Andy Narell is back for Panorama 2013. The American musician who was the first foreigner to arrange for the Panorama competition in 1999, when he led Skiffle Bunch to the finals of the competition, will work with Birdson next year. Dalton Narine spoke to Narell about all things pan.
DN: When was your last Panorama as an arranger?
AN: I did it in 1999 and 2000. I also arranged for the New York Panorama in 2001 and 2002.
DN: Did you have a jones about the competition, an itch to get back in the fray?
AN: I missed participating in Panorama, but being in a music competition is not what motivates me. I like the challenges of trying to write a good piece, getting the players interested in the story I’m telling, and getting a good performance from the band.
Hearing the music played by 100 people is a high. I love the whole ambiance around Panorama, the rehearsals every night, playing the music coming down the track. But no, I didn’t have a jones about competing, and I have very mixed feelings about the whole idea. While I recognise the role of competition in the development of the steelband, how it replaced the fighting and elevated the level of performance, I also think it’s become distorted, having an effect of dumbing down the music, encouraging everyone to do the same thing over and over, and winning has become more important than creating music that moves people.
DN: When did you begin to feel the urge, and what was the trigger?
AN: I’ve wanted to be here all along. Nobody called me. The trigger for coming back was that Dennis Phillip and Birdsong have been making a serious effort to advance the cause of music education in Trinidad, and with people like Raf Robertson teaching they are changing the culture of the band. I’ve been close with Raf for a long time and when he asked me if I wanted to get involved I jumped at the opportunity. I was here in June for their concert at NAPA, and I worked with Birdsong and with their Academy steelband. We hit it off, and when they asked me if I wanted to work with them for Panorama 2013 I thought about it for a couple of seconds to make sure I was hearing correctly and told them yes.
DN: What was it like at the meeting—regarding expectations, arranging fee, composition of the band, et al?
AN: They’re letting me do my own composition, whatever I want to write, and we’re expecting a big turnout of international players, which should make the band significantly larger and more diverse. These 12 years since I last arranged for Panorama I’ve been composing steelband music and teaching pretty much non-stop, so there are a lot of players out there who have had experience playing my music. Needless to say, our expectations are high in terms of the level of musical performance we’re after, and of the quality of the experience everyone is going to have. I don’t know what to expect from the judges, but of course our goal is to be there playing in the finals. Our conversation about my arranging fee lasted a minute or so. Money is not going to be an issue that gets in the way.
DN: Was there much give and take?
AN: I was made to understand very quickly that we share many of the same goals about music and education. We’re having an ongoing conversation about what we want to accomplish and it’s been as smooth as I could hope for. After so many years of feeling like nobody wants to work with me, I was surprised to find such a good fit. I feel like I’m in the right place at the right time.
DN: What did you concede?
AN: No concessions so far. I’m just trying to compose the best music I can. The piece feels real good to me, like a story that’s revealing itself bit by bit, and I feel that I have their full support with nobody telling me to make sure it sounds like everybody else’s idea of what is or isn’t Panorama music. My criteria for success is that we all work hard, do our best, believe in the music, play it with passion, have fun, and hopefully earn a place in the finals.
DN: How do you plan to market the song (or melody)?
AN: I’ll record a version that can be played on the radio, at the Savannah, etc. I don’t have much of a marketing plan. If you recall, in 1999 I recorded an instrumental version of Coffee Street that got hardly any radio play during the Carnival season. Ash Wednesday it started getting airplay, and it’s still getting played. A lot of people in Trinidad know and like the song, and the steel band version I recorded on ‘The Passage’ has been listened to a lot. The following year I wrote Appreciation and Black Stalin wrote words and recorded it.
DN: What will be your timetable?
AN: I have a bit of a scheduling problem because I need to be in France the first two weeks of January to do a project with my quintet and the Bordeaux Symphony Orchestra—by the way, the conductor of the orchestra is Kwame Ryan, a Trini—so I’ll be in Trinidad in December to teach the music, then back in mid-January to finish the job. I plan to record it sometime in October/November.
DN: What is your creative process?
AN: Don’t hold your breath waiting to hear any Panorama clichés. I mostly compose at the piano, but I do a lot of computer sequencing and work out some of my ideas by playing pan along with those sequences. Once I get into the piece I can become pretty obsessed with it, and it incubates over time. I keep tinkering and revising until it feels right, then take it to the pan yard and show it to the band and keep revising as I go. Calypsociation in Paris has been my laboratory for the past ten years. Sometimes when I’m making a lot of changes the players accuse me of experimenting on humans.
DN: Do you consider the rules of Panorama restrictive?
AN: When I first arranged for Panorama in 1999 I asked to see the rules, which I read carefully. It said that you had to wait for the green light to start, and that we would be penalised for playing longer than ten minutes. That was it. There weren’t any rules about the music itself. Throughout the Panorama season I got an earful about the ‘unwritten rules.’ I felt it was my responsibility to break as many of those as possible, as long as it served the music. To whatever degree Panorama has become rigid and formulaic, I feel that those of us who are capable of composing original sounding music have to do our part to challenge the ‘system.’ This might be a good time to mention Ray Holman, who year after year has steadfastly refused to compromise his beautiful music to those so-called rules.
DN: What’s your ideal complement of players?
AN: Size matters. Big bands have an advantage in the sound production department. My ideal complement is to be big enough to play before or after the really big bands and not sound like a small band. I’m hoping that with Birdsong’s players and a big international contingent that we’ll be there.
DN: Your ideal layout of instruments?
AN: Normally, I lean towards a balanced stereo sound, but there’s a lot of room for experimentation in terms of where you put the different voices of the band in the left/right spectrum. Then there’s the whole question of depth. If you take a line of tenors, for instance, and move them forward or backward by one row, it totally changes the sound of the band. I’ll have a better idea when the piece is finished and arranged, and I can listen to what we actually sound like. Then I’ll start thinking about the setup.
DN: Years ago, you intimated to me your predilection for the quads. How do you use the four pans?
AN: I hadn’t used quads at all until I came to play with Phase II in the mid-’80s. and I was impressed with what Boogsie (Sharpe) was doing with them. I got a couple of sets and used them on my records. For practical reasons I stopped. I do a lot of overdubbing. Apart from ‘The Passage,’ which was performed by the players at Calypsociation, I play all the pans on my records, including ‘Tatoom,’ which is an entire record of an overdubbed 25-piece steel band. I did that whole album with tenors, double seconds, triple guitars, tenor bass, and six-bass. You’ll notice the absence of double tenors, quads, and four-cellos. There’s enough redundancy in a steel band that you don’t really need to use all the different voices that are available. Birdsong has significant numbers of double guitars, triple guitars, and four-cellos, so I’ll be arranging the music with that in mind. They have about four sets of quads. I’ll probably add them to one of those other three sections. I like having a lot of low-end bass and guitar/cello. You can get a powerful sound without all those high frequencies that wear out your hearing. Powerful sounding music is also about dynamics and emotional range. If you play loud all the time you don’t really have any power to draw on for the moments in the piece that need it.
The second part of this interview can be read in Monday’s paper.