My lovely wife is a musical theatre connoisseur, and she recently gave me the soundtrack to Anything Goes (1934, although the version she gave me was the 1962 revival) to listen to. I’ve enjoyed it quite a bit, and just this morning finished listening to it all the way through. The lyrics by Cole Porter are quite clever–I must say that nothing I’ve heard thus far in my life can top Stephen Schwartz in Wicked, but I’ve been impressed with the lyrics in this show, especially in the songs “You’re The Top” and “Anything Goes.” And I’ve enjoyed the music as well. Musical theatre has never been one of my favorite styles of music; although I’m always up for seeing a good musical, I wouldn’t normally listen to a soundtrack on its own. But, when I gave Eleanor Coldplay’s LeftRightLeftRightLeft album and was looking for something of hers to listen to, I thought I’d take a musical to see what I could glean from the style.

I find that the music for Anything Goes is a little more interesting to me than “typical” musical theatre style. (Eleanor and I also listened to excerpts from Kiss Me, Kate recently, which is another Cole Porter musical from 14 years later, and we were both much less impressed.) The orchestra that it uses is an intriguing one: mostly piano, brass (in a big band sort of style), and drums/percussion, with only the occasional woodwind for color and a banjo (?!) just for good measure–hardly any strings at all. I have to give Mr. Porter props for that; I don’t think I could sacrifice strings in writing a musical, no matter how hard I tried. But I generally like the way the orchestra is used (even the banjo), although the piano parts can be a little hackneyed and most of its intros sound the same.

In listening to this musical, I also tried to deduce what musical elements make up the “musical theatre sound.” Certainly the orchestration (primarily brass and piano) has something to do with it. As far as the harmonies go, they tend towards a pop-jazz style, using lots of extended chords (sevenths, ninths, etc. without getting too crazy or dissonant), secondary dominants and active, mobile bass lines based around the tonic and fifth (C – G – C – G – C – G – C G A B – C etc.). And melodies and harmonies alike are in love with the sixth (e.g. the note A in C major)–somehow the sixth as a melody note is harmonious and “part of the chord” with the tonic triad in many songs (see, for example, the song “Heaven Hop” in Anything Goes). Apart from those, though, I’m not sure anything else jumps out at me, even though musical theatre is an almost instantly recognizable style.

What are your thoughts? What do you think of Anything Goes? Any technical or non-technical ideas about what makes something sound distinctly like a musical?

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06.26.2009

Oldest-known Musical Instrument Found?

Posted by AJ Harbison at 4:45 pm

On Thursday afternoon I came across the following story on MSN. Entitled “Music for cavemen,” it describes the discovery in southwestern Germany of what is considered to be “the earliest handcrafted musical instrument”–a flute carved from the bone of a griffon vulture. If you click on the picture at the top of the article (or on the link in the middle) you can hear an audio sample of what the flute “might” have sounded like. (I believe that means that the flute in the clip is a replica, not the actual specimen found–it’s probably far too valuable to actually put your lips to.) I wonder what it is that the flute is playing; it’s a simple, folklike tune, pretty boring in the beginning but getting more interesting as it goes along.

“Music for cavemen”

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06.24.2009

Leafblowers

Posted by AJ Harbison at 4:38 pm

The office I work in is about a block down the street from my company’s main office, and I usually walk back and forth between them once or twice a day. I was walking back from the main office this afternoon, and passed a couple of guys with leafblowers cleaning up a parking lot. Each of them had one, and the hum of the two leafblowers was the interval of a fifth apart–in almost-perfect tuning. (A fifth is the distance of, for example, C up to G, or A up to E). They were different sizes, which explained the difference in pitch: the higher one was completely handheld and narrower, while the lower one had a backpack and a bigger tube. Bigger and longer always equals lower in acoustics, whether it’s a string or a column of air–consider how much bigger a cello or double bass is compared to a violin, or a bassoon compared to an oboe.

My first thought was that the “bore” size of the second one must be bigger than the first by a third–because a perfect fifth is created by the ratio of 3:2 to the original note (for example, the rate a string vibrates to produce the tone G is in the ratio of 3:2 to the rate the same string vibrates to produce a C). But I quickly corrected myself when I realized that the hum was created not by the air moving through the tube, of course, but by the motor. (Less interesting that way, but has the virtue of being true). So the fifth was created by some 3:2 ratio between the motors; since I know nothing about mechanics, though, I’m not sure exactly what property it was that created the ratio. But I still found it interesting. Just goes to show that you should always be listening–music (or at least a semblance of it) can be found in the most unexpected places!

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06.18.2009

Sideways Score, Rolfe Kent

Posted by AJ Harbison at 5:25 pm

My lovely wife and I watched the movie Sideways for the first time last night (and drank a 2007 Robert Mondavi pinot noir to commemorate the occasion). The movie is about two middle-aged men who take a trip through Napa Valley wine country the week before one of them gets married; along the way, as the movie’s tagline states, they’re “In search of wine. In search of women. In search of themselves.” It was an enjoyable movie; it’s billed as a comedy, and the first half was quite fun and had a lot to do with wine (which of course I enjoyed). The second half, however, was much more of a drama, and had much less to do with wine (and I was a little disappointed). But overall it was quite a good movie.

The score was written by Rolfe Kent, who has written music for many of director Alexander Payne’s movies (including About Schmidt and Election) as well as other popular movies such as Wedding Crashers, Thank You For Smoking and Legally Blonde. It was a jazzy, piano-driven pop-music score–reminiscent in my mind of the style of Hitch‘s score by George Fenton. There was a lot of music in the film, probably because the movie covers the period of an entire week and thus there are a lot of short scenes and transitions that the music helps along, and the upbeat, poppy music definitely kept the atmosphere light and kept things moving. I was especially fond of the theme that plays on the DVD menu (you can hear samples on the score’s Amazon page; that particular theme can be found in a more subdued version in “Los Olivos,” track 8). But there was also some melancholy piano solo music that helped set the tone of the second half of the movie as well, that followed a common bass line progression: G minor – F# augmented – B-flat major over F – C major 9 over E – etc. (You can hear this theme in track 11 on the Amazon page, “Abandoning The Wedding.”)

Sideways progression

We watched the movie all the way through the end credits, as we always do, and it was interesting to note that through most of the credits the music was the jazzy, upbeat style of the first half of the movie; but the very last part of the score at the end returned to the doleful piano theme and ended on that. I wonder if it was an intentional statement by the filmmakers that although there are happy and upbeat times in life, the underlying theme (or perhaps the final theme) is melancholy. It certainly did seem that way for the characters in the film.

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06.14.2009

On Video Game Music

Posted by AJ Harbison at 10:34 am

As a member of the American Composers Forum, I receive their newsletter Sounding Board every other month. I just got around to reading the May/June issue on Friday, and I came across an interesting article (originally published in the LA Times) about video game music. Despite having an awful title, it provides some insights into the composing and recording process, and is worth a quick read:

“Their music for video games depends on play: Composers record seconds of music that can be rearranged in many ways to match the changing action”

Video game music was never a field of composition that I was too interested in; I grew up on Nintendo, Game Boy, Super Nintendo and PlayStation but was never what you’d call a “gamer.” But after reading this article, I have to admit that my interest has been piqued.

I know I have a few gamers out there among my readers, and probably more who have some level of interest and experience. Do you normally notice the score in games that you play? What are some of your favorite game scores? (Guitar Hero doesn’t count….)

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06.11.2009

Before Sunrise

Posted by AJ Harbison at 4:02 pm

At the recommendation of my brother, my lovely wife and I watched Before Sunrise this past week. Ethan Hawke stars as an American traveler in Europe who meets a lovely French girl on the train, and invites her to spend the night with him walking the streets of Vienna before he flies home in the morning. It was written and directed by Richard Linklater, and it’s a very unique film. There are no major characters apart from the two protagonists (possibly not even any other named characters), and there’s very little action; the film focuses entirely on their developing relationship, primarily through dialogue, but it’s well-written enough that it doesn’t get boring and seems strikingly realistic.

The music was very minimal, and, interestingly enough, except for the very beginning and the very end of the movie, all of the music was source music. Source music (or, more technically, diegetic music) is music that has an on-screen or inferred source within the film, which the characters can hear (for example, a singer-songwriter playing in a bar or a man playing a harpsichord in his basement as the characters pass by). The only non-source or non-diegetic music in the film is a string orchestra playing at the beginning over a progression of shots of the train and its travels, and a similar piece at the end after the two part ways. (I wasn’t able to find definitive information on what the piece at the end was, although the beginning was the overture to Dido and Aeneas by the English Baroque composer Henry Purcell.)

The choice to use little or no music in a movie, or at least little or no non-source music, is always an interesting one. The example that came to mind for me was No Country For Old Men, the Best Picture Oscar winner from 2008 (and obviously worlds apart from Before Sunrise). In that movie, the lack of music created an eerie, too-quiet feeling of vulnerability–too much silence (or quiet) is often discomfiting. But in Before Sunrise, the lack of music has a very different effect. Like many other elements in the film, the music is stripped away in order to direct all the focus upon the two characters, and also creates a more viable environment of realism (since obviously real life isn’t accompanied by a non-diegetic score). Adding music would also create the dangerous likelihood of the film descending into sentimentality–only an especially talented composer, I think, could avoid that, and thus cutting out non-source music altogether (apart from the beginning and the end) eliminates that possibility.

My wife and I enjoyed the film quite a bit. Not a great movie, I’d say, but a good story, told well. Even without a score.

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06.08.2009

LeftRightLeftRightLeft, Coldplay

Posted by AJ Harbison at 4:32 pm

It took me a while, but I finally downloaded Coldplay‘s new live album a few weeks ago. It’s called LeftRightLeftRightLeft, and can be downloaded for free here (they’re also giving away free copies at their shows; according to the band, it’s a “recession-busting” thank-you to their fans).

It’s awesome, of course, since it’s Coldplay (and my love for the band is well-documented). But the dynamic of a live album is an interesting one. Of course it’s fun to hear the crowd in the background, cheering and singing along; to hear Chris Martin’s occasional comments; to hear the live version of “Death Will Never Conquer,” featuring “the singing abilities of Mr. William Champion” (their drummer). But for the most part, the rest of the songs appear very much like their counterparts on the studio albums (mainly Viva La Vida and Prospekt’s March, plus “The Hardest Part” from X&Y and “Clocks” from A Rush Of Blood To The Head). And that makes me wonder how interesting most people find the live versions. Take for example “Viva La Vida.” Apart from beginning with the chorus’ background vocals, the song is practically identical to the studio version, complete with the recorded string tracks, except for the fact that the vocals are a little less polished. I realize that this was a huge single, the title track from their last main record, their current signature song, etc., and that people would probably revolt in outrage if it was played a different way. But I, for one, would be interested to hear how the band might arrange it if they didn’t have the string tracks. Could the electric guitar take over the rhythmic harmony parts, with a keyboard doing some of the midrange riffs during the verses? Do I really want to get an album to hear a live track that could almost be a studio track with added crowd noise? (I know it’s a free download, but I’m talking about the principle here…)

Most of the tracks fit this bill, including “Glass Of Water,” “42,” and “Clocks”–the main difference is slight differences or added flourishes in the vocals–and the tracks that are different are the ones that stand out. “Strawberry Swing,” perhaps the song I underestimated the most on Viva La Vida, is basically the same instrumentally, but Martin changes some of the lyrics slightly (and they make more of an emotional impact in their changed form). It was exciting, listening through LeftRightLeftRightLeft for the first time, to hear the different lyrics–”that wasn’t how it was on the last record!” “The Hardest Part” is also interesting–Martin performs it solo on piano, so although the melody and lyrics are basically the same, it has a different accompaniment (and is also made into a medley with the instrumental track “Postcards From Far Away”).

Of course, these thoughts haven’t kept me from listening to the album nonstop for a week or two. But it’s interesting to me that a band as musically genius as Coldplay would not only play songs live the same way they appear on the album, but also release a live record of songs as they appear on the album. What are your thoughts?

P.S. For some reason, over the past few days TLB has been absolutely deluged with spam (in the space of two or three days I’ve gotten as many spam comments as I’ve gotten legitimate comments over the entire history of the blog). In the process of vehemently deleting the spam comments, I also deleted a few legitimate comments, back to April 20th–including the first comment on the redesigned site, which was from Idhrendur. So, even though the comment itself no longer exists, I can still commemorate his great achievement here in this post. I’ve installed the Akismet plugin, which has eliminated all the spam thus far, so hopefully this won’t be a problem again. And if I deleted your comment–you should just leave another one!

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06.03.2009

“The Drone of the American Continents”

Posted by AJ Harbison at 9:59 am

Last night there was a fearful (and exciting) thunderstorm in Costa Mesa with thunder so loud it made our windows rattle.  The commotion woke my wife and I in the middle of the night, and we looked out our window to catch some views of the lightning and rain before going back to bed. Shortly after we turned back in, our power went out, which (along with everything else) killed the fan that was running in our room. The whole block had lost power, and so everything was very quiet–eerily quiet. We hardly ever, or never, notice it, but there is a constant electric hum that is always running just underneath our perception–we never notice it because it’s always there (just as a fish would never notice that it’s wet because it’s always underwater). But last night, when the power died, the hum disappeared, and it left a notable silence. It was much closer to silence than we ever normally get; my wife loved it, but it made me a little uneasy.

It didn’t last long, and after twenty minutes or so the power came back on. I heard the fan start up again, and faintly, underneath it, I heard the hum begin again; but I couldn’t hold onto it for long, and it soon disappeared again under my level of perception. But it was interesting to experience it unmasked, if only for a short while.

La Monte Young, the father of the musical minimalism movement, explored the concept of drones (a constant tone around which other tones move) quite a bit in his music, and was also one of the primary proponents of just intonation in the last century. He often staged performances and improvisations at his home in New York, and he says in one paper that he chose the 120-cycle hum of his home’s aquarium motor for a drone in order to keep it “in tune with the frequency of the 60 Hz AC power supplied by Con Edison” (basically meaning that the pitch of the hum of the motor was an octave above the hum of the power; 60 Hz is approximately equal to the B-natural two octaves below middle C). He ends that section with this quote, which tends toward the poetic but accurately sums up what I’ve been talking about:

The primary drone on my Original master tape of “April 25, 1965 day of niagra” is 80 Hz, 4/3 above 60 Hz, which is the dominant or the 5th degree. Because the recorder used to make the unauthorized copy that produced the Table of The Elements CD 74 ran at a slightly different speed from the Original, the ToE CD is at a slightly higher frequency and, therefore, has lost the intended effect of its harmonious relationship of a perfect just fourth to the 60 Hz AC power line drone of the American continents.

(P.S. I’m sorry that I haven’t been posting much lately–I’ve still been busy, and I’m still working on putting together my music website at http://www.ajharbison.com. But that’s coming together quite well, and I’m hoping to start posting more often again. We soon return you to your regularly scheduled TLB!)

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