The Televised Evolution of William Brittelle - Instrument Week on BTR


Photo by Murat Eyuboglu.

“How do you find hope when you know everything is going down the tubes, when you know that we’re destroying the world that we live in? …If we have all these moral fears around us all the time, how do you find hope?”

So asks William Brittelle in describing the questions he attempts to answer with his latest album, Television Landscape. If titles are to be believed (and this is one worth reading into) it sounds like the composer, recent father, label head and genre-jumping pop collagist has been watching a lot of CNN.

These inquiries, at least in interview, are certainly worthy of the 2011 news cycle—a year no less on the brink of disaster than any other, especially during the height of the war-weary ‘00s. Translating these questions or their proposed answers is not easy from a mere surface listening of Television Landscape or even a thorough reading of its lyric sheet.

Exhibit A: the succulent, chuckling indulgence of “Sheena Easton,” the standout track of the record by all accounts. Between the string section and children’s choir, the whole thing just screams Bob Ezrin—like “Comfortably Numb” and “Solsbury Hill” all rolled into one. Though, very little about the song screams of an overt societal statement, unless he’s stretching for satire.

In contrast to the typical, preachy world-consciousness of the prog rock concept albums Brittelle pulled from for inspiration, questions over fatalism on Television Landscape bleed into entertainment, mimicking the sensationalism of its subject. That subject being the medium from which all pop culture came from (or at least, used to) and was the first real parent to so many children of the ‘80s—the television.

While his overblown arrangements feel diffused by the innocent context, Brittelle insists these are decorations in devotion to the emotional connection he felt in youth toward the sensational world that unfolded from the small screen.

“I grew up in a small town in North Carolina. For me, hair metal, Def Leopard and Cinderella and so forth—that was a way out. That music is very dear to me,” explains Brittelle. “Seeing Sheena Easton date Prince was an important event in my young life. Seeing these people who seemed from this outer world made me feel okay about myself and how out of place I was.”

The song then doesn’t become so much about finding a pinup to worship but instead trying to measure the value of escapism, in whatever form it may take. Given that the ‘80s is an era more often giggled about than deconstructed, it’s peculiar to hear both sincere tribute and self-conscious opulence so sophomorically interwoven.

“I think people can be resistant to the idea of bands and music being larger than life. Now people like to see a cooler version of themselves on stage, but not that cool—someone you can still hangout with,” Brittelle vents. “I’ve never understood that.”

In keeping with the M.O. of Brittelle’s own ‘indie classical’ label, New Amsterdam Records, the instrumental tapestry of Television Landscape is meticulously choreographed. After spending three years writing each and every note of the record using the compositional tools of the Logic recording software, session musicians and friends of New Amsterdam set Landscape to tape in an astonishing two days.

The results swing like passing tides between grinning absurdity and ornate extremity. Streams of melodic and harmonic synthesizers, woodwinds and brass sections caged inside off-kilter rythyms all push the record’s musicality to Zappa-like extremes (think more “Inca Roads” than Hot Rats). For a composer whose musical resume includes several works in phase and process music, the challenge to write structured pop songs using the same tools became too tantalizing to resist. Writing Landscape was more an attempt to understand the artistic sensibilities of that craft–not, Brittelle insists, to capitalize on any potential for rock exposure. (Does any really exist in 2011?) In fact, no live performance of the record was even considered until after it was completed.

The task of finally bringing Television Landscape to the stage proved demanding, not so much for Brittelle’s capable organizational skills but more so on his vocal chords. After straining therapeutic sessions with vocal coaches produced less than acceptable results, Brittelle decided to retire his instrument for the time being.

“I had this realization the last time that I was on stage that I was by far the worst at what I was doing of anyone up there,” the humble artist submits. “I had these incredible musicians who trained their whole lives for what they were doing, and I’m not a great singer. At a certain point, I think I communicate emotion really well but I’m kind of done telling my own story for a while. I want to concentrate on subjects a bit more open to the world.

In his downtime, Brittelle has had much to concentrate on. Currently, he is composing music for the Seattle Symphony Orchestra titled “Obituary Birthday,” as a tribute to Kurt Cobain. Before the incessant groaning at another awkward classical tribute to a legendary rock band begins, Brittelle promises to make his musical references to the canonized songwriter as subtle as possible.

“Die hard fans will hear little nuances of Nirvana here and there, but no outright orchestrations of songs,” says Brittelle. “They’ll just have to listen very closely.”

As one of three directors of the label/nonprofit New Amsterdam Records, Brittelle also navigates the quiet yet slowly growing demand for classically trained musicians keen to the evolving styles of post-modern rock. Per the chosen title of their burgeoning genre, “indie classical,” New Amsterdam is determined to usher in new voices to an art form that was formerly, according to the source, “having a constant conversation with itself.”

Brittelle’s most recent project with the label is an upcoming record composed of electronic and chamber music. Returning to his compositional roots, the music is less based on catchy melodies, but instead on building around shapes and ideas however he feels fit.

This is all not to mention that months after leaving the stage, Brittelle became a father. In watching his now 9-month-old son Clyde discover his own means of entertainment, already it seems the apple has not fallen far from the tree.

“He’s turning into more of a percussionist than anything else—constantly banging on things,” the proud father boasts.