Barbra: Reflections

Music is speaks to every part of the body. It speaks to ones soul, it has healing qualities and can transform lives. Barbra Streisand is an artist that is so cathartic to me. Her musical genius is nothing short of inspirational. I remember the first time I saw Barbra, it was watching a really old VHS tape of Funny Girl. Everything about that film amazed me. The music, the story, the colors, the sets, the costumes – it all fascinated me. What thrilled me most was Barbra’s voice. I remember I was about 4 or 5 when I first saw the film and I was hooked.

As a child, I remember staying at home a lot with my mother. I would take naps in my bedroom, and mother would clean the house and turn on the stereo in the living room. To make the cleaning go faster, she would crank up the music and sing along to it. I wasn’t sure what I enjoyed more – my mother singing or the music playing in the background. One of the first Barbra Streisand albums I can remember hearing is “The Broadway Album.” Everything about the album at the time fascinated me. I often asked my mother to repeat the album, over and over and over again. Every song was wonderful, Barbra’s voice took me to far off places, and introduced to so many different characters. I learned about musical theatre thanks in part to that album.

“The Broadway Album” became an irrevocable part of my life. Every song seemed tailor made for some aspect of my life. I would ask my mother, “How did they do that?” (talking about an aspect of the production of a certain song) or “Why does Barbra sing this note?” I remember asking my piano teacher when I was 7 years old, if she would teach me songs from the album. By this time I was picking out tunes by ear, trying in some way to get everything I heard onto my tiny keyboard. I wanted to recreate the space-age atmosphere in “Somewhere,” and play the business driven anthem “Putting it Together” and I was just seven years old!

I’ve written about this album before, and I have no issue with returning to it because it’s made such an impact on my life. As I wrote in a old blog post, “Music, for me, has always been cathartic. When ever I’m down or depressed, I turn to it. When I was twelve, my life was in true turmoil. There were issues at home, my sister had just joined the Navy and my school life was complete torment. Music saved me. The ability to play music and express myself at the piano transformed my pain and anguish. I was liberated. I relished in the ability to get lost in music, to listen to it, to play it, for it was always there.” I still believe that, even today.

These days, I’m more fascinated with how music is created: how albums are arranged, orchestrated. How arrangers go about figuring out the instrumentation for a certain piece of music. A good example of this fascination is with a certain song performed by Barbra Streisand. “Putting it Together” by Stephen Sondheim was written by the composer/lyricist for his 1984 musical “Sunday in the Park with George.”

The song details the difficult struggle between art and business and has the unique stylistic features that are so indicative of a Sondheim composition. My fascination is not with the vocals of Streisand, but the arrangement specifically recorded by the artist in 1985. Peter Matz (who arranged the first three albums by Streisand in the early 1960′s) is arranger/conductor on “The Broadway Album” and his vision for the first cut of the album has always amazed me. The beauty of it, the style, the use of synthesizer, orchestra, percussion all come together in a cohesive piece. (I love synthesizers, don’t ask me why) What I find even more interesting is how different the track is from the HBO Special Putting it Together: Making The Broadway (1986) when Barbra actually does a take of the song complete with orchestra and the commentary by David Geffin, Ken Sylk and the late Sydney Pollack, versus the one on the final release of the album.

All the aspects of a music: ideas, formulation, instrumentation and arrangement I have always been keenly aware of. With certain singers or pieces of music, that awareness is heightened and my “Why” and “How does that happen” kick in. I always want to know how and why. Especially in music. How does something make a certain sound? How can you color a certain song with a different arrangement? What does an arranger zero in on when formulating a chart of music?

My freak adoration of music has perplexed me for so long, I even wanted to make it part of my academic career. When I was first at MTSU and in the honors college, I was told I could do my Honors Thesis on anything I could think of, pending approval. I immediately thought “Music.” Wild ideas chased each other around my head: Could I ask Columbia to examine the master tapes of Streisand’s 1985 sessions? Are there instrumental tracks without Barbra’s vocals mixed in? I envisioned myself doing a 70-150 page examination of how orchestrators, past and present created music for the entertainment icon. Sadly, that never came to pass. I still have tons of questions I’d love to ask Streisand and her “team.” To add insult to injury, David Foster, (who produced “Somewhere” on the album) also created a duet for the young soprano, Jackie Evancho for her debut album “Dream with Me.” The duet between Streisand and Evancho uses 1985 outtakes of “Somewhere,” further fueling obsession.

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