When you hear the names Slings & Kerkhof, one immediately thinks of Anky van Grunsven's world famous kurs to music like Bonfire's Symphony, West Side Story, and, of course, L' Esprit Chanson. Van Grunsven has been the undefeated queen of the kur, so far, and all her freestyles have been designed by the Dutch composers duo Cees Slings and Victor Kerkhof.
I met this illustrous duo for the first time at the PSI/FEI Freestyle Forum in Ankum, Germany, in February 2005. They held the most interesting speech at the two-day seminar, revealing their principles and work routine for composing a top quality kur to music. With much bravura, Slings exposed the secret to their success, which implies no copy pasting of samples, but the writing one complete musical composition that fits every single footfall of the horse's hooves exactly. At the end of their session in Ankum, I was quite impressed by what I had heard and my respect for Anky's L'Esprit Chanson had grown exponentially.
However, there is huge difference between theory and practise and when I was offered to bridge that gap by witnessing the entire process of the making of a Slings & Kerkhof's kur, I could not decline the opportunity. As of September 2004, the Dutch composers untied themselves from Anky van Grunsven and are now independent freestyle designers who take on new clients world wide. In April 2005, the duo received a project from British World Class Performance Rider Wayne Channon and I joined the three of them on their musical joyride.
For Channon, the choice to hire Slings & Kerkhof was easy. “They are simply the best in the business. All their kurs demonstrate their deep understanding of dressage and music. Every kur is an original design and the music exactly reflects every movement performed in the test,” he said.
Cees agreed to keep a journal on the design of this new freestyle and was willing to share his observations with the Eurodressage readers.
April 25, 2005
Today, a new client came to visit us, Wayne Channon, a rider on the British team. Our project is to design a new freestyle and the assignment is very clear. Wayne has already chosen the music, but Vic and I have to work out the theme. The horse, Lorenzo CH, is beautiful, a son of Ferro. To me, Lorenzo is a bit less heavy than Ferro, who I considered beautiful but too massive. There is only one horse that I find really impressive and that is Partout, but Lorenzo has that look as well, and he has something mystic.
Because there is deadline, Wayne will videotape his choreography himself so that we can download it from his server. He wants to ride the kur in Lipica and if all goes well, it should be ready by then. Fortunately, the third project we are working on has been put on hold, which gives us more time. For us, it's better to work on different projects at the same time, because when you get stuck with one job, you can work on the other the next day. We are not machines who can make music roll off the assembly line. It is a creative process which means that sometimes you are just thinking about it and sometimes you have to put it out of your mind.
One of the choices in music Wayne and Debra have made was the soundtrack of The Godfather, so we gave the new assignment the working title "Cosa Nostra, The Italian Job." We tried to get more music out of the movie, but it didn't work, so we decided to make it a completely Italian story. Not such an innovative idea, because there is this one rider who is scoring pretty decently with a French inspired kur, L'Esprit Chanson. I forgot her name as well as the makers of that kur, but we can do a better job anyway ;)
We're keeping the theme of The Godfather for the intro and the walk. It is clear and beautiful. For the passage and piaffe we use Andrea Bocelli, a very passionate melody which matches the bold passage of Lorenzo, who has that little Italian touch because of his black coat. For the flying changes and half passes we chose the melody of 'Marina' and the Tarantella. It can't get anymore Italian than that
These tunes are difficult to work with because they all have strong vocal lines which we have to make instrumental, but some fit well. It is also hard to find the right colour of sound and the setting of the orchestra. Sometimes the sound has much body, sometimes it's too combo like, too futile. It'll be a challenge to fix that.
Three weeks later, an email dropped into my mailbox, mentioning that the click track -- a single track with a click for every footfall of the horse which metronomically indicates the rhythm of the movement -- and the first layers of music were finished and that there will be a first try out session on May 13. Can Eurodressage come and watch? Sure!
May 13, 2005
Today we go to Belgium to do the first fitting. The place where Wayne boards his horses is beautiful. We have to do the demo ride outside because the indoor school is not big enough. We get a warm welcome, meet both grooms that work for Wayne and Debra brings us coffee while Wayne is warming up Lorenzo.
It is the best improvisation we have ever done! Debra's car is parked in front of the long side of the arena and the CD-player in her car is the source for music. We put a small microphone in the car and Wayne has an ear piece to ride with and can hear the music directly.
We have to measure exactly where to start in the music and when we worked that out, Wayne rode his kur. I'm filming, while Vic is counting the strides. Some bits match but others need serious adaptation. We decide to redo some small bits and then video tape the entire freestyle once more. Everything works, even though it's very cold. I'm wearing Wayne's jacket because I'm freezing. I already had the flu three times this year and I'm still deaf. Not good when you work with music!
Astrid Appels of Eurodressage called me and asked me if she can write a piece on the making of the freestyle. She asked Wayne and Debra as well and they didn't object to it. We met Astrid before at the Freestyle Forum in Ankum. So she was there today, making pictures and questioning us about the kur.
After wrapping up, we were invited for lunch. No need to ask us that twice!! We have to drive one hour and half and have worked the entire morning so we are very hungry. Wayne, Debra and their kids Jay and Francesca, as well as Astrid, join us. In Belgium you can always eat well, at very nice places!
Cees was extremely surprised and satisfied after the first demo ride. "Wayne knows perfectly well what he wants and for us that's great to work with. Even our conversations during lunch were good, so we went home full of ideas," Slings commented.
With a large list of revisions at hand, Slings and Kerkhof headed back home to redo the click track and add new layers of music to the composition. They returned to Belgium 11 days later with the second trial version.
May 24, 2005
Back to Belgium for a second try-out, which proved to be necessary. Vic has been working all night to get it ready and we had some computer problems again. A new error on the hard disk. Misery likes company!
The test ride goes well. On three places changes need to be made, some need a bar extra, others one less. We have the feeling that with a few minor changes we are getting somewhere. Wayne wants to ride the kur in Lipica, so we'll come back in 5 days for another trial. It's going to be a gamble to get it done on time. Normally we do the production, arrangement and orchestration at the end because it's very difficult to put in extra bars when all that is done, but we go for it, because we believe it all fits. Fortunately Wayne is quite the high-tech man (with a professional career in internet technology), so we can send an MP3 or an AIF file of the last version to his server last minute, which he can then burn on a CD at the horse show.
We go to lunch again. Debra has a beautiful voice and is constantly singing along with the music. We ask her if she wants to sing on the freestyle because we want to do two vocal moments in the kur. We will need to add Debra's voice after Wayne gets back from Lipica. Debra's voice and some live brass and woodwinds will give extra elegance, depth and expression to the kur."
Victor Kerkhof, who is the executive musician and composes and arranges alongside Cees, said that in every freestyle you always wrestle with one or two melodies. "In Anky's L'Esprit Chanson we had trouble with the zig zag music. In Wayne's it's the Marina tune. It's like a 'dragon.' You try to fight it and get it into its place, but it just doesn't work. Until one moment you find the right instruments and then you have the nicest tune," Victor explained.
May 28, 2005
The kur is getting much more colourful in sound now and if we work on it and mix it one more day it'll be useful. We have to do one more try-out, so we go to Belgium again. It's beautiful weather, the hottest day so far and we arrive early. We drink coffee in Wayne's trailer, well, not really a trailer, it's a super deluxe camper which can take 5 horses. I thought Anky had a nice lorry, but this one is phenomenal. It even has my favourite coffee machine!
We listen to the music first. Wayne is very concentrated and is riding the test in his head. We count out loud before, during and after the transitions. It's works well with Wayne, hopefully it will too with Lorenzo.
Again we put the "driving disco Beamer" at the long side of the arena, put the cd on and start counting. We videotape the ride from the short side this time to check how steep Wayne rides his half passes. We're trying out the halt, because with male riders it takes a bit longer than with females who don't have to take off their hat.
The theme of The Godfather is perfect for the strings, a soft timpany with an extra beat to mark the transition for Wayne. The transitions are now musically smooth and only a couple need to get completely arranged, but the kur seems to be ready for 95%. Some minimal changes are still needed, though, to make it absolutely perfect. That's what Wayne wants and that's what we want.
My wife Mirjam joined us today and she's totally surprised at what is happening at the yard. The disco beamer, the head sets, the ear pieces. Mir makes a couple of photos and is impressed with Lorenzo, who is looking very athletic.
We have fine-tuned our computer skills and are now able to send Wayne the complete music and video clips to his server. We received our own password to upload everything and it works fast! We will be able to send him a studio quality version of the music when he's in Lipica. We also send him the montage of all the video clips so that he can watch the freestyle with the kur music fitting perfectly. This service is part of the job.
Wayne has much confidence in us and I'm sure we're going to offer him something great. All we need is one more day of Bullet Sound Studio for the final touch.
Hit ’m up Wayne, Move’m out Lorenzo, here’s The Italian Extravaganza
Soto Voce della Debra
The finishing touch to Channon's new freestyle was the implementation of the voice of his wife Debra. Every time the draught version of the kur played in the lorry or at the house, Debra sang along with Conte Partiro. Vic and Cees immediately asked her to sing in the freestyle in search for more drama to the music.
July 9, 2005
A wonderful voice can do miracles to a kur and Debra has such a voice. She's hesitant to accept our offer to sing, but ultimately agrees. Debra arrived at the studio in Leersum on time, even a bit early. She is slightly nervous and doesn't believe she can do it. We reassure her, teach her a few studio tricks (how to hold the headphone) and let her sing. Her voice is perfectly pure, very natural and she has great feeling for talent, in short, she's a natural.
We make ten to fifteen tracks of every part we need. Debra sings the hardest bits first because they are more demanding on her voice. The parts in a lower key are done at the end. Debra still cannot believe she did a good job, because the moment she leaves the studio another lady comes in (to record a poem) and she thinks it is going to be her voice-over. Don't worry Debra, you'll recognize your own voice! Everything went just fine."
The last stage in the production is the recording of the live instruments. They replace the samples that were first used. Sometimes Slings & Kerkhof go for a mixture of both worlds: samples and live recorded instruments. Wayne agreed to add the live instruments to his music to make his freestyle a virtual "symphonic" composition that will definitely ensure goose bumps at the end.
Cees recalled his day in the studio:
"We have a big job in the studio directing two trumpets, three trombones, 2 woodwind players for the saxes, clarinets, and flutes. We used the same people as we've done before for other productions. Vic and I are perfectionists and we ask the same devotion from our musicians. For composing kurs, they also have to have a good sense of timing.
We show the musicians the video tape over and over and point the musical difficulties in the transitions in the basic gaits. Each player has to have his own feeling and timing for such movements. They joke about how unrhythmical horses are because they have to perform the weirdest sweeps, thrills and shakes on their instruments. We started recording at the BulletSound Studio in Nederhorst Den Bergh (NED) at 9.00 and I switched off the light there at 20.00h. Both the players and Vic and I go home satisfied."
The final mixing and mastering of Channon's freestyle started on July 19, 2005, two months after Channon's first meeting with Cees Slings and Victor Kerkhof.
"We started the end mix today. With my Mac G5 upgraded to 6 Gig RAM-memory --thanks to our local Macdealer Iskander Pels -- I am ready for the final stretch. It is the last straw that breaks the camel's bag, but all our efforts are going to be worth it. We're using the recordings from the Bulletsound Studio and Debra's tracks and place them into the composition. We cut a note here and there to make everything fit perfectly. By manipulating the notes we can decide the feel of the freestyle which cements the music and the image.
We review video clips of Wayne's demo kur ride from Hickstead and make a few changes to the passage, even though Wayne thinks it is alright. He said that riding the kur feels like a 3 minute ride instead of a 6 minute one. That's a good sign. A good kur is over before you know it and you are left there with your mouth open marveling about the harmony between rider, horse and music. We are very happy with the kur and hope the judges will not only focus on the technical side of it, but also on the harmony between image and sound."
'Il Passeggiato," A Musical Stroll To Success
Two more days of mixing to go and Wayne Channon's Slings & Kerkhof kur will be ready in time for the 2005 European Championships in Hagen. After much debate, Channon's kur got the official name "Il Passeggiato". The kur title refers to the Italian expression ‘la passeggiata’ -- the promenade -- which is a typical Sicilian leisure activity. At dusk when the temperature goes down, Sicilian men gather at the town square and walk round it talking to each other and showing off to the women who are sitting on the side.
Wayne officially rode "Il Passeggiato" for the first time at the CDI-W Lipica, the first European qualifier for these 2006 World Cup Finals. He won the Grand Prix and placed second in the Kur to Music with 74.475%.
Since the premier of the kur on June 4, Slings & Kerkhof have improved the music on many levels. Debra's voice and the live instruments have been added and the final mixing of the music in the studio will make the whole composition of broadcast quality.
"We recorded 87 tracks in the kur. It's normal for us. The kur is a feast of drama and joy, exactly what it has to be," Slings told Eurodressage. "It's a tasty kur with a nice story, sometimes it's melancholic reminding you of summer holidays, and sometimes it is spooky with The Godfather trumpets in it. The theme of Andrea Bocelli in the passage will definitely make you get goose bumps!"
There is a chance that three Slings & Kerkhof kurs can be heard in the individual finals of the 2005 European Championships. Anky van Grunsven will ride her L'Esprit Chanson for sure. If Dutch reserve rider Kirsten Beckers gets to compete in Hagen, you might hear her ride to "Soul Collective" and we cross our fingers that Channon will end in the top fifteen so that "Il Passeggiato" can be played at the Championships in Hagen.
"Wouldn't it be nice if our kurs were to finish one-two-three," an optimistic Cees said. "It doesn't matter who will be number one or three. We are very happy about our compositions and the last bit lies in the hands of rider and horse. See you in Hagen!"
A member of the British Dressage Team for the 2005 European Championships, Wayne Channon aspires to ride his kur at Hof Kasselmann in Hagen. "To compete at the 2005 European Championships for Britain is one of the biggest achievements in my dressage career," Channon said, adding "I will do the best I can. I want to see how far I can go with Lorenzo CH." Armed with his Slings & Kerkhof composed freestyle “Il Passeggiato,” Channon is well prepared to ride his black stallion to the top of the international dressage world.
Text and Photos copyrighted: Astrid Appels/Eurodressage
Debra Studio Photos copyrighted: Mirjam Madiol