08.09.2008

As I mentioned in my last post, the second event of the concert in Long Beach was a set of guitar pieces by Lou Harrison, performed by John Schneider (of the Partch Ensemble). Harrison (1917-2003) was an American composer who wrote mostly in just intonation, a system of tuning based on pure mathematical ratios, as opposed to the irrational ratios used by the more widespread equal temperament. (As a brief aside: Many hold that just intonation is a purer and more beautiful tuning than equal temperament–the standard in western music from the 19th century to the present day–but the former becomes impractical after a certain harmonic point because some intervals get so out of tune that they become unusable.)

Before Schneider played the pieces (he actually played two suites), he gave a brief talk about Harrison, the tuning he used, and the pieces themselves. The most interesting part of his discussion was his explanation of the guitars he used. Typical guitars use equal-tempered frets, so that they can play with pianos and other equal-tempered instruments, and their fretboards look like this:

However, in order to play just intonation music on a guitar, the fretboard must be modified, to look more like this (the man in this picture, by the way, is Schneider himself):

Remarkably, he showed the bewildered audience that the fretboard was actually a magnet–he slipped it right out from under the strings and held it up to show us. The neck was magnetic, he explained, and the justly-tuned fretboards were put on large magnet boards–just like a kitchen magnet–so they could be interchangeable. The pieces themselves were very good, and held my interest much longer than the other pieces in the concert. I recorded a video of the performance on my cell phone, which you can see below. Neither the video nor the audio quality is too good, but you can hear how the tuning is different from a normal guitar.

Tuning is really a fascinating subject. If you’re interested in learning more, you can find articles and resources at the website of The Just Intonation Network, as well as the excellent Tuning Information page on Kyle Gann’s website.

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08.08.2008

Several weeks ago my lovely girlfriend and I went to a concert in Long Beach. I had received notification of the concert through the LA chapter of the American Composers Forum (of which I’m a member); but when we arrived at the location it almost felt like an underground gathering. It was held at an art gallery that had a stage ringed with red curtains in the back. Plastic folding chairs were set up for the audience, and all manner of interesting folk were there.

The first piece was what (I think) is usually designated “sound art,” where four people made a bunch of noises with different instruments or electronic devices; the noises were picked up by microphones, which ran into sound boards that looped the noises so they would play several times before dying away. Occasionally the noisemakers would adjust various attributes of the sounds as they played, such as the panning (left to right), the delay (echo), etc. It was mildly interesting, but more tiring than interesting, and it seemed to me more like four guys playing around with technology and seeing what they could make their stuff do than artful music, or even artful sound.

The second piece, or rather set of pieces, was the best of the evening: a set of Lou Harrison guitar pieces, played by a musician named John Schneider. But we shall return there in the next post.

The third and final piece (the concert was too informal and not really long enough for an intermission) was some ever-popular Cambodian classical music. It was performed on two marimba-like instruments (except the wooden bars were suspended rather than fixed), two instruments that formed rings around the players and were some other type of pitched percussion, a drummer, a bored-looking woman playing small finger cymbals, and the apparent leader, a flutist playing some sort of straight Cambodian flute (as opposed to the western flute which is played to the side). It was interesting music; the theme of the concert was microtonality–music that uses intervals smaller than a half step, or more informally, music that uses notes that would fit in the cracks between black and white notes on the piano. The Cambodian music was interesting because it was based on a type of pentatonic scale, but somehow a microtonal one. The traditional pentatonic scale is formed of five notes (penta-, five, and tonic, tone) that correspond to the black notes on a piano:

The scale that the Cambodian musicians used was similar to this one, but some of the tones were slightly different than those–a little “off.” That made the music a bit more interesting than typical pentatonic music, which tends to get old fast because there’s very little dissonance and thus few opportunities for tension. But it still grew tiring after a while, because there wasn’t too much variation in the texture and even with the microtonality in the pentatonic scale it still lacked harmonic variety. But, all the same, I was grateful for the opportunity to experience Cambodian classical music, since that opportunity doesn’t come along every day.

Tune in in a few days for part II–”The Well-Tuned Guitar!”

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08.05.2008

Okay, okay, I know, I was the last person to see the new Batman movie The Dark Knight–I saw it this past weekend (last Thursday night, I think, with my lovely girlfriend). I am a huge fan of the director, Christopher Nolan, particularly his films Memento (one of my favorite movies, and one of the most brilliant movies, ever) and Batman Begins. Up there with the (in some ways) incomparable M. Night Shyamalan, Nolan is one of the greatest consummate filmmakers of our day. Going into The Dark Knight, then, I had high expectations. And I must say, before I get to the musical side, that it is an excellent movie in almost all respects. Yes, it’s very dark and rather creepy, but it’s an amazing movie. All that stuff you’ve heard about Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker–one of the greatest movie villains ever, posthumous Oscar, etc.? All true. Is this the most intelligent superhero movie ever? Very possible.

Okay, but we know this isn’t a film blog. What was my opinion of the score from Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard?

Much as I felt about their score for Batman Begins; in a word, disappointing.

Hans Zimmer (who, interestingly enough, doesn’t read music) and James Newton Howard are two of Hollywood’s top five film composers. I particularly like Howard’s (Newton Howard’s?) work; for example, his scores for Peter Jackson’s recent King Kong and all of Shyamalan’s films. From such a composer, especially in collaboration with Zimmer who has scored movies such as The Da Vinci Code, The Last Samurai, and Gladiator, one would expect an impressive and memorable score.

It’s memorable, all right, but only because it’s so unimpressive that it’s surprising from two A-plus-list composers.

I have to say that my recollections of the score in the movie may be tainted, because I was so engrossed with how awesome the rest of the movie was; but I didn’t even remember much music at all, much less good music. The main theme from Batman Begins returns here: steady strings playing the alternating notes of a minor third, with occasional bass notes thrown in here and there somehow comprising both the bass and the melody. But they’re occasional enough (i.e. far enough apart) that they don’t make for much of a melody. You can hear a hint of this theme on the Amazon product page in the sample for the track “A Dark Knight” (the last track on the album), although that includes a bit of extra melody, in the low strings.

There is a progression of two chords which comes back very often in the score; you can hear it in the sample of “Introduce A Little Anarchy” (track 12)–which, as you may notice, includes as an accompaniment a slight variant on the minor third in the strings. You can perhaps hear James Newton Howard’s influence in the sample of “Agent of Chaos” (track 11), which layers King Kong-esque piano over the minor third in the strings–are we starting to see a pattern here?

The most notable change from the Batman Begins score (and there aren’t many) is the addition of the musical leitmotif, if you will, for the character of the Joker. You can hear the general idea in the sample of “Why So Serious,” which is track 1 (and also “Always A Catch,” track 5): a part-strings-part-electronic hum which slowly rises in pitch as it rises in volume. A creepy effect; it’s not even really a theme, it’s just that, an effect. But it’s effective, and I have to say it’s probably my favorite part of the score: it’s interesting, it’s provocative, and while it may not exactly be original it’s definitely not a cliché.

After listening to the sample tracks on the Amazon page, I am perhaps willing to surrender a bit of ground. It seems that there was quite a bit of the score that I didn’t notice in the movie. But even just listening to the samples, you can hear a great deal of homogeneity. There are basically three components to the score:

1. The strings playing the alternating minor third.
2. The two-chord progression.
3. The Joker’s “theme.”

If you listen through each of the samples on the page, almost all of them are variations–but only slightly changed variations–of one or more of these ideas. Yes, movie scores need a lot of coherence, but they need more variety than this.

The score is moody, dark, and brooding, as many of its reviewers have noted, but it accomplishes those ends by using the same means throughout. I can’t say I was surprised, exactly, because I expected more of the same from Batman Begins; but I was certainly disappointed that it could not rise higher than the low expectations I’d set for it.

The Dark Knight is now the number one movie in America for the third straight weekend, which means that statistically, there’s a very high chance that most of my readers have seen it. What are your thoughts? Agree or disagree?

(P.S. Just an FYI: In researching this post, I discovered that the score even has its own website: thedarkknightscore.com.)

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08.03.2008

“Defying Gravity” takes place in Wicked at the very end of Act I. When we saw the play in New York on our road trip, I described the end of the act to my brother as “literally breathtaking”: the song was so exciting, so powerful and so exhilarating that I was literally breathless at its end. (He, of course, was insanely jealous that I was seeing it live and replied: “I totally hate you.”)

All things considered, this is one of my favorite songs, pop music, classical music and musicals all included. The lyrics, of course, are terrific, talking about defying limits and striking out on one’s own. The staging in the show marks the first time Elphaba flies on her broomstick, literally defying gravity. And, of course, the music is superb.

The song on the soundtrack recording begins with dialogue and a few short snippets of singing before getting into the real start of the song: a syncopated chord progression in the piano and winds. It’s in the middle register instead of up high, and in a major rather than a minor key, but in some ways it’s reminiscent of the opening sequence of chords in “No One Mourns The Wicked” (you can listen to the latter here on iLike.com; it’s the second “play” button on the left, next to “No One Mourns The Wicked by Stephen Scwhartz”). Perhaps this is a subtle psychological hint by Schwartz; in the beginning it’s the “wicked” theme, but here in “Defying Gravity” it appears in a “good” form as Elphaba stands against injustice and refuses to compromise. (You can see the first page of the sheet music for “Defying Gravity,” which contains the opening chord progression, here; contrast it with the opening progression of “No One Mourns The Wicked,” here.)

The chorus of the song, which contains the lyrics about “defying gravity,” is quietly subdued the first two times it occurs. Elphaba sings a high melody over a sparser and simpler instrumental texture, which is very pianistic in its patterns. Two nice details are in evidence here as well. The first is the use of pizzicato violins in the highest register–plucking the strings of the instrument rather than bowing them. This contributes to the excitement and energy of the texture while keeping it light and allowing space (remember, music is all about space) between the rapid notes of the pattern. The second detail, which I didn’t notice until playing through the sheet music one day, is in the rhythm of the bass notes. The bass notes which define the chords don’t change on the downbeat of each measure, as one would expect, but slightly before the downbeat. Listen carefully and notice how the change comes at the very end of the measure, rather than right at the beginning of the next. This syncopation also adds understated tension and energy to the music.

The “unlimited” theme returns in the middle of the song, as Elphaba invites Glinda to come with her; together they would be unlimited. This leads to a bigger chorus, though it still has not reached full strength, with a drum beat and a duet by the two singers.

After this the song builds to an incredible climax, with the full orchestra and a full drum beat. At the end of the song (and the end of Act I), the chorus reenters to declare Elphaba the Wicked Witch, at which point the chord progression from “No One Mourns The Wicked” returns–signifying the crowd’s perception of her. And the act ends with a high held chord in the choir and brass, concluding with a low exclamation mark in true musical style. (I’ve heard this called a “button” ending, though I’m not sure if that’s really a technical term.)

But, ultimately, all I can say is that you should just listen to the song for yourself, and love it. You can listen to the whole song, courtesy of iLike, here: click on the “play” button on the left in the list next to “Defying Gravity by Stephen Schwartz.” (It’s the sixth “play” button not counting the video icons.)

(If you would like links to Amazon’s MP3 downloads for each of the individual songs I’ve written about, they can be found as following. But if you’d like to listen to the soundtrack, I’d recommend buying the whole CD [CD here, MP3 album here]; the songs I’ve posted about are highlights for me, but the entire soundtrack is fabulous.

“What Is This Feeling?”
“As Long As You’re Mine”
“No Good Deed”
“For Good”
“Defying Gravity”)

And thus ends the week of Wicked posts. Thanks for listening!

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08.02.2008

"For Good," Wicked Soundtrack, Stephen Schwartz

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:47 am

“For Good” is the penultimate song in Wicked, and (as I mentioned in the introductory post) the obligatory piano ballad; but, despite its obligatoriness, it’s very good. The lyrics are very clever, and even moving–they play on the different meanings of the phrase “for good:” “Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better? But because I knew you I have been changed for good….”

There are three musical things in particular I want to note about the song.

1. It marks the final appearance of the “unlimited” theme in the show. Elphaba finally admits “I’m limited–just look at me–I’m limited,” thus bringing that theme to a final resolution.

2. I like the introduction to the song, because part of the “hook” or riff idea in the piano is dissonant–instead of octaves or harmonious thirds or sixths, the high descending idea is in minor sevenths. (In the recording, it’s the second measure after Elphaba sings “Now it’s up to you….” Sheet music can be found here.) The song marks the point where Elphaba and Glinda finally part, and the dissonance portrays the sadness of their farewell.

3. The song also contains another subtle psychological detail. Throughout the entire show, whenever Elphaba and Glinda have a duet, Glinda sings the higher part and Elphaba the lower. In this song, they each sing their part separately and then sing the chorus in a duet–but Elphaba sings her part in a high register, above Glinda’s. In another reversal, she has taken on the role previously assigned to the “good” witch, confirming what we’ve known all along: that she is not really wicked but has only been perceived, painted and persecuted that way. Yet another example of Schwartz’s mastery of fine points that have a big impact.

This song was sung (as a solo) at the CSUF College of the Arts commencement ceremony last May when I graduated; following the song, the Dean of the college was in tears.

You can listen to the whole song, courtesy of iLike, here: I made it easy for you this time–click on the only play button in the list (next to “For Good by Stephen Schwartz”).

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08.01.2008

“No Good Deed” is one of the last songs on the Wicked soundtrack. In the story, it takes place when Elphaba fears she has lost her love, Fiyero, and faces the realization that all of the good she has tried to do has only turned out badly.

In addition to having great lyrics that explore the “moral ambiguities” that are the main theme of the show, the very beginning of the song contains another nice detail. After two bars or so of instrumental introduction, Elphaba screams Fiyero’s name. But instead of being an unpitched scream, she actually sings a high note that is a minor second above the tonal center of the song. (A minor second is an interval basically the same as a minor ninth, only the two notes are right next to each other instead of an octave removed.) This creates the effect of a scream, as the note is very high and dissonant, but it is much more controlled and musical than an actual scream. A nice touch.

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 “No Good Deed by Stephen Schwartz”).

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