09.10.2008

"Clapping Ostinato Duet," AJ Harbison

Posted by AJ Harbison at 2:02 am

In my junior year at CSUF, I took the “Composition” class–not applied composition lessons, but an actual class on composing. The first piece we wrote for the class was a monophonic (i.e. single melody line) chant in free rhythm using only a certain scale, to allow us to focus on melody without worrying about rhythm as well. The second and third pieces we wrote were clapping pieces, so we could focus on rhythm only, devoid of pitch.

My first clapping piece was a clapping ostinato duet. “Ostinato” simply means that one of the parts repeats a rhythmic pattern over and over again, which in this piece happens to be the following one-measure rhythm:

The ostinato part repeats this exact same rhythm in every measure of the piece, albeit at varying dynamic levels (sometimes soft, sometimes loud), while the other part changes rhythms freely and plays with and against the ostinato.

You can listen to a brand-new performance of this piece by clicking on the player below. I performed both parts, and my clapping chops have never been terribly skilled, so it’s not a perfect performance but it’s passable and it will give you a feel for what a clapping piece might sound like. N.B. In order to make it easier to hear the two parts separately, I panned the ostinato almost all the way to the right and the other part almost all the way to the left. Thus the piece is best experienced with stereo speakers or headphones.

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09.09.2008

A Week Of Claps

Posted by AJ Harbison at 4:30 am

This week on TLB we’ll be examining a subject familiar to everyone–clapping. After finding several things I wanted to share with my readers on the topic, I decided I could make a week of it. So in the next few days you can look forward to several exciting musical and non-musical applications of the curious human custom of clapping.

And now, for my first post, a brief YouTube video. Apparently certified by the official Guinness people, this guy is the world’s fastest clapper–the record is 721 claps in one minute, 12 claps per second.

Pretty impressive, huh? It’s amazing what the human body is capable of, with enough practice. (And enough free time on one’s hands.) (No pun intended.)

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09.06.2008

Viva La Vida, Coldplay: First Impressions

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:04 am

Here it is, Mark: The long-awaited Viva La Vida review!

But before I dive in, two quick backgrounds. First, the background of the album: It is the fourth album of the rocking British band Coldplay, following the immensely popular X&Y of 2005. The album’s title, “Viva La Vida,” roughly translated means “Long live life.” The album’s cover art is a painting by Eugene Delacroix entitled Liberty Leading The People, which depicts a woman personifying Liberty and commemorating both the French Revolution of 1789 and the July Revolution (also French) of 1830. The album’s producer is Brian Eno, who is known in the capacity of a solo artist as “the father of ambient music” and in the capacity of a producer as such of U2′s album The Joshua Tree.

Second, my background with Coldplay: I consider Coldplay one of my favorite bands, and often cite them as an influence on my own music. I quite enjoy their first album, Parachutes–most of the songs are good but the really good songs are really good. Their second album, A Rush Of Blood To The Head, is better all around and I very much enjoy it. And the album that precedes Viva La Vida, X&Y, I consider to be my single favorite album of all time. I am not so presumptious as to consider it the best album of all time, as my experience is not so wide as to make that declaration; but it is alone atop all the others I have heard. There’s not a song on it that I dislike or even feel indifferent about. It is excellent in every way and I simply love it.

With these prerequisite backgrounds now dispensed of, we move on to the TLB review.

I listened to the album one time through (thus the title, “First Impressions”) on Wednesday night; I wanted to share my first thoughts with you, my faithful readers, and I plan to elaborate in future posts as I listen to it more.

Listening to Viva La Vida was a paradoxical experience for me. Part of me felt like I loved it, while part of me felt that I didn’t understand it musically. It was simultaneously a completely fresh and original sound, while also suggesting many comparisons in my mind. The album progressed at a leisurely pace, but when it was done it seemed no time at all had passed.

The thing that stood out to me the most, above all else, was the album’s energy, its exuberant exhilaration (if I may make such a bold alliteration). X&Y was dark, chill, mellow, while it seems Viva La Vida is almost bursting with excitement. It reminded me vaguely of Derek Webb’s first two solo albums, She Must And Shall Go Free and I See Things Upside Down–although in that case the moods of the CDs were reversed.

Viva La Vida finds one of the world’s greatest bands contemplating its mortality. With a title meaning “Long live life,” song titles like “Cemetaries of London,” “Viva La Vida” and “Death And All His Friends,” and the lyrics of songs like “42,” the whole album points to the coming to grips with death. It reminded me also of another great album that had a similar theme: Linkin Park’s most recent album, Minutes To Midnight. But the contrast is perhaps more interesting than the comparison. In Linkin Park’s case, the album is much more restrained, sober-minded and contemplative than their previous releases (and, in my opinion, is their best). With Viva La Vida, however, Coldplay responds to the contemplation of death with a celebration of life.

Such, in my opinion, are the philosophical underpinnings of the music–but on to the music itself.

The music itself is also rather paradoxical. As I just remarked to my roommate Mike, it’s a sound unlike anything I’ve heard. In many ways it includes more elements of electronic music than their previous work: many of the beats are more reminiscent of electronic music than rock music, and many of the synth and atmospherics effects are as well. “Life In Technicolor,” the instrumental overture to the CD, could very easily have come from a CD in Mike’s electronic collection. And yet in other ways it’s more acoustic than X&Y and sounds more like a live band jamming onstage than a carefully produced album from the studio. I must confess I’ve never seen Coldplay live–although to do so would be an experience only to be topped by seeing U2. But I imagine live performances of X&Y as a classic rock music performance, the band members rocking out because the music is just awesome; my imagination of a Viva La Vida performance is of the band members smiling, laughing and bouncing off the walls, not to be showy but just because the music is so much freakin’ fun to play. The album also includes some Latin, African and Asian elements, apparently culled from playing world tours while writing the songs. The combination of styles is exquisite, intriguing and totally original in my experience.

Another thing that stands out very quickly is the mixing of the voice. I wrote in a post about Elton John that Coldplay sometimes mixes the voice at a similar volume level to that of the instruments, so that it doesn’t stand out as it often does in popular music. I wrote that “they see the voice (at least in these particular songs) as just another instrument, no more or less important than the others, and so the blending in the mix is intentional. It puts the voice on equal artistic footing with, say, the guitar and drums,” and that is very much in evidence on this record. I even mentioned the song “Viva La Vida” in the post, as it was available as a single on iTunes at the time, but that mixing style certainly pervades the album, with a few notable exceptions (such as “Violet Hill”). In a subsequent listen I’d like to listen with the lyrics in front of me, as they were often obscured by the other instruments.

The instrumentation of the album is also noteworthy. It is most certainly a rock album, with guitars, bass and drums holding sway. Coldplay’s signature piano and pipe organ also make appearances, although much less than in X&Y. But the band makes use of a more colorful instrumental palette overall (to mix my artistic metaphors). The electronics and synths used are simultaneously similar to ones used previously and different, often more evocative of electronic and ambient music (likely Eno’s influence). And while strings have been used on each of the band’s previous albums, they are featured here in a hitherto unseen prominence. The Latin-flavored flourishes in “Yes” are particularly interesting (as are, in the same song, the luxuriously long electric guitar bends).

Some of the songs’ rhythms are notable as well for their adventuresomeness (is that a word?). The instrumental interludes in “Yes” throw in an extra beat or take one away here and there, just to throw you off. And the final track “Death And All His Friends,” after the first piano/vocal section and a more conventional 4/4 groove, settles into a rocking (but very atypical) 7/4 for the song’s climax.

I know this post is already waxing very loquacious (perhaps too much so), so I will endeavor to bring it to a close. Overall, I must say that I greatly enjoyed Viva La Vida, but I look forward to uncovering further layers and nuances in subsequent listenings. True to the album art, the sound is revolutionary, certainly for Coldplay and (considering Coldplay’s influence) possibly for others as well. It is a blend of styles that have worked for them in the past, while
also being a departure and an attempt at something vastly different. The album’s energy is abundant and infectious, and had me tapping my feet and bobbing my head even as I sat in my desk chair listening to my computer speakers. At this point, after one listen, it hasn’t dethroned X&Y; but it’s a pretty darn good record.

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09.04.2008

The Difference Between Hearing And Listening

Posted by AJ Harbison at 2:03 am

At several points during work this afternoon, I was thinking about my post and subsequent comments discussion about comprehensive listening, and I tried to put it into practice–as Pauline Oliveros puts it, “listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear.” It was difficult for me to do this while doing something else–getting a drink from the water cooler in the kitchen, for example–because when I’m listening intently, I have a tendency to focus my eyes intensely (on nothing in particular) to minimize visual distractions. (For some reason I focus intensely on nothing rather than close my eyes; I’m not sure why that is.) So it was difficult to listen intently when I had to keep my eyes moving normally, as I tried to listen while I went about a normal task. But hard as it was, I did succeed briefly, and I was surprised by the difference. To quote Oliveros again, “hearing happens involuntarily,” while “listening is a voluntary process.” We get so used to hearing the sounds around us that we hardly ever listen in a comprehensive-listening sort of way, and when I tried the latter I could definitely tell the difference.

It’s hard to describe, but it felt as if I was listening to the sounds around me with my eyes closed, even though I was moving and had my eyes open. Listening with one’s eyes closed is slightly unsettling, because we’re so used to relying on our eyes, and it makes us focus more on the sounds we hear, because hearing becomes our primary sense when sight is removed. As I tried to listen comprehensively this afternoon, I heard the same sounds that I normally would hear but I heard them differently; somehow I was more detached and yet more focused.

It happened again on my drive home from work at a point or two; I stopped hearing and focused on comprehensive listening, and I experienced the same phenomenon of “hearing” differently. It was a remarkable sensation. I imagine Pauline would tell me I’m making progress.

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09.02.2008

Wheel, Jona Lyons

Posted by AJ Harbison at 1:58 am

About two weeks ago, my good friend, former college roommate and current co-worker Doug sold me a CD by his good friend Jona Lyons. Lyons is an independent singer-songwriter from Fullerton who self-recorded and self-released this album, entitled Wheel, just recently. So, since I had an early listen, I thought I’d share it with all of you. Six songs from the album are on his Myspace page (linked above), so apart from my general comments I’ll focus on those songs so you can hear what I’m writing about.

First off, I have to say that recording and releasing an album on one’s own is a laudable feat and I applaud him for it–especially an album with a full band and 13 songs. So hats off to Lyons for succeeding in this.

Unfortunately, my first impression of the CD was not a particularly enjoyable one. The main problem the CD suffers from is a lack of quality production–understandable, certainly, considered it was recorded and produced in his house without the aid of a studio or engineer; but still disheartening. There are three primary things that particularly troubled me. First, the mixing is a little subpar: the voice doesn’t always stand out the way it should, the bass is too boomy, and the other instruments aren’t always mixed so that they come through clearly. (Similar to my complaints about Elton John’s CD that I wrote about here.) Second, there is little reverb used, and often the voice sounds somewhat flat and dry, where reverb would have filled out the sound a bit more. Third, and most troubling, is the fact that the crash cymbals seem to exceed the capacity of either the recording mikes or the sound board, and during big, loud parts of some songs (notably “Sorry” and “Tomorrow’s Up”), the sound of the cymbals actually cuts in and out a little. Added to a slightly unclear mix of the electric guitars, this creates a patchy and messy sound which almost ruins otherwise good songs. I also have to say that I am not the biggest fan of Lyons’ voice: he’s not always fully in control of it, nor always fully on key. But hey, he can sing a heck of a lot higher than I can, and those readers who know me know how picky I am about voices.

On my first listen through the CD, I found it hard to overcome these shortfalls. However, as I listened through it again and listened more closely to the songs themselves, I found myself enjoying it a lot more than I thought I would. “Wow, these songs are actually really cool!” The lyrics are not always as deep or well-written as I’d like them to be, but they’re good, and the music (while reminiscent of others) is pretty original and well done.

My two favorite songs on the CD are both on Lyons’ Myspace page: “Shining Knight” and “Six Years Ago.” Both have good imagery and insights in the lyrics and poignant, primarily acoustic music, and I’ve listened to them a whole bunch of times since I got the CD and I definitely haven’t grown tired of them yet. “Maybe Then You’d Love Me” (also on the Myspace page) is also simple, acoustic and enjoyable. “Sorry” and “Tomorrow’s Up,” despite their technical faults, are energetic and rockin’, as is “Honey” (another of my favorites). The second half of the CD, which contains the rest of the Myspace songs (“Every Daughter Is Defiled,” “Fullerton Boy” and “Wheel”), is not as enjoyable to me as the first half, with a few notable exceptions. “Saturday” is an ironically fun song–akin perhaps in some ways to my song “Coastin’”–and I like the Coldplay-esque progressions of “Something’s Not Right.” I’m not very fond of the song “Wonderful”; but in some way or another I enjoy each of the songs on the CD.

Lyons’ friend Jon Neal, whom I have met and jammed with before, produced the CD but is also listed in the credits as the performer of the “piano/organ/tympani/orchestra” as well, and his contributions to the CD make it stand out. He hasn’t had any formal musical training, to my understanding, but is very talented and very musical. His keyboard solo in the middle of “Shining Knight,” starting at the 3:10 mark, is the highlight of the whole CD for me; and his solo in “Six Years Ago” (at 1:58) is very reminiscent of Coldplay (in a very good way).

There is also a random moment in which Eric Whitacre makes a surprise appearance–at 1:39 in “Maybe Then You’d Love Me,” the front and background vocals suddenly break into a very Whitacre-like progression, complete with a diatonic cluster chord (a cluster using only notes from the major scale of the song). Very random, but very awesome.

Lyons classifies himself on the Myspace page as “Acoustic / Folk Rock,” and I think it’s a worthy appellation. Parts of his CD remind me of my own music; others of Coldplay, as I’ve mentioned; others of the Beatles; and others (quite a few) of the indie acoustic rock sound of groups like The Shins.

Would I recommend this CD to you? Yes (especially if you like what you hear on Myspace). Would I add Lyons to my list of favorite singer-songwriters? No. Would I go to another show of his (I’ve been to one before, prior to hearing the CD)? Yes. Would I sing along to the songs I now know? You bet.

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