On the Beauty of Leisure

Posted by AJ Harbison at 4:20 am

I recently listened to a podcast on The Scriptorium Daily, the blog of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. The podcast was entitled “An Active Rest”, and it dealt with the nature of leisure and how leisure differs from idleness. One of the contributors–I believe it was Fred Sanders–noted that in American culture today, we tend to class activities in only two categories: work, that is, that which is productive, and idleness, that is, doing nothing. But he and his fellow podcasters explained that there is a third category, leisure, which includes activities that are not necessarily productive but are certainly profitable. They talked about things such as reading, or gardening, or visiting Disneyland with one’s family as examples of leisure. They’re not productive activities because they don’t produce something, some sort of tangible product that you can look back on (except perhaps gardening); but they are still profitable, and the professors argued that healthy forms of leisure are good for the soul, and promote the growth of the soul.

I have to say that I agree, and I experienced an excellent example of leisure time tonight. After bidding goodbye to my lovely girlfriend around 6:30 pm, I remained out on the balcony of my apartment for several minutes, simply enjoying the beauty of the evening: fresh air, a few clouds, the greenery of my apartment complex, the glow from the sun that had just set. Upon reentering my apartment, I decided that I needed to continue the experience of beauty, so I put on some music as I made dinner.

Baroque music–classical art music written between 1600 and 1750–is difficult to match in its elegance, clarity and directness, and I felt that such music would be very appropriate to my mood. So I put on a piece called Water Music, by the German composer George Frideric Handel (German, though he spent most of his life in England). A contemporary of Johann Sebastian Bach, Handel spent his composing career primarily in the employ of the state (unlike Bach who was employed primarily by the church), and Water Music was written for king George I. It was composed for a trip down the river Thames on the king’s barges (thus the title). As I prepared and ate dinner, the elegant beauty of the piece filled the apartment and I found that it perfectly suited my musical appetite.

My thought after dinner was to listen to a very large piece entitled Turangalîla-Symphonie, by the French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). It’s an orchestral work in ten movements, 78 minutes long, which I had first encountered in a 20th century music class in college. It was accompanied this evening by a glass of Montes Cherub Rosé of Syrah, which I enjoyed quite a bit (I’m usually not a big fan of rosé wines, but this one was rather tasty).

The Turangalîla-Symphonie, though a bit long to listen to all at once without the virtues of a live performance or (perhaps) a lovely girlfriend by your side, is a great piece. It is based around four basic motives, or cyclic themes, which make good “anchors” to listen for throughout. (The Wikipedia article spells out the themes in detail, with music notation for each one.) It’s an exuberant, lively and joyful piece, while incorporating mystical and mysterious elements. Parts of it remind me of a movie score from the first half of the 20th century, particularly the fifth and eighth movements, which makes sense because it was written between 1946 and 1948. There’s a lot of dissonance in the piece–”color,” as Messiaen would call it (I have a quote from him which says, “There aren’t any modal composers, tonal composers, or serial composers. There is only music that is coloured and music that isn’t”)–but it’s not too intense, at least for an open-minded listener, and it certainly is dissonance meant to add color rather than dissonance for its own sake. As I said, it’s a very long piece, and the first half was more interesting to me than the second; but it’s a very good piece, I would love to see it performed live, and it made for a terrific evening.

Now, to wrap these sundry strands together: The time I spent listening to these two pieces tonight was not, in the sense mentioned above, “productive.” Yet it wasn’t idle, either. (Certainly drinking wine, regardless of what else one may be doing, is no waste of time….) Both pieces, albeit in different ways, enriched my evening with their unique style of beauty, and just sitting and listening to them (even apart from eating dinner or drinking wine) was a worthwhile experience. If, as I wrote about in my post about the Concert for Hope, the mere presence of beauty is transformative, then most of us should probably spend more time just sitting and listening to great music. I know I should, as a composer. And, if one has the benefit of a lovely girlfriend and a glass of good wine as well–so much the better!

(I’ve added both of the particular CDs I listened to to the Amazon box in the sidebar. You can listen to audio samples on their respective product pages.)


"Thy Mercy," Sandra McCracken

Posted by AJ Harbison at 8:03 pm

Sandra McCracken wrote the song “Thy Mercy” (or “Thy Mercy My God”) as part of a movement to revive old hymn texts and set them to new music for the church. The lyrics were written by John Stocker in 1776, and the music was written by Sandra McCracken in 2001.

I want to focus primarily on the form of the song in this post. To my knowledge, the song has been recorded three times: once by Caedmon’s Call on their album In The Company Of Angels in 2001; once by the Indelible Grace project on their album Pilgrim Days: Indelible Grace II, also in 2001; and once by Sandra herself on her terrific album The Builder And The Architect in 2005.

The song is strophic, that is, it consists of four verses with the same music for each and no chorus. Simple enough, right? The question of form that prompted this post, though, has to do with a musical interlude and its placement. In a song with four verses of the same music and no chorus, an interlude seems a wise choice to break up the form and lend some variety. The interesting thing is that these three recorded versions do three different things with the interlude.

The Indelible Grace version places the interlude between verses two and three, so the form goes like this:

Verse 1
Verse 2
Verse 3
Verse 4

You can listen to the IG version (sung by Sandra) here; “Thy Mercy” is the first track on the CD, so it should start playing when you load the page. The clip is (I think) two minutes long, so you can hear the first two verses, the interlude, verse three, and part of verse four.

The Caedmon’s Call version, which is sung by my favorite songwriter Derek Webb, places the interlude between verses three and four, so the form looks like this:

Verse 1
Verse 2
Verse 3
Verse 4

iLike.com, which I’ve grown to appreciate more and more on this blog, has a video here where you can listen to the whole song (the video is just a still shot of the title and the band’s name).

And Sandra’s version on The Builder And The Architect, the most musically original of the three, also places the interlude between verses three and four. It develops a vocal idea that was presented in the introduction to the song, and thus is the most musically coherent of the three versions of the interlude. Our good friend Last.fm pulls through for us again, and offers the full track here for your listening pleasure.

If you glance back for a moment at the form charts I listed above, you’ll notice that the IG version is symmetrical, whereas the Caedmon’s Call and Sandra versions are asymmetrical since the interlude separates three verses from one at the end. Which form is better from a musical standpoint? One could of course argue that both are good in their own ways, and one is not “better” than the other; but I maintain that one is, and for the following reason.

The IG version is not particularly inventive musically, and the “riff” played between the verses is, to be frank, pretty boring. So the general feel of the song becomes static: not much is happening, and we return to the same riff every time between the verses. Thus we have the sequence: riff in the intro, verse one, the riff, verse two, and then an interlude that’s slightly different; then verse three, and then the same riff again. The riff between verses three and four kills any hope we might have had for an overarching dynamic form for the song, because instead of moving on to new or different material to drive the momentum of the song forward, we instead return to the exact same pretty boring riff we’ve heard before, with no variation whatsoever. And therefore the song almost stops dead at this point in terms of form.

Contrast the other two versions–we’ll focus on Sandra’s. To begin with, the instrumentation and style of this arrangement is much more original than the IG version, so we’re more interested from the start. We hear three verses with the same music, although the third verse has a different texture (variations in volume and instrumentation). Then comes the interlude, which is not the same thing we’ve been hearing in between the verses but is a developed and extended version of it–a good balance of repetition and contrast. That propels the momentum of the song forward. Then there is one last verse, returning to the music of the verses, and then the song ends. This form is much more effective because it doesn’t remain static but changes, evolves, through the course of the song, and reflects (in a way) the dramatic topography of the lyrics.

One of the most helpful things I learned in college was that form–in any art but particularly in music–is the balance of repetition and contrast: we need enough repetition to create a coherent song with things we recognize as the song progresses, but enough contrast to create an interesting song that does in fact progress instead of repeating the same material too much. The IG version doesn’t seem to understand this principle; but the Caedmon’s Call and Sandra versions do.


"Just As I Am" Is A Hit!

Posted by AJ Harbison at 11:50 pm

I traveled to Redlands this past weekend to play in the River Of Worship service with my friend Jeff Mercer and his Jeff Mercer Band. I wrote in my last post that he and the band are working on a recording, which we hope to have finished by the end of the year, and I had told him a short time ago of my arrangement of “Just As I Am” (written about on this blog here). It will likely be on the recording, now, and he agreed to add it to the set for Saturday night as well, so the band (led by me on guitar and vocals) played it for the first time in the service. It was very cool to hear it done with a full band; being a song with little structural variation (it doesn’t have the advantage of, say, a bridge or a chorus to break up the repetition of the verses), it was a great help to have the band to add variation in other ways: different rhythms, more or fewer instruments playing on different verses, differences in dynamics.

Of course, as a worship song, the point is not for people to like it or to get praise for myself; but it went over very well. I was hoping that Jeff wouldn’t bring attention to the fact that I had done the arrangement, but he did, and I got a number of compliments afterwards on it. One friend in particular (who may or may not be named Nate) told me he really, really liked it; at a later point in our conversation, I told him as I often do, “I like you a lot,” and he responded, “I like you a lot too–and I like you even more after tonight!”


The Jeff Mercer Band

Posted by AJ Harbison at 5:00 pm

Jeff Mercer, my good friend from Redlands (although he actually lives in Beaumont now), leads a monthly worship service at his church, The River CRC, called River Of Worship. While I was living in Redlands I got the chance to go with him and some members of his ROW team out to Harvest, Greg Laurie’s megachurch in Riverside, to lead worship for their singles group. Thanks to a terrific sound tech (his name was Shea although I’m not sure of the spelling), we got a recording of our playing for the night, which actually turned out very well for a live recording. Jeff cleaned it up using GarageBand (insert shameless plug for Apple products here) and it turned out even better. You can hear the recording at the ROW Myspace page: http://www.myspace.com/riverofworshipmusic. Jeff plays the piano and sings; the acoustic guitar is me. My favorite tracks are “He Is Exalted” and “That’s Why We Praise Him.”

I recommend you go check it out for several reasons. One: Jeff is a great singer and a great pianist, and it’s just fun to listen to him. Two: His band is terrific, particularly the two female singers (Courtney and Teri) and the bass player we had that night (Mike; check out his bass solo on “He Is Exalted”). Three: It’s good worship music. And four: It’s an original style. Jeff leads from piano, whereas most of the songs as originally recorded are led from guitar, and his playing style is unique, creative and effective. Most of the musicians of his band and the singers, although they change from time to time and from gig to gig, have been playing together for a long time, so they know how to play together well; and at the same time Jeff is a great leader who knows what he wants musically, and knows how to get what he wants out of his musicians. All this to say, it’s good, it’s interesting and it’s worth listening to.

Rumor has it he’s planning a studio recording for the Jeff Mercer Band, possibly including some of my original music. I’ll keep you all posted.


New Piece By Mozart Discovered In France!

Posted by AJ Harbison at 10:00 pm

Apparently a hitherto-unknown handwritten manuscript of Mozart’s has just been found in a French library in Nantes. It’s just a melodic sketch, missing harmony and notes about instrumentation; but they’re positive it’s Mozart, so it’s an exciting find all the same. Read all about it on MSN:

New Mozart piece of music found in French library

P.S. Check out the picture of the vice-mayor of Nantes included with the article. He looks like a crazy composer-type himself.


Music Sale At Amazon.com: Buy 2 Get 1 Free

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:30 am

I promise I won’t do this too often, but Amazon emailed me about a music sale they’re having that I thought you, my faithful readers, might like to know about.

They’re offering a “Buy 2 Get 1 Free” deal on select music CDs, including artists like Tom Petty, Elton John, Rush, Bon Jovi, Cream, and The Who. There’s at least one U2 CD in there (a really good one, The Unforgettable Fire), and also some comedy CDs (including Jerry Seinfeld’s I’m Telling You For The Last Time). If you click on the fun little graphic below, it will take you straight to the page where you can select your three (or more) from the 150 available. And best of all, I get a commission on anything (music CDs or anything else) you buy on Amazon after clicking through this site! (Click here for more details on my affiliation with Amazon.) The sale lasts until October 2nd.

If you do pick up some CDs from this sale, leave a comment and let me know what you bought!


This past Saturday night (9/13) my lovely girlfriend and I attended the Concert for Hope at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. The Concert for Hope was produced in conjunction with the opening of the Village of Hope, a new homeless shelter in Tustin. The Village of Hope is a branch of the Orange County Rescue Mission, built on the very interesting premise that beauty motivates people to change their lives for the better. Original artwork, sculpture and architecture were commissioned for the Village, all in hope that if the homeless who are sheltered there are surrounded by beauty, they will be more inspired to achieve self-sufficiency than if they were in a drab, purely functional environment.

In order to raise money and community awareness about this project (which officially opened on Sunday), OCPAC hosted the Concert for Hope on Saturday night, starring the Pacific Chorale and Pacific Symphony directed by Carl St. Clair. All proceeds from ticket sales were donated to the Village. The concert was held in the only two-year-old Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, which is an amazing performance space I’ve greatly enjoyed in the past. The program consisted of some Copland music and a new piece commissioned for the occasion, the cantata From Greater Light, by Californian composer Alva Henderson with a libretto (i.e. text) by Richard Freis (sorry, no link; I couldn’t find a good website on him).

The concert started off with Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, a stirring brass ‘n’ percussion tribute to the human spirit (presumably the reason it was included on the program). The acoustics in the hall are superlative, and the Fanfare was flooring. It was followed by a suite from Copland’s ballet Billy The Kid, and some of his Old American [folk] Songs sung by the famous baritone Jubilant Sykes. Why these were programmed was a mystery to my girlfriend and I; Copland’s main distinctive (apart from his music itself) is as the quintessential American composer. It was certainly good music, but in terms of thematic coherency it didn’t seem to apply much to the Village of Hope. It didn’t even fit with the “tribute to the human spirit” idea (the Billy The Kid suite includes the movements “Celebration [due to] Billy’s Capture” and “Billy’s Death”). But we enjoyed it nonetheless.

The first half ended with Sykes singing an uncredited arrangement of “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands” and an a cappella spiritual, which brought the house down. The entire second half consisted of From Greater Light, which lasted about 45 minutes.

The piece is a cantata (the Latin word for “sung”) scored for chorus, orchestra, solo baritone and solo tenor. Cantatas are dramatic pieces, often based on sacred texts, that tell a story but don’t fully stage it (there are no sets, props or costumes). Freis’ libretto dramatizes the biblical story of Job, a righteous man who loses all his property, wealth and children in one blow. In the piece, the angel Gabriel (“played” by the tenor) visits Job (“played” by the baritone) and tells of God’s love, proclaiming the message “We all live in one another and in God.” Freis then incorporates Jesus’ parable of the Final Judgment from Matthew 25, in which he states “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink,” etc. Gabriel declares that God is in the hungry and the one who feeds the hungry, God is in the thirsty and the one who gives a drink, etc., culminating in “God is in the homeless and the one who gives a home.” The choir sings the refrain “We all live in one another and in God,” occasionally takes a character part on itself (“We are the homeless….”), and generally serves to reiterate and comment on the soloists’ statements, much like the chorus in a classical Greek play. Eventually Gabriel implores that God’s invisible hands be made visible in service to those in need, and Job, no longer mourning for his children but still singing their names in remembrance, joins in, and the piece ends with a quiet “Amen” from the choir.

Henderson’s music was conservative, tonal and accessible, and while not being anything special was certainly good. Apparently Henderson is primarily an opera composer, and that showed in the music for this piece in that it was very dramatic, sometimes overly affected, but generally effective in conveying the emotion of the story. There was some nice word painting, notably shimmering high strings, winds and percussion for Gabriel’s entrance. I was particularly pleased, as well, to note Henderson’s skill in giving the choir several a cappella passages, free of orchestral accompaniment, to highlight the text and allow the singers to shine.

The libretto, however, was very weak in my opinion. The Christian tradition has a rich depth of theology and philosophy on the subject of suffering, which could have provided a wealth of richly meaningful and moving material for the piece, and certainly using Job as a starting point is creative and promising. But Freis opts instead for vague and vacuous sentiment, portraying the grief of Job but offering no consolation. It would seem to me that in the middle of the piece there should be a dramatic turning point, in which Job is comforted and uplifted and turns to service (who would serve others when they’re lost in the depths of unconsoled despair themselves?), but this point never comes. Instead there is no real transition, and thus rather than a coherent storyline arc the form of the libretto is nebulous and unconnected. (“Hey, Job, I know you’re bummed about your kids, but to take your mind off it why don’t you try helping others?”)

Because of this From Greater Light can’t achieve the greatness that it aspires to in the service of its worthy cause. The music is effective and dramatically well done, but the libretto falls far short of what it promises and the music is unable to redeem it. However, I have to emphasize that I fully support the concept–I love the idea that the mere presence of beauty can change lives, and I hope the Village is blessed by the awareness and funds contributed by the concert. Henderson’s music: B; Freis’ libretto: C; concept for Concert for Hope: A+.


Clapping Music, Steve Reich

Posted by AJ Harbison at 7:58 pm

To close out the week of clapping posts, I present to you Clapping Music, an actual piece of art music by a real-life composer consisting only of clapping. The teacher of my composition class at CSUF, Lloyd Rodgers, told us about a performance of this piece at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles: two grown men holding a concert audience transfixed simply by clapping onstage.

The piece Clapping Music, written in 1972, is by Steve Reich, one of America’s most important living composers. Reich is also one of the most prominent composers of minimalist music. Minimalist pieces usually consist of short cells or motives that are repeated continuously, gradually undergoing slow processes of change. Clapping Music fits this bill and also represents a variation of Reich’s idea of “phasing.” In this concept, two performers begin by playing, say, an 8-note-long melody in unison, and player B begins to speed up very gradually until his second note is in unison with player A’s first note (thus player B is now “out of phase”). They play in unison again for a while, and then player B speeds up slowly again until his third note is in unison with player A’s first note, and so on all the way through the cycle until they are playing the same melody in unison as at the beginning. (The Wikipedia article on Reich’s piece Piano Phase provides a more detailed explanation of how phasing is practially applied in that piece.)

In Clapping Music, the two performers begin by clapping the same rhythm in unison. After a few repetitions of this pattern, player B pauses for one beat and then claps the same rhythm one beat behind. After a few repetitions of that pattern, player B pauses for another beat and then claps the same rhythm two beats behind. The piece cycles through the whole rhythm this way, and it ends with the performers clapping the same rhythm in unison again. (You can see Reich’s handwritten score here.)

If there was a YouTube video of that WDCH concert, I’d love to share it with you; but this one isn’t half bad. Apparently it’s from a doctorate recital at the University of Texas at Austin in 2005. If you’re interested in learning more about the piece, I recommend reading the program note by the performer under “More Info” on the video’s YouTube page. Or you can just watch the video below. I love how the first performer begins the clapping piece by joining in with the audience’s applause.

And that concludes our week of clapping posts! Give yourselves a hand!


"Clapping Canon," AJ Harbison

Posted by AJ Harbison at 4:26 am

One more clapping piece for your listening pleasure–and I promise, this one is cooler than the last one.

Our other clapping assignment in the composition class was to compose a clapping canon–where one voice (in Latin called the “dux” or “lead”) would begin, and the second voice (called the “comes,” or literally, “friend”) would imitate the first exactly. Kinda like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” or “Three Blind Mice.” This piece sounds more interesting than the last one and has cooler rhythms because the interplay between the two (or rather four) hands is more specifically focused on interacting with each other, and more complicated because the imitative part is fixed based on the leading part, and the leading part then has to play something against what it just played a few measures before.

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(Just in case you were wondering how I did on these assignments: both of them got an “A” grade; the ostinato was also marked “Nice” and the canon “Good counterpoint.”)


Interlude: My Recording Technology

Posted by AJ Harbison at 10:18 pm

Since I’m recording two clapping pieces this week for your listening pleasure (one in the previous post and one yet to come), and since Albert and Ryan Fleming both asked (here) about how I record, we’ll take a brief respite from the clapping posts and I’ll reveal my “technologies and techniques” of recording.

My “first album” of sorts, Following A Star, was recorded at the end of 2005 using my iBook G4 laptop, which (I think) was new in 2004 and was running Mac OSX 10.4 Tiger at the time. I used the Mac program GarageBand v. 1.1.0 to actually record the album, and lacking any real recording equipment, I used the computer’s built-in mike. For being a built-in mike, it performed very well, and the only real drawback was noticeable but not overwhelming static in the background. (You can listen to that whole album on my website, www.ajharbison.com, under the heading “Popular Music” on the Music page.)

Last year, for Christmas, my mother bought me the instrument I’ve been using for the recent recordings (“Just As I Am” and the clapping recordings). It’s called The Snowball, and it’s made by Blue Microphones. The cool thing about The Snowball is that it’s a professional quality USB mike, so it’s exceptionally clear while needing no intermediate interface–a standard USB cord runs straight from the mike into the computer. I love it. I still use GarageBand, and now that I’ve figured out how to use The Snowball with the program, it’s great. (Before I realized that you had to change the audio input setting within GarageBand, I was still recording with the built-in mike thinking I was using The Snowball. That was a bummer.)

If you’re the audio geek type, you can check out all the product specs on The Snowball’s page. If you’re too lazy to check that out, the basic stats are that it records at a 44.1 kHz and 16-bit rate–typical CD quality–and can operate in either omnidirectional or cardioid polar patterns. In other words, it can do pretty much anything I would ever need it to do, and it does it at a very high level of quality. I’m very happy with it.

The only problem that I’ve come across–and I’ve only discovered it recently–is that it has a slight latency problem with GarageBand; in other words, when I’m recording a second track, there’s a slight delay between what I hear in the first track and what I’m recording on the second track. So if I sync the performance of the second track to the first as I listen to the first, when I play them both back the second track will be slightly behind. I haven’t figured out how to fix this yet, and I’m not sure whether the problem is in the mike, the program, or my computer (it’s getting old now and it’s rather slow). I recorded “Just As I Am” playing guitar and singing at the same time (so it was only one track), and I’m recording the clapping pieces by syncing both parts to GarageBand’s built-in metronome, which has worked thus far (and made me think of this A.W. Tozer quote). But if I want to do any other multi-track recording, I need to figure out how to eliminate the latency.

But in terms of quality, I couldn’t be happier. The guitar and voice, even recorded together, sound terrific, as Albert pointed out–I joked to my girlfriend that “the guitar sounds better than live!” If you have any suggestions about the latency, let me know; if I figure it out, I’ll post about it here. And until then, Albert and Fleming (and any others who are curious): I hope this satisfies your curiosity.


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