The New Math
The Exiles, a music band trio, is excited about playing for a film. But at the instruction of the Director of the film, their band of three is converted into a septet. That’s just the beginning of a rollicking comedy, where the trio of seven ends up playing their instruments without actually playing and waltzing to silence. Everyone is grappling with the ‘New Math’ of the situation.
“There’s been a slight snag,” the voice on the telephone said. Just then, my chime clock tolled midnight. Who could be calling me now?
“This is Helmut,” the voice continued.
“Ah, Helmut”, I said. He was my main contact for the movie project my band was part of. We’d been hired to play in the most pivotal scene in the film.
“Vell, anyway,” Helmut went on, “itz Herr Direct-door, you see. He’s decided he wants a big sound. Very big! So, we need a BIG band, at least seven musicians.”
I thought for a moment. In the half-stupor of my slumber, I seemed to be unable to grasp the math.
“Helmut,” I said after a pause, “I think there may be a mistake.”
“Vut is dat?” he inquired.
“Well you see,” I explained, “you hired my band, ‘The Exiles’, and we’re an Irish traditional music trio, and the only slight caveat is, you see, a trio has, um, I believe three musicians, which would make us, let me see now, seven minus three, take away the one - no, no, that’s not right, that’s that crazy new math my daughter is learning - so seven minus three, that leaves us, yes, four musicians short.”
“No, nein!” Helmut shouted, “you VILL get seven musicians! Herr Director is a little Hitler, it’s seven musicians or your band is kaput, and my life and career vill not be worth shpit!”
Sadly, I must have neglected to pay my phone bill that month, because at just that moment the phone line went dead. Had the phone company shut me off? Had Helmut hung up? Had the phone line been summarily executed? It didn’t matter, though. I knew what must be done.
The next morning, I called my band leader, Bob. I was the band’s drummer, promoter and booking agent, but Bob was the musical heart and soul and leader. I explained that we’d run into only a very slight snag on our contract for the movie, “Bye, Bye America.”
“What’s the snag,” Bob asked, perhaps wondering if the director wanted some tune we didn’t yet know and would have to rush to learn for the soundtrack of the film.
“No, nothing that serious, not that big at all,” I said, “it’s only that we have to be a septet by this Tuesday.”
“But they hired our trio,” Bob said. I assured him that was right, and indeed our trio they would get. Only it would be a seven-piece trio.
Before the day our scene - or perhaps our band - was to be shot, The Exiles went into studio to pre-record the film music. Bob hired a brilliant Irish piper to join the trio, as well as an award-winning Irish flute player. In turn, I hired a very swarthy construction worker and his son, Seamus and Liam. Seamus was short, stockier than the mightiest Irish oak, more stubborn than a retired Connemara pony, and with more hair on his shoulders than Queen had on their heads when they recorded ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’ But he and his son were lovey accordion players. Despite we seven never having played all together before, the recording session went down brilliantly. We were now ready to make our mark in the movies in the scene of a lifetime. Stardom was sure to follow!
On the day of the shoot, The Exiles Plus Four showed up at the staging area for talent, and from there we were driven by limo to the set. Some band members were tickled, but Seamus said, “I’m not gettin’ in that fookin’ ting. I have tree words for ye. No. Fookin’. Way.” We convinced him to get in so we wouldn’t be sued for breach of contract or perhaps shot at dawn.
On set, the scene was a cavernous ballroom, in which a dinner dance and cocktail party was being held as a fundraiser for kids with cancer. We seven merry men were seated on a stage at the front of the ballroom. John Corbett, of ‘Northern Exposure,’ ‘Sex and the City,’ and ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ played the male lead, across from a German actress, Martina Gedeck. As John and Martina waltzed their way across the ballroom floor, with other couples dancing and chatting around them, the band played the music we had previously recorded, which was being piped into the ballroom from overhead speakers.
It was a bit tricky playing to our own pre-recorded music, as we had to play precisely in time with the recording. Otherwise, it would look off in film, kind of like those black and white Japanese monster movies when the English subtitles were completely out of sync with the characters lips on screen. I thought we were doing just fine, but soon the scene was halted. The Assistant to the Assistant Director’s Third Assistant came over to me and said they were having a hard time picking up the lead characters’ conversation with the microphones behind held over them on boom arms while they danced around, so Herr Director wanted the band not to play.
“You mean, we’ll just sit on stage like lumps, not moving,” I asked.
“No,” the assistant said, “you must pretend to play your instruments in the scene, but in silence, since we’ll be playing the pre-recorded soundtrack so we can control the sound level and hear the actors’ dialogue.”
“It’s very hard to pretend to play drums, in time with the recorded music, without actually striking the drum,” I explained.
“This is what Herr Director wants. It WILL be done!” was his reply.
I passed the word on to my six mates, and they appeared to get it, except for Seamus, who said, “I’m not gonna’ do that, it’s fookin’ nuts!” But he did it.
The band was happily ‘playing away’ for several minutes. Bob pretended his bow was moving melodiously across the strings of his fiddle. I pretended my drumstick was striking my drum. The piper pretended to be piping. Then the Assistant to the Third Assistant came over to me again after the dancing had been halted once again. He explained that the sound techs were still having a problem picking up the lead actors’ dialogue as they danced, so the director had ordered the soundtrack playback to be stopped, and of course the band to still pretend to be playing.
“Let me make sure I understand,” I said to the assistant, “we are to pretend to be playing our instruments to absolute silence, and in time with the pre-recorded music, so that when a moviegoer sees the scene, we’ll be striking the drums and bowing the fiddles and blowing air through the pipes in perfect time with the music, even though we won’t be able to hear any music while we’ll be ‘playing’ musical pantomime with instruments we are not to use. Is that it? Is that all? Or did I - forgive my Irish - fookin’ miss anything?”
The assistant looked me in the eye and said without a hint of humor, “Ja! Das iz right!”
As I somewhat sheepishly explained this to the rest of the band, Seamus jumped up from his seat, and, his face turning redder and hotter than a chili pepper, he began to stomp his thighs of thunder on stage so hard I feared he was going to break though the stage and plummet to the seventh level of Hell.
“I’ll tell ye’ tree tings for sure,” he hollered, “this Hitler guy is crazier than Shite, and, and there’s no way in God’s green earth I’m doin’ any more of this fookin’ crazy shite.”
I was truly afraid he was going to self-immolate. In an effort to defuse the situation and spare our already overheating planet, I said “Seamus, I agree completely. Couldn’t agree more! Never in the history of humankind has there been a man more righteous and justified … but, can I just point out one wee little thing?”
“What the fook is that?” he asked,” glowering at me with rage.
“Well, I’m not sure I grasp the math” I explained, “but I think that’s only two things.”
As he cocked his head at me, the bulging veins in his trunk-thick neck seemed to slowly recede. He plopped back down in his chair and remained speechless the rest of the day. I think perhaps the new math was just too much for him, too.
Just as I was then thinking we were out of the woods as well as our minds, the assistant came over to me again. “Herr Director has one more request. He thinks it will be livelier if the band dances in the scene.”
For the first time in my life, I understood violence. I stared at the assistant, now mine the eyes full of rage, and said, “let me see if I understand. Herr Hit - I mean, Herr Director - would like our trio - all seven members of our trio - to waltz around the stage, pretend to play our instruments, half of which require playing in a seated position, and, further, we will hold but otherwise not actually touch or play our instruments, miming - in perfect time - to the pre-recorded music which will not be playing, and, furthermore, forgetting that most of us can’t dance, let alone waltz, even without our miming equipment? Is that it? Is that right? Did I forget anything? “
The assistant looked at me intently and said, in German, “You got it!”
I actually felt sorry for Seamus as I explained to the band the new requirements. He had a soft look in his eyes. Those eyes so full of defiance and rage only moments ago now were as still and resigned as the eyes of a pug dog laying on its back slowly falling asleep as its master rubs its belly.
And so, all seven members of our happy little trio tripped the light fantastic across the silent dance floor, pretending to dance, pretending to play music, pretending to have a fookin’ clue as the cameras rolled. It’s inconceivable that anything could have felt stranger. Except that the director had also decided that there’d be more artistic authenticity if he had actual cancer patients in the scene, which was a fundraising dance. And so, he somehow had someone convince whoever needed to be convinced so that lots of young children from Dana Farber hospital would be dressed up as chickens and bunnies and somehow incorporated into the scene. I’d my whole life wanted to be an actor. And yet, as I pretended to waltz across the dance floor while pretending to play my drum while pretending to dance in time and to play music in time to utter silence, all the while under hot stage lights with chickens and bunnies flitting about, I knew in my heart that the next time a producer called me for a role in a movie, my answer, without hesitation and with a resolve as hard as the rock of Gibraltar, would be, “I have just tree words for ye. NO. FOOKIN’. WAY.”
Finally, after so many years, I could at last do the math.