The Art of Atmosphere

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Randi Cee at the ARRI 100th anniversary party with pianist Craig Fundyga and violinist Benedikt Brydern (not pictured). (photo by Taylor Stoffers)

The Art of Atmosphere

In the theatre or on the bandstand, you sometimes need to get the audience to come along on a ride with you. I have always taken pride in my ability to break thru and grab them and get them on my side. If you are acting on a soundstage or in a theater people are usually quiet and pay attention to you. In TV and Film there are people hired to do background and melt into the scene in an unobtrusive way. The only “extra” work (the un-PC word for “atmosphere talent”) I have ever done is for union commercials, because that day rate is very good and there is a chance you will get bumped up to principal status. “Atmosphere” is something you breathe, not a job title. So, because I don’t want to bring my own folding chair to work and because my ego takes enough of a trouncing, I have steered clear.

Until I became a working musician.

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Private Parties

This summer and fall my hustle resulted in the booking of some private party work. Myself and two musicians did a luncheon party for the employees of an international company that makes cameras and lights for the film industry. I gave them a great rate because I wanted in that door and it was a mid-day quickie. My boys loved the food. It was an intimate gathering and I felt them enjoy our music.

In the music performance game, there are levels of being background. On a scale of one to five, one being you are doing a concert and they are riveted and 5 being they appear indifferent. (The truth is even when they seem indifferent the music is being enjoyed and makes the party something truly special.) I’d give the lunch gig a 2.5. By the time we left I had charmed the powers that be and had secured the prize. We were being hired to do their huge 100-year birthday shindig for 500 cinematographers and directors. I was so excited this was going to be my Schwab’s.

No Vocals!

The next two gigs were for a country club, back to back nights. I asked questions and got a feel for their party and decided my trio plus me on vocals would be a good fit. Then my contact, one of two managers said: “The other manager has decided that we don’t want any singing just the trio.” I said that is perfectly okay—same price for the trio without me. There wasn’t even a second of hesitation. I switched hats that quickly and became my band’s booking agent.

That gig came and I, of course, brought my mic. The Francophile manager that nixed me didn’t know what he was saying “NO” to (she types with a glint in her eye). I got there about an hour and a half early because I hadn’t had a walk thru and I wanted to figure out logistics. I had a great time that night. There was a shellfish bar with raw oysters and I was a sea otter who didn’t even have to lay on her back and crack those bad boys open. I tried to mingle (not my strong suit but I gave out cards). My contact said I should sing later in the evening. Which was great because this otter wanted to check out the sushi room. (When I sing, I can’t really eat so this was a rare indulgence.)

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This was a big party, over 400 people the first night, 600 plus the second night. The cacophony was proof that the party was going smashingly: the music was incidental to people mingling, eating, laughing. When I sang, there was a definitive shift in energy the “oooh a singer how fun” type of shift. No one dropped their California roll and I’d say we were a 3.75 on the atmosphere scale. The next night I arranged for better sound equipment because the party was going to be bigger. While I was waiting for my crew’s arrival, the “no singing” manager walked past me and said (in a muffled, I hate to admit I’m wrong tone) “Tonight, you sing more.”

Zoning

Unfortunately, I found out that I had lost the fancy camera company gig due to a residential zoning issue. Someone in the past had called the cops because of noise. The gig was outside and very close to the iconic Hollywood and Vine. I think of it as a commercial district, but LA being LA there is no such thing: around the corner of every busy commercial locale there are humans living in apartments and houses. I was so disappointed. I really needed the money and I had made the gig so significant in my head that the letdown was bigger than it should have been.

The intersection of cash and art always weighs heavy on me. If you are born to be creative it isn’t only what you do, it’s who you are. Yet rent must be paid. Quoting is one of the things I like least about band leading but I have come to understand it’s crucial. If you agree to do something for not enough $ you are not only undercutting your own value, you also lessen the value of every other musician out there working.

If there is no audience it is called “practicing”

Musicians are “performing artists”: we create our art in front of people. If there is no audience it is called “practicing.” It’s why I care so much about who is on the bandstand next to me. I will take a good musician who is happy to be with me over a gifted one who doesn’t come with joy.

Out of nowhere I get an email the fancy camera company gig was back on. They decided one week out from the party that they were going to force the issue with their venue and hire us. Luckily my two guys were still available. Well actually one was already booked but he got a sub for his other gig because mine was paying over triple. In the original quote, I allotted for a bass player to be added. They nixed it and just wanted the original band. Piano/violin and me on vocals. Fine, the boys and I would make a bit extra and we would recreate what we had done for the luncheon. I was over the moon. I even had made sure I had a sound person’s pay included. I would show up dressed up and not sweat my false eyelashes off. This gig was going to be fun and who knows who would see me—I even had my hair set in pin curls by a professional!

We were outside and it was mid 70s all night with very high humidity so I started sweating at sound check and never stopped. My curls were semi saturated before I uttered a note. I sang my heart out, even attempting a song in German for the German owned company. It was a big outdoor catered event. On the atmosphere scale, I’d give this one a 4.5 It was a long night and we earned our pay. I heard from a few people on our breaks that they loved what we were doing. I had never felt more like wall paper in my life. My keyboardist was his cool laid back self and told me, “No, I can see them enjoying it.”

Gremlins v. Munchkins

I got some great tape of the evening for a fun 90 second video that will help me book more work and I am very happy with how I edited that piece together. If you are curious you can see my funny little adventure on my YouTube channel. I was struggling with allergies and dehydration so I didn’t know if the live audio would be good enough to use but I am happy to say it was just fine. I had built this gig up in my mind to be something bigger than big. It was a fancy “Hollywood” party with all kinds of potential. I was devastated when I lost the gig and over the moon when it came back to me.

I am working at smoothing out the ups and downs. I am not sure if I will ever truly get that under control. The part of my brain that houses all my creative gremlins also hosts the overly excited munchkins that are prone to thinking the sky is falling. “Living in the moment” while checking expectations are lessons that are hard to fully execute. All humans need hope and for me the idea that better things are on the horizon is what keeps me here.

I was recently in the audience at a screening and after the film Donald Sutherland who was there to promote the film told a story about why he loved the late great actor Sir John Gielgud. Sutherland said it wasn’t because he was a great actor It was because when he was in his 90s after a performance while he was being lauded with praise by the press his response was simply “You know, I am out of work.”


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