From the Page to the Stage: Arranging Michael Jackson’s Music for Cirque du Soleil

THE CREATIVE DIRECTOR FOR CIRQUE DU SOLIEL’S MICHAEL JACKSON: The Immortal tour, Jamie King, has been a longtime friend, and he’s the one who asked me to be the musical designer for the show.

Kevin Antunes THE CREATIVE DIRECTOR FOR CIRQUE DU SOLIEL’S MICHAEL JACKSON: The Immortal tour, Jamie King, has been a longtime friend, and he’s the one who asked me to be the musical designer for the show. Jamie was actually a dancer with Michael Jackson a long time ago, and currently puts all the largest pop shows together, from Madonna to Britney Spears to Jennifer Lopez. Jamie introduced me to the executors of Michael’s estate—John Branca and John McClain—and through them, Cirque du Soleil, and everyone at Sony Music, I was given complete and unfettered access to all of Michael’s multitrack recordings, delivered via hard drive. My job was to arrange and update the music for the live show—no pressure! Here’s a brief chronicle of what I did.

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Obviously, we wanted to have Michael’s biggest hits in there, but we followed Jamie’s performance storyline to craft the musical design and song choices for the show. We were also given the authority to completely rework his songs. Once we had arranged the show and brought the live band in, it was also my job to show them the arrangements I’d put together, and to make sure every musician had the right sounds for them. Then Greg Phillinganes, the musical director, had to make sure everyone was playing the parts the right way.

The entire show was built in MOTU Digital Performer. I’ve been using it for years—it doesn’t crash! Th e way it treats audio prevents it from bottlenecking like some other programs often do. It’s extremely responsive, and no other software has the “chunks” feature. For example, right now as I’m piecing together Madonna’s next tour, I can have several songs open in the Chunks view, all in the same project file. With other programs, you’d have to close one session and open another. With DP, multiple multitrack songs can exist all at once. That’s how I’m able to jump between songs. I can drag-and-drop Chunks into other Chunks, and I can save different arrangements and interpretations of the same song. That happened numerous times working on Immortal.

I assembled the music for Immortal in studios all over North America. Some of the gear I used included a 17-inch MacBook Pro, Glyph hard drives, a MOTU 828 audio interface, and later, an Apogee Symphony. I also used a Roland Fantom-G7 and V-Synth GT, an Access Virus TI Polar, and a Minimoog Voyager. My soft synths included MOTU MachFive, EastWest Stormdrum, and Native Instruments Massive and B4. I also have a gigantic sound library—much of which I’ve collected over the years from Foley artists and DJs. Many of the show sounds came from there as well.

I never worked with Michael Jackson personally, but I’m one of the biggest fans on the planet. I paid incredibly close attention to all the sounds that the band uses and how closely they matched the original records. For instance, I always make sure the drummers I work with have hybrid kits with multiple triggers, multiple snares, and electronic pads. I helped the Immortal [and longtime Jacksons] drummer, Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffett, get “Billie Jean” to sound like the record. You can play that beat on any kit, but it’s the sound of those drums that makes that song recognizable in the first bar. So I sampled the kick and snare from the original recordings, and put them on an electronic kick pedal and pad for him. The goal since the start has been to sound like the records, but with the band free to develop its own groove and pocket. Many of the bass sounds came from the Roland V-Synth GT. I made sure that the bass player, Don Boyette, had a V-Synth, and I gave him all the patches I used to create the sounds.

Another example is “Smooth Criminal.” There’s a little solo in the middle of the song on the record. So I went to the master recordings, sampled it in MachFive, added a little bit of plate reverb, and then loaded it into Greg Phillinganes’ Korg Kronos so he could play it live. Another interesting technical thing about the Immortal sound design is that because some of the key musical passages in the show are medleys, I had to lay two multitrack mixes on top of each other when this happened. For example, there’s a moment where Jamie King wanted to use Naomi Campbell’s spoken word part from “Keep It in the Closet,” but in the song “Dangerous.” So I said, “Let’s take it a step further!” I took the entire multitrack, time-compressed it, pitched it to the same tempo and key as “Dangerous,” and then used the entire pre-chorus from “Keep It in the Closet” inside of “Dangerous.” If you listen to the CD, you’ll hear what I’m talking about. That happens a lot during the show.

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It’s easy to go so deep into technical details that we forget the most important thing: What made Michael Jackson so deep was his ability to break things down to their essentials and go minimal. That’s what we did when we incorporated “I’ll Be There” into the show. We needed a minute and a half of a song towards the end. So we made it a Greg Phillinganes moment, because he was close to Michael and he’s a legend in his own right. Greg and I went to the studio where Celine Dion records, and in three takes on their beautiful Steinway piano, he duplicated the part that you hear on the record. Each take was great, but the third one had the magic. It’s just Greg on piano, and Michael’s 11-year-old voice singing “I’ll Be There.”