. I learned it the hard way. I became a record artist. All of a sudden I found myself punished critically by being myself, being true to myself. But ultimately, what I learned by being an artist brought me into such understanding, I mean, that I became indispensable once present, to a lot of people, in making their cases clear. Isn't that something? So that's the difference to me. One is by being somebody. The other is by being nobody.

RBMA

I don't like pulling up things that people have said before, but one quote that I had to write down, was that you said, is that: "When somebody blew John Kennedy's brains out in the face of fame, I realized there might be some value in anonymity."

Van Dyke Parks

 That's right. I think anonymity is a blessing. And it gives you a chance to stop worrying. I mean, I've seen a lot of famous people. I don't know, there might be a lot of you who think that fame is indispensable to the very idea of surviving in music. I don't think it's important. I've seen so many peers, people my age, who spent a lifetime getting famous, and I see them walk into a crowded room with two terrible things on their mind: one, what if everybody notices me? And the other: what if nobody notices me? So it's a problem, this thing about fame. It looks to me like it's the hangnail on every social situation. You just: why do it? I don't understand it. And anonymity has been a blessing to me, as I've pursued this arranging career that I've had, principally. I think it all shows that everything has served further my desire to be part of the team. To be a good beta male. This is what I like about arranging. It's reactive more than creative. But I can't really tell the difference between those things. But I would say, by being willing to be reactive, you get so much more done than if you're in peril because someone expects something creative out of you. And that applies to self-analysis, too. By the way, just to let you know, I have pursued cliché so much to try to even make it an art form. That's part of, I think, what is my signature. To try to just almost get to the unsueable offense, in quotation. I've wanted to be a pirate. But you can't really make a living being a pirate. You must do something special with these stolen goods, these references you bring, in if you're going to become an artist in cliché. You saw what I did to Bonnie Raitt on that song, basically that is a testament to women's empowerment. Looking at that field of calypso, which has been such a big part of my life, having to follow a calypso steel band in a coffeehouse in Southern California, I learned so much about good rhythms, real rhythms, not imagined rhythms, rhythms that came from Africa. Look at this, I finally got where I wanted to be as a producer for The Mighty Sparrow. One day, in a hurricane. Let's go to "More Cock." By the way, one day, this entire album was done in one day. The Mighty Sparrow went up to a piano and he did this (pats his left knee four times). And the orchestra exploded into performance. I asked him about derivatives of that rhythm, the merengue, baion, and so forth, and he told me that in Trinidad, it's like asking people what jazz means. Where did this come from, this crooked beat that pushed the measure forward? And he said that in Curaçao was the fable, was that, Curaçao, and a lot of people hold to it, that Peter Stuyvesant, after he was governor general of Curaçao, came from the Caribbean, came to be the governor general of New Amsterdam, he had a peg leg. One of his knees was on a wooden stick. And the natives decided to popularize the governor general's gait in music. Here is "More Cock," one day in a hurricane in Miami.

(music: The Mighty Sparrow - More Cock)

No literature. No literature at all. Same day.

(music: The Mighty Sparrow - Maria)

Mighty fine arranging by Earl, by the way, Earl Graham. So there's a room that sounded right away. The guy just went 'boom-boom, boom-boom, bang!' All during Hurricane Edna, one day in 1971 in Miami. We were on independent generated power. We got through a record in a day. And that's from a record called Hot And Sweet, by The Mighty Sparrow. Reminding me about Earl Rodney, was the arranger of the piece, about the power of arrangement in presenting a song. Now I just came up with it. Let's do something before we do this. Let's go to "Spanish Moon." This is in the same year, 1971, with Little Feat, "Spanish Moon."

(music: Little Feat - Spanish Moon)

RBMA

Is your approach to arranging brass kinda similar to the way that you approach strings, or, I mean, is that a completely different beast?

Van Dyke Parks

 No, no, no, that's different. This is to a rhythm track. This arrangement is to a rhythm track. I used the Tower Of Power, by the way. No, it's different. This is the genius of Lowell George, the late lament of my very good friend Lowell. But all a part of that great American quiltwork we call Americana. I learned so much from Lowell. I learned how to sit on a chord on this piece. One of the greatest pieces I've ever heard is "Yes We Can," by Allen Toussaint, one of my very close friends. I produced his Southern Night record, if you know that one. "Yes We Can." One chord. Just to take a few minutes and then we'll be through with this show-and-tell. Here's another arrangement, a view of Americana. Let's go to "The Parting Hand." This is from my new record, called Songs Cycle.

(music: Van Dyke Parks - The Parting Hand / Parks makes some inaudible commentary at different points in the song / applause)

So that's a song from 1886, a Sacred Harp Society hymnal, and that was my reflections on that song of parting, that precious thing that I heard in the mountains of North Carolina in my youth. So, always drawing on the Low Church, the High Church, raping and running, doing all I can to reflect, to react to these common, stolen goods we call Americana. That weaves throughout the fabric of my work. Should we have some questions?

RBMA

We're almost there. We’re almost there. You want to do questions now? You're bored of me already.

Van Dyke Parks

 Actually, I would prefer to listen to music.

(laughter)

You know, I think it was Zappa who said, "Talking about music is like dancing about architecture."

RBMA

One thing I did want to get to before we open it out to questions is really bringing it up to date. Because, of late, you've toured with Fleet Foxes, and one of the more unusual collaborations that we should mention is you collaborated with a young man named Skrillex. Tell us about how that came about, and how a man of your musical stature approached a project like that.

Van Dyke Parks

 Well, like I say, this is, once again, a lesson in caution against feeling superior. I think that's especially important if you really do have a great musical ability. I think it invites arrogance. Because you know how damn good you are. You've been told all your life. You've amazed people, maybe, with signs of prodigy in your youth. Somehow you survived as a devoted musician. You wonder if there's ever going to be a real payoff. And I think in the process you tend to overly self-protect, and that leads to feelings of, like, auteur. Maybe like you might be too good for something that's offered. That's just a common part of the human comedy. But in fact, I've spent a life of taking that road that Yogi Berra said would lead to a fork, when I had to make a decision, and the decision was based on two things. One is: am I too good to do this? And the other is: am I up to doing this? And I've never been above doing anything. If I'm not doing music, I do music. So when Skrillex called, it was through an intermediary. A record company was... what do you call this? A conference call. Some very protective vestigial organ called a record executive was on the line, and here all of a sudden was Skrillex, and Skrillex was calling from Belgium, it turned out. I said, "Where are you calling from, Mr. Skrillex?" He said, "Skrillex!" "So where are you calling from?" He said, "I'm in Belgium." I said, "Well, what are you doing there?" He says, "I just played a concert." I said, "Oh really, for how many people?" He said, "Oh, about 350,000 people." I said, "Really? Did they come to see you?" He said, "Yeah. They came to see me," you know? I said, "Well, that's very interesting. Well, what do you do?" "I'm a DJ." I said, "Well, that's great." I don't know what a DJ is, really. And I'm not proud of that. I said, "Well, that's great." I said, "What can I do for you?" He said, "I want you to do an orchestration." I said, "OK. If you send it to me and I feel capable, I'll do it." He said, "Oh great, Mr. Parks. We'll destroy the world."

(laughter)

"Great!" Put down the phone. What? "We'll destroy the world." We're gonna destroy the world with Skrillex. I go on one of these. I go on my laptop. I YouTube, I get Skrillex. There he is in Belgium in front of 350,000 people. Skrillex steps up to his laptop and he pours a beer on it. The crowd goes into a state of erection.

(laughter)

They're in ecstasy. And I think they're on Ecstasy, too.

(laughter)

I mean, it's madness. I don't understand it. What am I doing here? But the mp3 came, and all of a sudden, it's on a laptop, I have nothing else to do but a wife asking me where her new shoes are. Or maybe the rent was late. I forget. But there was no two ways about it. I was going to do this job. It confused me a little when I ran into maybe 20 seconds of no chords. I thought maybe that would create a dilemma, because maybe I would make the wrong decision. I was at sea. And I must tell you that the results were, from the orchestra's standpoint, and that was quite an orchestra, we had to take out the partitions at Capitol to expand the studio, A and B. They were all delighted. And as amazed as I was, that we survived and landed on our feet. And why? The reason we did this is because there were 350,000 unemployed European youth who were desperate and hopeless and drugged and unable to find any transformation other than through music. And I decided that it was a political obligation for me to serve that man with all my heart. And that's why I did that Skrillex session. So I go into things with a totally unjudgmental attitude. I am slow to judge and quick to praise. Anybody who makes music has got my vote. It beats bombs in Baghdad. It beats munitions. It takes grit to be a musician. And it takes the ability to serve people faithfully, and be slow to judge. And so all I can tell ya is the check didn't bounce and it had a comma in it.

(laughter / applause)

(music: Skrillex Orchestral Suite by Varien)

RBMA

That's the bonus track on Skrillex's Bangarang EP, as arranged by our guest today. Before we open out to questions, you wanted to play something that you'd brought in, right? From this CD.

Van Dyke Parks

 Yeah. I think it's good for people to know that it's also a marvelous opportunity to be involved with film scoring. And I do it on various levels. And sometimes there's no money. It might be with, like, a synthetic arrangement, with dovetailed strings. Maybe I'll get a violinist on top and a cellist in the bottom to try to fool the discriminating listener into believing that we have real music here. But this music is all orchestral. And like I say, 800 copies were printed of The Super Chief. I hope that I can get it released in the United States. But if that shouldn't happen, I want you to hear what my present tense is in movie scoring. Because I delight in it. It's a nice thing to know that the music is being used. It's not being argued down by some rock Nazi journalist. Who knows as much about a crucifixion as a rabbit does about Easter Sunday. They leave you hanging there, folks. You cannot make your case with critical acclaim or the defamatory remarks they might make about your best effort. Just knowing you did your best often is enough. So I did my best on these. Let's look at "Two." We played some of "One" when these innocents came abroad.

(music: Van Dyke Parks - Go West Young Man)

On that last chord, I take an exception and divide the cellos into five voices, on that sharp nine. Here is another, just a taste of this, to let you know that I go on with this theme on track three. Same theme.

(music: Van Dyke Parks - To The Dining Car / applause)

I wish we had more time but thank you so much for indulging that.

RBMA

There's a whole CD of this stuff, so we'll play it after the session and we can leave it playing. But for now, it's question time. Don't be shy. I'm sure there's plenty of things. Wait for the mic. Yes, sir.

Participant

Hi. Thanks a lot for your lecture. Was very inspiring. And I felt very identified with many things you said. I would like to compose music. I normally make songs very often, and I don't play them again. And many times, people tell me that I should focus on something. But yeah, I like to make music for, well, I've done cartoons and short films, but I'm kind of starting. So I would like to know what you think about the importance of focusing on some style, for example, and as you said, I don't know, I feel very comfortable at being nobody and trying to make something, maybe for the image, or for the concept of other people. And I enjoy that process. So I want to know about that. I also would like to know if you use any technique for making your own script to organize the discords on your composition. Because, for example, for me sometimes, I try to do not discord but, I don't know, kind of like tension chords, or intentions, throughout the song structure. And if you can recommend any book about the experience of composing, or like a continuation of your lecture through a book that I can read.

Van Dyke Parks

 Are you talking about songwriting, or composition in general?

Participant

Composition in general.

Van Dyke Parks

 Oh! You know, at the outset, it's very interesting. Because it's sad to say, but don't be disappointed. It's sad to say the way cannot be told. The way must be found. Damn it!

(laughter)

That's the truth.

Participant

I believe you, but I'm sure you may have some tips.

(laughter)

Van Dyke Parks

 But I tell you, I haven't found any instructive manual that prepares me for music composition. The nice thing about having an opportunity to work on a film, if you can find a colleague, a broke filmmaker who has no money to give you, to put some music on his film, for example, what doing something with a predestined through line. Oh, he has 20 minutes of music and no money. "OK, I'll do it." And I do things like that. I do a lot of free stuff just to stay engaged in music, and to try to learn. But it's very helpful to find those answers just by being thereand having the shock therapy of not being prepared at all. What this has led me to is a contentment in one fact,and I know it sounds like a cop-out,but I have found something which I think is an indispensable lesson in music. You must know that you do not know. You must know that. You can't know nothing. When you enter the field. Because if you have powers of prediction and so forth, I applaud that. Maybe you're a Presbyterian and know what tomorrow's gonna bring. I don't. I don't know where I'm going. You follow your madness, and you wobble through it. And I think when people can recognize that, that's what I think is the emotional content of your work, is in not knowing. That you're always painting yourself into a corner. Sometimes you have to go back to that place where you went to a blind alley, non-evolutionary musical event. And have to get back to where you were, you know, 40 bars ago. But I think that it's safe to say that you are as good as your opportunities. And your opportunities can be improved if you engage and don't know, you find yourself ending up places you never could have anticipated. And I think that's the best, short, most productive, honest answer.

Participant

Thanks.

Van Dyke Parks

 OK. And I forgot to say, there was something I definitely should add, because this was a highly biographical display. It's a little embarrassing. We should've just said, "The older I get, the better I was."

(laugher)

Participant

Hi. I would just like to say, collectively here, that we probably all feel the same that I do right now, which is loving the human being that is you, and thank you so much for existing, and being here, and speaking today. It's been indescribable. But I would like for you to elaborate a bit on what you said about criticism within the music industry, and your journey dealing with that, because what you said was quite profound, but very short.

Van Dyke Parks

 Well, you know, a lot of people don't pay any attention to the static in the bat cave, you know? And, of course, that's what happens when you work and it receives any public regard. Interesting! One of my favorite quotations is attributable to Thomas Jefferson, who said, "If you reveal your depths, men will ford your shallows." You take that risk in music. You are stripped and bleeding. You're nude in front of the vulgar public gaze. If you reveal your depths, they will ford your shallows. I think that, and also Sally Hemmings, was probably the reason that Thomas Jefferson was, as they said, loathe to unveil his true affections to the vulgar public gaze. But if you have integrity, you do reveal yourself in your work. You reveal yourself wholeheartedly. And better without hesitation. You know, it just comes with the dinner. You have to take these positive and negative impulses, the static in this bat cave of bloggery, which we now inhabit. Everybody's got an opinion. You know, I used to think a lot of democracy. Then I ran into airport security on my way here. I don't know. I somehow think it would've been better to be a royal, before oil. But I find that it's a distraction to consider what people think of your work. But it's inevitable. So let's just face it. Let's look at the good, the bad, and the ugly. And let's be informed by it all. When I did my first record, some reviewer had the cheek to say that I had created the Edsel of pop music. You know, if I had an Edsel today, I'd be a very wealthy man. And at that time, that really got under my skin. It's funny how insults are so indelible. And faint praise is forgettable. But you have to go ahead, you see. If this is what you were talking about. You have to accept criticism. And, as a matter of fact, I think you can learn so much from it. And I try to. And I don't seek the company of people who necessarily agree with me. I would rather have the detergent effect of testing my opinions with people who are entirely at odds with me. I don't feel like I'm preaching to a choir here. I invite skepticism, and I think you all should, in your work. And let it strengthen you, in your resolve. OK? Because courage is contagious, and I wanna tell you something: I'm one tough old bird. Hasn't killed me yet.

Participant

Thank you.

Van Dyke Parks

 This is a very, very good thing. I would be lying to tell you this is Red Bull (raising his glass). But I've had some other thoughts about this. The product of this endeavor. My son told me. I said, "What is Red Bull?" I mean, I knew it was an energy, a field of energy. But I said to my son, my son is 30 -years-old, he's a journalist, he's also in an imploded industry. I said, "What is Red Bull?" He said, "Well, Dad, look at it like this. They represent the new patronage of music." I said, "Really? That's great." He said, "In the collapse of the record business, this is a fact." So, in a field of forfeit, this is win/win. Because I think the most significant thing that has happened in my witness to music is that we've lost patronage. It's not like the age of Mozart, or the Medicis in Florence. We don't have this. Nobody is helping us, the way we want help. I mean, you've received some attention and some support here, but it's safe to say that there is no patronage in the arts. This, after the presidency of George W. Bush, when somebody asked the man in the Oval Office, they said, "Mr. President, what kind of music do you like?" He said, "Music? I don't like it." He wasn't kidding. And it shows now in the malaise of American funding. They have ripped out the umbilicus between the arts and a corporatized support, that is, without obligation. They've ripped that umbilicus from what could really be a gestation of some great talent. I'm sure the majority of you feel under-funded, and like you have opportunities that you deserve that just aren't appearing. And you haven't had the good fortune that I have had. But I guarantee perseverance will further. And we must find a way out of this dilemma that is this age of no patronage of the arts. We must find our way clear of this.

(applause)

RBMA

Do we have any more questions from the floor? Last chance.

Van Dyke Parks

 We need to go to the bathroom.

RBMA

I know we do, but before you go, can you give me one of your business cards? Do you have any more of your business cards?

Van Dyke Parks

 Well, I have more cards than business. That's the problem. (inaudible)

RBMA

So, on this business card, it starts off, it says, "Mr. Van Dyke Parks apologizes for his behavior on the night of ... blank." And it's free for us to fill it in. I'd just like to say thanks so much for your behavior this afternoon. It's been a real pleasure for me on the couch, and please be upstanding in joining me in saying thank you to Mr. Van Dyke Parks.

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