06.04.2008

The Vox Balaenae Principle

Posted by AJ Harbison at 3:56 am

Forgive me for not posting in a few days; I’ve just moved into a new apartment in Irvine and just started a new job in Costa Mesa, and consequently have had less time and no internet until tonight. Hopefully I’ll be back to posting regularly now. And in the meantime, thanks so much to all who have been commenting–I really appreciate your feedback, insights or random thoughts on what I’ve written. Keep ‘em coming! Now to the real post:

I heard George Crumb’s work Vox Balaenae (Latin for “Voice of the Whale”) several years ago at Cal State Fullerton’s new music festival. It was performed by three members of the incomparable eighth blackbird ensemble (the scoring is for flute, cello and piano, all amplified), as the score specifies, in black half-masks and under deep blue stage lighting. It was an eerie setting for a really cool piece.

I have to confess that I haven’t heard it since then, so my recollections are vague, but the main thing I remember is the subject of this post. The piece utilizes lots of extended techniques to evoke the sea and the whalesong, meaning unconventional ways of playing the instruments–singing through the flute, playing on the strings inside the piano, etc. And (we remember) it’s by George Crumb, which together with the extended techniques means that it isn’t always easy to listen to, often has a random/incoherent feel to it, and denies any kind of resolution most of the time. But in the middle of the piece, it suddenly broke out into a clear, tonal, chordal passage that was absolutely lovely. And because of the style of everything that had come before it, it was heartbreakingly beautiful–much more so than it would have been on its own, without the surrounding material. It was so much a contrast to the preceding music that it was thrown into sharper relief, and the effect was amazing.

The principle proved itself again a few weeks ago. I went to the senior composition recital of a friend of mine named Seán Dunnahoe, and the three pieces on the program were of a similar mold as I’ve described above. The middle piece was entitled Textural Study and was scored for three flutes, clarinets in Bb, A and bass varieties and portative organ. It included lots of aleatoric elements: cells of notes repeated arhythmically playing against other cells in other instruments, and that type of thing. But at several points all the instruments came together and played a few chords of the major and minor varieties, and the effect was similar to the one in Vox Balaenae. It was such a contrast to what had come before that it was beautiful, and it had a very dramatic effect.

Therefore, from henceforth I shall call this “The Vox Balaenae Principle.” I may even try to use it in one of the compositions I’m working on now, an a cappella choral piece about the fall of Rome. Hmm, that would actually work really well….

(If you’re interested, there’s an excellent page on Vox Balaenae on Crumb’s website that lists all the details of the piece and includes program notes and a review.)

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06.01.2008

Alias Ends in B-flat Major

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:10 am

I used to watch the TV show Alias on a weekly basis, but that weekly routine was interrupted by going off to college, where I lived in a dorm and had no TV reception. I recently watched the final season (Season 5) in its entirety on DVD with some friends–the first time I’d seen it. The series finale, “All The Time In The World,” was more or less satisfying in terms of storyline resolutions, etc. I certainly enjoyed it. And the musical end of the series was appropriate, to my mind: a B-flat major chord in the strings, with the third on top. When you think about it, that’s the only way you could really end a dramatic series–a minor chord wouldn’t fit with the story’s “happy ending,” and anything other than the third on top would be less fulfilling. The only other possibility I envision would be ending on a unison, which would be satisfying but not as rich-feeling (for obvious harmonic reasons). I enjoyed the plagal cadence, as well: an E-flat major chord (I think also with the third on top) preceded the final chord.

My friends and I watched all the bonus features on the DVD, one of which (the most interesting to me, apart from the blooper reel) was “Heightening the Drama: The Music of Alias.” The composer for the entire series was Michael Giacchino, who was tapped by J.J. Abrams (Alias’ creator and executive producer) to score his show after being impressed with Giacchino’s score for the video game Medal of Honor. In the interviews, Giacchino talked about how the music for Alias in the beginning used heavy techno beats over orchestral scoring, but as the series became more about character development as opposed to simply action, the scoring developed as well. By the end of the series (as was in evidence in the Season 5 episodes I watched), the score was almost exclusively orchestral. And his orchestra was an interesting one: a normal-sized string section, four horns, bassoon, alto flute, and percussion. Minimal, but used to striking effect. I like the idea of a self-imposed limit on one’s palette of colors; in some ways it makes things simpler because there are fewer options, but in other ways I imagine it makes things more difficult by forcing one to use only what one has to express all one’s ideas. I’ll have to try it someday.

(I have to confess that I was pretty proud of the whole knowing-it-was-B-flat thing. I announced to my friends that it was a B-flat major chord–they didn’t care, of course–and when we rewound it briefly to watch the final scene again, I sang the B-flat and ran over to the other room to check it on my friend’s keyboard. And I was right.)

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