Glenn Morrissette’s music moves with him — in mobile recording studio
If the music to the Season 9, Episode 5 installment of Fox’s animated sitcom “Family Guy” had a relaxed feel, maybe it was because of the 104-degree mineral water.
Glenn Morrissette helped orchestrate the score after a leisurely soak last October in the natural hot springs in the tiny northwestern Wyoming town of Thermopolis.
Morrissette did his work from his recording studio on wheels — a recreational vehicle he calls home as he meanders around the U.S.
Using a laptop computer and a WiFi connection, he composes, performs and records music and beams it back to Hollywood sound stages and theaters.
Working from home is not uncommon for professional musicians, who have replaced the room-size recorders and sound mixing systems of the 1980s with laptops and specialized software. Going a step further and working from the road eliminates many of the interruptions that come with working in the city. But Morrissette’s journey is about more than escaping distractions.
Nearly two years ago, the 41-year-old composer, who works mainly in TV and film production, looked around his Burbank apartment and realized his belongings had taken over. “Careless consumerism” is how he describes it.
“I was looking at all the stuff I owned that I never used. It was costing me money to have an apartment big enough to hold it all,” he said.
He made a list of the things he needed to be happy. “It was a pretty short list,” he was surprised to discover: his woodwind instruments, his laptop, a week’s worth of clothing, a good book and an electric razor.
The rest he sold or gave away. He donated his books to the Burbank Library. His recliner, stacks of music CDs, bedroom furnishings and seldom-used kitchen appliances were either sold or given to thrift stores.
On his way to a rehearsal one day, Morrissette stopped at a traffic signal in his Miata sports car and glanced up at a modest-size motor home in the next lane. “I could probably live in that now,” he thought.
He made another list, this one of every reason he could think of why he shouldn’t ditch his apartment and move into an RV. “I went through figuring out how I would deal with each issue. And pretty soon there was no list left,” he said.
He bought a used, 19-foot high-top camper van for $14,000 in June 2009. “I wanted to start small because I wasn’t sure I was going to like it,” he acknowledged.
A month later, he turned in the keys to the apartment he rented month to month, sold his Miata and moved into the 16-year-old camper with his cat Emily — who was about the same age as the van.
By then, Morrissette was writing a daily online diary of his scale-back. He called his blog “ToSimplify.”
In it, he chronicled his new life. He wrote of learning how to empty the van’s wastewater holding tank and of finding places to camp at night.
“Driving around the San Fernando Valley today, I found myself quite content to be plodding along in the right lane at or just under the speed limit,” Morrissette wrote in one of his first entries. “This is new territory for me, as I’ve driven nothing but 2-seater roadsters for the past decade and a half. Where the roadster practically demands that I weave in and out of lanes as fast as traffic will allow (‘That’s right officer, the car made me do it’), the van compels me to take a more leisurely approach, and I’m a little surprised to find that I like it.”
For a time, he continued to use Burbank as his base. He searched out quiet places to park for the night. During the day, he practiced playing his woodwinds at the back of parking lots and in noisy industrial and airport areas.
He quickly found that a mobile lifestyle was perfect for music jobs that took him all over Southern California. He could e-mail music arrangements and orchestrations from his laptop to studio music directors and travel to recording gigs in local studios.
Morrissette also discovered things about Southern California that he never knew existed. He hiked to landmarks, enjoyed the sounds of sea gulls and crashing surf on deserted beaches and sampled funky cafes that caught his eye. He found himself striking up conversations with people he was once too busy to notice.
It took about four months for him to break free of “the gravity that was pulling me into the comfort zone of Burbank” and its environs, he said. After a few shakedown jaunts to the Santa Monica Mountains and places like Lake Hughes, the Carrizo Plain and Ojai, he was ready to hit the road.
At first, some of his friends feared he had become homeless. “Oh, what happened?” they would ask politely.
“I thought he was absolutely crazy,” said Patrick Kirst, a film composer and USC lecturer in music composition. “Everybody asked, ‘Why are you doing this?’ But he’s a free spirit who wanted to do something with his life.”
Last May, Morrissette headed east, spending about two months winding his way across the country for a family reunion in Massachusetts. He traveled on back roads and sought out hamlets.
He found small-town America to be especially friendly. “Walking into a bar, striking up a conversation with the locals and getting out having just one drink is no easy task,” he wrote. “They’ll buy you rounds (plural) . . . your liver will be tested.”
By September, he had made it west to South Dakota. Camped at the Fort Pierre National Grassland, he posted a photo of the rolling prairie on his blog and commented on the beauty of the place and the sound “of the wind blowing against the endless waves of amber.”
Since “pictures don’t come close to capturing the awesome panoramic experience of the Grasslands,” he sat down at his computer to create a lasting image of the place in music.
The 2-minute, 43-second piece is a haunting depiction of a lonely, wind-swept night that gives way to a peaceful, upbeat day.
On a second blog, “nomadTunes,” Morrissette showcases the grasslands audio and “Ode to the Falcon,” a composition in which he paid tribute to the camper van he was living and traveling in. He wrote and recorded the piece while parked in the Santa Monica Mountains west of Los Angeles.
He intends to draw on his travels for inspiration for future compositions. But most of the time, he expects to be busy cranking out music for his Hollywood clients. During last year’s six-month van trip, Morrissette supplied orchestration for about a dozen “Family Guy” episodes.
For “Family Guy,” he converts sketches by Ron Jones, the show’s composer, into full-fledged scores for Jones’ 60-piece orchestra. Morrissette also uses his computer and woodwinds to synthesize the sound of the orchestra playing the finished score to give the show’s producers an idea of what the final music will sound like.
Morrissette orchestrated this season’s fourth episode in mid-September while camped “far from any signs of human life” in South Dakota’s Black Hills National Forest, near Mt. Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial.
He worked on the show’s Christmas special while parked next to Lake Mead in Nevada.
While on the road, he also completed a big-band arrangement of “Nice Work If You Can Get It” and jazz-themed saxophone music for the stage play “Night of January 16,” which had a six-week run last year.
For the play, Morrissette recorded multiple tracks, performing the music with alto, soprano and tenor saxophones.
“When it premiered in L.A., I wondered if anybody in the audience was aware the saxophones they were hearing were recorded a week earlier in Wyoming in some guy’s van,” he said.
Jones, an Emmy-winning film and television composer, said he initially figured Morrissette would be gone for just a few months.
“The first things I gave him to do remotely were smaller things: ‘Can you add French horns to this chart?’ He’d pull over in Montana and do it and then go to a coffee shop and send it in. It got here just as fast as if he was here himself. It might have gotten here even faster, because he didn’t have any distractions,” Jones said.
For his personal compositions, Morrissette is using technology “as a paintbrush, not as a Veg-O-Matic. He’s taking snapshots on the road and turning it into music,” Jones said.
Settled into his new lifestyle, Morrissette swapped his camper van for a plusher, slightly roomier RV in November. The Chinook Concourse has air conditioning, heating, a kitchen and a bathroom with a shower.
These days his friends have stopped wondering if he is “homeless.” Many have extended invitations to park at their homes any time he’s in the neighborhood. All he needs, he tells them, is 21 feet of space, preferably level.
He spent part of January in Los Angeles recording a CD with the Clare Fischer Big Band. After that, he tucked his saxophones and his laptop away in his motor home, and he and his cat hit the road.
He was headed for the interior of Arizona in February when an appendicitis attack forced him to stop in Parker, Ariz., for out-patient treatment.
But he’ll soon be heading off the beaten track again, he said.
For a nomadic musician, the desert’s peaceful pace creates its own harmony.
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