While YouTube will always be a haven for untrained shower-singers, wailing in webcams with all the earnestness of a Broadway audition, there’s also room on the platform for Julliard grads to cut loose and contribute something that looks as much fun to make as it is to watch.
By now, you may have seen a video by the collective known as cdza: each of the group’s musical comedy opuses is the result of some definitive creative and branding decisions that render the creations part of a greater whole. The videos—which have included the likes of Zuckerberg: The Musical and Pianists In Paris—all take place in a tiny wood-paneled studio, with a white board in the background that says 'cdza’ in lower case letters, surrounded by lightbulbs. They each feature a rotating cast of musicians wearing black; musicians who stare at the camera for 30 seconds when each performance is done, before revealing a "subscribe" tag in an interesting way. Such viral marketing savvy is not uncommon among YouTubers, but it’s truly rare to see it paired with classically trained musicianship.
The three founders of cdza (short for "collective cadenza") represent a unique mixture of the two elements. Joe Sabia has specialized for years in creating web content for a wide spectrum of clients, Michael Thurber attended Julliard and now performs and writes music full-time, while Matt McCorkle is a master at music production. All three happened to share an interest in making musical comedy videos, and their discrete skill sets ended up meshing.
The trio met under the kind of serendipitous clashing of industries that living and working in New York tends to foster. Sabia was creating a video for a friend of Thurber’s, and the two became friends. Later, Sabia needed some music for another video he was working on, and asked his new friend to write some. Since Thurber always had his music mixed and polished by McCorkle, he did so again with Sabia’s project, which lead to more sound design and voice-over work for McCorkle. By then, a partnership had begun to form.
"The three of us started working together on corporate projects and Joe mentioned that he’d always had this idea of wanting to do something music-related on video," Thurber says. The group members put their heads together, brought in some friends and made their first opus: "The History of Lyrics That Aren’t Lyrics," which takes a tour of some of the most famous "Na na na"s and "Whoa oh ohs" from The Beatles and Van Morrison to Blink-182 and Pink, spanning 26 songs over 47 years.
After that, the three friends dedicated themselves to making more and better YouTube videos. They spent several months thinking about content and format of the videos, and how to package them as cleanly and neatly as possible. Eventually they started delving into Thurber’s blackbook of musicians from around New York and at Julliard. The trio expanded to a free-floating collective, whose finished work was set aside and stockpiled for a launch date of May 1st, at point a new video would begin surfacing every two weeks.
"You know you’re in a great situation when the end product, you can’t even remember who did what," Thurber says. "There’s a lot of blending and mixing of the boundaries. We haven’t made a single video so far, or have one planned, where any of us feels exclusive ownership. Creatively, conceptually: it’s very intermingled."
The most recent installment (at the top of the page) represents a slight departure from the other medleys. It’s an original composition, using different cell phone companies’ standard ringtones as motifs.
"I wanted to find a way to literally create polyphonic music, counterpoint music, with these ringtones," says Thurber. "So what we ended up using a 10-person orchestra, where a conductor introduces one ringtone at a time and once a ringtone enters into the music, it stays. By the end of the piece you have the most famous ringtones playing at the same time, creating a polyphonic sound."
Originally, the new piece was set to be called "The Ringtone Medley, but Sabia had the idea of switching it to "NYC Phoneharmonic", as an homage to the New York Philharmonic concert earlier this year that was disrupted by a front row cell phone ring. The incident is briefly spoofed in the video.
In addition to making the regular YouTube videos, the three have also begun to work on corporate gigs as cdza. Last month, they contributed to an AT&T campaign celebrating the company’s 2 million "likes" on Facebook. cdza was the house band for the celebration, and over the course of 48 hours, they created 525 songs individually thanking fans with comedic improvisational singers in a variety of genres.
Of course, the group is out to do more than win jobs for themselves; they want to create a collective of highly employable musicians and give them an outlet for their work. Some musicians who are members of cdza appear in multiple videos because they play instruments that work in several styles of music. Others might only make a single appearance. With every new video, though, there’s a new opportunity for a special niche that needs to be filled.
"We’re in a talent pool in this city," McCorkle says. "NYC just oozes with musical talent, and to harness it and put it out in this type of way is just fascinating."
Thurber adds: "What do you do as a conservatory graduate? You study all this music, you play an instrument at such a high level, but there’s not a job market for that unless you think creatively. We’re building a platform that’s mainstream acceptable for these musicians that might not have that outlet otherwise."
The drive to emphasize the skilled musicians cdza has among its rank (including performers from Broadway and national touring companies), led to one last signature of the collective’s videos: they are all done in one take. "We’re not just doing them in one take because we think it’s going to make us stand out," says Sabia. "We’re doing it because this is the only way to showcase the pure talent on hand—these musicians are doing things that most musicians can’t do."