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?


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.


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”


La Moustache Score

Posted by AJ Harbison at 5:10 pm

A few nights ago my lovely wife and I watched La Moustache, a French movie with English subtitles that she had heard about somewhere. It’s a story about a man who shaves his mustache on a whim, but is then baffled when his wife and friends don’t notice–and then is more baffled still when they insist he’s never had a mustache. We weren’t sure whether it was a comedy or a drama–since it seems like that premise could go either way–but it turned out to be a mysterious drama which was kind of frustrating because it never explained all the weird happenings in the movie. I don’t mind ambiguous endings, in general, but it never even tried to explain the increasingly strange things that kept happening. And the hilarious part was that in the special features, even the lead actress admitted she had no idea what was happening in “the mustache story,” and even the director himself said he didn’t really know what was going on. Weird.

But in any case, the music for the film was interesting. There was really only one piece that was used throughout the film, and really only two sections of the piece. The main part that was used consisted of repeated chords and arpeggiated figures in the strings. It had a haunting, ominous quality to it, so it was used effectively in situations that required that feeling; but it seemed a little repetitive by the end. As we watched the credits, I discovered that the piece was the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra by Philip Glass, one of the most successful modern American composers. The piece is from 1987 and is a good example of his tonal, repetitive, and minimal style. And it worked, more or less, as the only score in La Moustache.

You can listen to clips of Concerto for Violin and Orchestra by clicking here and then clicking the “listen/watch” button on the left side of the page. Then click on “Violin Concerto” in the second list that pops up.

P.S. I’m sure most, if not all of my TLB readers have heard this news through other channels (email, website, Facebook, Twitter…), but just in case you haven’t: I’m going to be releasing a new recording of an original Christmas song, called “Paradoxology,” this Christmas Eve 12/24/2009. It’ll be my first released recording in four years–the first since my album Following A Star was finished, on Christmas Eve of 2005. You’ll be able to download “Paradoxology” from my website, for free, next Thursday. So check it out! http://www.ajharbison.com



Posted by AJ Harbison at 7:54 pm

I’m very excited to announce that I am now a published composer! Kallisti Music Press in Philadelphia has published an art song of mine that I wrote last year. Head over to http://www.ajharbison.com for the full story!


“Gustavo Dudamel: The Dude Abides”

Posted by AJ Harbison at 11:20 am

I wrote back in March about Gustavo Dudamel, the young conductor with awesome hair who just took over the LA Philharmonic. And I read a good article on him today by Allen Yeh on Scriptorium Daily, the blog of Biola’s Torrey Honors Institute. The article is a fun read with good commentary, and he even talks about his hair like I did. Check it out:

“Gustavo Dudamel: The Dude Abides”


On The Importance Of Silence

Posted by AJ Harbison at 1:05 pm

A few days ago Slate Magazine published an article on silence in music (classical music, specifically), and how it can be just as important or sometimes even more important than notes. It’s a good survey, and best of all, it includes sound clips so you can hear all the examples it talks about. Worth a read. Check it out:

“Silence Is Golden: How a pause can be the most devastating effect in music”


Longplayer Live On Twitter

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:08 pm

No doubt due to my post yesterday, my TLB twitter account notified me that Longplayer Live (@longplayerlive) is now following me on Twitter. So if you’re interested in keeping up with the latest news on the Longplayer Live performance in September, head on over and follow them!



Posted by AJ Harbison at 7:24 pm

Thanks to Stephen (@idhrendur) for this one: So, apparently, Longplayer* is a musical composition that lasts for one thousand years. It began playing on December 31st, 1999, and will continue until the same date in 2999–when it will “complete its cycle and begin again.” It was composed by a UK-based musician and composer named Jem Finer, collaborating with the organization Artangel and a think tank of artists, composers and writers (including Brian Eno). It’s composed for singing bowls, and can be played mechanically, digitally, or live by human performers, which it will be on September 12th in London: 1,000 minutes of a 1,000 year-long piece of music–”the live debut of the longest piece of music ever written.”

“Okay, but how does it actually work?” you (and I) ask. This from the website (http://longplayer.org):

The composition of Longplayer results from the application of simple and precise rules to six short pieces of music. Six sections from these pieces – one from each – are playing simultaneously at all times. Longplayer chooses and combines these sections in such a way that no combination is repeated until exactly one thousand years has passed. At this point the composition arrives back at the point at which it first started. In effect Longplayer is an infinite piece of music repeating every thousand years – a millennial loop.

The six short pieces of music are transpositions of a 20’20” score for Tibetan Singing Bowls, the ‘source music’. These transpositions vary from the original not only in pitch but also, proportionally, in duration.

Every two minutes a starting point in each of the six pieces is calculated, from which they then play for the next two minutes. Each starting point is calculated by adding a specific length of time to its previous starting point. For each of the six pieces of music this length of time is unique and unvarying. The relationships between these six precisely calculated increments are what gives Longplayer its exact one thousand year long duration.

So there you have that.

“Okay, but how does it actually sound?” you (and I) ask then. We’re in luck: You can listen to a live stream by clicking here: http://longplayer.org/listen/longplayer.m3u. When you click on the file, you will download an .m3u file (1 KB); once it’s downloaded, it should begin streaming Longplayer live through your default music application (e.g. iTunes).

“Okay, but who actually CARES?” you (and I) ask then. I (and maybe you) wonder if such things are just a fad resulting from the existential crisis of our age; it’s certainly difficult to imagine Bach or Beethoven conceiving of a thousand-year piece, or caring about it, even if the technology to make it possible had been present. Interestingly enough, the website has this to say:

The second and more abstract question about Longplayer’s future is social – who will look after Longplayer as its technological, cultural and social environments change? How does one generation of custodians go about establishing a durable chain of succession, down which the responsibility for Longplayer’s survival can realistically be expected to pass, even over hundreds of years? How many institutions have survived, with their initial objective intact, over the last thousand years?

It’s good and smart of the people involved in Longplayer’s creation to think about such questions; but apart from establishing the Longplayer Trust to oversee and perpetuate the project, they don’t provide any answers. My question is this: as the “technological, cultural and social environments” around Longplayer change, who’s to say that we won’t get to a point where it won’t be seen as art or science or metaphysics or whatever it’s supposed to be, but just as a silly experiment by a less enlightened time, and shut it off? How disappointed would Mr. Finer be if the composition survived for a few hundred years–but then died because no one cared anymore?

* I didn’t place the title “Longplayer” in italics, as I normally would, because it’s not formatted that way on its website. It’s possible that this isn’t a conscious decision, but on the off chance that the creators intentionally left the title without any special formatting other than capitalization, I follow the same convention.


My lovely wife and I visited the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in Irvine last Saturday night to attend a concert by the Pacific Symphony, Orange County’s resident orchestra. The concert was titled “Rhapsody and Rapture,” and featured Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and Carl Orff’s magnum opus Carmina Burana.

Neither of us had been to the amphitheater before, and it was a fun experience. It’s an outside venue; we were pretty far off to one side, so we couldn’t see the whole stage, but they had big screens above the stage which helped. And it’s a relatively small theater, so we weren’t terribly far away from the action.

The first piece, Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody, was performed by the orchestra and pianist Yeol Eum Son, the silver medalist of the 2009 Van Cliburn piano competition, one of the foremost piano competitions in the world. It’s a great piece, often used in movies, trailers, commercials, etc.; it’s big and passionate (as Russian artworks tend to be) but also has its whimsical moments (see the very end of the piece). Unfortunately, since the amphitheater is an outdoor venue, most or all of the sound comes from speakers, rather than primarily from the orchestra as it would in a concert hall; this gives the impression that you’re listening to a recording, rather than seeing a live performance, but it’s an unavoidable consequence (I suppose) of the great outdoors. What’s more unfortunate, though, is that it wasn’t a terribly good recording. The mix in the speakers left something to be desired; the piano was a little low in the mix for my taste, and the brass was especially low–instead of being at the forefront when playing loudly, as they would be live, they were relegated to a role somewhere in the middle or even in the background. Yeol Eum Son, however, shone in her performance. Some of the big loud passages felt a little thin, and it was hard to tell whether it was the fault of the pianist, the piano itself, or the mixer. But her delicate touch in the softer passages was second to none, and she had a lightness to her touch that seemed almost supernatural. Her staccatos in the nineteenth variation (the return to the minor theme after the slow, major theme) were the crispest and shortest I think I’ve ever heard from any pianist. She was certainly the star of that show.

Carmina Burana comprised the second half of the concert. It’s one of my favorite pieces of all time, a huge cantata for orchestra, choir, children’s choir and tenor, baritone and soprano solos that takes about an hour to perform in its entirety. The opening and closing movement, “O Fortuna,” has been used in movies, trailers, commercials, etc. almost as much as Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra. (You can listen to a recording courtesy of Last.fm by going here and clicking on the black “play” button.) I’m fond of saying that it’s a piece everyone should see performed live before they die.

After this performance, I said to Eleanor that I may have to take her to another performance of it live before she dies, because this one wasn’t exactly top-notch. The orchestra had some tuning problems in the beginning. Conductor Carl St. Clair took some passages at a faster tempo than I’m used to hearing them, and it seemed that the orchestra and the choir (the Pacific Chorale) had some trouble keeping up. And the mix still wasn’t as clear as I would have liked. Whoever was operating the cameras that controlled the large screens above the stage didn’t seem to be paying much attention to what they were doing; the clumsy, rapid switches back and forth combined with shots that lingered too long and panned out into nowhere were often more laughable than useful. And that goes double for the subtitles. In an effort to make the text, which is in Latin and German, understandable to the audience, they projected subtitles onto the screens as well, translating what the choir was singing into English. But whoever was in charge of the subtitles was clearly not paying attention. Even without the rudimentary understanding of Latin and German I have, one could tell that the subtitles were often late in changing, sometimes having to rush through three or four slides to make up for missed time before it caught up again. Sometimes words would remain on the screen when no one was singing; sometimes words would disappear during the singing; and sometimes a section of singing would pass with no subtitles at all. I assume the concept behind the subtitles was to be helpful to the audience, but more often than not they were just distracting.

However, despite these things there were some strong highlights to the performance, and these highlights were the three soloists. The tenor solo only sings one movement, the “Lament of the Roasting Duck,” which is a tortuously high aria from the roasting duck’s perspective, played to very comical effect. The tenor, John Duykers, did a terrific job of acting out the part as well as singing it and was very funny. The baritone, Christopheren Nomura (whom I’ve seen sing this part with the Pacific Symphony and Pacific Chorale before), had a much larger role but was extremely expressive with his facial expressions and body language, as well as being a very talented singer. And the soprano solo, Kiera Duffy, was even more expressive–almost too much so, as some of her expressions were pretty suggestive, especially toward the end of the piece (much of the text in Carmina Burana is quite salacious). And she did an amazing job with “Dulcissime,” the impossibly high cadenza before the penultimate movement (you can hear it here; the highest note is a high D, two octaves above middle C).

Unfortunately, the end of the concert was a clunky throwaway for the unwashed masses, where the choir and orchestra reprised “O Fortuna” while booming fireworks went off and obscured the music completely. I suppose that summer concertgoers aren’t satisfied unless the performance ends with fireworks, but it was almost an insult to the greatness of the piece to revisit the “fan favorite” movement and fire off some explosives immediately following its end. And whoever was in charge of the subtitles must have been in charge of the fireworks, too, because there were sometimes long pauses where no fireworks went off and they came in seemingly random spurts; and, just as I thought they’d finally gotten something right as the big fireworks finale went off during the climactic final chord, another big fireworks finale went off a few seconds after the music ended.

It was a clumsy and unnecessary ending for a concert that wasn’t bad, but wasn’t the great one that it could have been with two great masterworks and two competent ensembles. I’ve heard both the Symphony and the Chorale perform better than they did on Saturday night; only the soloists really stood out. I’m sorry that we caught them on an off night.

(The local Orange County Register had a different perspective on the concert; you can read their review here, but beware the unrevealed bias–the Register was the primary sponsor of the concert.)


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