Mood Music for the Beach

Posted by AJ Harbison at 7:10 pm

On Wednesday night after work, I felt that the air was cooler than it had been over the past few days, and I could feel the ocean beckoning me. So after a brief stop back at the apartment, I hopped in my car and headed down to the beach–Newport Beach, to be precise. I felt that this occasion, which was the first time I’ve gone to the beach alone since I moved to Irvine, warranted some particular music to fit my mood: excited, adventurous, free. I chose U2, unsurprisingly–All That You Can’t Leave Behind, to be precise. “Beautiful Day” is the first track, and one of the most popular songs of their whole career; it seemed to embody the feeling I needed. It was the first song we listened to as we set out on our road trip last fall, so perhaps that gave it an adventurous and free connotation in my mind. Wednesday was a beautiful evening, at the least; the orange sun burned in a pink and cloudless sky. I raced it down to the horizon, and won by a little, as it hung red just above the fog when I arrived at Newport.

I set up my beach chair a little way back from the water, and journaled for a while. When I was finished, I pulled out my iPod and looked out over the sea. I love the ocean, and again I needed to find music that fit the mood of the situation. I felt as if I needed something to match the grandeur of the sea and the vastness of the sky, and as I browsed through the artists on my iPod I settled on some excellent choral music: the Mass of Swiss composer Frank Martin. (The recording I have comes from the CD Cathedral Classics, by the Dale Warland Singers, and it’s AMAZING.) I promise I’ll write a post about the Mass within the next week or so, because it’s such an awesome piece that it deserves its own post. But for now, suffice it to say that it served my purpose perfectly: sometimes big, grand and soaring, sometimes soft and sweet, always creative and evocative. It was a little hard to hear when it got softer in volume, due to the roaring of the waves, but otherwise it matched the emotion and mood of the scene.

After the Mass was over (it’s about 25 minutes long), I felt I needed some Chopin. Chopin was a Romantic composer (i.e. he lived in the 19th century–1810 to 1849, to be precise) who wrote almost exclusively for the piano, and his music is so distinctive that it’s almost immediately identifiable by anyone who knows his style. His music is very poignant, evocative and emotional, and often is characterized by a longing or yearning feeling that I felt would be appropriate to the sea following the Martin. (It was, in some senses, like choosing which fine wines would pair well with the various courses of a meal. The Martin Mass communicated the grandeur of the ocean and the sky in themselves; the Chopin matched the longing and intimacy of me, a lone man, standing before them in their grandeur.) I chose his Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, from a recording by Krystian Zimerman.

(Incidentally, an interesting side note: a short time into the Ballade, I changed the EQ setting on my iPod from “Loudness” to “Piano.” The difference was very noticeable; the piano didn’t necessarily sound better–I actually felt like it got a little shallower and brighter in sound–but it was much better defined and much clearer, and I could even hear the pianist taking breaths as he played. It was in short a very helpful EQ setting.)

All of the ballades of Chopin (he wrote four) are worth listening to, but the first is my favorite, followed closely by the second (which I’ll also blog about soon, perhaps). And the first again was a perfect choice to pair with the cuisine of sea and sky; its yearning seemed a fitting musical counterpart to the constantly breaking waves.

When the Ballade ended, due to the waves covering some of the sound and the fact that I was getting very cold, I decided to pack up my chair and backpack and head home. Back in the car, I returned to the U2 CD; but things seemed to revert to my usual listening-to-music-in-the-car mood.

I’ve noted in the past that listening to an iPod while doing something else like walking, or watching the ocean, or whatever, is good training for being a film composer. Film composers need to be able to capture whatever human emotion is being displayed on screen and express it through music. And if I’m listening to something on my iPod, it’s almost like a movie soundtrack to the life that I’m experiencing; I can note what emotions that type of music stirs in me in that particular setting, and that would help me if I was ever to compose music for a scene in a film with a similar setting and emotion. So, Mark, if you ever make a film that has to do with the beach and you need some scoring for it, you know who to call: me–to be precise.


Dissonance In The Morning

Posted by AJ Harbison at 1:26 am

At the suggestion of my roommate Mike, I added my last post about Target to the social bookmarking site Digg. If you use Digg, and you liked my post, head on over and give me some props. Search “thelisteningblog” by URL in Upcoming Stories. Can you Digg it? (ha ha ha….)

As I was getting ready for work a few mornings ago, the vent fan in my bathroom was going, and I was preparing to shave. When I turned my electric shaver on, the note it created sounded as a minor ninth above the pitch of the vent. It was strange enough that I heard both of those sounds as pitches, and even stranger that the interval was a minor ninth. The strangest thing, though, was that the dissonance between the two pitches was a severe one, and I almost turned off the vent fan because the clash was so unsettling to my ears.

(In jazz, a musical language in which most conventional musical dissonances have become acceptable, the interval of the minor ninth is the one remaining taboo, the one dissonance jazz composers and performers must avoid at all costs–a new diabolus in musica.)

A minor ninth is the musical distance encompassing an octave plus a half step, as in the distance from B to the second C above it:

Melodically, it works because it’s simply an octave displacement of a half step, but harmonically (both notes sounded together), it’s a pretty bad clash. (Listen to an example by clicking the play button on the player below.)

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Now imagine that played by a vent fan and an electric shaver, and that’s what I heard.


Target Rips Off U2

Posted by AJ Harbison at 5:07 am

I was in a Target this evening doing some shopping, and my shopping happened to cause me to pass by the electronics section, and the electronics section reminded me of a post I wanted to write here.

You know the video that they play in the electronics section at Targets? It’s the one that shows on all the TVs they’re selling, that highlights particular products in movies or music or whatever. But in between the product highlights, there’s a little video interlude with a red background, and the Target logo flying around everywhere (go to www.target.com and look at the “Save 10% today…” banner; after the words on that banner, the picture with all the logos is basically what the video looks like). There’s some simple music to the video that consists essentially of two chords alternating, a major I and a minor v (major tonic and minor dominant). In chordal terms, this could be, for example, a D major chord alternating with an A minor.

What’s particularly interesting about the voicing and instrumentation of these two chords is that they sound an awful lot like a famous U2 song: “In God’s Country” from the album The Joshua Tree. The “hook,” the electric guitar riff at the beginning of the song, is the part that Target apparently ripped off. Unfortunately, neither Amazon nor Last.fm have samples that play the riff. But you can find a YouTube music video of the song here, and that works just as well. Listen to what the electric guitar starts playing, up high, at the 10-second mark. Hey–it sounds just like that Target video!

(I scoured the internet for a sample of the Target video, but predictably found none. Hang out in the electronics section for a few minutes the next time you’re in a Target, after listening to the opening of “In God’s Country,” and I’ll bet even non-musicians will be able to tell that it’s a direct ripoff.)


Juno Soundtrack, Various Artists

Posted by AJ Harbison at 3:29 am

I saw the movie Juno for the first time a few weekends ago. It was, of course, a nominee for the Best Picture Oscar last year, and it was a very well-hyped movie in my various circles, which led me to high levels of anticipation. As a movie, I felt that it was definitely good but not quite as great as everyone had made it out to be (though, as my roommate Mike pointed out, definitely better than most movies nowadays). The soundtrack, however, was disappointing to me. A quick click through some of the samples on the Amazon page for the soundtrack, particularly the songs written and performed for the movie by Kimya Dawson, reveal the general style of the songs–a sort of stripped-down emo feel. Meaning no offense to those who may have enjoyed the soundtrack, I really dislike that kind of music. The lyrics are often silly or downright stupid, which is not necessarily bad in a light-hearted movie like Juno; but the music is played on often out-of-tune guitars and sung by almost always out-of-tune singers. And the melodies tend to be boring, simplistic, and monotone, which makes all the songs sound the same.

I appreciate the quality of “authentic-ness” that I assume this music tries to portray–just a songwriter strumming and singing, as if in a living room performance. And I know that this is one of the reasons some people enjoy this style. But to me, it seems like a bunch of songwriters who can’t write songs, guitarists who can’t tune their instruments, and singers who can’t sing. And that makes it really hard to listen to for extended periods of time, and even harder to enjoy.

But, apart from the music, the movie was very good.


Mixin' It Up With Elton John

Posted by AJ Harbison at 2:11 am

Last night my good friend Rae was kind enough to donate to my girlfriend and I some free CDs that she didn’t want. One of the ones I took was Elton John’s Greatest Hits Volume II. Now, I’m not a huge Elton John fan (except for a live version of “Candle In The Wind”), but I’ve enjoyed the CD as I’ve listened to it last night on my drive home and today on my commute to and from work. The three songs I recognized from hearing them elsewhere were his cover of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” “Tiny Dancer” and “Levon.” But the thing that struck me specifically (at least on my first listen-through) was the mix, particularly where his voice fits in. When he’s not singing up high (like the chorus of “Tiny Dancer,” for example), his voice is often partly obscured by the instrumentation because it’s at a similar volume. The Amazon.com page with song previews isn’t particularly helpful in illustrating my point, because most of their short samples come from softer parts of the songs where his voice is prominent. But you can hear a little of what I mean in the samples of “Philadelphia Freedom” and “Pinball Wizard.” You can pretty much make out what he’s saying, but the drums and guitars are loud enough that they threaten to overpower his voice.

Most of the time in popular music, the lead vocal is mixed to a high enough volume that it stands out noticeably from the instruments since it’s the main musical (and of course lyrical) idea. There are exceptions even in mainstream rock, most notably U2 (Achtung Baby, for example) or Coldplay (like their new single, available now as a single on iTunes, “Viva La Vida”). But U2 and Coldplay do it for musical reasons: they see the voice (at least in these particular songs) as just another instrument, no more or less important than the others, and so the blending in the mix is intentional. It puts the voice on equal artistic footing with, say, the guitar and drums. But the instruments on the Elton John album are clearly providing a background for the voice–they’re not nearly as interesting or original, musically, as the instruments of U2 or Coldplay. I don’t mean that in a negative way; the players of those instruments are not necessarily worse musicians (although, most likely, they are), they’re just called on to fulfill a different role. Thus, while the mix for U2 or Coldplay is an artistic decision, it seems the mix for Elton John is just a poor one.


"Baby," Dave Matthews

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:02 am

I wrote last month about Dave Matthews’ song “Stay Or Leave” from his solo album Some Devil. This post is about track 11, “Baby.”

The track is a short one, just 2:19, and the instrumentation is just an acoustic guitar and strings. It’s a simple song, and a very enjoyable one. The thing that prompted me to post about it is the same element as my third point about “Stay Or Leave,” namely a meter change. One of the pervasive metaphors of “Baby” is “a ship in a bottle set sail.” The song is mainly in a straightforward 4/4, but after two instances of that ship-in-a-bottle line, it changes to 6/8, with a quarter note in 4/4 equaling an eighth note in the 6/8. (I suppose it could also be 3/4 with a boom-chuck-chuck waltz feel; the effect is the same.) The lyrics over the 6/8 talk about wind blowing over the water, and the effect is one of broadening, changing from a straightforward meter to a lilting one, and it dramatically conveys the feeling of a ship sailing. After a few measures of 6/8, the song returns to 4/4, not overdoing the change but just using it subtly to great effect. A useful device to know: slow, rolling 6/8 equals a ship on the seas. Mad props to Dave again.

(Last.fm again has the full track for your listening pleasure, here.)


TLB Links Up With Amazon.com

Posted by AJ Harbison at 1:32 am

As you’ve no doubt noticed due to the “Amazon Links” sidebar, I am an Amazon.com Associate. What does this mean for you, the loyal TLB reader? Simply this: Every time I blog about a song, a CD, a movie, etc., I’ll add it to the “As Seen On TLB” sidebar box, where you’ll see it along with a short one or two sentence digest of my comments. If you’re interested in buying the song, CD, etc. for yourself, click on it in the box, and if you do end up buying it, I’ll get a small referral from Amazon. Don’t make any special purchases just for me; but if you do buy something from Amazon, go through my site. Even if you click through the box and then buy something else–anything at all on Amazon–it will still count towards my site. Also, whenever I link something in a post (like an album title) to an Amazon page, that will also grant me a referral if you click through it and buy something. So when you use Amazon, go through The Listening Blog and support a poor starving composer. (That is, one who is poor enough at composing that he needs a day job to keep himself from starving, like myself.)


My Favorite Film Production Company Video Logo

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:17 am

Of all the short video logos I’ve seen for film production companies (you know, the three or four or more short little deals that show up right before the opening credits of every movie), my favorite is the one for Castle Rock Entertainment. I like the piano, I like the winds, I really like the chord progression. You can find a video of the video logo here.


The Spitfire Grill Soundtrack, James Horner

Posted by AJ Harbison at 6:08 am

I apologize for not posting in a few days–I had a busy weekend, and I’m still settling into my apartment and adjusting to the life of a full-time employee. But here’s another movie score post for you, faithful reader.

I just rewatched one of my favorite movies, The Spitfire Grill, a few weeks ago. It’s a 1996 movie about a woman just released from prison, looking for a new start in a small town in Maine, and it’s brilliantly written, directed and acted. If you’ve never seen it you need to check it out. James Horner wrote the music, and listening to the score more closely this time than in times past I understand more fully how it blends with the other elements of the film and elevates the story.

Like the movie, the score sparkles and is full of hope, featuring broad strings in often simple harmonic progressions, high twinkling percussion, and poignant piano writing. A clear, high major third in perhaps a piccolo or other high woodwind seems to represent the curiosity and wonder laced throughout the film, and at other times Horner (who also did the movie’s orchestrations) writes strings in open fifths that invoke a Coplandesque, Americana sound (complemented in other places by bluegrass-type music). The piano sounds almost improvisatory, with simple fantasia-type flourishes that are very evocative and also conjure up an almost childlike wonder.

I noticed that the hopeful effect was created, in addition to the orchestration choices, by mostly major chords that are denied tonic resolution. The score hangs out on the IV chord quite a bit, with lots of embellishments: added notes in the sustained strings, swirling piano lines, etc. It simultaneously creates the effect of stasis, by staying on the one chord, and tension, by virtue of the IV needing to resolve. And I suppose that’s what hope is: looking ahead from where you are. A brilliant musical counterpart to a superlative film.


Those Dang Tenors

Posted by AJ Harbison at 1:31 am

I made myself a mix CD of some of the random stuff I’ve purchased on iTunes so I could listen to it in the car as well as on my computer and iPod. I always like to sing along to music when I’m in the car, and so I looked forward to the opportunity to sing along with these songs for the first time. These are the first few tracks:

1. “How Far We’ve Come” from Exile On Mainstream (Matchbox Twenty)

2. “I’ll Believe You When” from Exile On Mainstream (Matchbox Twenty)

3. “All Your Reasons” from Exile On Mainstream (Matchbox Twenty)

4. “These Hard Times” from Exile On Mainstream (Matchbox Twenty)

5. “If I Fall” from Exile On Mainstream (Matchbox Twenty)

6. “Can’t Let You Go” from Exile On Mainstream (Matchbox Twenty)

7. “Africa” from The Essential Toto (Toto)

8. “Ten Thousand Angels” featuring Derek Webb (single) (Caedmon’s Call)

9. “Bad Day” from Daniel Powter (Daniel Powter)

10. “Harder To Breathe” from Songs About Jane (Maroon 5)

11. “She Will Be Loved” from Songs About Jane (Maroon 5)

12. “Tangled” from Songs About Jane (Maroon 5)

All this to say, when I put the CD in the car and tried to sing along, I found that every single song had at least parts that were too high for me. (I’m a baritone / bass I.) I’ve noticed the same thing in Christian worship music (especially the Passion group–Chris Tomlin, David Crowder, Matt Redman, etc.): namely, that there are just way too many tenors. It seems like almost every male lead singer for popular rock bands is a tenor. Where are the baritones and basses? Has anyone else ever noticed this fact?


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