07.08.2008

Contact Soundtrack, Alan Silvestri

Posted by AJ Harbison at 4:44 am

Over Subway sandwiches on an evening a few months back, my brother and father and I watched Robert Zemeckis’ film Contact, an excellent sci-fi film from 1997 starring Jodie Foster. The score is by Alan Silvestri, with 102 film scores to his credit (IMDB.com), including Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Back To The Future parts II and III, The Polar Express, Night At The Museum and most recently Beowulf, the sex-blood-and-guts animated version. He also has composed scores for “family” films such as FernGully: The Last Rainforest, Lilo & Stitch, and Stuart Little; but his most well-known score is that for Forrest Gump, for which he was nominated for an Oscar. It would seem he tends to specialize in simple, childlike and fantastic scores, and Contact is no exception. There’s not too much music in the film, and apart from the “excitement” theme when the message from outer space is first discovered, the music serves two main purposes. The first is poignancy, when one character (usually Foster) is looking wistfully out into space, which is accomplished primarily by soft chordal piano passages not unlike those I wrote about in Scent Of A Woman, except not quite as original or interesting. The second is the simple, childlike fantasy theme, recalling Foster’s character’s simple passion for science as a child, which goes something like this:

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(Whadda ya know? All those ear-training and dictation classes from my music degree come in handy–if only for a “Figure 1″ on my blog. The key of G is arbitrary; I don’t know what key[s] it appeared in in the movie. G just fit nicely on the staff.)

Simple stepwise movement with conservative leaps, all diatonic and based around the tonic triad, simple tune, easily remembered–very folk-ish and childlike. Not particularly original or interesting, either, but it works and certainly serves its purpose. The movie is very well-made, but it is about science after all, and art (in this case the score) is used mainly in a strictly practical manner. But that could of course be as much a reflection on the director, in the end, as on the composer.

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07.06.2008

Light vs. Sound: Light Wins

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:19 am

Since most of our ears are still ringing from the fireworks yesterday, here’s a post I wrote on the subject a few weeks ago and haven’t posted yet.

I recently attended a party in Anaheim, at a house just a few miles from Disneyland, and as my girlfriend and I were leaving the party, we saw the fireworks from the nightly show lighting up the sky to the east. We had a pretty good view, so we stood outside for a while and watched. There was a rather long delay between what we saw and what we heard–between the exploding of the fireworks and when we heard the boom. The delay was a little over three seconds, by my count. But it was interesting to note that the ear didn’t want to accept a different timeline for hearing than the eye was getting for seeing: when we heard a boom, we really wanted to associate it with the fireworks that were going off when we heard it, even though we knew it wasn’t. We have a strong desire for our various sensory inputs to line up, even when our brain tells us otherwise. It’s a strange phenomenon that light travels so much faster than sound, and it’s also strange that our brains don’t like to recognize that fact.

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07.04.2008

Eyes Open, Snow Patrol

Posted by AJ Harbison at 5:24 am

In the past week on my commute to work, I’ve been listening to the CD Eyes Open by the band Snow Patrol. It’s a CD that Courtney had on our trip, which is where I was introduced to their music. I enjoyed it so much that I got the CD myself upon our return.

There are several reasons why I like the CD. I have to admit, at the outset, that their lyrics aren’t the best. They’re good, for sure, and more intelligent than most, but they lack the depth and particularly the subtlety of really good lyrics (U2 and Coldplay, of course, are the two examples you knew I’d bring up). Snow Patrol’s lyrics tell much more often than they show, which means they just say things straight out instead of implying things, which makes them less interesting. But at any rate, this is a music blog, not a lyrics blog, and the lyrics really aren’t bad at all.

The first reason I like the CD has to do with the singer, Gary Lightbody. Despite having (in my humble opinion) a non-rock-star-like name, I realized these past few listens that I actually like his voice a lot. Those of you who know me know that I’m really, really picky about singers, so to say that I like his voice is saying something. It has that breathy quality that makes it chill and unique, without actually being breathy–it actually has a good core and tone behind it. And his tone, support, etc. are all very good. In short–his voice just sounds really good.

Another reason I like Eyes Open is that it uses chords that are pretty typical–nothing too crazy here–but it has a sound that’s fresh and interesting. I really like the pianistic chord progression of the seventh track, “Make This Go On Forever” (you can listen to a sample on Amazon’s product page), for example. And the eighth track, “Set The Fire To The Third Bar,” has a very simple progression (Bm – A – G, over and over again) but the melody and the way the progression is played (how it’s voiced, its instrumentation, the musical space involved) are creative enough that it doesn’t get old even though it’s the same progression through the whole song.

One more thing that interests me about the CD is the typical pattern of the guitars. In many of the songs, the electric guitar plays its chord progression in repeated straight eighth notes, with no rhythmic variation. Listen to the Amazon samples for tracks 5, 9 and 10 and notice how the guitar doesn’t play anything outside of repeated notes of the same rhythmic value. While sounding simple, this is actually quite hard to play well; and it’s something that I’ve been trying out in my own guitar playing recently.

And, as a final note, I have to say that I like the CD because I really love the song “Chasing Cars,” which is track 3. It’s a great love song, the lyrics are quite good, and the form of the song is creative and effective: it starts very simple, with soft picking by the electric guitar, and steadily builds through each verse and chorus until the final chorus comes in full strength with the entire band. The lyrics also follow the same pattern: each chorus successively gains a few extra lines (i.e. the first chorus is two lines, the second chorus four, and the last chorus eight). I love it when bands are musically savvy enough to match the form of the lyrics and the music–that’s one of the reasons that Coldplay is so brilliant, especially on their album X&Y. You can listen to “Chasing Cars” for free here, your friendly neighborhood Last.fm.

Eyes Open. It’s a good CD. You should check it out.

Anyone heard anything else from the band? Is it as good as this CD is? Should I listen to it, and then blog about it to share it with y’all?

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07.03.2008

My Shaver Sings Again

Posted by AJ Harbison at 4:28 am

As I wrote about in my previous post regarding my electric shaver and the vent fan, when my electric shaver is on it sounds a definite pitch (I’ve never bothered to check what note it is, unlike some other instances). The interesting thing is, the pitch it sounds creates a harmonic above it, and the harmonic is the interval of a tenth–an octave displacement of a major third:

And you can listen to it in the player below:

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A much nicer sound than the minor ninth, to be sure. But I wonder why the shaver creates a harmonic.

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07.01.2008

Listening to the "Whistles of Death"

Posted by AJ Harbison at 1:49 am

I just saw a fascinating article on CNN.com; it’s a story about a mechanical engineer who is experimenting with and replicating ancient Aztec whistles, flutes and noisemakers. The story makes an interesting read on its own, but when you’re done reading it, click on the “Slideshow” tab at the top of the article. There’s a short slideshow of images, but it’s accompanied by demonstrations of the instruments, and good demonstrations too–ones that are varied enough to showcase their versatility and complexity. Pretty amazing. Check it out:

Recreating the sound of Aztec ‘Whistles of Death’

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