Jan Swafford’s second recent article on Slate.com concerns the history of tuning and temperament, and it’s an excellent summary of the subject. It’s another enjoyable read–I particularly like the way he describes the impossibility of pure tuning as “the laughter of the gods” and continues the image throughout the article. And again he includes some great musical clips, including Peter Watchorn playing from Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier (which, Swafford says, was written “not only to show off this improved system but to help make well-temperament mandatory by writing irreplaceable pieces in every key”) and a side-by-side comparison of a Beethoven sonata movement in modern equal temperament and in a 19th century tuning called Prinz. Can you hear the difference? (Hint: I think it’s a little easier to hear listening to the Prinz first and then the equal temperament, rather than the other way around.)

“The Wolf at Our Heels: The centuries-old struggle to play in tune”


A little over a week ago I was both surprised and flattered to receive an email from a digital media company asking me if I’d like to review Sandra McCracken‘s upcoming CD, In Feast Or Fallow. I was planning on getting the CD for myself anyway, so I said I’d be more than happy to listen to the CD and post my thoughts.

In Feast Or Fallow, which was produced by Sandra’s frequent collaborator and always husband Derek Webb, is a followup to her 2005 album The Builder and the Architect. Both albums are comprised mainly of old hymn texts set to new music, sometimes written by Sandra herself and sometimes written by others, and several new songs written in a hymn-like style. She created a new website for this project, http://www.newoldhymns.com, which has information on her two hymns albums and includes a bunch of resources for reviving old hymns for a new generation. I am a big fan of The Builder and the Architect, and I’m eager to hear what Sandra and Derek have done on this new album.

I say I am eager to hear it, because I’ve decided to “liveblog” my first listen through the album: blogging as I listen, rather than writing my collected thoughts afterwards. I thought it might make for an interesting read (feel free to disagree in the comments if you don’t think it’s as good as a regular post). So, starting with track 1, here we go:

Track 1, “Petition” – The album starts with some interesting electronic sounds, heavily reverbed piano and shimmering high picking. Immediately something different from anything Sandra’s done before. The rhythms and meter are more syncopated and modern than the sometimes stiff rhythms of The Builder and the Architect. I like ‘em a lot. That album used acoustic instruments almost exclusively, heavily focused on guitar and piano, and none of the songs had a full drum set; this album starts at least with a wide variety of acoustic and electronic instruments, and I like the sound. Wish the vocals were mixed a little louder.

Track 2, “Can’t Help Myself” – Sandra sings “I confess the things I am afraid of”–she’s said that this CD is 15 different ways of asking the question, “What are we afraid of?” Nice layered vocals in the middle–a whole chours of Sandras. “Oh, trust the Lord, my soul, and all that is in me”: the answer to the fear.

Track 3, “A Narrow Cradle” – Instrumental track: a gradually growing progression of not-too-realistic but intentional samples. Something Derek did on his album Mockingbird, though in his case with real instruments. I dig it.

Track 4, “Justice Will Roll Down” – A more typical upbeat guitar/bass/drums groove. Adds an organ on verse 2; a great picture of the “new old hymns” idea. Noticing that the songs are pretty long; first was 5 minutes, second was 6, this one is 4 (rewritten hymns can tend to go by pretty quickly).

Track 5, “New Wonders” – Slower, more ballad-like, but the chord progression grabs me more so than any of the songs so far. Very Sandra-sounding, with idiomatic guitar sliding progressions and lots of suspended chords. The organ makes another appearance.

Track 6, “Give Reviving” – More production elements back in this song. I like the give-and-take between a more traditional sound and a more produced one; both feel natural rather than forced, and it makes for an album that’s never dull to listen to. Again I wish the vocals were just a little hotter in the mix; they tend to get just a little obscured by everything else.

Track 7, “This Is The Christ” – Again back to acoustic guitar and piano. I like the texture, with the picking guitar providing the main movement, and the piano providing only punctuating chords. The march snare beat is a little clichéd, but interesting in that it’s panned to the left and right on different beats.

Track 8, “Bands Of Angels” – The snare roll is carried over from the last song (without the marching beat). Another short instrumental track. I like the way that they break up the vocal songs; provides some variety on a pretty long album (15 tracks).

Track 9, “Hidden Place” – The high glockenspiel-type instruments/guitar pairing, along with the dark piano bass notes, reminds me of the sound of Sandra and Derek’s Ampersand EP album. The album recalls a lot of Sandra’s earlier works in multiple ways (chord progressions, instrumental textures), but simultaneously represents something totally new.

Track 10, “Eighty-Eight” – Starts with an accompaniment of only strings–creative texture, not just boring block chords.

Track 11, “In Feast Or Fallow” – The title track starts with a different singer (I think it’s Thad Cockrell), and also features Derek singing verse 2. The determined guitars make it sound like an anthem–albeit an anthem with much deeper and more meaningful lyrics than anthems typically have. I like the harmony of the three of them singing together, but the blend isn’t as tight as I’d like.

Track 12, “I Glory In Christ” – A song made up almost exclusively of produced sounds; reminiscent of Derek’s latest album, Stockholm Syndrome. Again a nice change-up from the guitar-based acoustic sound, and not at all out of place.

Track 13, “980 Anne Steele” – A bit of shifting meter here. Not as musically interesting as some of the other tracks, and the slow tempo makes it feel a little dragging. Kinda disappointed in this one.

Track 14, “Sweet Sorrow” – Nice finger-picking, but I was hoping it would be a little bit faster and more upbeat to pick up where the previous track took me down. Ending (particularly with the drums) feels a little awkward.

Track 15, “Faith’s Review & Expectation (Amazing Grace)” – This is, of course, one of the greatest and one of the most overdone hymns of all time; but Sandra said she wanted to record a version unlike anything you’ve heard before. She certainly succeeds with me. Starts off with just vocal and organ, but then the percussion and guitars kick in, followed by drums and organ. Rollicking in a folky kind of way; not what I’d call “rockin’,” but fun and upbeat nonetheless–and certainly very different. A few of her chord changes are unconventional and serve to change up the progression nicely. I’d like the texture to change a little more throughout the song, and particularly on the last verse to build rather than repeat a texture we’ve heard before. But she delivers a version of “Amazing Grace” simultaneously different from any I’ve heard and very patently her own.

My overall impression is of a record that is unmistakably a Sandra McCracken record, while taking her music in an entirely new creative direction. The juxtaposition of acoustic instruments and new electronic sounds is a perfect symbol of what she’s doing with the “new old hymns” concept, and produces a surprisingly coherent and natural synthesis that balances perfectly throughout. A very worthwhile listen, and one that makes me look forward with anticipation to what Sandra will do next.

In Feast Or Fallow officially releases tomorrow, April 27th, and can be bought on iTunes, Amazon and Sandra McCracken’s website.


Jan Swafford has recently written two interesting (albeit lengthy) posts on Slate.com‘s music channel that I thought I’d share with you. The first is about a unique collection of 19th century pianos in Massachusetts and their keepers, Pat and Michael Frederick, and how playing composers’ works on the pianos they wrote them for is a much different experience than hearing them on, say, a modern Steinway. It’s an enjoyable read, and best of all there are lots of music clips of performances on the older pianos to demonstrate the difference. The recording of the “Moonlight” Sonata on a Viennese piano from 1805 is a little disappointing–it’s very quiet, and there are lots of other ambient noises that obscure much of the effect–but the following recording comparing the modern and older pianos playing the “Appassionata” Sonata is much better and shows a very discernible difference in tone quality, especially in the lower register. The remaining comparisons are all pretty cool and worth a listen; and the closing remarks about the current homogeneity in piano brand sales and tone quality is also insightful.

“Why you’ve never really heard the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata”


2001: A Space Odyssey Soundtrack

Posted by AJ Harbison at 2:44 pm

Last week my lovely wife and I watched the classic 1968 Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey. I’d seen it once before, and she had seen it several times (including watching it with her family on the night of December 31st, 2000; when she told me that story I got jealous and wished I’d done that too). It’s a great film and enjoyable to watch, if you can appreciate it for its cinematography and artistry while enduring the fact that it moves very slowly.

This time around I really enjoyed the pacing of the film. It’s a long one–just under two and a half hours–but it sets up that length perfectly from an artistic point of view. The movie begins with several minutes of a black screen with creepy music playing, and when images start appearing, they are long, lingering shots of open landscape with no action (as well as no dialogue for the first 25 minutes). This slow opening sets the pace for a long movie beautifully; if the opening had been fast-moving and action-packed, but then the film continued into a slow-moving artistic piece, it would have been artistically incongruous. The ending of the movie is also several minutes of black screen with music playing, which creates an arch-like form and is a nice way to complete the film the way it began.

I’ve never liked the way Kubrick chose Richard Strauss’ waltz music for the space scenes, particularly in the beginning of the movie (partly because I’m not a fan of the music itself). But my wife, who is often more astute at picking up on these things than I am, helped to elucidate it for me a bit more. The simple explanation, of course, is that the gently lilting waltz music mirrors the graceful floating and spinning of the ships as they move through space. But she also noted that the whimsical, happy music of the beginning sets the viewer up for a somewhat jarring contrast later as the “horrors” (as she called them) begin to unfold. So in addition to matching the action on screen at the time, it also puts us into a particular mood so that the events happening later in the movie will have a greater impact.

The final thing about the soundtrack that was interesting was a fascinating tidbit we found while rewatching one of the scenes in French. My wife is a fluent French speaker and I am an aspiring one, so when we watch movies we’ll occasionally go back and watch a scene or two in French if the language is available. In this particular case we went back to watch the scene where the astronaut Bowman disables the memory of the supercomputer HAL who is running the ship. In the English film, as HAL’s mind begins to disintegrate, he starts singing the song “Daisy” (also known as “A Bicycle Built For Two”), which is a classic American folk song. However, in the French dubbed version, he didn’t sing “Daisy” but rather “Au Clair de la Lune” (“By the Light of the Moon”), which is a classic French folk song that is the approximate cultural equivalent of “Daisy” in American English. Isn’t that cool?


Tragedy and Comedy

Posted by AJ Harbison at 10:31 am

Last week my lovely wife and I completed the deal that we’d made a while back, that I would watch the 6 hour BBC version of Pride and Prejudice with her if she watched all three Matrix movies with me. The double wedding at the end of Pride and Prejudice reminded me of a simple, generalized classification system I’d heard of for Shakespeare’s plays: if everyone dies at the end, it’s a tragedy, and if everyone gets married at the end, it’s a comedy. My thought on the subject was also influenced by a book I read recently, Frederick Buechner’s Telling The Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale. Among many other excellent insights, he describes tragedy as the inevitable–what we expect to happen, happens; and comedy as the unexpected–what we didn’t expect to happen happens. This complements the Shakespearean idea, I think: we expect that Hamlet will destroy himself and everyone else, and he does; we don’t expect Beatrice and Benedick to end up together, but they do. (Of course, now we’ve come to expect that two people who quarrel in a comedy will end up together, but I think it’s only because we’ve been culturally conditioned as a society to expect it. It still creates dramatic conflict, though, so I would say it’s still valid to think of it from an objective standpoint as being unexpected.)

Although my creative art of choice is music, I enjoy all other forms of art as well, particularly visual art (not least because my lovely wife is an illustrator and painter). And as a lover of all the arts, I’m continually exploring ways to apply concepts I appreciate in other arts—such as symbolism, imagery and negative space—to music. I recently finished composing a piece (which I may post about later in more detail) about the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage. One of the symbols of the pilgrimage is a scallop shell:

and the modern symbol of the way is a representation that looks like this:

One of the ideas behind this symbol is that of many people coming from different starting points but converging upon one destination. So in trying to depict that idea musically, I have each of the eight parts play the same theme–but they enter at different times and play it at different rates. Each instrument takes the same pilgrimage, so to speak, but in its own unique way, just as individuals on a journey would. And a good deal of interest and conflict is created in the way that the parts interact as they play the same theme in different ways. But then in the end every part converges into a unison note.

So I’m always looking for ways like that to incorporate aspects of other types of art into my music. And I love this idea of tragedy and comedy–of the sadness of tragedy being what is expected, and the joy of comedy being what is unexpected. But I wonder how to portray that musically?


I was listening to my iPod at work today, shuffling through my work playlist that contains mostly pop/rock stuff and musical theatre, working along, when suddenly a song struck me dead in my tracks. (Figuratively speaking; though probably “struck my hands,” or “struck my fingers” dead in their tracks would be more truthful, since I work at a computer.) It was a song I hadn’t heard before from a soundtrack I’d recently added to my iPod, and the beauty of the opening made me stop what I was doing, close my eyes for a moment and listen. The song was “Your Daddy’s Son,” from the soundtrack of the musical Ragtime by composer Stephen Flaherty. I’ve never seen the show or heard the soundtrack, so I don’t know anything about the story, but the song is apparently a mother singing to her son about his father who left her. The opening begins only with some thin, high woodwinds, then adds some very quiet percussion and picking guitar as the mother’s voice enters, singing a simple tune only on the sound “ooh.” The song continues with simple scoring of piano, woodwinds, and strings, but picks up with percussion and brass as the words build in intensity and climax. The woodwinds, guitar and piano return for the third act of the song through the quiet dénouement. The melody of the song is in minor, with intervals and rhythms very reminiscent of a folk tune, and the orchestration adds to the haunting beauty of it. You should go check it out. You can listen to it for free on Grooveshark (which I’ve found to be more reliable than Last.fm or iLike) here (just double-click on the song’s name in the window).


Concerning Alarm Clocks

Posted by AJ Harbison at 3:11 pm

I usually wake up before my lovely wife during the week (or, at least, I’m supposed to), as her classes and work schedule start later than I usually get to work. I like to let her sleep a little longer when I get up, so I try to set my phone’s alarm at as low a volume as possible so that it’ll be enough to wake me up but not enough to wake her up. But recently she’s been waking up more often with my alarm, even though I’ve chosen a ringtone that I can set to a very quiet level.

I have a theory as to why this is. (Well… I don’t have any evidence to support it, so I guess it’s really more of a hypothesis.) My idea is that she is subconsciously listening for the sound of my phone’s alarm going off–the particular ringtone that I have it set to. She knows what the alarm will sound like, and so her mind is subconsciously listening for that and is more attuned to that sound. I hypothesize that if I changed the ringtone to something else, equally as quiet in volume but a different song/sound, she wouldn’t be as easily awakened by it. Perhaps I’ll try to test it this week. What do y’all think? Does that sound like it makes sense?


I received this article this week from Avid, the company that makes Sibelius, which is the music notation software program that I use. It details how James Horner, one of the A-plus-plus-list film composers in Hollywood and the composer of the score for Avatar, used Sibelius and ProTools HD (another
Avid product) to create the score for the movie. It’s mainly an extended advertisement for the products, but also provides an interesting look inside the composer’s studio in how the score was written, played and recorded.

“Avatar – Creating an Otherworldly Soundtrack with Avid Tools”