Listen to the Underscore

By April 10, 2020

One of the things it is easy to take for granted in our normally fast paced, do-more, be-more, more-is-more world is how the little things underscore the story of our lives. The music beneath our story, as it were. Do you even really hear it? Do you really even notice the wispy images that float in the background of your perceptions — and add depth and hue without your ever really realizing it?

So it is with the many stories and messages we’re delivering in a whole new way as First Church continues its many ministries online, digitally and virtually, when what we really long for is to be together, to get back to normal, to resume that crazy existence we have become so accustomed to navigating, day after day.

In this forced slow-down (or total stop in some cases) of all we know and understand about how our lives work – how things are — what if we learn to listen just a little differently? What if we learn to look for and really see some of the things we might normally look right past? What if we allow our senses to be re-tuned and attuned to some of the subtleties we’ve been taking for granted?

When you watch and listen to the Living Last Supper, our Maundy Thursday offering by FUMCFW Theatre Arts and directed by Mary Grim, you will likely experience a stark contrast to last year’s live performance of this same production in our Sanctuary. What you’ll find — and you may want to watch and listen to it more than once, since you have time, to uncover the layers of talent and commitment that contribute to its new richness, expression and meaning.

Mary’s Letter to the Apostles

In her email to the actors that arrived with the final product under the subject line: “Mary’s Letter to the Apostles,” Mary writes,

“Gentlemen! I wanted to reach out to each of you and thank you from the bottom of my heart for coming in last week and recording your monologues. It is definitely not the production we all thought we were committing to back in early January, but it’s evolved into something very special and unique. Our video editor, Paul Hughes has done a spectacular job of assembling your monologues with artwork of your apostles, and our own Peggy Graff recorded an incredibly beautiful impromptu piano soundtrack that underscores the entire thing. I hope you are as pleased with it as I am.

Marry goes on to explain the YouTube premiere concept to her virtual troupe: “If you’ve never seen a YouTube premier before, there is a countdown that leads up to noon, and then the video starts streaming for anyone who’s watching it as a “live” event. And as it streams, anyone who’s watching can chat and comment on the video in the sidebar to the right of the screen. It’s kinda fun,” she adds, “and about as close as we can get to opening night together.”

She concludes, echoing the sentiments of a very grateful church staff and especially communications team: “I think this is something we can all be very proud of and I’m thrilled that this will be around for years to come. Thank you again for all your hard work and for being willing to be a part of this ministry.”

Underscoring Talent

Not only were each of the actors brought in individually to record their part—the monologue of each “apostle” delivered by actors — members of our Choral Union — before a camera rather than a live audience — but then this footage recorded and engineered by AV Specialist Paul Hughes and AV Director Austin Patton was pieced together with images Mary and Paul selected, and then the whole thing was underscored  on the fly by our Organist and Associate Director of Music and Worship Arts, Peggy Graff.

Describing this underscoring as “just a matter of being sensitive to what people are saying and being able to immediately respond to the mood and the words and the emotions with music,” Peggy says the music that comes to her intuitively as she plays is a natural response to what she sees and hears and feels, and she is then able to express it musically through her fingers on the piano keys.

Regarding this unusual and little-known gift, Peggy says, “I’ve played by ear all my life, since I was four years old and my mom and dad discovered it. When I was in high school, I was playing right along with Elton John, completely by ear, but even then I really didn’t understand how I could do that—just that I could!”

Peggy says that through the years she has learned to enjoy this ability to play by ear and being able to create something through what she sees and hears. “I listened to the Living Last Supper once or twice,” she recalls. “And for me, it is something like word imagery. And as these images come into in my mind, it is immediate how it comes through my fingers.”

Likening this process to “text painting,” Peggy says that as she plays, the music “paints” the text and to reinforce what is being said on a more emotional level. Calling upon technical things like modalities and familiar tunes that she already knows, Peggy then derives intuitively the passages that will best paint a “picture” of what she is hearing and feeling through the music.

“I was looking at the visuals and listening to the audio track as I played,” Peggy relates, “and I think both of them really helped make it more meaningful to me, and in turn helped me be able to let the music flow through my fingers.”

Comparing this process to adding the score to a movie, Peggy explains how this underscore uses the power of music to heighten the emotion you feel. “It helps you understand what is going on at another level,” she adds.

For example, Peggy says, “when one of the actors was talking about going fishing and filling their nets, I felt the happiness — that this was a happy time— so a more lilting type of melody came through. And then when they said “one of us will betray him” that feeling of fear, sadness, and suspense called forth more tension to build that suspense.” She laughs.  “Not in diminished chords, like the vaudeville people did when someone was on a railroad track, but the music that came to me then was darker, more intense, more mysterious.” And, she adds, “Every time an actor said “Is it I?” I knew there needed to be no music there—it needed to be stark—stand on its own.

Describing the process of underscoring “on the fly” as very intuitive—not something you can plan out or draw out deliberately — Peggy adds, “As I did it more, I got better; by the third apostle, I was really feeling it and connecting deeply with this material.”

Peggy says that while knowing how to play by ear and having so much music and different experiences in her head make this process feel natural, playing an underscore is never going to be the same way twice. In the case of the Living Last Supper, all done in a single take, Peggy says that if she did it again, she’d do it differently. “When I hear it again, I will feel something different, and will make different choices in how I paint it with music. These are the gifts God has given us to do.”

“What we asked Peggy to do was very vulnerable,” explains Hans Grim, FUMCFW Webmaster and professional musician whose idea it was to add this underscore. Hans adds that with the amount of music Peggy knows and her innate gift for pairing music with moments, allowing her to just listen to the audio track of the production and play extemporaneously along with it gave this underscore a freshness that would not be obtainable with any “written” music. “This, he adds, came straight out of Peggy’s head — and straight from her heart.”

 

 

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