07.31.2008

“As Long As You’re Mine” is the obligatory love song from Wicked. As the article “Wicked’s Musical Themes”, from Stephen Schwartz’s fanpage musicalschwartz.com, pointed out, the opening chord progression to this song is the same as the opening chord progression of the show in the first song, “No One Mourns The Wicked.” But instead of being a loud, bold brass fanfare, the same progression in this song is a soft, understated piano theme. (Sorry, I wasn’t able to find sheet music for “As Long As You’re Mine” that was viewable online; for the first page of “No One Mourns The Wicked,” which has the chord progression at the beginning, click here.) In the article, Schwartz notes that Elphaba and Fiyero in this scene are in danger and have little time to spend together, and so the song starts in a minor key (the original progression is in minor as well); but it ends in a major key (lame moment of dialogue notwithstanding) to express their happiness at finally being together.

You can listen to the whole song, courtesy of iLike, here: click on the second “play” button on the left in the list (next to “As Long As You’re Mine by Stephen Schwartz”).

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07.30.2008

The same college friend Albert who talked about inspiration as aesthetic also told me once, “Music is all about space.” He used as an example one of his favorite bands, Dream Theater, saying, “They’re a group of amazing musicians who have no concept whatsoever of musical space.” The concept of musical space can refer to horizontal space, such as pauses or rests in the music; vertical space, such as the voicing of a chord (which notes of the chord are played in which registers); or a third dimension, for example involving other instruments. Albert’s example of Dream Theater suggested that they lacked a proper understanding of 1) horizontal space, because there were never any breaks in the music and there was sound going on constantly; and 2) spatiality, because instruments would step on each other’s toes and get in each other’s way instead of giving each instrument its own space (musically speaking, not physically, of course).

The song “What Is This Feeling?”, from Stephen Schwartz’s soundtrack for Wicked, is an example of an excellent use of musical space, while also being one of my favorite songs in the show. In the intro and beginning of the song, the instrumental accompaniment is sparse, both in the number of instruments and in the notes that they play. The texture of the music (which Wikipedia defines as the number of musical voices and their relationship to each other) is very light: not many instruments are playing, and they only put in a few chords here and there with lots of empty space in between, which creates a clear, open feeling.

(There is also a great detail in this section, as I mentioned in my opening post about Wicked. Notice that the hi-hat cymbal precedes each chord played by the other instruments: quick note by hi-hat–chord!…space…quick note by hi-hat–chord!, etc. It’s a small, delicate touch, but it punctuates the chords and sets them off very nicely.)

The song also makes good use of form, as the texture consistently thickens as the song progresses. The accompaniment grows denser and becomes more complex, although the general feel remains light. The choir enters to attest their agreement with Galinda’s loathing of Elphaba; then, after they sing a short interlude by themselves, they sing a chorus layered on top of Galinda and Elphaba singing the verse in harmony, which is a very effective use of space in which each part has its own room to work without getting in the way of the others.

Finally, the melody of the song is also worth noting. While the verses are pretty conservative and stepwise in motion, the chorus consists of leaps that are not as conventional in vocal music, but work well and make the song unique. Next to “Defying Gravity,” which shall perhaps be the crowning post of this week, “What Is This Feeling?” is probably my favorite song on the soundtrack.

You can listen to the whole song, courtesy of iLike, here: click on the third “play” button on the left in the list (next to “What Is This Feeling? by Stephen Schwartz”).

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07.28.2008

Wicked Soundtrack, Stephen Schwartz

Posted by AJ Harbison at 9:05 pm

Last week on my commute to and from work, I was listening to the soundtrack of the musical Wicked. The musical premiered on Broadway in 2003; my brother obtained the soundtrack perhaps a year or two after that, and I had heard small snippets of it from his CD. But on my road trip last fall, my fellow Team Americans and I saw it on Broadway in New York City and I fell in love with it. Shortly after our return I bought the CD for myself (or rather bought it on iTunes and burned it onto a CD); and the fact that I listen to it in the car is a testament to how much I love the music. Orchestral music is often difficult to hear in a car because it has a much larger range of frequencies than popular music, and the quieter parts tend to be covered by the ambient noise driving entails. But I enjoy this musical so much that I’m willing to let parts of it be obscured, and have to adjust the volume multiple times, in order to listen to it while I’m driving.

Because there’s so much to love about Wicked, I’m going to dedicate a week’s worth of posts to it (and I may post a bit more frequently this week)–mostly short posts that deal with specific songs or ideas. To start off, I’ll mention a few general things.

The lyrics. Okay, I know this is a blog about music and sound; but I have to tell you, the lyrics to Wicked are magnificent. The fact that Stephen Schwartz could be a brilliant composer and such a genius of a lyricist boggles my mind. The lyrics are better, all things considered, than most of pop music and even much of classical music set to poetry. They’re not as serious, of course, as poetry per se; but the artistry with which they’re written is certainly on a similar level. He uses more internal rhymes than Billy Joel (which is saying a lot), and his rhymes aren’t throwaways or easy rhymes but often complex and surprising ones. Some of my favorite rhymes come from the song “Popular,” in which Glinda (the good witch) is telling Elphaba (who will become the Wicked Witch of the West) how to be popular:

“Don’t be offended by my frank analysis
Think of it as personality dialysis
Now that I’ve chosen to become a pal, a sis-
ter and advisor,
there’s nobody wiser!
Not when it comes to…

Popular! I know about popular
And with an assist from me
To be who you’ll be
Instead of dreary who you were… well, are,
There’s nothing that can stop you,
From becoming popular… lar…”

Any lyricist who can legitimately use the word “dialysis” in a song is pretty amazing, in my book. And if you listen to the soundtrack, or see the show, especially, there are a lot of little details in the lyrics that reference the original Wizard of Oz in very clever ways. It’s a blast.

The style. Wicked is what my girlfriend referred to as a “pop musical,” meaning that although it uses a full orchestra it’s written in a pop style more so than typical musicals–it owes its idioms more to pop songs than classical stylings, uses guitars, synthesizers and drum kits, etc. I enjoy this aspect of the music, although my girlfriend (who is much more a theatre aficionado than I) doesn’t like it as much.

The style is also rather varied throughout the musical. Although it’s all pop-flavored, there are big orchestral numbers (e.g. “No One Mourns The Wicked” and the “Finale”), tracks that are almost straight-up pop songs (e.g. the first part of “Dancing Through Life”), a ragtime (“Wonderful”), the obligatory piano ballad (“For Good” which, despite being obligatory, is actually a really good song) and even an alma mater/school song (“Dear Old Shiz”).

The leitmotifs. As originally conceived by the classical 19th century composer Richard Wagner, a leitmotif is a musical theme or idea associated with a particular character, place or plot point. It’s a concept used extensively in movie scores today, where each character often has their own theme. For example, everyone knows Darth Vader’s theme (technically titled “The Imperial March”) from Star Wars. This theme also pops up in subtle, understated ways in Episodes I through III, which detail how Anakin Skywalker becomes Vader–it could be played quietly in the low strings as he contemplates an evil action, for instance. In Wicked, the themes are not so much associated with characters as with ideas, but they function in similar ways. The “unlimited” theme, for example, which first appears in Elphaba’s song “The Wizard And I,” reappears later in “Defying Gravity” and “For Good;” and the original chord progression in the opening song (“No One Mourns The Wicked”) comes back periodically as well. Schwartz’s use of leitmotifs, while perhaps not innovative, is certainly excellent, and it lends the show a great deal of internal coherency–which I always appreciate.

The details. All well-written music is full of little details that make big differences, but I particularly appreciate the detail in the music of Wicked. I’ll get into more specifics as I write about individual songs throughout the week.

In the meantime, you can check out samples on Amazon’s product page. Also, you may be interested in this article: “Wicked’s Musical Themes”, from Stephen Schwartz’s fanpage, musicalschwartz.com. It talks about some of the themes and leitmotifs used in the show, and even uses Star Wars as an example. Great minds think alike, I suppose.

An old friend of mine in college named Albert, who was not a trained composer but nevertheless taught me important musical lessons, once said that with all the changing norms and styles in our musical culture today, perhaps the only universal aesthetic left was the ability to inspire. (I don’t necessarily agree with him, but it’s a thought-provoking point.) Wicked fires on many, many cylinders, but that is certainly one of them: listening to its soundtrack makes me want to write better music.

(P.S. In an interesting twist, our old friend Last.fm didn’t really have any of the songs that I tried to find; but I was able to find all of them on iLike.com. So all the links to listenable clips in my posts this week will be iLike links. Go figure.)

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07.25.2008

John Cage Performing One Of His Compositions

Posted by AJ Harbison at 1:13 am

Although he doesn’t post much anymore, in the past I’ve enjoyed reading Greg Wilbur’s blog. Wilbur is the director of music for a PCA church in Tennessee, and his blog most often deals with topics regarding music, worship and the church. He recently posted this video of John Cage performing one of his compositions on an old TV show. John Cage was a controversial American composer of the 20th century (he died in 1992) who experimented conceptually with the line between music, noise and silence. His most famous piece is probably 4’33″, which consists of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence–or, as Cage understood it, of the sounds of the environment that the listeners hear for the duration of the piece. He was also famous for the invention of the “prepared piano,” in which objects such as screws, coins and paper were placed in the strings of the piano, altering its sound. The video is nine and a half minutes long, but intriguing, to say the least.

Wilbur’s comment on the video: “This is long, but the absurdity of what is meant as ‘music’ is worth watching.”

I commented on his post and said this: “At least people back then had the good sense to laugh at him. It’s all too easy to imagine a concert hall of musicians and composers from academia sitting and listening quietly today. I take it as a sign of my musical sanity that I laughed as well.”

His response: “I agree. Even the host’s need to express that this was ‘serious’ music but that people would laugh is a far better indicator of musical judgment than ivory tower academicians. It’s an interesting thing to see how someone’s artistic philosophy actually serves to destroy that which they say they value. In this case, broad theories of sound as music replaces that which makes music music.”

It certainly brings up some intriguing questions. What makes music music? What is the line between music and noise? Does that line remain constant through different times and different cultures?

What do you think? Leave a comment and join the discussion!

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07.22.2008

Another News Story About Music and Drinking

Posted by AJ Harbison at 5:28 am

This time, it’s about how loud music in bars encourages people to drink more, faster.

Loud Music In Bars Hastens Drinking

If you look at the parameters of the study, it looks like it’s so narrow it would hardly count as scientific (only males, only 18-25, only pairs, only 8-ounce glasses of draft beer). But the speculative theories about why louder music encourages more drinking are interesting.

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07.20.2008

Walking Music

Posted by AJ Harbison at 6:15 am

Two weeks ago I was sitting at my desk at work, minding my own billings, when I noticed the sound of one of my female coworkers walking through the office. She was wearing the kind of shoes that have heels but are flip-flops at the same time–they look like this (image courtesy of timeout.com). So they look dressy while still making the “flip-flop” sound when you walk. I’m not sure what the combination of sounds was, exactly, but it was in this rhythm:

which sounds like this:

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Although I must confess I don’t know how that rhythm was created just by her walking, it sounded cool. And it would work well as a drumbeat rhythm, which (spread among different drums, with added cymbals and a cheesy ending) might sound something like this:

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All from a pair of flip-flop heels.

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07.17.2008

Blue Soliloquy, Steven Winteregg

Posted by AJ Harbison at 4:06 am

I mentioned in my post about the NYT article that I’m a member of the Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers, CFAMC for short. Every month they produce a listening page featuring a work by one of their member composers, which is generally very good. I wanted to share the latest one here because I enjoyed the piece very much. It’s called Blue Soliloquy, and it was written by Steven Winteregg, who is the Dean of the School of Humanities and Professor of Music at Cedarville University (in Ohio). The piece is for unaccompanied horn, and it was composed as a remembrance for the performer’s father, who was a lover of old jazz; so the piece is flavored with jazz idioms and an elegiac mood. By way of my analysis of the piece, here are my comments, as expressed in an email to the composer after I’d listened to the piece:

“Reading your program notes, it was difficult to imagine a piece that would fulfill your stated purpose better than yours did–it was perfectly suited to the story you shared. From a compositional perspective, I always enjoy music that unfolds slowly–I tend to write slowly developing pieces myself–and I very much enjoyed how yours evolved that way. I also appreciated your careful and artful handling of your motives (the minor third and stepwise fourth ideas), in the way they were sometimes flipped and the way they developed. Great piece. I heard it also as being very easily adapted to a film noir-type scene in a score: a dark city alley in the pouring rain, with some soft jazz drums and a light string background accompanying the horn. Well done, from an admiring young composer!”

You can view the listening page, which has program notes and a statement of faith and bio for the composer as well as the recording, at the following link:

CFAMC Listening Page #44: Blue Soliloquy by Steven Winteregg

I’ll likely be sharing more CFAMC listening pages here in the future, as I hear them. And in the meantime, if you’d like, you could always check out CFAMC Listening Page #41, which featured my piece I Am Phoenix.

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07.15.2008

Can Music Change The Taste Of Wine?

Posted by AJ Harbison at 1:45 am

This is remarkable. It was on MSN’s frontpage a few days ago; I noticed it at work and forwarded it to my personal email address, and just watched it this evening. Unfortunately the MSN video doesn’t have embed code, so you’ll have to go to their site to watch it–but at least this link will take you right to the video:

Can Music Change The Taste Of Wine?

For a composer and aspiring wine snob like myself, this is big news. It also vindicates a comment I made to my girlfriend several nights ago. She was at my apartment and we were going to drink wine and listen to some music. Our wine of choice that evening happened to be Konzelmann Gewürztraminer, a sweet white wine, and I made the comment that Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto (one of my all-time favorite pieces) would pair better with red wine than white. (My reasoning behind this, if you’re interested, was that the “Rach 2,” as cool classical-music people call it, is a big, dark, heavy Russian piece full of emotion and passion; and it seemed to me that a full-bodied, dry red wine would fit that mood better than a sweet white.) She thought I was crazy, of course. But this video proves that there may be something to it after all.

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07.12.2008

New York Times Article On Electronic Instruments

Posted by AJ Harbison at 4:42 am

Peter Alexander, a fellow member with me of the Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers, yesterday brought to the attention of the group this New York Times article (and I thought I’d share it with y’all):

“Turning Guitar Heroes Into Composers”

It talks about a new generation of electronic instruments, with the electronic instrument the theremin for heritage and the video game Guitar Hero for inspiration. It’s an interesting article, and its sidebars include some YouTube demonstrations of the instruments. Check it out.

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07.10.2008

"Flutey and the Beast"

Posted by AJ Harbison at 5:15 am

My friend Jeff is a music ed major at California Baptist University and a tuba player, and his senior tuba recital is coming up next spring. On one recent evening out to dinner with him and his wife, he half-joked that if I wrote a piece for him, he would play it for his recital–better yet, write a piece for tuba and flute, and he and his wife could play it (she is, obviously, a flutist). I laughed at the idea of writing a duet for flute and tuba, but it was such a compelling challenge that I had to take it.

I tried to think of some inspiration that would make such a duet work musically, and the best thing I hit on was a sort of “beauty and the beast” idea, with each instrument playing one of the roles (I’ll leave you to guess which is which). I ran with it, and completed the rough draft of the piece a few weeks ago.

It starts with a (probably over-)dramatic introduction, followed by the beast’s theme, a gruff and angry set of fourths and octaves in the mid-to-low range of the tuba. There is a brief glimmer of the beast’s longing to be, well, not so beastly, a tender midrange melody, but it is quickly interrupted by the gruffness. The flute’s “beauty” character tries to interject here and there but is also interrupted, although she gets in a few echoes of the longing idea. Finally she plays her own beauty theme, by herself: much more tonal and sweet-sounding, based on ascending fourths and thirds, but is outspoken by the beast when she’s finished. The middle section is the softening of the beast, as he slowly but surely is won over by the beauty, until finally he consents to play his longing theme accompanied in harmony by the flute (similar to the Vox Balaenae principle, though not quite as dramatic), and even plays her theme down in his low range. The flute takes over with one last triumphant restatement of the beauty theme, with the tuba playing a bass line. The introduction returns, slightly modified, as the conclusion.

It’s a little ridiculous, musically speaking, but pretty comical. And if you know the story behind it, I think it makes sense when you hear it (although it might not make as much musical sense if you didn’t know the story). I went over to Jeff’s house the other day and he and his wife read through the piece a few times, and it went off rather well. It’s strange; I thought the musical colors of the two instruments would clash, but they actually blend surprisingly well, and the timbre of the flute is able to cut through the tuba’s sound to be heard (although I’m sure at forte or fortissimo dynamic levels the flute wouldn’t stand a chance). I’m going to make some revisions to the piece, but I’m excited at how it’s turning out thus far.

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