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  • Yes, Hockey Fans, The Iconic ESPN NHL Theme Music Will Be Back

    Published On March 10, 2021ESPN Front Row
    Steve Levy and Barry Melrose on the National Hockey Night Set

    Steve Levy (L) and Barry Melrose on the National Hockey Night set in 2000. (ESPN Images)

    Early 90’s musical piece still resonates with hockey fans after nearly 30 years

    Today, ESPN announced a landmark new agreement with the National Hockey League. While the agreement is new, one part of ESPN’s NHL coverage that starts this fall will feel nostalgic for longtime hockey fans.

    For its live NHL game telecasts, ESPN will be bringing back the iconic ESPN NHL theme music that was first introduced to viewers in 1992 as the theme on ESPN’s National Hockey Night. Created by composer Bob Christianson, the theme fired up NHL fans through 2004, and has continued to make occasional appearances ever since.

    The music, which brings back fond memories for many, is currently the theme for the nightly ESPN+ program In the Crease, hosted by Linda Cohn, and it also has been used on ESPN’s coverage of the NCAA Men’s Frozen Four since 2014.

    The launch of the hockey music in 1992 was just the latest of many projects Christianson had done for ESPN.

    “When ESPN first started, a good part of the music that was on ESPN was mine, maybe even the majority,” he said. ““I had baseball, NCAA basketball, NBA basketball, hockey.

    “They liked what I did,” he said. “Almost always it was a competition. It would be me and whoever else they worked with, and I’d do two or three demos and send it to them, and if they liked it, then I got the gig. My relationship with the people at ESPN was good in the sense that at least I got asked to compete.”

    Christianson told Front Row in 2014 that he estimated he spent 25 hours composing the NHL theme music, which included recording hockey sounds at a Buffalo Sabres game.

    The NHL music’s longevity is pleasing to Christianson, whose career has touched not only sports but also television programs such as HBO’s “Sex and the City.” He has composed more than 30 sports themes for different networks.

    “I’ve written so many sports themes, and some of them I’m really happy with, and some of them not, but that’s one of the ones that I’m really happy with – it just came out really good,” he said. “It did what it was supposed to do.”

    So much so that fans will hear it again this fall.

    “As excited as we are about our new agreement with the NHL, we’re also very excited that we will be bringing back the ESPN hockey theme music that is very familiar and iconic to hockey fans,” said ESPN Senior Vice President, Production and Remote Events, Mark Gross. “We’re in the very early stages of getting ready to launch our coverage, but there was never a question as to what the music would be.”

  • Eight Notes That Have Meant ‘N.C.A.A. Tournament’ for a Quarter-Century

    Published On March 30, 2017The New York Times

    Late in 1992, when he was asked to submit samples for a new theme song for CBS’s coverage of the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament, Bob Christianson did what he usually does. He paced his small basement studio. He washed dishes and scrubbed the floor. He ironed clothes.

    His best melodies have often crystallized better away from the piano. “If I write at the piano,” he said, “my fingers tend to go where they are used to going.”

    This time, his fingers would not arrive at the eight notes that would come to define March Madness for nearly a quarter-century until he formulated the right groove — a groove inspired by the percussive heartbeat of the tournament itself: a dribbling basketball.

    The hummable pattern — da-da-da-dat-dat-da-da-da — is now familiar to almost anyone even remotely near a television in March. The ubiquity of CBS’s telecasts, now broadcast in combination with Turner Sports, and the popularity of the N.C.A.A. tournament have made its theme song one of the most recognizable, and enduring, in sports television history. CBS started airing it in 1993 and has no plans to stop.

    The credit belongs to Christianson, a veteran composer who, when he sat down to write 25 years ago, had no clue his version would become so embedded into the auditory cortex of American culture, or even that his version would be selected. But he liked how it sounded.

    “I have no idea where it came from,” Christianson said. “Writing, to me, is about being able to sit down, be quiet and listen. And when you’re lucky, it comes.”

    In 2010, when CBS and Turner Sports joined in producing the telecasts, they examined every detail of tournament production. But the theme song, which was modernized slightly, remained true to its original form.

    “It really gets your motor running when you hear it,” said Sean McManus, the chairman of CBS Sports. “It has a way of making your heart beat a little bit faster in anticipation of more great college basketball.”

    Christianson, now 66, with soft brown hair and a feathery mustache, still lives above the studio in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan where he wrote the N.C.A.A. tournament theme and hundreds of other jingles, including those for ESPN’s N.H.L. and “Sunday Night Baseball” telecasts and CBS’s coverage of the N.F.L. and the Olympics.

    Many of them have long since faded into oblivion. Harder, heavier tunes (think Fox’s blaring N.F.L. theme, complete with its armored robot) have replaced the more rhythmic and synthesized selections in the past, which typically went lighter on the drums and guitar.

    “It wasn’t Metallica,” Christianson said.

    But when a former CBS executive, Doug Towey, asked him to submit samples for a new college basketball theme, Christianson knew he needed something with energy. Something in a major key. Something that immediately suggested the brisk pace of a game.

    “The melody couldn’t be so fast that it would fly by and you wouldn’t get it,” Christianson said. “It had to be a simple melody, but it had to have enough energy behind it to reflect the sport.”

    James Kellaris, a composer and professor of marketing at the University of Cincinnati who studies the influence of music on consumers, noted that the presto tempo of 168 beats per minute in Christianson’s tune is consistent with a human heart rate during exercise. The percussive groove also lends an impression of forward motion.

    “The theme clearly evokes excitement and motion, such as a person running,” Kellaris wrote in an email.

    What makes the theme sound unique, however, is actually a small incongruity in the tune’s harmonic structure. Instead of being based on a normal scale in C, the chords conform to F major, Kellaris said, a technique also used in the famous “Give me a break” jingle for Kit Kat bars. The pattern of notes — E-E-F-G-C-A-G-G — also contains a sizable intervallic leap from the C to the A, which is uncommon in melodies.

    Such aurally pleasant violations of expectations, along with the simplicity and repetition of the theme, are what creates what Kellaris likes to call an earworm. The melody burrows into your head and can stick there for days, often leaving only a single recourse: You have to listen again. Exactly what CBS wants.

    “It is a diminutive masterpiece of auditory branding genius,” Kellaris said.

    Twenty-three years after his career at Duke ended, Grant Hill said that he still imagines running up and down the court in the N.C.A.A. tournament whenever he hears the theme song. “It definitely conjures up a lot of good memories,” said Hill, now a broadcaster for CBS and Turner. “You get fired up and ready to go. It’s a great feeling.”

    Indeed, the theme’s influence derives not just from its catchiness. Its psychological grip extends beyond that. Matthew Mihalka, a musicologist and ethnomusicologist at the University of Arkansas, who studies the connections between music and sports, said the jingle produced a “sonic marker” in the minds of many fans, viscerally transplanting them back to a happy (or upsetting) moment.

    “It can serve as a bit of nostalgia,” Mihalka said. “If they have a fond memory that connects to hearing that song, then it’s going to revive how they were feeling at that particular time.”

    Fans of Gonzaga or South Carolina, who might not have cared much for the tune before, might now be hooked, because their teams are playing in the Final Four for the first time this weekend. And CBS does a good job reinforcing these Pavlovian triggers: A spokesman estimated that CBS and Turner play the theme song more than 1,000 times over the course of the 67 telecasts and accompanying studio shows during the tournament each year.

    The modern version was arranged by Trevor Rabin — a former guitarist for Yes — who also composed the theme for the N.B.A. on TNT broadcasts. But Christianson, who still receives 85 percent of the writer’s royalties, said only 7 percent of the new version was actually new. The remainder is as he wrote it, using a Linn 9000 in his basement, albeit infused with more sound from a live orchestra.

    Christianson, who also scored TV shows including “Sex and the City,” said it was the little jingle he dreamed up 25 years ago that would most likely come to define his career.

    “It probably will be chiseled on my tombstone, no matter what else I’ve done,” he said. “And you know something? That’s fine.”

  • Meet the NCAA Tourney Theme Composer whose anthems evoke spring and hockey's cold winter darkness

    Kansas City Basketball Player

    Back when a New York winter always meant tunnels of wind and frost, balm-defying dermal dryness, sidewalk slush the color of rejected Baskin Robbins flavors (“How about a Tootsie Roll-inspired taste entitled ‘Irresponsible Dog Owner?'”) — before warming adjoined the brutal cold to 60-degree days and disordered the seasons entirely — I looked forward to spring’s rebirth with some desperation.

    But it wasn’t a sudden bloom or abundance of pollen that signaled to me we had made it. Okay, some of it was pollen. But the better marker was the sound of NCAA basketball on CBS, its theme song played throughout the season but featured most prominently — time-out after time-out — during March’s mad tournament (which actually ends in April).

    That song has never failed to excite me — about the prospect not only of upsets and buzzer-beaters but of the end of school (even since I’ve left school), warm-weather success with the opposite sex, and a glorious, upcoming summer dedicated to self-improvement.

    If you can hear it in your head while reading this, you’ve been brainwashed beautifully. If not…what’s wrong with you?

    What has always struck me about that theme and other faves (more on them shortly) is how detached they are from their creators. In a YouTube comments section, you’ll see someone list a composer now and then — but that’s usually geek-on-geek inquiring (you’re watching music written for TV on YouTube, after all).

    Time to change all that. Meet the makers — part one: Bob Christianson.

    Bob Christianson
    Bob Christianson, courtsey of Melinda Tanner/Grant Blair.

    Bob Christianson, a composer/arranger/keyboard player, first wrote the NCAA on CBS theme in 1992 — making this tourney the music’s quarter-century anniversary (that it’s still used, even if in modified form, attests partly to its catchiness and partly to what we’ve attached to it, I think).

    Maybe CBS would’ve celebrated said 25 years if Doug Towey, the exec with whom Christianson worked (who also birthed the “One Shining Moment” montage idea) hadn’t been felled by cancer at 61.

    “Great guy,” Christianson says. “Really great guy.”

    Towey used to ask three or four composers to submit work for new themes about two weeks in advance, and each composer would present a handful of options. Christianson thinks he sent in five for the NCAA package.

    “He went gut instinct,” Christianson says — Towey usually listened to the demos just once before making a call.

    For the tournament, Towey’s native possession arrow pointed Christianson’s way. Neither of them had any idea what the music would become culturally or financially (Christianson receives writer royalties each time it’s played — which makes those constant end-of-game timeouts — viewers’ bane — his boon).

    “However many demos I sent in…it’s not like I wrote this piece, and said, ‘Yeah this is the one.’ I wish I could say I was that smart — I wasn’t. I tried to write pieces that evoked the energy of the game. It couldn’t be a minor key like you could use for football or hockey. It’s very up, very fast — just like the game, [which] changes directions all the time.”

    Another way Christianson tried to imbue the music with the survive-and-advance spirit: He placed the sound of a basketball hitting a wooden floor in the original theme’s rhythm section (that was lost during a 2008 revision of the song CBS had Christianson perform).

    He would later perform a similar maneuver when going after ESPN’s hockey theme, recording ice-level noises at a Buffalo Sabres game — the sounds of the blades and skates and puck — which he inserted cleverly into the final composition (the full theme, not the intro music).

    Which became the vaunted ESPN hockey theme — that dark, almost-brooding, Batman-befitting tune that lets you know there’s gonna be intense checking, shoving and shooting — because Christianson is a (humble) boss, and that piece is so good ESPN brought it back a decade after losing its NHL rights just for college hockey.

    Back then, Christianson was competing against a handful of composers — he estimates there are 10-20 times as many competitors now (“for good and bad, basically anybody can be a composer now with a Macbook Pro and Garageband”).

    Christianson has a legit pedigree. He grew up in Yonkers with a father who’d played keyboard for a big band radio show during the Depression. His father introduced Christianson to the instrument when the kid was 6.

    By the age of 12, Christianson was arranging and composing music. As a teenager, he was playing in rock bands in Greenwich Village, at Cafe Wha?, famed hang-out of Dylan and then Hendrix.

    He liked listening to Dave Brubeck, the Beatles (“Sgt. Pepper’s” convinced him he had to be a musician) — any interesting sound.

    After he received a degree from the school of music at SUNY-Potsdam (and studying composition for a time at the University of Michigan), he hit New York and began getting gigs all over town — which he credits to luck and dependability (he says he wasn’t the best, but he was never late ).

    ESPN National Hockey Night Sega Genesis Game Box

    He composed lots of music for “Sex and the City,” was nominated for an Emmy for PBS’ “A Christmas Carol — The Concert,” and worked as a studio synthesizer-player for Aretha Franklin, Dianna Ross and countless others.

    He conducted the orchestra for Gilda Radner’s one-woman Broadway revue, whose writers included Paul Shaffer and Lorne Michaels. He has written for the symphony and opera.

    He estimates he has written about 30 sports themes. It doesn’t bother him that these have eclipsed the rest of his oeuvre in fame (among us Joe Schmoes, anyway).

    Two days before we spoke, he was having a Yamaha hybrid piano delivered to his studio when one of the moving men asked him what sort of work he did. He said, “Do you watch NCAA basketball on CBS? That’s my theme.”

    The guy went, “Oh! Duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh,” launching into the tune.

    None of this success has altered Christianson’s routine — he still has to compete for sports assignments. He recently lost the contest to create a new CBS golf theme.

    “You never know,” he said. “You do the best you can. You try to somehow distill [a sport} into musical rhythm, musical melody, harmonics, whatever.”

    Seven years ago, when CBS struck a deal with Turner Sports to air tournament games on the latter’s networks, Christianson heard Turner wanted to make music of its own and was shut down by the NCAA, which views his work as canonical.

    That deal was recently extended to 2032, which means a whole new generation of viewers should be exposed to that dynamic “Duh, duh, duh.”

    As for others’ work, he thinks highly of the CBS golf theme that beat out his own and the SportsCenter intro (“It’ll never go away. It’s pretty simple…but it’s brilliant, it works”). He dislikes the percussion-heavy, melody-light type of music Fox pioneered when its entered sports-TV (it’s just not his thing).

    The business has changed — so many channels license old library music now for promos and bumpers instead of commissioning new material. And so many people submit new material, the fees for themes have plummeted.

    Plus, channels used to want separate sports to sound very different. Whereas now, whether the music reflects the nature of the sport isn’t a primary consideration.

    And then there is YouTube. Geeks who love sports themes — such as myself — post every iteration of every tune, which hundreds of thousands of people then listen to — all while Google makes money off the accompanying ads.

    NCAA March Madness on CBS

    That’s clearly wrong, though if these versions weren’t online, I’d be unable to write about them or rediscover their authors.

    Christianson is just damn happy he got in while the going was good. He is not a sports viewer ordinarily, but he makes March Madness the lone exception — and has a small rooting interest.

    Because of his graduate work in composition at the University of Michigan, he could be an Ann Arbor-booster. Could say to Sparty and The Ohio State — you’re playing to a maize-and-blue tune.

    But he never received his Michigan degree.

    Needing just to finish his thesis, Christianson was offered a musical theater gig in New York. “Shit, I need to grab this,” he recalls thinking.

    So he bolted the peninsula before completing his work. Which seems fitting: The man behind the sound most associated with college athletics left school early, to begin making the good pro dough he deserved.

  • Great Marley's Ghost! "A Christmas Carol: The Concert" Enchants and Breaks New Ground

    Published On December 11, 2013Huffington Post

    Bah humbug, indeed.

    Nobody would blame you for grumbling that movie, television, stage and radio adaptations of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” have been done to death over the years — like a holiday goose cooked in the oven too long. By a conservative estimate, there have been at least 173 productions or parodies of the venerable tale, and if you’re not interested in checking out the latest version, which airs nationally on many PBS stations beginning December 14, it’s certainly understandable. In this case, however, you’d be wrong.

    “A Christmas Carol: The Concert” has the distinction of being the only known adaptation of Dickens’ 1843 novella written as a dramatic concert, with singers backed by a full symphony orchestra. But that’s not what makes the show so special. Its electrifying performances — driven by a powerhouse cast, a rock/pop/gospel rhythm section and members of the Elmhurst College Concert Choir and the Chicago Children’s Choir — add up to an instant holiday classic. Rising at times to near operatic levels, the 90-minute show is an engaging, cleverly staged production that the entire family can enjoy.

    Unlike so much tiresome holiday fare, “A Christmas Carol” offers a new take on a timeless story, blending the sweep of symphonic performance with dramatic musical theatre and the visual delights of dazzling TV. You get all three in this re-telling of Dickens’ story about a miserable miser who finds true religion — and suffers the fright of his life — when three ghosts visit him on Christmas Eve. Ebenezer Scrooge’s transformation into a generous man may seem all too familiar. But it hasn’t looked this fresh in a long time.

    “A Christmas Carol” boasts a writing team led by composer Bob Christianson, whose score has echoes of “Phantom of the Opera” and “Les Miserables,” with along strands of Sondheim, folk, gospel and blues. The Emmy-nominated musician has written for NPR, Broadway and TV; he’s a respected studio musician who has also conducted Broadway shows including “Godspell” and “Gilda Radner-Live from New York.”

    His collaborator, Alisa Hauser, crafted an original book and lyrics that are simultaneously faithful to Dicken’s beloved narrative but also break new ground. An alum of the prestigious BMI/Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop in New York, she’s penned lyrics for the Disney Channel’s “Johnny and The Sprites” and performed on Broadway in “Thoroughly Modern Mille” and the original cast of “Beauty and the Beast.”

    With little or no props and a spare setting, Christianson and Hauser have managed to evoke the grime and darkness of 19th century London, as well as the hope and compassion in Dickens’ tale. But the chief credit for that goes to four exceptional cast members. As Scrooge, Michael Lindner brings a commanding presence and rich baritone to a role that never once descends into caricature. A well-known name in Chicago’s musical theatre world (“Shrek: The Musical,” “Sunday in the Park with George” and “Ragtime”) his harrowing on-stage transformation is compelling and moving.

    Special mention must be made of Scott Coulter’s multiple performances as Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s nephew, Tiny Tim and other characters. A talented New York musical theatre performer (“Floyd Collins” and “Forever Plaid”) as well as a recording artist and award-winning cabaret singer, Coulter’s distinctive tenor packs an emotional wallop in the show, whether he’s singing about the joys of Christmas, grieving over a son’s death or illuminating a child’s life at boarding school. His dramatic range — and an empathy that cuts to the core — make for an unforgettable performance.

    Kyle Scatliffe (“Les Miserables” and “Scottsboro Boys”) playing Scrooge’s dead partner, Jacob Marley, and the three ghosts, inhabits his roles with a penetrating intensity and a booming, Broadway-ready voice. The narrator, E. Faye Butler (“Oklahoma,” “The Wiz” and “Aint Misbehavin'”) tells the venerable holiday story with wit, intelligence and a contagious enthusiasm.

    Still not convinced? Consider that the producers added a fifth character to the mix — the packed audience that watched the show at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie, Illinois. As the action unfolds, cameras zero in on wide-eyed reactions from young and old alike, bringing real-time emotions into the mix. All of which is to say that if you catch yourself tearing up at any point in the show, you’re certainly not alone.

    If there are any quibbles, it’s that even a sumptuous television broadcast can’t duplicate the magic of actually witnessing a live performance, so here’s hoping the show can put together a national tour. And if you can’t wait for that, a recording of the production will soon be available on iTunes.

    Dickens’ novella turns 170 next week, and historians believe it was instrumental in rekindling a sense that Christmas should be celebrated as a festive holiday. “A Christmas Carol: The Concert” keeps that tradition alive, so raise your glass to a timeless tale reborn–and God Bless Us Everyone.

    “A Christmas Carol: The Concert,” directed by David Kersnar, was produced by HMS Media, and is being presented by WTTW National Productions in Chicago. It airs on PBS beginning December 14.

  • Chicago talent soars in new concert version of ‘A Christmas Carol’

    Published On December 18, 2013Chicago Sun-Times

    Just when you think you’ve had your seasonal fill of Ebenzer Scrooge, Jacob Marley and the Cratchit family — whether dressed up in classic Victorian finery or naughtily thrust into hip-hop mode — along comes yet another interpretation of Charles Dickens’ “The Christmas Carol,” and it makes you sit bolt upright and listen to the familiar story with renewed pleasure.

    Best of all, this production is free, and is designed so that you can watch it in the comfort of your own home yet also feel very much like part of a larger audience.

    “A Christmas Carol: The Concert,” produced by Scott Silberstein and his Chicago-based HMS Media (winner of 17 Emmy Awards), is a glorious new musical version of the classic that takes its cue from the hugely successful “Live from Lincoln Center” programs. Like those artful shows, it is a recording of a stellar dramatic concert presented before a live audience and then aired over PBS stations.

    In this case, Silberstein and director Matt Hoffman have assembled mostly Chicago-area talent for a powerhouse rendering of a new staged concert version of the Dickens classic that features soaring music and orchestrations by Bob Christianson (co-composer of the hit “Too Hot to Handel”); a vivid, crystal-clear adaptation and lyrics by Alisa Hauser; a splendid orchestra impeccably conducted by Amy Duran, and members of the Elmhurst College Concert Choir and Chicago Children’s Choir under Susan Moninger.

    In addition, the handsomely staged and filmed concert (recorded this past May at Skokie’s North Shore Center for the Performing Arts), features a formidable cast, with Chicago diva E. Faye Butler in command as the galvanic Narrator who can turn speech into music; Michael Lindner as a ferocious, clarion-voiced, Scrooge who bears echoes of Sweeney Todd; the easily charismatic Kyle Scatliffe (recently seen in the London production of “The Scottsboro Boys”) as Marley and the ever-morphing series of ghosts who visit Scrooge on Christmas Eve (and whose songs range from gospel and blues to pop-rock and Broadway in style); Scott Coulter as Bob Cratchit and

    Scrooge’s irrepressible nephew, Fred; and the fervent Arya Daire as Belle, the woman Scrooge loved but lost to his obsessive greed.

    Expertly staged by Lookingglass Theatre’s David Kersnar, the 90-minute concert, airing nationally this holiday season, gains immeasurably from Hoffman’s artful camera work which seamlessly and thrillingly moves from actors, to conductor and musicians, to the glowing, deeply immersed faces of the multi-generational audience.

    Not surprisingly, plans are underway for a national tour of this piece during the 2014 holiday season, to be supported by re-broadcasts of the TV special.