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A Fresh Weekend Sound For 'All Things Considered'

Last Saturday, All Things Considered's weekend show began coming to you from a new city, with a new host and also with fresh new theme music. Since it's not every day that NPR commissions a new show tune, we thought we'd check in with the maestro himself - NPR Music Host Robin Hilton - to find out how it all came together and the challenge he faced in writing a new arrangement of the classic.

First, here are the results (and the original for comparison). We think you'll agree after listening that not even Loverboy's "Working for the Weekend" evokes Saturday and Sunday more.

Whose idea was it to revisit the show's theme music, and how did you get involved in the process?

Robin Hilton: I was first approached by the show's executive producer, Steve Lickteig, in the spring. They knew they were getting a new host and moving the program to LA, so it seemed like a good time revisit the theme as well. I've known Steve a long time and had done the music for a documentary film he produced and directed. So he felt comfortable reaching out to me.

What direction did you get?

RH: Oh, it was an impossible task. The theme had to say "Saturday." But it also needed to say "Sunday," which is a slightly different vibe than Saturday. Compared to the brassy theme normally used Monday through Friday, it needed to be more relaxed and thoughtful. At the same time, it had to have some drive and momentum. It's a news show after all, and the theme needed to balance the seriousness of the news with the looser feel of the weekend. It needed to be soft and have an edge at the same time. And it had to be instantly recognizable. Errrr...

Did anything else inspire you?

RH: Yes. The original All Things Considered theme written by Don Voegeli about 40 years ago.

How does this version differ from the original All Things Considered theme?

RH: It's a much softer sound. I traded the brass for simple piano and pizzicato strings. The chords for the current theme have a bit of a bite to them, so I also switched to much softer chords... minor 7ths I think (not a music major), which give it that more thoughtful, contemplative tone.

You've composed for documentaries and other films in the past. Did you find that there are more constraints when composing a briefer piece of music, or do you find more of a sense of freedom in it?

RH: Shorter didn't matter, although it did have to be precisely 58.5 seconds. The bigger constraint was having to preserve the original theme while including very precisely timed posts (for when the host speaks). I did a second, alternate version for the show to consider. I liked it a lot, but they thought (rightly so) that it strayed too far from the Don Voegeli original. The theme was implied but not instantly recognizable.

Did you demo the theme much before arriving at the final arrangement?

RH: Oh, yeah. We went through several revisions. My very first draft was too sad. My second was too busy. My third lacked drive. And so on and so on.

What instruments did you use in the final version?

RH: It's all an iLLUsion... virtual instruments played on a keyboard (I use Digital Performer, Kontakt and a handful of other apps). It's basically piano, a drum kit, pizzicato strings, and an electric guitar (also not real). I also threw in some quirbbley burbly electronic sounds in the background to give it a slightly more modern feel, and to imply some kind of digital communication.

Are there particular sounds or instruments which you feel are more "news-y" than others?

RH: The newsiest sound is provided by the low, plucked strings. Thump thump thump. That's what gives it its more serious tone and drive. The rhythm is almost more important than the instrument. Pizzicato strings are a bit unconventional in a news theme, but their pattern has a very newsy drive to it, so it works.

What sounds or instruments really signify "weekend" to you personally?

RH: I think it's hard to beat a nice piano. Very classy. Thoughtful.

Colin Miller contributed to this post.

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Emerson Brown