03.28.2010

My friend Jessica today pointed me to a cool video on Michael Giacchino’s score for the movie Up (which incidentally is a great movie; it won the Academy Award for Animated Feature Film and Giacchino won the award for Best Original Score). Giacchino is one of the fastest-rising young composers in Hollywood today, and he’s becoming a household name (at least as much as any composer can be) for his work in movies like Up, the latest Star Trek movie and The Incredibles, as well as scoring J.J. Abrams’ TV shows Lost and Alias (which I’ve written about here). The score for Up perfectly captured the simplicity and emotional power of the story, and the video is an interesting look at the way Giacchino portrayed the characters with their musical themes, and how those themes evolved and interacted throughout the film. Worth a watch!

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03.23.2010

PAIRINGS: Food, Wine and Music in Napa

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:16 pm

My good friend Courtney Patino, a rabid Dave Matthews Band fan, recommended to me a website sent to her via DMB’s email list. It’s called “Pairings,” and it details an evening of music, wine and food last fall when Dave Matthews met with New Orleans chef John Besh at the Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa Valley, California. There are five videos on the website featuring interviews with the two of them and Genevieve Janssens, Mondavi’s director of winemaking, as they tour the winery and kitchen, taste wine and food, and listen to an acoustic performance by Dave Matthews at the dinner culminating the event. It’s pretty interesting to watch, and there are some good parallels drawn between food, wine and music as being more thoroughly enjoyed when experienced together rather than individually, and how they are all meant not to be kept to yourself, but need to be shared to be experienced to their fullest potential. There’s no timer on the video frame, but I’d say each video is short–between three and five minutes long. Just one warning: don’t watch the fourth video, “A Magical Evening,” if you’re hungry–it shows the menu that John Besh put together and it’ll make your mouth water!

American Express Presents PAIRINGS: Dave Matthews and John Besh

I hope one day to be able to say, like Dave Matthews, that I have a small vineyard and a go-to winery for myself. Although I hope that unlike Dave Matthews, I will continue to pronounce “New Orleans” “New OR-luhns,” as opposed to the way he says “New OR-lee-uhns.”

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03.15.2010

Andrew Lloyd Webber vs. Stephen Sondheim

Posted by AJ Harbison at 5:56 pm

For reasons that will remain undisclosed for now, I’ve been listening to a lot of musicals on my iPod at work lately. Most of this music, of course, comes from my wife, since she studied musical theatre in high school and owns lots of soundtracks. A few that are on there now are Phantom (not Phantom of the Opera, but a different musical on the same story), The King and I, and Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, which is awesome. In addition to those, I also have Andrew Lloyd Webber: The Music, The Magic, which is a three-CD set of some of his “greatest hits;” and Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim. (If you’ve never seen the Into the Woods DVD, recorded from the stage production starring Bernadette Peters as the Witch, you owe it to yourself.)

It’s been interesting to compare Webber’s music to Sondheim’s in Into the Woods. Webber’s songs are basically pop music adapted to the theatre: simple, catchy hooks and melodies, pop-style chord progressions and relatively tame rhythms with pop-style syncopations, with pop-Broadway orchestrations. Sondheim’s music, though, is closer to opera (or at least to classical) than to pop music. The melodies often contain difficult jumps that aren’t typical for vocal music and are more fragmented and motivic than long and flowing. The chord structures are often very complex. And the rhythms are constantly changing and shifting, difficult to pin down to a pattern or single time signature, and more closely follow the pattern of speech than typical musical patterns. I was surprised and impressed when my lovely wife and I watched Into the Woods a few months ago; the performances were good in themselves, but they were terrific considering how difficult the music was.

There’s nothing wrong with Webber’s music, of course; it’s pop-music candy for the ears. But for a substantial meat-and-potatoes meal, Sondheim delivers something unique and masterful that’s quite inspiring to an aspiring composer such as myself.

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I was referred last week to an interesting article by a fellow CFAMC composer. It talks about a new book by Philip Ball called The Music Instinct, in which he finds that there’s a neurological reason why people find it hard to enjoy atonal music by Schoenberg, Webern and the like. Apparently our brains are always looking for patterns in the music we listen to, and while music by Bach, Mozart and other classical composers naturally has the sort of organization that lends itself to pattern recognition, the music of twentieth century atonal composers is devoid of such patterns. (An interesting quote: “We measured the predictability of tone sequences in music by Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern and found the successive pitches were less predictable than random tone sequences.”) To his credit, though, Ball qualifies, “That isn’t to say, of course, that it is impossible to listen to, it is just harder work. It would be wrong to dismiss such music as a racket.” It reminds me of something my piano teacher at Cal State Fullerton used to say: he said that he enjoyed listening to modern, avant-garde music–as long as he was in the mood to work hard enough to understand it. Check out the Telegraph article at the following link and let me know what you think!

“Audiences hate modern classical music because their brains cannot cope”

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The final song on Prospekt’s March, clocking in at only 2:27, is “Now My Feet Won’t Touch the Ground,” the coming to fruition of the theme of that phrase from Viva La Vida and this EP. In this song it comes to its full expression, and the lyrics seem to be accepting of death, even implying that it’s time–again envisioning death as freedom. It begins with just a solo guitar and Chris Martin’s voice, like “Prospekt’s March/Poppyfields,” but it’s much more upbeat and fuller-sounding. The guitar is tuned in a different way than a normal guitar, allowing it to utilize more strings for each chord, play melodic lines within the strings and provide a richer sound (like the guitar in “Kingdom Come,” the hidden track on X&Y). It has an almost folk-song-like quality to it, with its simplicity, easily singable melody and basic chords (I, IV and V). Some electronic effects are added in the background after the first chorus, which sound like manipulated brass samples; they foreshadow the repeat of the chorus, where the guitar and effects remain the same but a full brass section accompanies them (along with a doubling of the vocal line an octave higher). The last line (“now my feet won’t touch the ground”) is repeated with only the brass as an accompaniment, recalling the strings-only accompaniment to the chorus of “Rainy Day” earlier in the album; and with that, Prospekt’s March comes to an end.

And with it this series of blog posts! I hope you enjoyed the last two weeks, and aren’t too offended that it was published a year late. Hmmm… what to write about next?

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03.07.2010

The penultimate track on Prospekt’s March is the “Osaka Sun” remix of “Lovers In Japan,” a song from Viva La Vida. It’s almost exactly the same as the album version, which is pretty disappointing, especially considering how cool the acoustic version is (which was a bonus track included in the iTunes preorder of Viva La Vida). It’s a fun song though, with a unique sound: toy piano, rhythmic snare pattern, shiny electric guitars that fill out the sound and add character. The chorus maintains the same feel and instrumentation but adds a couple of electric guitar riffs to add intensity. The main difference in the remix is the addition of some background vocals after the first chorus and a slightly more lively tempo. I would have liked something a little further removed from the album version, but at least I have the acoustic version to fulfill that desire.

And there’s only one song remaining….

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03.05.2010

After the rocking energy of “Rainy Day,” Prospekt’s March chills out with the title track, “Prospekt’s March/Poppyfields.” It begins with a solo guitar and voice, which creates a simple yet powerful texture. The guitar itself is very thin-sounding with lots of fret noise, giving it a “fragile” sound. As the song continues, atmospherics and high strings are added to fill out the sound even though it’s still just guitar and voice; eventually the bass and electric guitar enter, but they do so subtly and without changing the simple sound of the song. The lyrics again deal with the theme of death, as the opening words seem to describe a battle’s aftermath and Chris Martin sings “I don’t wanna die on my own here tonight,” and it ends with an oriental-like pentatonic figure in the electric guitar.

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03.03.2010

“Lost+,” Prospekt’s March, Coldplay

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:37 pm

The sixth track on Prospekt’s March is “Lost+,” one of the four versions of the song that the band has recorded. All of them have a unique symbol after “Lost” to designate which version it is. The first to be released, “Lost?”, is a piano-solo acoustic version; “Lost!” was the track on Viva La Vida; “Lost@” is a live version recorded in Chicago; and “Lost+” is the Prospekt’s March track, designated “+” because it features an extended solo section with a rap by Jay-Z about success and its consequences. Other than the rap, which is pretty well-written and well-performed, the song is essentially the same as the Viva La Vida track: the same progression, cool sampled percussion and sweet lyrics. The rap occurs over an extended verse chord progression, and a choir enters subtly in the background to fill out the sound; at the line “success is like suicide,” the guitar solo from the original song begins. When the rap is finished, the song ends the same way the original did. You can read my thoughts on the original song, and how I first fell in love with it, here.

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03.01.2010

“Rainy Day,” Prospekt’s March, Coldplay

Posted by AJ Harbison at 5:37 pm

The second coolest song on Prospekt’s March (at least in my opinion) is “Rainy Day,” track four. It begins with a weird piano sample for a few moments before beginning the song proper. The verse is backed by electronics, a lead electric guitar and an electric guitar with delay (the effect that makes each chord repeat multiple times even though the guitarist only plays it once).

But the reason the song is one of the coolest on the album, as with “Glass of Water,” is the chorus. The chorus of “Rainy Day” is accompanied entirely by strings. No guitar, no drums, no bass. All strings. And to my surprise when I first heard it, it sounds terrific and it works. The basses provide a driving rhythm which ensures that the song doesn’t lose energy or momentum from losing the other instruments and the drums. And the arrangement of the strings is very well done: the basses have the rhythm, there’s an independently moving cello line in the low mid range, and the violins and violas have held notes in the mid and high ranges. The other thing that makes the strings so cool is the sick high cello riff in the middle of the chorus (listen for it, starting with a flattened third, right after the words “slow down”). The range of the line (high for a cello) gives it a great deal of tension on the instrument, which, along with the flattened third, makes it jump out of the texture and bring attention to how rocking it is.

The chord progression in the chorus is VII – IV – I; the song is in E-flat, which means the chord progression is D-flat – A-flat – E-flat. This is a relatively common progression in pop music, and I’ve heard it zillions of times. But I think that “Rainy Day” is the most musically satisfying use of the VII – IV – I progression I’ve ever heard. And the accompaniment is all strings. Brilliant.

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