Posted by AJ Harbison at 9:37 pm

Thanks to my company being so cool, I had the chance to watch part of the inauguration ceremony on Tuesday morning of this week. They set up the big-screen TV in the conference room to stream the video feed; unfortunately it kept hiccuping, the audio and video were out of sync, etc. which was pretty annoying. But I enjoyed the chance to see it regardless.

As you probably know, famed film composer John Williams composed a piece specifically for the inauguration entitled Air and Simple Gifts, based on the famous Appalachian folk melody, and it was performed live by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Itzhak Perlman, pianist Gabriella Montero and clarinetist Anthony McGill. My first thought upon seeing the performers was “They can’t really be playing, it’s way too cold for the instruments to stay in tune!”

You know, turns out I was right. I saw an article on MSN today making that same point. The musicians were in fact performing live, so the people who were close enough to them could hear them playing; but the instruments were not amplified and the music that was broadcast over the speakers at the event and to the millions watching on TV (myself included) had been recorded several days before.

That’s a reasonable decision–really the only reasonable one, if you think about it. The temperature was about 30 degrees, as the article points out, too cold for any of the instruments to play in tune but especially “play[ing] havoc” on the piano. This happens pretty frequently with classical performances in very cold environments, and even the great tenor Luciano Pavarotti famously lip-synced his final performance. I fully support the decision of the musicians at the inauguration, as I imagine any reasonable person who understands the factors involved would. But I find it amusing that the press wants to make a point of revealing this fact. The article can be found at the link below.

“Their performance was live — but music wasn’t”

When I wrote the first draft of this post, I replaced my original text “I find it amusing that the press wants to make it a big deal” with the text of my penultimate sentence above, thinking the word choice of the former was too strong. But several hours later, the article made it to a more prominent place on MSN’s front page and also added a reader poll, entitled “Vote: Bad Choice?” So now I return to my original thought. It’s ridiculous that the press is making such a big deal out of it. The actual question on the poll is practically incriminating: “Was it wrong to ‘fake’ music at the presidential inauguration?” Fortunately, 68.2% of the people who voted in the poll voted no. But some of the responses (you can comment as well as vote in the poll) are rather amusing in themselves; one person who voted yes commented “Just more smoke & mirrors from the obamamite camp.” The third option in the poll (besides “yes, it was wrong to fool the masses” and “no, who cares, it sounded good”) is “Maybe. If this is how the administration starts out …”, and one of the readers who voted that option also commented “i’m not at all surprise if it was recorded, everything sorrounding the obama campain has been stained with deceitfulness” [sic]. As if Obama or his “obamamite camp” or “campain” had anything to do with the performance (whatever the heck they are). Doesn’t anyone have any common sense anymore?


Slumdog Millionaire Soundtrack, A.R. Rahman

Posted by AJ Harbison at 1:10 am

Last week my lovely fiancée and I decided to take a break from wedding planning and go out on an old-fashioned date to dinner and a movie. The movie we saw was Slumdog Millionaire, a film about an 18 year-old orphan named Jamal from the slums of Mumbai who becomes a contestant on India’s version of “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” and is poised to win the grand prize of 20 million rupees. But when the show breaks for the night, he is arrested and interrogated by a police inspector who doesn’t believe a “slumdog” could know so much. Jamal tells the inspector his life story, each new stage in his tale revealing how he knew the answer to one of the questions.

Eleanor and I both enjoyed the film very much. It was a very well-made movie, with terrific cinematography, good writing and good acting–a fun ride. I remarked to her that the story was filled with contrasts pitted against each other: the rich gang lords contrasted with the orphans in the slums; the superficiality and shallowness of the game show contrasted with the gritty, authentic picture of life on the streets; the old slums and trash heaps in Mumbai contrasted with seemingly endless new construction. And this contrast of old and new came out in the music quite a bit, too. The score was written by A.R. Rahman, a composer who apparently has done a lot of Indian movies. I noticed that a lot of the music utilized modern electronics and beats, but featured traditional Indian instruments.

You can hear some samples on the Amazon product page for the soundtrack. “O… Saya,” a collaboration between the composer and artist M.I.A., features a computer-altered voice singing a traditional-sounding melody above fast percussion. An uncredited editorial review on the Amazon page declares the song “a rumbling hybrid of Bollywood and hip-hop.” The soundtrack also juxtaposes more ethnic music like “Ringa Ringa” (track number six) with “Latika’s Theme” (track number eight), an atmospheric treatment of a theme that could fit in a variety of movies and becomes a pop song in “Dreams On Fire,” the penultimate track. And the third track, “Mausam & Escape,” sounds perhaps like the Indian version of “Through The Fire And Flames.”

The Amazon page also quotes Kurt Loder of MTV.com as saying this: “The propulsive score, by Bollywood soundtrack auteur A. R. Rahman, is hip-hop fusion of a very up-to-date kind.” I agree. Artistically, I appreciated how the fusion in the music reflected the fusion in the movie; and as a listener I enjoyed the music for adding another dimension to a very cool film.


Handbell Quartets For Christmas, Paul Ellsworth

Posted by AJ Harbison at 3:28 am

I’ve written before about the Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers that I belong to, and their monthly listening pages. For their Christmas edition this year, the featured works were by a young composer named Paul Ellsworth (www.ellsworthcreations.com): two Christmas songs for handbell quartet. I always enjoy handbell music, so I headed over to the YouTube videos linked on the listening page and checked them out. I was pleasantly surprised–they really are for handbell quartet, meaning there are only four people, but they do things with handbells I’ve never seen at speeds I’ve never imagined. Most people, I think, enjoy handbell music, but it’s worth checking out these videos just to see the performers and all the cool stuff they do. Not least of their accomplishments is that these long and complicated arrangements are all memorized–not that they’d have time to look at music anyway. The group is called Five Octave Frenzy, and they’re part of the music department at The Master’s College. The first video is five and a half minutes long, the second is five and a quarter. The performers from left to right are Amanda Madrid, Leslie Ann Tulloch, Hannah Cooper, and the composer himself, Paul Ellsworth.

“Sing We Now A’Wassailing”:

Merry Christmas from all of us (i.e. me) here at The Listening Blog!


Flutey And The Beast Is Complete!

Posted by AJ Harbison at 3:07 am

I wrote back in July about Flutey and the Beast, a tuba and flute duet I was writing for my friend Jeff. After much procrastinating on my part, the piece is finally complete! The only way I have to share it with you is the MIDI realization that Sibelius, my music notation program, provides; it doesn’t sound good, and it hiccups a bit (anything that sounds like a performing mistake is a hiccup), but you’ll get the idea. Before you listen to the piece, here are the “performance directions” I included in the score (there’s also a description of the piece in the post linked above):

This piece is a dramatic work, telling a “beauty and the beast”
story, and it should be performed in a very expressive and dramatic
fashion. The tuba plays the beast, who states his gruff theme after
the introduction in the pickup to measure 8. The short theme in the
tuba in measures 14 through 16 represents the beast’s longing to
be, well, not so beastly. The flute plays the beauty and is
continually interrupted and rebuffed by the beast, until the full
statement of her theme in measures 29 through 35. The beast is
slowly but surely won over by the beauty, until he plays her theme
beginning in measure 55 and then plays a bass line supporting her
final triumphant statement. The introduction returns in a slightly
modified version as the conclusion.

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I was going through some old emails today, and I came across this Washington Post article that my friend Stephen emailed to me May 3rd, 2007:

“Pearls Before Breakfast: Can one of the nation’s great musicians cut through the fog of a D.C. rush hour?”

I don’t think I ever actually read the whole article until today. It’s very long–about 18 Microsoft Word pages–but it’s really, really good. It’s an experiment that the Post conducted: having Joshua Bell, one of the world’s greatest violinists, play in a busy Washington D.C. Metro station to see if anyone stops to listen:

“No one knew it, but the fiddler standing against a bare wall outside the Metro in an indoor arcade at the top of the escalators was one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made. His performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and priorities — as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?”

In addition to reporting on what happened and interviewing Bell and many of the passersby, the article reflects on the philosophy of beauty, comments on the intricacies of violin-making, and describes the pieces that Bell played. It’s very well-written, dramatic and poetic as well as journalistic, and it includes several video clips showing some of the people who stopped to listen and toss change (and many who didn’t). I would recommend reading the whole article, even if it takes a few sittings. It’s an interesting commentary on our culture, and an intriguing take on the human perception of beauty.


Mash up: Gershwin vs. Schoenberg

Posted by AJ Harbison at 9:38 pm

In a similar vein to this post, one of my fellow CFAMCers pointed us to this piece, a sort of art music mash-up. In typical mash-up music, components of one song–say, the chords and the rhythmic groove–are layered with a component of a completely different song–say, the vocals–to make up one piece. (Click here for a cool example of a mash up from the blog of my friend Jason Rasmussen.) In this piece, George Gershwin‘s instantly recognizable song “I Got Rhythm” is “mashed up” with a variety of pieces by Arnold Schoenberg of the Second Viennese School. The different photos that alternate in the video indicate whose music is being played at the time. Enjoy!


Twelve-Tone Infomercial

Posted by AJ Harbison at 7:45 pm

I was alerted last week to the existence of this funny video by fellow members of the Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers. It’s like a late-night infomercial, but advertising twelve-tone music of the Second Viennese School (Arnold Schoenberg and his disciples). Some of the jokes are funnier if you know musically what they’re talking about, but I think everyone will laugh to some degree. So take a brief respite from your serious listening and enjoy!


Seán Dunnahoe's Website

Posted by AJ Harbison at 1:42 am

I learned on Tuesday night at the BeachFire audition that Seán has a website set up now. I mentioned his senior recital way back in my post on the Vox Balaenae principle, and when I wrote the post in May I asked him if he had a website that I could link to in the post. He didn’t at the time, but he does now, so I would be remiss if I didn’t link to it here. You can find his page at:


He has the recordings from his senior recital posted there, and I encourage you to listen to them. The first and third pieces from the recital, Structum and Corcaigh, are on the Jazz Music page; Textural Study, the piece I mentioned in my post, can be found on the Concert Music page. You can also find program notes on each of the three pieces here. As I wrote about, his style of writing isn’t always easy to listen to; but I guarantee it will broaden your listening horizons.


Your Sentence: Classical Music

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:01 am

From Urbana, Illinois: Guy listens to rap music too loud. Bicycle-riding cop tickets him based on noise ordinance. Judge offers to reduce fine from $150 to $35, if guy listens to 20 hours of classical music. Guy lasts fifteen minutes, then pays fine.

Man sentenced to listen to classical music lasts 15 minutes

News story: Points for really cheesy puns. Minus points for weird capitalization. “DeBussy”? Come on.


On the Beauty of Leisure

Posted by AJ Harbison at 4:20 am

I recently listened to a podcast on The Scriptorium Daily, the blog of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. The podcast was entitled “An Active Rest”, and it dealt with the nature of leisure and how leisure differs from idleness. One of the contributors–I believe it was Fred Sanders–noted that in American culture today, we tend to class activities in only two categories: work, that is, that which is productive, and idleness, that is, doing nothing. But he and his fellow podcasters explained that there is a third category, leisure, which includes activities that are not necessarily productive but are certainly profitable. They talked about things such as reading, or gardening, or visiting Disneyland with one’s family as examples of leisure. They’re not productive activities because they don’t produce something, some sort of tangible product that you can look back on (except perhaps gardening); but they are still profitable, and the professors argued that healthy forms of leisure are good for the soul, and promote the growth of the soul.

I have to say that I agree, and I experienced an excellent example of leisure time tonight. After bidding goodbye to my lovely girlfriend around 6:30 pm, I remained out on the balcony of my apartment for several minutes, simply enjoying the beauty of the evening: fresh air, a few clouds, the greenery of my apartment complex, the glow from the sun that had just set. Upon reentering my apartment, I decided that I needed to continue the experience of beauty, so I put on some music as I made dinner.

Baroque music–classical art music written between 1600 and 1750–is difficult to match in its elegance, clarity and directness, and I felt that such music would be very appropriate to my mood. So I put on a piece called Water Music, by the German composer George Frideric Handel (German, though he spent most of his life in England). A contemporary of Johann Sebastian Bach, Handel spent his composing career primarily in the employ of the state (unlike Bach who was employed primarily by the church), and Water Music was written for king George I. It was composed for a trip down the river Thames on the king’s barges (thus the title). As I prepared and ate dinner, the elegant beauty of the piece filled the apartment and I found that it perfectly suited my musical appetite.

My thought after dinner was to listen to a very large piece entitled Turangalîla-Symphonie, by the French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). It’s an orchestral work in ten movements, 78 minutes long, which I had first encountered in a 20th century music class in college. It was accompanied this evening by a glass of Montes Cherub Rosé of Syrah, which I enjoyed quite a bit (I’m usually not a big fan of rosé wines, but this one was rather tasty).

The Turangalîla-Symphonie, though a bit long to listen to all at once without the virtues of a live performance or (perhaps) a lovely girlfriend by your side, is a great piece. It is based around four basic motives, or cyclic themes, which make good “anchors” to listen for throughout. (The Wikipedia article spells out the themes in detail, with music notation for each one.) It’s an exuberant, lively and joyful piece, while incorporating mystical and mysterious elements. Parts of it remind me of a movie score from the first half of the 20th century, particularly the fifth and eighth movements, which makes sense because it was written between 1946 and 1948. There’s a lot of dissonance in the piece–”color,” as Messiaen would call it (I have a quote from him which says, “There aren’t any modal composers, tonal composers, or serial composers. There is only music that is coloured and music that isn’t”)–but it’s not too intense, at least for an open-minded listener, and it certainly is dissonance meant to add color rather than dissonance for its own sake. As I said, it’s a very long piece, and the first half was more interesting to me than the second; but it’s a very good piece, I would love to see it performed live, and it made for a terrific evening.

Now, to wrap these sundry strands together: The time I spent listening to these two pieces tonight was not, in the sense mentioned above, “productive.” Yet it wasn’t idle, either. (Certainly drinking wine, regardless of what else one may be doing, is no waste of time….) Both pieces, albeit in different ways, enriched my evening with their unique style of beauty, and just sitting and listening to them (even apart from eating dinner or drinking wine) was a worthwhile experience. If, as I wrote about in my post about the Concert for Hope, the mere presence of beauty is transformative, then most of us should probably spend more time just sitting and listening to great music. I know I should, as a composer. And, if one has the benefit of a lovely girlfriend and a glass of good wine as well–so much the better!

(I’ve added both of the particular CDs I listened to to the Amazon box in the sidebar. You can listen to audio samples on their respective product pages.)


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