05.31.2008

Scent Of A Woman Soundtrack, Thomas Newman

Posted by AJ Harbison at 1:00 am

I watched the movie Scent of a Woman for the first time two weeks ago. It stars Al Pacino and has a soundtrack by Thomas Newman, who has 78 movies to his credit as a composer according to IMDB.com, including Fried Green Tomatoes, The Shawshank Redemption, American Beauty, The Green Mile, Finding Nemo and the upcoming WALL•E–not a list to sneeze at, by any means. (What the heck is that phrase supposed to mean, anyway?) IMDB also notes, in the “Trivia” section on Newman, that he has scored at least one Oscar-nominated movie every year since 1994, which is rather impressive in itself. He showcases his obviously prodigious talent in the score to Scent Of A Woman; it was very well-written, with distinctive and memorable themes that had original thoughts to offer. My favorite of the themes, which appears first on the soundtrack in the second track, “A Tour Of Pleasures,” is a soft, chordal piano theme. It reminded me when I first heard it in the movie of the chordal movement of Arvo Pärt’s Fratres–a similar progression of faintly-related major chords. When I listened to it again on Amazon.com’s listening samples for the soundtrack, it also reminded me of some chordal passages of Morten Lauridsen’s Mid-Winter Songs (probably because I listened to Mid-Winter Songs the night before watching the movie). Good stuff. I also enjoyed the tango in the dance scene, which was not composed by Newman but was also good. As I discovered when I wrote a tango for a piano suite I was composing, the primary distinctive of a tango is the following rhythm (often with similar pitches to these):

Obviously this was used throughout the tango itself. But the tango became an important plot point in the movie, such as in this exchange, where Charlie repeats a line the Colonel had spoken to him earlier:

Lt. Col. Frank Slade [Al Pacino]: Oh, where do I go from here, Charlie?
Charlie Simms: If you’re tangled up, just tango on.
Lt. Col. Frank Slade: You askin’ me to dance, Charlie?

The tango symbolizes enjoying life, dancing it up, moving on–which Al Pacino’s character decides to do at the end of the movie. And in the closing music, in fact in the last 10 seconds of the film, the tango rhythm appears once in the orchestration, very soft and subtle. An excellent musical/psychological association by Newman, expertly applied. All in all a terrific score to a terrific movie.

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05.30.2008

"Stay Or Leave," Dave Matthews

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:00 am

While on my journey into the heart of America, my fellow Team American Courtney introduced us all to a heck of a lot of Dave Matthews Band music. Most of the time I enjoy his music quite a bit, though I still think that as a songwriter he doesn’t quite measure up to the likes of U2 or Coldplay or Derek Webb. On the trip, I secretly borrowed Some Devil, Dave’s solo album, from Courtney and put it on my computer to listen to at a later time; and I’ve only recently started listening to some of the songs. (For the record, as an artist I don’t support stealing music. I consider things like this to be akin to borrowing a CD for a while; after I’ve finished listening to the music, I’ll delete it from my computer. And in case you doubt me, I have done this multiple times before.)

I’ll post about a few of the songs separately, but the first one I want to write about (which I listened to a few nights ago on my iPod) is “Stay Or Leave,” which is track 8. The song was notable in my mind for three reasons. The first was the immediate association the chorus of the song created with Coldplay, particularly the style of Parachutes. I’m not sure what it is; probably the vocal leaps up to falsetto notes have something to do with it, à la the choruses of “Shiver,” “Yellow,” and “We Never Change.” The leap (at least the one on the phrase “stay or leave”) is up to the third scale degree over the IV chord, so it forms a major seventh interval with the root of the chord, and for some reason that just sounds like Coldplay.

The second thing that interested me about the song was its use of percussive vocalization for background effect. Not background vocals, just percussive vocal sounds. Something like “Shakacha cha-cha ooh ah” is the main one, in the interlude following the first chorus and during the second chorus; after the second chorus it’s something like “[rest] choo choo choo koo koo” in steady eighth notes (in 6/8); also in the beginning there’s some sort of sampled percussion that could be a voice saying “ks ks ks.” It’s interesting because pop music seldom utilizes the voice for anything other than pitched singing (speaking and rapping excluded, of course), apart from beatboxing, which isn’t quite what Dave is doing. Mad props for creativity here.

The third interesting thing is a subtle meter shift. The song starts out with a chill rhythm guitar progression in 6/8, and remains in 6/8 until the 2:43 mark, where it changes to a laidback, swung 4/4 with the “exchange rate” of a dotted quarter in the 6/8 equaling a quarter note in 4/4. It’s so subtle that most listeners might not even notice the change. After a new section in 4/4, he actually returns to a previous section of the song (the bridge), but plays it in the 4/4 instead of 6/8. And it still works because the change is so smooth. I have to confess that I’m often impressed by the musicianship of Dave’s songs, although most of the time it’s the other band members’ contributions rather than his playing or singing or the songwriting itself. But hats off for this song–great ideas, terrifically executed.

(The listening sample for “Stay Or Leave” on Amazon.com’s page for Some Devil comes from the first chorus and a little after, so you can hear the leap and some of the vocal percussion. You can hear the full track here on Last.fm. The timer counts down rather than up, so the meter change occurs at -1:19.)

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05.28.2008

In The Beginning, Aaron Copland

Posted by AJ Harbison at 5:15 am

A while ago I purchased a CD on iTunes entitled American Choral Music. The reason was because it contained a recording of Fern Hill by John Corigliano, which I was singing in Cal State Fullerton’s University Singers choir at the time; I fell in love with Fern Hill shortly after we began singing it, and it’s had my heart ever since. I’m sure I’ll post about it on this blog at some point. But the CD also contained a piece by Aaron Copland, called In The Beginning, which I had never heard or heard of before. I just listened to it again recently on my iPod.

It’s a setting of the biblical story of creation from Genesis 1:1 – 2:7 (King James Version), not versified in any way but just straight from the KJV text, for mezzo-soprano solo and unaccompanied chorus. The music is very accessible, and I must say I like this piece a lot. My previous experience with Copland had been confined to instrumental and orchestral music, and I was unaware of any choral repertoire; but considering how much I like this piece I may need to look into his choral works further.

Despite the challenges of setting prose text (which Copland of course handles masterfully) and unifying a through-composed piece, the creation narrative has a variety of recurring phrases, such as “And God said,” “And it was so,” “And God saw that it was good,” etc. These give Copland some chances for recurring motifs, which he uses to satisfactorily unifying effect. My favorite is his setting of “And the evening and the morning were the [first, second etc.] day”: he uses the same basic chord progression each time, with subtle variations–but each day is progressively one half-step higher than the last.

There is a lot of fun word painting in the piece, my own favorite being the sudden, clear high soprano entrance on the word “lights” in “Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night”; you can almost see the first star flashing into existence in the night sky. The climax is at the very end of the piece, stretching all the voices to the top of their ranges for the phrase “And man became a living soul.”

Listening to the piece, which was composed in 1947, this last time, I heard many elements that reminded me of Eric Whitacre: the same type of word painting and chordal coloring that make Whitacre’s music so distinctive. I wonder if Whitacre’s style was at all influenced by Copland.

Homework for me: Look up Copland’s other choral music, and investigate Copland’s possible influence on Eric Whitacre.

Links for you:
     - In The Beginning Fact Sheet (from the Library of Congress
       Aaron Copland Collection)
     - First page of the score
     - Excerpt from In The Beginning, sung by the MIT Chamber Chorus

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05.26.2008

Welcome To The Listening Blog!

Posted by AJ Harbison at 9:30 pm

Thanks for checking out The Listening Blog! In an effort to improve my own listening and analytical skills, my composition, and my musical writing, as well as share my insights with the world, I post frequently on this blog about what I hear: the music and sounds that my composer’s ear picks up from the Southern Californian sound-world around me. This includes (but is certainly not limited to):

• Movie/film scores
• CDs I’m listening to
• Stuff on my iPod
• Muzak in elevators
• Classical, popular, vocal, choral, instrumental, theatre, and film music
• The pitches of a phone ringing (not a ringtone, just a normal telephone
sound)
• Strange things I notice like other annoying sounds I hear as pitches
• . . . and many more!

You’ll find reviews, analysis, observations, criticisms, praise and undoubtedly lots of random comments here. Feel free to subscribe to this blog using the RSS reader and email links in the sidebar, and spread the word to any other composers, musicians or curious listeners you know who may be interested. And if you’d like please check out my music website at http://www.ajharbison.com.

And until next time, happy listening!

“To listen is an effort, and just to hear is no merit. A duck hears also.” – Igor Stravinsky

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