04.29.2009

My New Google Profile

Posted by AJ Harbison at 9:13 pm

Google rolled out a new feature last week, Google Profiles, that enable you to further control your “personal branding” on Google. You can set up a Google Profile for yourself, and if you fill in most or all of the information, your profile will show up at the bottom of the first page of Google’s search results for your name. I just learned about this today, and I promptly set up a profile for myself. Most of the information I have on there can be found other places (like my website), but if you like, you can check it out at the following link:

http://www.google.com/profiles/ajharbison

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04.27.2009

Xylopholks

Posted by AJ Harbison at 5:23 pm

Thanks to Seán Dunnahoe for the tipoff to this…. Nothing too profound here, but it’s a lot of fun. Cookie Monster on xylophone and a pink gorilla on standup bass, plus a chicken on banjo in the second video, playing “novelty ragtime music from the 1920s” (http://www.myspace.com/xylopholks).

Seán’s wife’s comment: “Cookie Monster should definitely eat his mallets at the end of every set. Expensive, yet effective.”

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04.24.2009

Joyeux Noël

Posted by AJ Harbison at 11:00 pm

A few weeks ago my lovely wife and I watched the 2005 film Joyeux Noël (“Merry Christmas” in French)–her for the second time, me for the first. (Incidentally, we’ve been loving our subscription to Netflix and I’d heartily recommend it to anybody who enjoys watching a lot of movies.) Joyeux Noël is the story of the “Christmas Truces” during World War I, where soldiers on both sides left their trenches and met together in no man’s land on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in 1914. It was a superlative film–the acting and cinematography were top-notch, and it was emotionally powerful while never falling into sentimentality.

I don’t have much to say about the score, but I loved how music was portrayed in the movie as a force that brings people together. The truces were initiated when the German soldiers started singing carols on Christmas Eve, and were responded to by the other side singing carols back; in the movie (which takes a bit of historical license while still representing the spirit of the story) the Scottish soldiers start playing on their bagpipes, and are answered by the Germans singing “Silent Night.” Cautiously, the Scottish soldiers begin playing “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” and a German tenor rises from his trench and crosses no man’s land, singing along. It’s a powerful moment. Later, the Scottish chaplain holds a Mass, and the German tenor’s wife (who has come along to raise the troops’ morale) sings an “Ave Maria” to a transfixed crowd of all the soldiers: a great illustration of the power of beauty in a horrifically ugly situation.

The movie is a powerful testimony to how music can transcend race and culture and differences to unite people, and it garners my highest admiration and recommendation.

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04.21.2009

Spill – Kinetic Music

Posted by AJ Harbison at 9:46 pm

While researching something completely unrelated last week, I ran across this video on YouTube. It’s a live performance of a piece called Spill, composed by one Erik Griswold, and it’s very intriguing. It consists of a swinging pendulum that also acts as a funnel, slowly pouring thousands and thousands of rice grains onto the ground as it moves back and forth. The performer then places things like bowls and sheets of paper beneath the funnel, creating different timbres and sometimes pitches as the rice pours over them. It’s strangely mesmerizing. What do you think? Is this music? It’s certainly organized and orderly, and more aesthetically pleasing than, say, this piece of John Cage’s. You can check out the website of the performer and composer at http://www.clockedout.org.

What I really want to know is: Who gets to clean up the mess afterwards? And is that considered part of the performance?

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04.18.2009

Watchmen Soundtrack, Tyler Bates

Posted by AJ Harbison at 9:57 pm

As you may have seen on my Twitter page (or the sidebar on the right), I went to see the movie Watchmen on Thursday night. It’s the only film adaptation of what is generally accepted to be the greatest graphic novel/comic book of all time, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ work of the same name. It was considered “unfilmable” for over twenty years, but director Zack Snyder (of 300 fame) did a terrific job and made a movie worthy of the book. I’ve heard that he used the graphic novel basically as a storyboard for the movie, and many scenes are recreated almost shot-for-shot; overall it’s probably the most faithful book-to-movie adaptation I’ve ever seen. The performances were all great, especially Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach and Patrick Wilson as Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl II. One of my few reservations was that the movie didn’t give the Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias character enough credit–he was too much of a pretty boy and not enough emphasis was given to his intelligence–but overall I vastly enjoyed it. (IMDB’s trivia page on the movie is rather extensive, and is an interesting source of information on the long process of making the movie as well as a compendium of many of the subtle references made to the book in the movie. Well worth checking out, if you’re interested.)

I really enjoyed the music, as well. Most of the soundtrack consisted of songs from the time in which the movie takes place–”The Times They Are A-Changin’” by Bob Dylan, “All Along The Watchtower” performed by Jimi Hendrix, “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen, “The Sound Of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel, etc. Some of the songs play with the action happening on screen; for example, “The Times They are A-Changin’” plays over a historical montage setting the context of the movie and “The Sound Of Silence” plays over the graveyard scene of The Comedian’s funeral. Other songs play against the action, for example when “Unforgettable” performed by Nat King Cole plays over the intense violence of The Comedian’s murder at the beginning. Both uses are very effective in their own way, and I was impressed at how well all of the songs (which already exist in a set form, and were chosen because of their fame in the era) were put to use in the film. It’s also worth noting that many of the songs were referenced in the original graphic novel, several being the basis of issue titles; another example of Snyder paying homage to the source material in as many ways as possible.

The movie also uses several “classical” cues like Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” for one of the Vietnam War scenes (the piece is referenced in the book, though not in that context). During the scene of Dr. Manhattan’s origin story, which takes place on Mars, the music played is Philip Glass’ “Prophecies,” from the movie Koyaanisqatsi; the eerie, otherworldly quality of Glass’ minimalism is a perfect complement to the isolation and (literally) otherworldliness of the scene.

I enjoyed the actual score by Tyler Bates too (many if not all of the choices of pop songs would have been made by the music supervisor). It was unintrusive, and mostly consisted of background atmosphere-type cues. The one moment that stood out, however, was the scene where Laurie and Daniel (aka Silk Spectre II and Nite Owl II) decide to put their costumes on and go out adventuring, like they did in the old days. The music grew to a stirring, inspirational feel as the characters gained confidence and sensed old excitements coming back. The first thing that stood out was the music’s subtle homage paid to the Batman Begins and The Dark Knight scores, by James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer, in its rhythmic string pattern (I wrote about the Dark Knight score back in August). But scarcely before I began smiling at recognizing the reference, the score paid a much less subtle homage to Don Davis’ score for The Matrix, particularly part of the last cue “Anything Is Possible” which occurs when Neo comes back from the dead and realizes all of his powers inside the Matrix. It was practically Bates’ paraphrase of the Matrix cue. Both of the score references were to “superheroes,” of a sort, and indicated strong decisions to take up superhero-like powers–which, of course, was exactly what was happening in that scene in Watchmen. It was rather brilliant.

Watchmen was a great movie with a great soundtrack. The caveat is that there’s a lot of blood’n'guts and a few sex scenes, but I would recommend the movie highly to anyone who enjoyed the graphic novel. I rarely purchase film score albums, and even more rarely do I purchase soundtrack albums; but I’m considering both from this film. Well done, Zack Snyder and Tyler Bates.

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04.16.2009

Susan Boyle on "Britain's Got Talent"

Posted by AJ Harbison at 3:59 pm

I’m sure by now many of my readers have seen the headlines, and maybe even watched the video, but I thought for those few who may have not I’d post this. Five days ago, on the reality show “Britain’s Got Talent,” a frumpy-looking, middle-aged Scottish woman who lives alone with her cat and admitted she’d never been kissed came to the stage to sing. Simon Cowell (one of the judges of that show as well as “American Idol”) and the entire audience were skeptical of her; but when the music for “I Dreamed A Dream” from Les Miserables began and she started to sing, their laughter was changed to surprise, thunderous roars of applause and even tears. (If you watch the video, there’s a priceless shot of Cowell’s eyebrows going up within the first couple of seconds.) She delivered an amazing performance with a lovely, powerful voice that, over the course of a day or two, has become a huge Internet sensation. The YouTube video has been seen almost twelve and a half million times (a full ten percent of the total views of YouTube’s all-time most watched video, in five days)–and that’s only the full version, never mind the couple million more views of other versions. It’s worth checking out.

You can read an article about the performance (albeit a flowery one) here. Unfortunately, embedding of the YouTube video has been disabled by request; please click here to watch it.

Is she the best singer on reality TV? No. Is she really a good singer? Yeah, she is. Was her performance expectation-shattering and moving? Heck yeah it was.

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04.15.2009

The piece that I introduced to our friend last weekend is a favorite of mine. It’s a much smaller piece, in length and in scope, than Pärt’s Credo, but it’s a brilliant concept.

I was first exposed to the music of the Norwegian composer Knut Nystedt (born 1915) at Cal State Fullerton; in the University Singers choir, we sang an a cappella piece of his called Be Not Afraid. After a powerful chordal introduction, the bottom three parts (alto, tenor and bass) settled into an almost pop-music-like “groove,” a repeating pattern of chords with a dynamic rhythm, while the sopranos sang the melody over the top of it. I thought that was really cool, so I resolved to research the composer a little more. My choir director gave me another piece of his called O Crux, which is another terrific piece that I should post about sometime. And for Christmas that year, after searching far and wide for it, my mother got me the CD Nystedt: Sacred Choral Music, which includes recordings of both O Crux and the piece at hand: Immortal Bach.

Immortal Bach (1988) is modeled on Bach’s chorale “Komm, süsser Tod” (“Come, Sweet Death”), and is a deconstruction of the piece for a cappella choir. The choir begins by singing the chorale through as it was written (or at least harmonized) by Bach–the original version, consisting of three phrases, each of which have a cadence, or a progression leading to a particular chord, at the end. (The piece is in C minor; the first phrase ends on an E-flat major chord [III], the second on a G major chord [V], and the last, of course, on C minor [i].) Then, the choir sings through each of the three phrases again. But this time, each part moves at a different slow pace through the phrase, so that all of the parts move independently of the others. The result is exquisite, as the parts combine in different ways, the dissonances of the piece are extended and new sonorities are created. At the end of each phrase, all the parts come to rest on the final chord (eventually), there is a pause, and the next phrase begins. It’s incredibly simple, but incredibly beautiful as well.

I’ve seen two performances of the piece, both of which included a unique element. The first (by the John Alexander Singers of the Pacific Chorale) was performed in “surround sound,” with the 24 singers arranged around the audience. I believe this is how the score dictates that it should be performed (I tried for a long time to find a copy of the score viewable online, because I’d like to see what it looks like, but my efforts were to no avail). It was a pretty cool effect, but I felt like I couldn’t hear every part as well as I would have liked to. The second performance (by the Chamber Singers of Cal State Fullerton), directed by the same conductor who introduced me to Nystedt (Dr. Robert Istad), used motions to represent visually what was happening in the music. Each of the phrases had a corresponding motion (raising the arms, etc.) that each member of the choir acted out through the course of the phrase, so that at first all of the motions were done in sync. But in the subsequent phrases, each singer moved through the motion at the same rate they moved through the phrase, so you could see how all of the singers were at a different point in the music; but they all came together to the same position as they came together on the chord at the end of each phrase. It was a clever idea, and I enjoyed that performance a great deal.

It may sound cool when I describe it, but of course you really just have to listen to it. Click on the video below to hear a recording by the group Ensemble 96, conducted by Øystein Fevang. Gorgeous.

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04.12.2009

Happy Easter! He is risen–He is risen indeed!

My lovely wife and I were visiting a friend last weekend, and he introduced me to a piece that he’d been taken with recently. It was a modern “deconstruction” or reimagining of a Bach piece that was very well done. It just so happened that I had brought a CD for him to borrow, and it also contained a modern deconstruction of another Bach piece, so I played it for him and he enjoyed it quite a bit. And, of course, I thought it would make a great two-parter on TLB. So here’s part one of two….

The piece our friend played for us was a piece for choir, orchestra and solo piano entitled Credo, by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (born 1935). Pärt is best known for a composition style known as “holy minimalism” or “sacred minimalism,” which employs tonal chord structures with frequent repetition and an overall static (rather than dynamic and progressing) feeling. His particular brand of the style is designated as “tintinnabuli” (from the Latin tinnabulae, of bells) and is meant to sound like pealing, harmonius bells. Pärt has said that “Tintinnabuli is the mathematically exact connection from one line to another… tintinnabuli is the rule where the melody and the accompaniment is one”–in other words, the melody and accompanying voices move in block chords rather than having different rhythms. Most of Pärt’s famous works, including his Berliner Messe and Fratres (my personal favorite of his works), are written in this style, which he adopted in the 1970s.

However (after that long aside), Credo was written before that period, in 1968, and shows marks of his earlier preference for neo-classical and twelve-tone (or serial) styles. It is based on Bach’s first prelude from The Well-Tempered Clavier, a very simple piece in C major that repeats the same arpeggiated pattern while changing chords in each measure. (You can see a performance of that piece here; if you listen to the Pärt piece, I recommend listening to the Bach piece first.) Credo takes the piece and its chord progression, and then applies neo-classical, twelve-tone and collage techniques and makes it another piece entirely.

Credo begins with the choir singing and the orchestra playing long held notes–the same chords as the Bach prelude, but with no arpeggiation (in other words, instead of the chords being played as a series of individual notes, all the notes of the chord are sung at the same time). The first several measures are exactly the same progression and voicings of the Bach piece; but it gradually begins to stray from the original piece, getting farther and farther from the source material, and experiences a harrowing journey through a frenzied middle section that is loud, wild and twelve-tone (sounding much like something from Schoenberg or Prokofiev). It is a struggle, and a violent one at that, almost as if Pärt is wrestling with his own beliefs (“credo” is Latin for “I believe”), but also seems to symbolize the struggles between tonality and serialism, order and disorder. The piece almost seems to fall apart and disintegrate. But eventually the solo piano returns, playing the original prelude up several octaves, high above the fray; the dissonant orchestra attempts to drown it out, but tonality begins to triumph, and the choir returns softly but gains strength, and after a hymn-like return to the original prelude by the choir, orchestra and piano, the piano concludes the piece playing each C on the keyboard, from the lowest to the highest.

The piece was rather exhilarating, and is a brilliant “update” of sorts of the original Bach work. Pärt reinterprets Bach and turns his simple prelude into a huge piece that represents the struggles of both twentieth-century music and the human spirit. Definitely recommended!

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a free online recording of the piece to listen to; but it would be worth checking out on CD. If you’d like a more in-depth analysis of the piece, I found an excellent article you might want to check out as well, that gives a more detailed play-by-play of the piece and places it in the larger context of Pärt’s career; you can find it here.

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04.10.2009

I’m surprised, upon a quick look back over TLB, that I’ve never posted about Derek Webb before and I’ve only mentioned him a few times in passing, since he’s one of my favorite songwriters. That makes it ironic, too, I guess, that this first time I post about his music, he won’t be the focus. Ah well.

After listening multiple times through The Book of Secrets this past week in my car, I switched it out for Mockingbird, Derek Webb’s fourth solo album, since I realized I hadn’t listened to anything of his for a while. Each one of his solo albums is in a completely different style than the others, and this one has a stripped-down, simple, house-recorded feel to it (I guess because it is all of those things). In recording the album, the band did very few overdubs (recording multiple times through a song on the same instrument, or a similar one), resulting in simple instrumentation and little reworking or extra production. It’s not a sound I could listen to all the time, but I do enjoy it on this album.

What caught my attention this time through, as it has several times before, is the piano playing by Cason Cooley. On Derek Webb’s previous album I See Things Upside Down, Cooley mostly played keyboards that did a bunch of crazy things, but on Mockingbird it’s almost all straight piano. What I love about his playing is that oftentimes it’s very simple, almost too simple, and yet with a few notes he’s able to create a memorable riff or accompaniment pattern that fits perfectly with the style of the song. On track two, “A New Law,” the piano provides the primary motion of the harmonic accompaniment as well as the main riff of the song–and all Cooley is doing is arpeggiating root position triads in a certain way. For “A King & A Kingdom” (track three), he does the same thing with even fewer notes: he starts by playing a held octave, then a major seventh (moving the bottom note of the octave up a half step), then a few descending notes before returning to the octave. Incredibly simple, yet along with the drums it sets the mood for the whole song. And his playing is in a similar vein all throughout the album. The Romantic composer Johannes Brahms once said, “It is not hard to compose, but what is fabulously hard is to leave the superfluous notes under the table.” Cooley is a performer who knows how to leave the superfluous notes behind and make the most of the ones he keeps. I wish I could play so well.

You can listen to “A New Law” and “A King & A Kingdom” courtesy of Last.fm by visiting their respective links and clicking on the black play button in the player on the right side of the page.

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04.08.2009

Two Exciting Opportunities–My Record: 1-1

Posted by AJ Harbison at 10:47 pm

I wanted to give you all a brief update on the two exciting opportunities I wrote about two weeks ago, one involving a string quartet from Arizona interested in my piece P.S.Q. and the other involving starting a choir at my church.

Unfortunately, the leadership of the church wasn’t interested in the choir concept I’d come up with and didn’t think it fit with their vision and direction, so there went that idea. However, I’ve had much better success with Quartet Sabaku. My contact in the group told me that they read through the first movement (based on Maroon 5′s song “Harder To Breathe”) and loved it, but they were really busy and were hoping to finalize next season’s repertoire in a few months. So that was a great start, if nothing concrete. But I got another email from her on Monday and she informed me that they were going to be using my piece for an educational workshop on April 17th. I’m not sure exactly what the workshop is about, but that was rather exciting in and of itself–and seems to up the chances of landing the piece in their next performing season. I’ll keep you posted on further developments!

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