Conceiving, arranging, producing, and performing with guidance from an internationally renowned artist: this opportunity is currently being taken by students of the Department of Popular Music.

It all began, as it so often does, with a coincidence. At a Jeff Buckley tribute concert in 2012, a certain Steve Sidwell stood at the rostrum of the Metropole Orkest (NL) and conducted arrangements penned by Gerd Hermann Ortler, who teaches at the mdw’s Department of Popular Music. The two met and came to admire each other, and it soon became clear: Steve Sidwell—as an internationally renowned and highly successful composer, arranger, producer, and conductor—was virtually born to collaborate with the Department.

Steve Sidwell
Steve Sidwell ©provided

The list of his musical achievements and collaborations seems endless—alongside winning a Grammy in the Best Musical Theatre Album category for the Carole King musical Beautiful, he’s arranged for stars such as Shirley Bassey and Robin Williams, he served as artistic director for the closing ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, and he co-produced the music for the Queen movie Bohemian Rhapsody.

“In the music industry, you get to know a lot of people—and you take every opportunity to work more often with people who inspire you and with whom you harmonise personally,” is how Steve Sidwell describes his motivations behind agreeing to participate in the project Beatles: Reimagined. “It’s interesting to get to know the students and to work with them. But just as important to me has been the contact to Gerd. I learn from him just like I learn from the students—and as they hopefully do from me.”

Aside from having access to musical and artistic expertise, working together with Steve Sidwell is above all an opportunity for students to get to know the actual working process involved in the entertainment music business. The project gives them a chance to have an up-close and personal experience of everything involved, from the initial idea for an arrangement to the applause after the performance’s final note. Working together closely, the students form small groups and arrange well-known songs and hidden gems from the Beatles repertoire for big band and strings, with each arrangement being custom tailored to a specific “performing artist”—just like it would be with a real commission. This includes the opportunity to pre-produce instrumental and effect tracks as well as click tracks for the performance.

A factor that contributes to the realism of this working situation is how, for several of these songs, the vocal range and style have to be adapted to the voice of South African singer Tertia Botha, who’s currently in Vienna to perform in the musical Bodyguard and agreed to be this project’s guest star.

“You write and you arrange, and your piece works really well and the key is right—and then you meet the artist and realise: they won’t be able to sing it that way. You’ve got to transpose it. And suddenly, your voice leading doesn’t work anymore and the dynamics also change…”, says Steve Sidwell in description of one’s daily work as an arranger for singers—like it was for him as musical director of the first two seasons of the BBC’s The Voice UK. “So I attempt to simulate a realistic situation for the students.”

Campus Fest 2018
Campus Fest 2018 ©Stephan Polzer

Being able to harness one’s own creative process in everyday working life in a targeted and profitable manner—this, says Steve Sidwell, is one of his most important points: “It’s a tough business. In our training, we learn to play well or to compose and arrange well—but taking these skills along with us into the real world is something entirely different. If you can live on very little money or have wealthy parents or sponsors, then it’s not so bad: then you can concentrate on realising yourself creatively. But if you want to have a career or support a family, you have to develop the ability to work to other people’s satisfaction—which is an art in its own right.”

One interesting aspect of this project is working in small groups. Composing, arranging, and producing are things that students in particular frequently tackle alone—but in their working lives later on, true lone wolves are actually rather rare. This is why project participants are given the valuable experience of learning how it feels to temper their creativity with some willingness to compromise, always with an eye to a common goal.

This common goal’s ultimate manifestation can soon be seen and heard: the conclusion of this high-calibre collaboration will be the concert “CUBE. Beatles neu interpretiert” at MuTh, the concert hall of the Vienna Boys’ Choir at the southern corner of the Augarten. A classy location for the crowning conclusion of an intriguing project—and after a long and intense process of learning and working, finally enough space for truly good music!


Event tip

CUBE: Beatles neu interpretiert
21 May 2019, 7.30 pm

Im Studienjahr 18/19 greift CUBE als Ausgangspunkt und Inspirationsquelle für die künstlerische Auseinandersetzung die Musik der „Beatles“ auf. Die Songs dieser legendären Popband haben auch fünfzig Jahre nach „Yellow Submarine“ nichts an ihrer Magie eingebüßt. Ein imposanter Klangkörper, bestehend aus Big Band, Streichorchester, Vokalist_innen und Solist_innen, wird die neu entstandenen Arrangements im MuTh zum Leben erwecken.

Am Augartenspitz 1
1020 Vienna

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