Way back in March, coldplay.com featured an interview with Mercury Rev, a band that was opening for them at that time on their tour. In the interview, they mentioned that they had an album available as a free download on their website. As someone who (at least in principle) is always interested in free music, I headed over, signed up for their email list and downloaded the album; as someone who (at least in practice) is always interested in procrastination, I hadn’t listened to it until today. But when I did, I found a very pleasant surprise.

On Wikipedia, the genres listed for Mercury Rev are “alternative rock,” “art rock” and “dream pop,” whatever those mean. Apparently the band normally has vocals, but the free album, entitled Strange Attractor, is all instrumental. I guess “dream pop” isn’t quite my cup of tea, but it was an enjoyable listen. The first track, however, captured my interest immediately. It’s called “Love Is Pure;” but it’s essentially a rock/pop remix of Arvo Pärt’s art music composition Fratres. I wrote about Fratres in the short-lived Listening Page feature on my former blog (short-lived because I soon expanded it to become this Listening Blog); here’s my description of the piece:

Pärt is an Estonian composer of minimalistic music, particularly a style known sometimes as “holy minimalism” (and ridiculed sometimes as “Holy minimalism, Batman!”). This is one of his best-known works–a hauntingly beautiful piece for four cellos. It’s one of those pieces in which the composer sets up a pattern, writes the beginning, and then lets the rest of the piece write itself (I hope to write a piece like this someday, it just seems too easy). In this particular piece, he writes a chord progression which begins at a very high pitch; then he repeats the progression nine times (I think), and each time the progression starts on a different, lower pitch, until it ends in the deep middle-low range of the cellos. The piece is about 10 minutes long, but it never gets boring because of the balance of repetition (the same general progression) and contrast (different chords in the progression in different ranges)…. It’s a really cool piece.

Mercury Rev’s version doesn’t repeat or change pitch, but it does use the same chord progression. The rhythm is jazzed up and delay is added, but the progression is clearly the same. It even retains the low held interval that the original Fratres does. Very cool.

You can listen to a recording of Fratres here, courtesy of Last.fm; and you can listen to “Love Is Pure” (by itself) here. However, the free download of Strange Attractor is still available at Mercury Rev’s website, and I’d recommend checking that out instead!


Also Sprach Zarathustra in Movie Previews

Posted by AJ Harbison at 10:24 am

This past weekend, my lovely wife and I went to see Up, Pixar’s latest movie (I know, you don’t have to tell me how far behind I am in seeing it…). It was really awesome, by the way–probably the most emotionally powerful and best-looking animated movie I’ve ever seen. But before the movie started, we were watching the previews, and I noticed that two of them in a row used the exact same music in their trailers. (One was Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, but I can’t remember what the other one was.) The music was the opening to Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss, perhaps best known as the theme to the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. (I guarantee you know this theme; if that doesn’t sound familiar, watch the YouTube clip below.)

This piece has been used bazillions of times in movies, commercials, previews, etc.; in these two trailers, it was being used as a parody of itself–a monumental, epic theme played humorously against animated films. But it struck me as pretty ridiculous that two animated previews in a row used the exact same music for the exact same purpose. Doesn’t anyone have any original ideas for music anymore? Why don’t they get a young up-and-coming composer of rocking music to write a new theme for them?


Fastest Violinist In The World

Posted by AJ Harbison at 4:23 pm

I came across this video on CNN.com a few days ago. The violinist is David Garrett, a Juilliard graduate who studied with Itzhak Perlman, did some modeling on the side, and wears (for the interview) a leather jacket and a Von Dutch cap; he plays both classical music and pop music, “channeling” Michael Jackson and Metallica. But he’s also going in the 2010 Guinness Book of Records as the world’s fastest violinist for playing Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee in 66 seconds–13 notes per second. If you’d like to skip the opening segments with the gushing interviewer who is clearly smitten with him, skip to the 1:30 mark.


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….)


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.


Agnus Dei, AJ Harbison

Posted by AJ Harbison at 7:10 pm

At my church, every Sunday morning we follow a set liturgy or order of service–the prayers, songs and Scripture readings change, but the structure of the service is always the same. Early in the service, there’s a time of confession where the congregation reads a prayer aloud, and then prays in silence for 45 seconds. Following this we sing the “Agnus Dei,” a traditional liturgical text originally used in the Catholic Mass: “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us / Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us / Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, grant us peace.” The Agnus Dei that we sing every week was composed by a member of the church, David Hlebo, who is a composer and musician who plays sax and flute on the church’s worship team. The Agnus Dei that he wrote is amazing. It’s very simple, and probably most lay people would think it adequate but unremarkable; but from a compositional standpoint, it comes close to technical perfection, and it works really well at the point in the service when it’s used.

After becoming a member of the church myself, I thought it would be fun to try to compose another Agnus Dei that could alternate with Hlebo’s version. (I suggested this to the pastor, and he was all for the idea, since he said “We’ve sung the same song every week for the past seven years”). It took me a long time to come up with a good idea, because Hlebo’s version was so ingrained in my head and so good–most of my early thoughts were far too similar to his. But eventually I came up with a melody and chord progression I was happy with.

My Agnus Dei is in 6/8 time, in C minor. Since the piece is for congregational singing, I wanted it to be a simple, almost folk-like melody that would be easy to catch onto quickly; and since it’s intended for use in the confessional part of the service, I wanted it to be solemn and reverent without being too slow or boring. I wrote along with the melody a suggested piano accompaniment; it’s not too exciting, but it has some cool moments and it helps to give the piece some movement and energy. At the moment I don’t have the ability to record the piano part, but in the future I will, and I’ll let you know when that happens. In the meantime, you can head over to the Agnus Dei page on my website to listen to a scratch recording with guitar. Leave a comment here and let me know what you think!


Christmas In May

Posted by AJ Harbison at 9:54 pm

I had a dream as I was lying in bed this morning that it was the Christmas season; and in my dream it was the first day that they started playing Christmas music 24/7 in stores, restaurants, etc. I like Christmas music a lot. There are a great deal of good Christmas songs, both sacred and secular, and while there are innumerable bad versions of them, there are also many creative and excellent ones. And I love the feel of Christmas that holiday music injects into the atmosphere. One of the sure signs Christmas was coming when I was growing up was when my mother would start to cycle through her Christmas CDs on the living room stereo (including an amazing CD by Robert Shaw, which I don’t seem to remember well enough to be able to find on the internet); we didn’t often have music playing in the house, but Christmas music was a sine qua non of the holiday season for me.

All of that as a brief aside to say: I’ve decided to enter the Welcome Christmas Carol Contest this year. It’s an annual composition contest, sponsored by the American Composers Forum of which I am a member, that asks composers to write new carols using a different given instrumentation each year; this year it’s for mixed chorus and viola. The text can be “sacred or secular, medieval to present, appropriate for concert setting,” and I decided to ask my brother to write a new Christmas text because I think he’d be good at that sort of thing, and he accepted.

Should be a lot of fun! I’ll keep you posted as we make progress on our new Christmas carol.

P.S. TLB is nearing its first birthday! I can hardly believe it’s been that long already. And as we near May 26th, there are some changes in the works. I’m contemplating a redesign of the site to make it look a little more professional, and also a move from Blogger to WordPress (thanks to Mike’s persistent suggestions). I’m also planning to make a big announcement here on May 26th–so stay tuned!


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.


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.


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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