08.31.2008

"Just As I Am," arranged by AJ Harbison

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:40 am

While you’re waiting for those CD reviews, you might find this interesting.

Several years ago, while I was still attending CSUF, I set the words of the old hymn “Just As I Am” to new music for guitar, in a contemporary worship style. It was pretty cool, and I was proud of it at the time. This is what it sounded like (the recording is new, not from that time, and unfortunately it’s rather soft):

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Not bad. However, I recently revisited the song, and made some changes to the melody and rhythm. Here is the new version:

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The main problem with the old version, as you may have noticed, is its almost complete lack of rhythmic variation. The same rhythm is repeated five times in a row, and then imitated closely. The last phrase, in addition, is too slow–there’s not enough happening during the phrase to carry it along, and so the momentum stops. I fixed these problems in the new version by varying the rhythm slightly, enough that it sounds coherent and remains similar but is different enough not to be boring, and by speeding up the rhythm of the last phrase to double-time.

The other problem with the old version is its lack of melodic variation. It’s not too exciting, but it’s decent, through the second line; but the third line (“And that Thou bidst me come to Thee”) is too similar to the opening lines and hangs out too much on the central note A-flat, moving just below and then just above it before returning. In the new version, I added some more flair to the second line by going up to an E-flat instead of a D-flat, and rewrote the third line to give it more motion and a wider range.

I’ve posted the full recording of the new version on my website, www.ajharbison.com. It’s not a perfect recording, but it’s pretty decent, and the melodic changes in the last verse are fun and worth a listen (in my humble opinion). You can go straight to the “Just As I Am” page by clicking here.

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08.30.2008

My Plans For The Weekend

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:33 am

My lovely girlfriend is out of town for the weekend, and I remain in town, so the weekend that I would normally spend with her is now up for grabs. Since I’ve hardly done any composing since I moved to Irvine at the beginning of June, I think I may lock myself in my room and work on “Flutey and the Beast” for Jeff (title still a work in progress). And I also plan to blog. Upcoming topics include three CD reviews: Coldplay’s new CD Viva La Vida (a review highly anticipated by my brother), a CD by an independent Fullerton artist and a CD by one of my coworkers. So you can look forward to those and more over the weekend and next week. In the meantime, you can enjoy this post written a short while ago.


This is pretty cool. I discovered this on StumbleUpon: it’s electronic music using only sounds from Windows XP and 98. Pretty well done and fun to listen to. My favorite part is the login sound tuned down… and back into the rhythm. The middle of the song starts to remind me of Megaman music, which, for me, is an awesome plus rather than a diss. If you watch the whole video, it demonstrates which sounds are used and how he split some of them into multiple parts to create the sounds in the song. Interesting.

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08.28.2008

My Favorite Olympic Commercials

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:32 am

And, bringing my Olympic posts to a close:

My favorite commercial during the Olympics–or rather my favorite series of commercials–has been United Airlines’ “It’s Time To Fly” campaign. I’ve seen four of the five commercials in the series at various times, the most prevalent being the one entitled “Two Worlds,” in which a business man from a black-and-white world rises to a fantastic colorful world in the sky, and when he returns, begins to spread color throughout his world. The earliest one I saw, “Sea Orchestra,” employs a very colorful, illustrative-type style to depict an orchestra of various sea creatures heralding a transoceanic flight. The other two I’ve seen, “Butterfly” and “Moondust,” utilize a very fluid sidewalk-chalkesque animation style that I enjoy very much.

All the commercials, however, are notable for their background music: Rhapsody In Blue by the American composer George Gershwin. Gershwin was a jazz musician in the early twentieth century, but he was also an art music composer, and Rhapsody in Blue represents one of the first pieces considered a “crossover” blending jazz and classical music. It has become one of America’s most performed concert works, is instantly recognizable by its famous themes, and all in all is a really cool piece.

This piece forms the background for each of the five commercials in the United campaign (United has been using the piece in commercials since the 1980s), and is featured very prominently as the commercials contain no dialogue and limited narration. Perhaps the commercial drawing the most attention to its soundtrack is the “Sea Orchestra” spot, in which different groups of sea creatures perform the different groups of instruments in the piece. Perhaps I’m biased because of my affinity for Rhapsody in Blue; but I enjoyed the visual art of each of the commercials as well, and they’ve been the best spots I’ve seen in the three weeks of the Games.

You can see the commercials by following this link to United’s website; click on “Commercials,” then mouse over the small thumbnail picture to expose all the individual commercials. You can also see “behind the scenes” material for each one; the “Music Sketch” PDF file for “Sea Creatures” is pretty interesting.

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08.26.2008

The Star-Spangled Banner In Beijing

Posted by AJ Harbison at 1:00 am

As post number two of three in my Olympic series, I wanted to point out that in watching the Olympics on NBC this year–probably more television than I’ve watched in the past two years combined–I’ve noticed two distinctly different arrangements of the American national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner.

This news story from the official Beijing Games website details the delivery of national anthem recordings to “BOCOG,” an acronym (somehow) for “The Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad.” The Beijing Symphony Orchestra, representative music ensemble for the host city, recorded the national anthems of all participating countries (a huge and daunting project that began in May 2007) for welcoming and victory ceremonies–presumably including ours. (Meaning no offense to any TLB readers outside America; but I don’t think there are any of those, as of yet…)

The arrangement of the anthem is typically done in a fanfare-type style, using lots of brass and percussion. But the arrangement that I’ve heard the most is notable because the middle section (“And the rockets’ red glare…”) is played only by the strings, and uses harmonic progressions I’ve never heard used before. It also contains an atypical (but cool-sounding) 4-2-3 suspension on the last chord. It’s not bad, per se (although the “actual expert” quoted in this Seattle Times blog story certainly thinks it is), but it’s certainly unusual.

The most interesting thing, though, is not that arrangement, but the fact that I’ve also heard a more traditional arrangement in which the middle section was played by the brass and the rest of the orchestra, with the typical chord progression. I don’t remember the specific context in which I heard it, but I’m almost positive that I heard both arrangements at medal ceremonies.

While trying to find online corroboration for this strange phenomenon, I discovered that the unusual arrangement is likely being plagiarized from the arrangement of Peter Breiner, as detailed in this story from the Washington Post. Not surprising, considering all the other various controversies and scandals coming from the Beijing Games, but certainly of interest.

Am I off my musical rocker? Or has anyone else heard these two different versions?

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08.24.2008

The Olympic Fanfares

Posted by AJ Harbison at 7:00 pm

In honor of the final weekend and close of the Games of the XXIXth Olympiad, I’ll be posting three TLB entries over the next few days concerning the Olympics and their televised coverage by NBC.

There are actually two common fanfares used as themes for the Olympics. The first, entitled “Bugler’s Dream,” was composed by Leo Arnaud in 1958 as part of his Charge Suite. It was first used in ABC’s television coverage of the Olympics in Mexico City in 1968, and picked up subsequently by NBC. “Bugler’s Dream” is a stately march, beginning with a timpani cadence and moving into a theme played by the brass.

The second fanfare, entitled more specifically “Olympic Fanfare and Theme,” was composed by none other than the great film composer John Williams specifically for the 1984 games in Los Angeles (which were televised then by NBC). It is a fast and energetic fanfare also utilizing a lot of brass and percussion, and it is sometimes combined with Arnaud’s piece, as in the arrangement for the soundtrack album of the Games in Atlanta in 1996.

In addition to these familiar fanfares, there is also an official Olympic Hymn, known informally as the Olympic Anthem, composed for the first modern Olympics in 1896 and adopted as the official Olympic anthem by the International Olympic Committee in 1958. Up until the 1960 Games in Rome, it was customary for each host nation to commission a new Olympic hymn from a native composer for their year. I assume that this practice was discontinued since the official hymn was adopted around that time; but perhaps it should be reinstated. How cool would that be, to compose an Olympic hymn for your own country? I could be the Michael Phelps of composers….

Samples of each fanfare can be heard on the Wikipedia page; as always on Wikipedia, click the triangular play button twice. A YouTube vide of the Olympic Hymn, performed at the Opening Ceremony of the Athens Games in 2004, can be found here.

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08.23.2008

Beethoven In The Temperaments, Enid Katahn

Posted by AJ Harbison at 2:50 am

While reading back over Kyle Gann’s website about historical tunings in research for my first post about tuning, I came across his recommendation for the CD Beethoven In The Temperaments. (The link is to the Amazon page, but Amazon is currently out of stock and will remain so indefinitely.) The CD is a recording of four Beethoven sonatas–the “Pathétique,” the “Moonlight,” the “Waldstein” and the creatively named “Op. 14 No. 1.” The twist is that they’re performed on a modern concert grand piano (a Steinway D, for those for whom that means something) that’s tuned in two different historical well temperaments common in Beethoven’s time: Prinz temperament and Thomas Young temperament. (The pianist is Enid Katahn, and the piano tuner is Edward Foote.) So, essentially, this is a recording of Beethoven’s sonatas as Beethoven might have heard them. (Had he not been deaf, of course….)

I thought it sounded intriguing (no pun intended), so after failing to find it on iTunes, Amazon, or anywhere else I finally ordered it from ArkivMusic. It arrived on Thursday evening, and I listened to the Pathétique, which is performed in the Prinz temperament. The liner notes said that this temperament was chosen for the great contrasts between keys: pure and consonant for the “home keys” of the piece, and more and more dissonant the further the tonality went from “home.”

(Minor digression: I love Steinways. I’m a huge fan of dark, mellow and rich when it comes to sound, and Steinways are the epitome of that sound in a concert grand. Yamahas, while more popular and much cheaper, tend to be much brighter. If you play guitar, you’ll understand: Steinways are like Martins–sigh–while Yamahas are like Taylors. The latter are good, maybe even really good, but ultimately just can’t compare. For me, at least.)

I have to say that I didn’t notice a world of difference–the difference was certainly there, but it wasn’t nearly as pronounced as I anticipated (or perhaps hoped). In the opening chords of the sonata (click here and push the play button twice–although of course it’s in equal temperament), I could hear slight differences in the resonances of the chords–they were somewhat richer. But the most notable were the dissonances, especially in big chords: they really stood out, almost uncomfortably in places, because of the temperament. It’s interesting, and a foreign concept to those of us raised on equal temperament, that dissonances in other tunings can be dissonant not only because the notes themselves clash (like minor ninths, for example), but also because the notes aren’t quite in tune with one another. As I mentioned, the Prinz temperament showcases differences in keys, and gets more dissonant the further afield the piece roams; so some of the dissonances in the “further afield” keys can get positively crunchy. (Yes, that’s a technical term.)

Overall, it was a rich sound, certainly more colorful and vibrant than an equal-tempered piano. Another interesting temperament experience. It’s no wonder musicians who work in just and well temperaments all the time consider equal temperament so bland.

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08.20.2008

… I would be remiss if I failed to mention that TLB was honored to receive a visit by Pauline Oliveros herself–the inventor of Deep Listening and the “quotee” of this blog’s header quote. She asked me to clarify some comments I’d made, and we had a brief exchange in the comments section of my last post. I encourage you to check it out, and if Ms. Oliveros happens to stop by this post as well, thanks again!

N.B. Unfortunately the date in the email below will reveal that my previous post and this one were written quite a while ago. I hope you find them intriguing nonetheless.

No sooner had I written my post about comprehensive listening than I saw this email, forwarded to me from the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the American Composers Forum (of which I am a member)….


“…the coolest ride of the year…sure to permanently change the way you think about – and listen to – SF” – Nitevibe

“AudioBus create[s] unique participatory sound experiences” – Reyhan Hermanci, SF Chronicle 96 Hours

“…what better place to have a city music festival than on a bus…commuting takes on new meaning…” – Jennifer Maerz, Last Tango in Traffic, SF Weekly

MOVESOUND, SoundwaveSeries’ third season, launches the first of five AudioBus events this Saturday July 12 at New Langton Arts. The AudioBus is a moving venue giving audiences an adventurous sonic experience like never before. The sound artists and musicians curated for the AudioBus compose their San Francisco route and perform live scores to the scenery moving past them.

We are also excited to announce Sennheiser has come on board to become a major sponsor of AudioBus suppling quality microphones and headphones for the series. Sennheiser joins CitySightseeing San Francisco and the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the American Composers Forum as crucial support in making AudioBus a reality.

Saturday, July 12, 2008
AUDIOBUS: HUMAN STREET TEXTURES: Live Processed Sound on a Moving Open-Top Double Decker Bus by David Graves (San Francisco) and [ruidobello] (San Francisco)

Composer David Graves & sound artist [ruidobello] devise a tour route collecting live moving street sounds. David & [ruidobello] will mix, and manipulate the soundscapes into an alternate sonic reality for audiences equipped with headphones atop a CitySightseeing open top double-decker bus moving through the city.


Sounds pretty cool to me! Almost makes me wish I lived in San Francisco…. (But not quite.)

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08.18.2008

Comprehensive Listening

Posted by AJ Harbison at 7:26 pm

Sorry I haven’t posted in a few days–back to your regularly scheduled TLB….

It’s an interesting exercise to try to listen to every single sound around you–actually quite difficult, harder than you might think. It’s an exercise that is espoused and encouraged by Pauline Oliveros–the composer whose quote is the header of this blog. She was a member of a panel discussion at Cal State Fullerton’s Women In New Music Festival several years ago (2004, I think), and suggested it as a profitable experiment. Oliveros’ particular technique, which she calls “Deep Listening,” pulls in elements of New Age-ish meditation, involving a “heightened state of awareness” and connections “to all that there is.” I find these mislead and unnecessary, but her idea is a good one for musicians and particularly composers. (And, it seems, bloggers.) Perhaps a better term could be “comprehensive listening.”

As I wrote this post on a Friday afternoon at work, this is what I could hear:

- The keyboard and mouse clicks from my coworkers around me
- Conversations and one person down the hall whistling
- The quiet clicks and hums of my computer tower
- A deep, strong, oscillating hum which perhaps could be an air conditioning or air filtering unit
- The muffled sound of a plane overhead (my office is close to the airport)

It wasn’t only the hearing of sounds that I typically don’t notice (e.g. the last three things in the list) that was interesting as I tried the experiment, but a certain kind of heightened awareness where my hearing was more sensitive to the sounds that were happening around me–the kind of heightened awareness that doesn’t require or create an altered “state.” Like an eye darting around to catch sudden movements in different directions, I felt like my ears were darting around to focus on “movements” or sounds all around me. It’s an intriguing feeling–you should try it out.

As a postlude, here is the quote from the front page of Oliveros’ website. The comment about the difference between hearing and listening is particularly instructive.

“As a musician, I am interested in the sensual nature of sound, its power of synchronization, coordination, release and change. Hearing represents the primary sense organ – hearing happens involuntarily. Listening is a voluntary process that through training and experience produces culture. All cultures develop through ways of listening.

Deep Listening® [sic] is listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear no matter what you are doing. Such intense listening includes the sounds of daily life, of nature, or one’s own thoughts as well as musical sounds. Deep Listening represents a heightened state of awareness and connects to all that there is. As a composer I make my music through Deep Listening.”

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08.15.2008

And… A Little Bit More

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:05 am

My highly trained professional blogging and SEO consultant Mike (also known as my roommate) has instructed me that responding to comments on my blog is a way to increase interest and also increase commenting, and thus I have decided that I will do so. Therefore, if you leave a comment, I will likely reply to it within a day or so, in the comments section; you can go back to the comments section for that post and there discover my response.

But in the meantime, I thought I would dedicate one more post to tuning before we move on to other things, because Ryan Fleming again brought up an interesting question:

Thank you for the reply! I am glad you clarified that issue for me regarding the brass instruments. I was unaware that brass instruments were naturally tuned. Could you expand on that? What is the reason for this type of tuning if it make some notes extremely sharp (as you mentioned some notes can be up to 40 cents sharp from a justly tuned third)? Is it easier to make a brass instrument with that type of tuning? Or is it because of the harmonic nature of a brass instrument (e.g. the same fingering/tuning can produce different pitches by stepping playing in different harmonic registers)? Please enlighten a curious reader of your blog.

This may get a bit technical, so hang in there with me….

Every pitched note, on any instrument, voice or whatever, actually contains an infinite series of notes within itself. For example, if you play middle C on the piano, there are actually notes sounding above it in addition to middle C: the C an octave higher, the G above that, the C above that, the E above that, etc. etc. ad infinitum. These other notes are an acoustic phenomenon we call “harmonics” or “overtones.” The reason we don’t hear these notes is because they are very weak and diminish as they get higher; but they’re always there, and they’re very influential in the sounds that we hear. When you hear a violin and a flute playing, you can tell that the sounds are being made by different instruments (musicians call this different-sound-quality between instruments timbre pronounced “TAM-bur”]). The reason those instruments sound different is that their overtones are different–various overtones are strengthened or diminished because of the construction and playing method of the instrument, and even though you can’t hear the overtones themselves it’s a big enough difference to allow us to hear very different timbres. Trippy, but true.

Brass instruments, like trumpets for example, are built around this principle. If you take a column of air (like in a garden hose, for example), put a proper mouthpiece on it, and cause the column of air to vibrate (like by blowing through it, for example), it will produce a pitch. And believe it or not, by changing the shape of your mouth (called your embouchure) and the way you blow, you can produce different pitches. The reason for this is that by changing those things, you can access the notes of the overtone series, without the use of any valves, buttons or extra tubes. Also trippy, but also true. The next time you’re around a trumpeter friend who happens to have a mouthpiece and a section of tubing handy, ask him to demonstrate. Here is a diagram of the first 16 harmonics, starting on C and then F (image courtesy of www.usd.edu/~greeves/exercises.htm):

All of the valves, tubes and slides on brass instruments exist for the purpose of making available to the player notes other than these, because with only a tube, these are the only notes that are possible. Valves and slides and such alter the length of tubing, thus making available a different harmonic series. For example, the first valve on a trumpet lowers the pitch by a whole step. If you were playing in the key of C, you would have all of the notes of the C harmonic series (the first one in the diagram) available, and no others. If you played a C note, and then depressed the first valve and “played” the same note (with the shape of your mouth and the way you were blowing air), it would be a B-flat, and you could then use the notes of the B-flat harmonic series, some of which occur in the key of C but not in the C harmonic series or at least not in the same range (for example D; D does occur in the C harmonic series [as the 9th harmonic, as you can see in the diagram above], but if you needed to play the D a whole step above middle C you would need a different series).

This is why brass instruments are said to be in certain keys: “Trumpet in B-flat,” or “Horn in F.” The key is the harmonic series of the instrument without any modifications. Without any valves, the French horn would only be able to play the notes of the F harmonic series detailed in the diagram, because that’s the way the instrument is built.

However, valves and buttons and slides can alter the pitch a little more than intended, and certain combinations have certain tendencies to be off. In addition, many other factors including temperature, playing volume and mouthpiece design can make pitches slightly sharp or flat. A quick glance at this page will give you a much greater appreciation for brass players and the problems they face.

All this to say: Because of the way brass instruments work, depending on the key of the instrument, the key of the piece, what note needs to be played, what valve combination is necessary, the temperature and myriad other variables, some notes need to be altered in order to be “in tune.” (Pitch on a brass instrument can be slightly modified–tuned a little up or down–by changing your embouchure.)

And this, in many cases, includes major thirds.

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08.12.2008

More On Tuning And Temperament

Posted by AJ Harbison at 4:48 am

Since my last post sparked some interest in tuning, and just intonation in particular, I thought I’d offer a few more thoughts on the subject. My brother Mark asked the following questions:

You said that equal temperament has been the standard since the 19th century . . . was just intonation the norm prior to that? And do the two go beyond guitars (and similar instruments) into music at large, or are they fairly limited?

I thought that the guitar in the video seemed to sound more “classical” (in the layman sense of the word, not the technical musical sense) than I’m used to hearing guitars sound . . . is that because of the music he’s playing, because of the just intonation, or both? (Or is it because I was conditioned by your post to expect such a thing?)

Prior to equal temperament as the norm, there really was no “norm.” It depended on the instrument and the type of music. Singers, for example, since they’re not tied to any specific tuning like pianos or guitars, often would change their tuning as they sang, correcting intervals without fitting into any particular system. Keyboard instruments (including many organs late into the 19th century) were tuned in what was called meantone temperament, in which a very small interval (a few cents, or more specifically, a quarter comma) was chopped off of each note as one went around the circle of fifths. For example, from C, one would tune G, D, A and then E; and because of the quarter comma taken off of each note, the E (major third) would be in tune with the C. (In a tuning and temperament seminar I took at CSUF, I learned how to tune a harpsichord using this temperament. It was a lot of fun.) Just intonation was used as well, along with Pythagorean tuning (which is similar in that it deals with pure mathematical ratios). Stringed instruments such as violins often used Pythagorean tuning, because it complements the pure tuning of their strings (each a fifth apart). So, in short, equal temperament as the tuning standard for virtually all instruments at all times is rather unprecedented in Western musical history.

As far as the guitar performance in the video goes, yes, Lou Harrison was a composer of art music rather than popular music. But notice the energetic rhythm of the piece, and the occasional strummed chords followed by passages of fast single notes; both are examples of the influence of pop music on art music, and art music’s revitalization of rhythm, in the 20th century.

And my most prolific commenter, Ryan Fleming, pointed out how band leaders instruct brass instruments to lower the third. I believe he’s partially right, in identifying the purpose of that lowering as making the third more pure than the equal tempered interval of 400 cents. But in other cases, since brass instruments play in natural tuning, depending on the key sometimes the natural major third is actually very sharp (up to 427 cents, in some cases–remember, as Fleming said, that a pure major third is 386 cents); so the lowering of the third is not just to make it more pure, but to make it more musically usable.

And to Courtney: So tripped out.

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