By Brendan Lai-Tong
Today we will be looking at the Christopher Kazoo and Bongo Boo series by John Kreitler!
John Kreiter is a film & T.V. composer, songwriter, music producer & classical music composer residing in Los Angeles, CA. He holds a B.A. in Composition from Lewis and Clark College, Portland, OR where he studied violin, composition and conducting, before continuing his studies towards an MM in Composition from the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati.
Kreitler began his professional career composing film scores for Avco Films and for independent filmmakers in the Midwestern United States as well as scores and songs for commercials before moving to Los Angeles. His composing credits include the award-winning films “To Beat the Devil” (Avco Films) and “6344” (Butterfly Films); songs for Material Girls (MGM/Sony) numerous television films & documentaries; numerous daytime television series, including As the World Turns, Guiding Light, Another World, All My Children; the European series Riviera,and the NBC drama Passions. He has also contributed underscoring, songs and source music for numerous prime-time series such as Law and Order, Friends, Homicide, Melrose Place, 90210, Lois & Clark, Saturday Night Live, and many others. He has won ten EMMYs since 1991 and been awarded the prestigious BMI/TV Film Award ten times.
In addition to his busy composition schedule, Kreitler is currently executive producer and creative director for a series of children’s books, CDs and DVDs marketed under the brand name Artz Smartz, and published by Clear Choice Entertainment, LLC. The series features the award-winning Christopher Kazoo & Bongo Boo, penned by Pulitzer-nominated author Richard O. Price.
Let’s learn more about John and his wonderful series Christopher Kazoo and Bongo Boo:
What inspired you to start a career in music?
My mother was a public school music teacher and the organist at our church. She convinced me to take violin lessons when I was eight (I wanted to learn trumpet, so we negotiated: I agreed to take violin lessons and she agreed to let me play football). Music quickly became a passion of mine and though later I wavered between going to seminary and continuing in music, ultimately I decided on music. Those violin lessons gave me a life-long passion, career and focus. The football gave me a life-long arthritic knee.
Who are some of your musical role models?
Each of the music teachers and professors who taught me music, from my first violin teacher to those at graduate school, had an indelible impact on me. Each played a role and shaped my musical personality and knowledge. They gave me an incredible gift. As a composer, it’s difficult to single out just one or two historic or contemporary composers whose music have most impacted my writing. Pushed to name a few, I would include Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, the Beetles, the Eagles, U2 and John Williams.
Wow, you have had quite an impressive career! What led you to become the composer for various TV series like Law and Order and 90210?
After I graduated with a B.S. in Music, I was faced with a difficult problem: I had no idea how to make a living as a composer. But it didn’t take me long to figure out that the chances of supporting myself and a family writing classical (or concert) music was pretty slim. That left commercial music (principally ads, records, film and television). I also realized I had a fairly robust entrepreneurial inclination. So, with zero experience and the kind of blind confidence that you have when you’re in your twenties, I started a production company. In the beginning I did anything that involved composing and had a paycheck attached. My first gigs were ads, corporate meeting music, documentaries, and some records; but doing the industrial films taught me how very much I enjoyed working with music and film. So moving into TV and film scoring was a natural outcome. For many of the series I worked on initially, like Law and Order and 90210, I was a “secondary” composer, not the principal. I would do “fill in” music – songs, what we call “source” music (music in a scene playing from a radio or nearby TV, or by a band in a club) and specialty cues (e.g. a rock version of God Bless America). Eventually I got my “own” shows, the first being a drama called Riviera that played all over Europe.
Do you have any advice for other composers trying to break into the film industry?
Don’t give up. Move to LA and try to get a job with an established composer. You might be sweeping floors, but you’ll be able to learn much about the business of film music, which is invaluable knowledge, and you might get a chance to do some “fill-in” writing. Network. Network. Network. People in the film industry tend to hire people they know or are known (and trusted) by someone they know.
Could you tell us a little bit about how you approach your composition process?
With film music it’s quite different than writing concert music. In film music the picture is the source of inspiration. The film composer’s job is to enhance it, make the emotions in the scene clear, or stronger; or set a mood; help tell the story; help define a character, etc. But before you can start “solving” those problems, you have to get on board with the director, who has the ultimate vision for the film and is the final say. Once the director and I feel we have a mutual understanding of the “macro” role of the music (including basic style issues, sound/instrumentation, etc.), we “spot” the film to identify the specific scenes that will have music. Then I start writing – and I’m not sure I could begin to explain how I actually conceive the compositional ideas that become the music. Some I hear in my head and work out, some I “find” as I’m noodling on a piano.
With concert music there’s more freedom; you don’t have to conform your ideas to the time, pacing and emotional requirements of film. But that freedom has to be corralled. Stravinsky once said a composer has to define his universe before writing. I do a significant amount of “defining” (musical vocabulary, form, purpose, “message”, performance requirements, etc.) before I write note one. After I have those macro parameters worked out, I begin the same process as with my film music: I hear music in my head and work it out, or “find” ideas as I noodle, usually on a piano.
What music do you like to listen to? Do you feel that this influences your composition process?
My personal listening preferences have changed over time. Today I listen to classical music (mainly orchestral and opera) and to traditional jazz. Melody has always been at the heart of my soul as a composer, so there’s no doubt this literature influences me. When I’m called to write in a style I’m not particularly familiar with, I’ll listen to a lot of examples in that style (e.g. Mariachi or Ragtime) to “get it in my head”. Then I try to avoid listening to them as I try to distill the examples and do my own version.
Tell us more about the Christopher Kazoo and Bongo Boo. What inspired you to create the series?
In the 80’s I scored and produced a recorded children’s book called “Santa’s Magic Mirror” that Avon sold in its Christmas catalogue one year. They sold over a million copies in two months! I mentioned that experience to a friend of mine and he suggested we try to replicate the success. That was the seed that started the Kazoo-Boo series. We wanted to put out a hit book.
I turned to several authors to write a story we could work with, and among those submitted was Christopher Kazoo and Bongo Boo, by Pulitzer-nominated author R.O. Price. I loved it and believed kids would love the characters and their adventures. I also realized that the series could be a way to inspire kids to become involved in music, something very dear to me. As I thought about that more, I began to see the potential for including a music education element in the stories. That led to hours of consultations and conversations with many music educators. I also began working with Price, a non-musician, helping him figure out how to include music concept elements in the stories. He has a wonderful ability to do that without the stories becoming pedagogic in nature. Ultimately my team developed a “curriculum” of music concepts we envisioned including in a Kazoo-Boo series of books and DVDs.
I had previously been very involved with the Hal Leonard Co., writing and publishing a series of midi songbooks. So we submitted to Hal Leonard the first book in the series, which by then we had finished and printed. We quickly struck a distribution deal and they began telling the Kazoo-Boo story to their dealers and to music teachers. The response has been fantastic.
What musical concepts are covered in the series?
Christi Miller has been an invaluable help as one of our primary music education consultants. She helped us develop a scope and sequence of concepts appropriate for pre-K and K-2 students.
In our first title we cover high/low pitch, steady beat and echo rhythms.
Our second title, The Secret of the Purple Stone, covers long/short notes, ta’s and ti’s, tempo, tempo names, and accelerando/ritardando.
What is the best way for teachers to utilize all of the included materials (Book, DVD and Teachers Supplement)?
We created the education edition of the stories with the goal of providing teachers with a highly entertaining resource they could use to reinforce their curriculum. They are perfect for reinforcing concepts already introduced or for introducing the concepts initially. The package is also great for substitute teachers and provides an easy way for regular teachers to identify to their substitutes what to work on.
The stories are provided as printed books that can be read, but there is also an animated version on DVD. And the DVD includes several “learning” segments in which we use the characters from the stories to illustrate the basic music concepts included in each volume. We’ve created these as a tool for teachers, not as a substitute or replacement. They work well because teachers can pick up at the end of each segment and further explain or reinforce the concepts. We’ve also provided a Teacher’s Supplement that has pages of follow-up creative activities. They are identified by both the music concept being reinforced, and the age of student appropriate for that activity.
Do teachers have to use the books in any particular order?
No. The stories are not sequential in that sense. Teachers would want to use them according to the concepts they are working on.
Do you have any more upcoming adventures for Christopher Kazoo and Bongo Boo planned?
We hope to do several more. They are expensive products to produce, so we are keeping a pretty close eye on how well we do with them.
Brendan Lai-Tong is the Assistant Marketing Manager at Sheet Music Plus and holds degrees in trombone performance from University of Miami and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.