It may be the most recognized last six notes amongst all of TV theme shows — the punctuating triplets (DUD duh DUH … DUH DUH DUH) that close the ESPN SportsCenter theme song. OK, that’s a pretty weird superlative, and no, it doesn’t translate well to the printed page. But trust us, you’d know it if you heard it.
The folks at ESPN, who are known for their offbeat promotional ads and generally subtle (for sports announcers, anyway) but unmistakably cracked sense of this slightly bizarre/kind of awesome humor, decided to start a competition last year for best fan-performed rendering of the SportsCenter theme song, fully consistent with their unique brand of self-deprecating vanity that has endeared the nightly sports wrap-up program to viewers for many years.
Colorado’s own Trace Bundy, well established and long-esteemed acoustic fretboard maestro, was tapped early on to submit his own version, and after a fashion he submitted a dizzying prestidigitation of overhand chords, bouncing percussion harmonics and three-voice phrasing; Bundy has this almost eerie ability to make absurdly syncopated and complex guitar phrasings look elegantly simple. You can judge for yourself by doing a YouTube search on “SportsCenter Fan Jam — Trace Bundy,” and if you´re not familiar with Bundy’s work, be prepared to pick up your jaw afterward.
After a few rounds of fan-vote elimination, Bundy was in the finals. And just this week, ESPN announced that Bundy, based on Internet voting, had won, besting his last remaining rival, South Korea´s Luna Lee, who performed the theme song on a traditional Korean stringed instrument called “gayageum,” a sort of Southeast Asian zither.
Bundy gave us the history behind this slightly bizarre/kind of awesome mini-project last week, before the winner was announced.
“[ESPN] emailed me a while back, said hey, we really like your music, we want you to be part of this ‘competition.’ They said they were going to contact eight different musicians, and have all of us provide our own unique arrangement of the SportsCenter theme song.”
“So they get these other seven competitors: a piano player, a beat boxer a heavy metal guy, all these different genres. The voting started up, they did like a bracket system [of course they did], I think I got 87 percent on the first round, and then the second round I won with like 90 percent.”
Now, most working musicians would immediately recognize this piece of music as standard issue, production studio soundtrack work, which is to say, typically catchy and busy and deceptively complex. Composers and studio players toil over these things, massaging them relentlessly for time and velocity and punch, while still managing to render them, paradoxically, memorable and functionally unobtrusive. Studio musicians and players rarely get the credit they deserve for this sort of craft, but it is high art. Or, at least, meticulously crafted middle-brow art.
Like any advanced instrumental stylist, Bundy works effortlessly within his own compositions, but he has the added skill set of turning familiar multi-voiced compositions into single-guitar orchestral pieces. Still, he told us, this one was a challenge.
“I actually worked on this for a long time,” Bundy said. “I worked on all these different techniques [for it], sent them a longer and shorter video (they took the shorter one, which I think was good). But yeah, it was hard. It was kind of a classic melody line, but the rest of it was just…I don’t know, I picked an older version of it. They really liked it; they actually contacted me and talked to me about writing some music for them in the future.”
There’s a subtle irony in Bundy competing against a Korean artist for the winning spot. Years ago, as Bundy was perfecting his aerobic, two handed, tap-intensive guitar technique, one of his first YouTube creations was an elegantly arranged version of German Baroque composer Johann Pachelbel’s iconic Canon in D, still one of Bundy’s signature live pieces. The YouTube video went massively viral in Korea, inspiring a young Korean kid to emulate Bundy’s fluid fingerpicking guitar technique. His name was Sungha Jung, and over the years Bundy and Jung have developed a friendship, performing together a few times a year. He was one of Bundy’s first Internet fans, and now has a YouTube fanbase of his own — according to Bundy, who still kind of keeps track of these things, Sungha currently boasts something north of 800 million (not a misprint) views.
“I know,” Bundy sighed last week, before he knew he had prevailed in the finals. “I was thinking that I wanted to get Sungha to post on Twitter and Facebook to vote for me, but now that I’m up against the Korean girl, I kind of can’t do that. So, now I’m not even going to tell him about it.”