12.12.2008

Noël, Josh Groban

Posted by AJ Harbison at 2:10 am

My lovely fiancée’s landlady graciously got me a Christmas gift last week, which Eleanor gave to me in her stead. Apparently not knowing too much about my tastes in music, she had purchased Josh Groban‘s Christmas album Noël. But, I cheerfully accepted the gift and thought I’d give it a listen to give myself a broader understanding of Groban’s music.

I’ve certainly heard Groban sing before, and I have to say that he has, hands down, one of the best voices I’ve ever heard. I don’t know much (anything, really) about his history or training, but his voice is exquisite and perfectly balanced, equally at home in soft, crooning lows or powerful highs. His vibrato in particular is nicely controlled and understated, and never overwhelms his tone or pitch, which is one of my primary complaints about opera and similar styles of music. He is 27 as of this writing, which means that his voice has pretty much fully settled (it happens in men around 25) and is only going to mature from this point on. I’m not sure what his future aspirations are (although his Wikipedia page suggests he’s interested in pursuing musical theatre), but he certainly has the foundation to become a truly great singer.

That being said, however, I haven’t been a big fan of his music up to this point. His most popular song, a cover of “You Raise Me Up,” is a pretty sappy song with little real content (perhaps the “Wind Beneath My Wings” of this generation). And the arrangements that he sings tend to be cast from the same mold: cheesy, overly sentimental, scored with sappy strings and plenty of dramatic cymbal rolls and “inspirational” key changes up a whole step.

Noël, mostly, is the same. Of the 13 tracks on the album, ten are Christmas carols or traditional “religious”-type songs and three are secular Christmas songs (“I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” “The Christmas Song” [that's the "chestnuts roasting on an open fire" one] and “Thankful”). Sentimentality and sappiness are present in large doses, and hardly any of the arrangements present original or even really interesting takes on perhaps the most overdone genre of songs in contemporary history.

The only thing that makes the CD worth listening to, in most cases, is Groban’s voice. I should clarify that I don’t say that because the arrangements are bad music per se; it’s just that (as I said) in such an overdone genre, an arrangement with nothing original or interesting to offer is not really worth one’s time. But Groban’s voice makes even the sappiest arrangement tolerable, at the least. It seems like a pretty poor choice (although an inevitable one) to pair him with other singers, as on “Angels We Have Heard On High” and “The First Noel,” because he shows them up so clearly. The latter, which is a duet with Faith Hill, displays this even more so than the former: Faith Hill is by no means a bad singer, but her vocal idioms and constant embellishment seem vulgar next to Groban’s clear and modest style.

There are a few exceptions to the CD’s rule, however–interesting moments here and there that are worth a listen. The boys’ choir that appears on “Silent Night” and “Ave Maria” is excellent and adds a nice shimmering touch. I appreciate the inclusion of two songs in Latin (“Ave Maria” and “Panis Angelicus”) and one in French (“Petit Papa Noël”). And there is one song that clearly stands out from the rest in originality and quality.

“Little Drummer Boy” is far and away the best cut on the record, and the most original in its arrangement. The CD mentions that it features guitarist Andy McKee, and it’s his guitar work that makes the track stand out. I also enjoy the boy soprano on the second verse who sings an echo to Groban’s melody, although I wish he was utilized more–it would have been nice to hear him singing simultaneous harmony as well, or hear his role develop through the song rather than just use him on the one verse. There is also a predictable key change in the middle of the song, which I actually anticipated and correctly sang along with the first time I heard it. But other than those two minor nitpicks, it’s a very good version of a good song.

Overall? Noël is maybe worth a listen or two if you don’t yet have an appreciation for Josh Groban’s voice. Christmas music as a genre has very positive connotations for me, as my mother would start to cycle through her various Christmas CDs after Thanksgiving to herald the Advent season. My first time listening through Noël made me happy because it was the first Christmas CD I’d listened to this year, and it did the trick of getting me in the “holiday spirit.” “Little Drummer Boy” is a track worth listening to, on its own. And as for Groban? I personally wish that I could hear him tackle some really great music–I’d like to know how he’d handle, say, a Handel aria or a Schubert art song. None of the music on this CD is difficult to sing, by any means, and it makes me wonder if his voice is really versatile or if he just sings this type of music really well. We shall see. But for now, a couple of tracks from Noël will make it into my own Christmas rotation. Let me know if any make it into yours!

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11.11.2008

Two Flute Solos For Your Listening Pleasure

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:47 am

In my car for the past two days I’ve been listening to the album The Ultimate Collection by Michael Card–a greatest hits CD by a Christian musician who’s been making music for a really long time. I remember listening to his music growing up, and based on my memories I’m not at all sure that the songs on this CD are really his greatest hits; I remember many better ones, and I even remember better versions of the songs that are on the CD. But I digress. What struck me this past time listening through the CD (it’s actually a 2 CD set) were a pair of flute solos on two different songs, and I wanted to share them with you, my loyal readers. Flutes are seldom utilized in popular music, and even seldomer (is that a word?) are they given solos; but these two solos are excellent ones, and it’s kind of refreshing to hear.

The first can be found (courtesy of Last.fm) here (click the black play button in the player on the right), in the song “Lift Up The Suffering Symbol.” Again, this is not Card’s best work, lyrically or musically; but it’s a decent song, at least, and the solo is cool. Since the player has a time counter, I’ll mention that the solo starts at 2:24; but you can’t fast forward, so you’ll have to listen to the whole song anyway. Also listen to the brass swells, in clusters of notes–eerily reminiscent of the score to The Matrix.

The second solo, which is even better than the first, can be found here on iLike–click on the first play button in the list. Listen especially for the clarity of the quick repeated notes; every note is clear, distinct from the others around it. Excellent playing. There’s no timer on iLike, so you’ll just have to listen for the solo yourself. I like in this song how the strings imitate the flute at the very end of the solo–a high trill and then a downward arpeggio by the flute, echoed just afterwards by the strings. Continue to listen to the flute through the rest of the song; it reuses some of the material from the solo to add color as an accompanying instrument.

I hope you find these flute solos as entertaining as I did. Enjoy!

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10.12.2008

"Cemeteries In London," Viva La Vida, Coldplay

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:30 am

It took me a little longer than the other ones, but the final song I fell in love with on Viva La Vida was “Cemeteries Of London,” which is track two. The other songs on the CD, the ones I haven’t written about this week–”Life In Technicolor,” “42,” “Lovers In Japan / Reign of Love,” “Yes,” and “Strawberry Swing”–are all good songs and of course contribute to making the CD great; but the five I’ve written about this week are the ones that really stood out to me.

“Cemeteries Of London” is the first vocal track on the CD, since there are no words to “Life In Technicolor,” and it’s a really interesting song. As I said, it took me longer to understand than the others did, but once I got the feeling for the song it jumped into the ranks of my favorites on the CD. And this is what I think: It’s Coldplay’s 21st century rock-band version of a ballad of the Wild West.

You know the type of song I’m talking about. Something like the song here, although I have to admit that the first thing I thought of was this video clip (from this movie). It’s a good example, although almost a parody, of the style I’m talking about; but if you do watch the video, skip to the 50 second mark to experience as little pain watching it as possible.

But this is the type of song that “Cemeteries Of London” is. The lyrics, first of all, point to it; they’re kind of eerie and very evocative, conjuring the same type of mood as a ballad, and the chorus sounds just like one of them: “Singing la la la la la la la lay / And the night over London lay….” The chord progression and melody are very suggestive of a Western ballad too–particularly in the first two chords of the progression, minor i to major III (e.g., in the key of E minor those two chords would be E minor and G major).

I like the instrumentation of the song. The soft swirling piano figures in the first verse do a good job of setting the scene, evoking perhaps the London fog, and the guitars that take over in the second verse hearken more traditionally back to the ballad style. You can also hear hand claps enter the picture halfway through the second chorus that continue through the guitar solo. The solo itself is very interesting; apart from the first note and the return to that note upon the repeat, each note that the solo pauses on is dissonant with the concurrent chord. It sounds really cool. The second half of the solo (a repeated four-note idea) is reminiscent of a U2 solo, to my mind. The soft piano comes back at the very end of the song, playing two phrases. I didn’t like this at first, because it didn’t make sense musically; it seemed out of place and just tacked on to the end. But I grew to really like the phrases themselves, so I really enjoy it now. Perhaps it’s another example of a cyclical song, bringing the song full circle, as I wrote concerning the whole album in my post about “Death And All His Friends”.

There’s one more point about this song that I wanted to mention, related to a point I brought up in my last post about setting up expectations and then either fulfilling or frustrating them. The chorus of this song is another good example of this principle. It’s only two lines, which is short for a chorus (it’s really more like a refrain, I guess), and you expect it to be repeated, either with the same lyrics or different ones. But each time it’s kept to just the two lines–except for the last time, when it is repeated and the lyrics to the second line are slightly changed, fulfilling the expectations you’ve had all along. Another good example of the excellent songwriting.

You can listen to the song here, courtesy of Last.fm: click on the black play button in the player on the right side of the page.

And that will conclude our week of Viva La Vida posts! I hope you enjoyed them. And, while we’re talking about the week–I want to hear from you, my loyal readers. Do you like these weeklong series on a single topic or album? Do you prefer the individual posts I do the rest of the time? Would you like to see more series? Fewer? Leave a comment and let me know what you want to see–and as always, thanks for listening!

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10.10.2008

"Violet Hill," Viva La Vida, Coldplay

Posted by AJ Harbison at 1:45 am

About the same time I fell in love with “Viva La Vida,” I also came to particularly enjoy “Violet Hill,” which is the track immediately following it (track eight). “Violet Hill” was the first single off the album, and also represents a departure from Coldplay’s past style into the brave new world of Viva La Vida. Again, I will make a quick mention of the lyrics, but say nothing besides “they’re really awesome.”

“Violet Hill” begins with 35 seconds of swirling atmospherics, again Brian Eno‘s ambient/electronic influence. At the 35-second mark, the voice enters, accompanied by a quarter-note-pounding piano in C-sharp minor. The rest of the band comes in a few lines later, with a similar pounding pulse feeling. The fun thing about this song is that based on the general feel of the music and the piano and melody, you might expect it to be a mellow piano ballad; but instead it’s a hard-hitting rock song that (again) I rock out to in the car all the time.

The quarter-note pulse pervades the song, particularly in the “interludes” after the refrain line “If you love me won’t you let me know?,” which consist of eight identical quarter hits–two measures–with nothing in between, just 1! 2! 3! 4! 5! 6! 7! 8! An excellent use of musical space, and a great use of musical energy as well.

The song ends with a quiet coda, the voice accompanied only by a soft, tender piano. (The lyrics to this coda are very good, as well–I love the rhyme of “Violet Hill” with “silent still.”) There is a chord progression detail here which perfectly indicates a musical principle I learned in college, though unfortunately I’m unable to attribute it to its source because I can’t recall its source. The principle is that when writing music, you set up expectations in the listener–based on what happens, the listener expects certain things to happen next. Then, you balance fulfilling those expectations with thwarting the expectations by doing something else. The refrain line mentioned above concludes, in all parts of the song except the coda, with the following progression: C-sharp minor – B major – C-sharp minor (which in the piece is i – VII – i*). Because of the way the rhythm and the melody frame this progression, it sets up the expectation of a deceptive cadence, following the progression C-sharp minor – B major – A major (the VI chord). But the song frustrates this expectation by resolving instead right back up to the C-sharp minor chord. This happens three times (it’s right before the “interludes” mentioned above; the second C-sharp minor chord is the one hammered on eight times). However, in the coda, with only the piano accompanying the voice, the expectation is finally met: the B chord resolves down to the A major, setting up a “tagged” repetition of the last line, ending on the C-sharp minor. I’m sorry if that was a bit technical–I think if you listen to the song, you’ll understand what I’m talking about.

Again, this song leaves me wanting more, since minus the 35-second introduction it’s really only three minutes long. But oh, what a rocking three minutes.

You can listen to the song here, courtesy of Last.fm: click on the black play button in the player on the right side of the page.

* If there are any classically trained musicians who read this blog, they may object that the major flat seven chord doesn’t really exist in a minor key. But if we’re being honest, it’s used in pop music all the time, and it really does function as a VII, not as a V/III. Sometimes you just have to accept the way things really are, and not as they appear in music textbooks. (And sometimes you have to hope that at least one reader–just one!–actually knows what the heck you’re talking about.)

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10.09.2008

"Viva La Vida," Viva La Vida, Coldplay

Posted by AJ Harbison at 1:04 am

The title track on Viva La Vida, i.e. “Viva La Vida” (track seven), was the next song on the CD to attract my attention. In many ways, it’s a very appropriate title track in that it epitomizes many of the themes of the album. It’s energetic, it deals with revolution and it has many nuances and details that lift it from being a good song to being a great song. The lyrics–the meaning of which is hotly contested on sites like www.songmeanings.net–seem to deal with the deposition of a king: “I used to rule the world / Seas would rise when I gave the word / Now in the morning I sleep alone / Sweep the streets I used to own….” There are multiple layers of meaning to be found in the song; it seems like it could equally be a description of a historical event (many people think it’s the beheading of Louis XVI), or a whole-song extended metaphor for something else, perhaps losing someone. In either case, the lyrics are very well written and the music is an excellent support for them.

In “Lost!”, as I wrote about, the harmonic base–that is, the instrument primarily responsible for filling out the harmony–was a pipe organ; in “Viva La Vida,” it’s the string section. The song opens with an energetic and syncopated chord progression by the strings, and they play an indispensible role throughout the song. Underneath the strings, the bass drum beats out steady quarter notes, also throughout the song, which drives the rhythm forward even more. Interestingly enough, for all the rhythmic drive, there is no drum beat anywhere to be found–only the steady kick drum. The rhythms of the strings, voice and other instruments here and there are enough to fully carry the song and give it more energy than you would expect.

There are several musical details in the song that took me a while to notice. Listen carefully during the chorus, on beats two and four, and you’ll hear a bell or a chime playing way in the background, in the musical space typically occupied by the snare drum. It’s a nice subtle touch that enhances the song’s revolutionary feel–perhaps evoking bells being rung to celebrate liberation, for instance.

It’s also interesting to listen to the higher strings–in the range from middle C to an octave higher (if you know where that is). They undergo several variations and are arranged very nicely. Immediately following the first verse (“…streets I used to own”), they play two alternating notes about two and a half octaves above middle C, A-flat G A-flat G, which form the basic motive for that group of strings. During the first half of the second verse (“I used to roll the dice….”), they play a cool countermelody that is the only musical element besides the syncopated rhythm and the voice. During the second half of the second verse (“One minute I held the key….”), they invert the two alternating notes and instead of alternating down, alternate up: A-flat B-flat A-flat B-flat, before returning to the countermelody for the last two lines. The chorus uses them mainly in whole notes to fill out the harmony. In the third verse (“It was a wicked and wild wind….”), they alternate down again, but in the middle range: A-flat G A-flat G, in a syncopated rhythm of their own, more energetic than the rhythm of the A-flat B-flat idea. And in the second half of that verse (“Revolutionaries wait….”), they return to whole notes, their rhythmic space taken up by a honky-tonkish piano (also kept in the background). This is a sign of good arranging: they don’t play the same thing each time but actually develop a musical motive. Really good stuff.

I have to make mention of the ending: the song fades out on a weird-sounding choir singing the chords of the original string progression (without the syncopation). This is my least-favorite part of the song; I feel like they could have at least layered Chris Martin’s voice rather than using synth voices. But it’s not bad enough to ruin the rest of the song, and if this is the only thing wrong with it, it’s a song that’s a heck of a lot better than most.

You can listen to the song here, courtesy of Last.fm: click on the black play button in the player on the right side of the page.

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10.08.2008

Shortly after falling in love with “Lost!”, “Death And All His Friends,” the final track on Viva La Vida, caught my ear (so to speak). It’s really two songs, “Death And All His Friends” and “The Escapist”; the latter is a reprise of sorts of the electronic-music stylings of the first song (“Life In Technicolor”) with some added lyrics, bringing the CD full circle. I always enjoy pieces that are cyclical in that way, because it provides a very satisfying sense of internal coherency. For those interested, my favorite example (and one of the very best) is in Morten Lauridsen’s art music work Mid-Winter Songs, where the very striking theme from the first movement returns in the middle of the fifth and final movement. I wrote a paper on this piece in college, and I’m sure I’ll eventually get around to writing about it here. In the meantime, suffice it to say that I appreciate Coldplay’s decision to bring the end of their CD back to the beginning. But my main focus will be on the first song.

“Death And All His Friends” is itself almost two songs, or at least a song in two very distinct parts. The first part is very simple, just soft piano, voice and a sparse electric guitar, telling a very brief story of a relationship that was entered into too quickly but reassuring that it’s all gonna be alright. I have to mention that I love the sound of the piano here: it has a very dark and mellow (as opposed to a bright) tone, which is not only the way I like all pianos to sound but very appropriate to the song’s character.

Suddenly at the 1:18 mark, the song changes: it immediately falls into a faster tempo, a (slightly) brighter piano and guitar take over, and the energy begins to build very quickly. It has the feeling of excitement swelling up and about to burst. And at 1:48 the burst comes. You can imagine the musicians headbanging and rocking out like nothing else on the hammered chords–this is another part of the CD that I can’t help moving to even when I’m driving. (I’ve always had a very physical, visceral response to music, but as far as popular music goes this CD takes the cake, and even the cookies and punch too.) It then “settles,” while still being very energetic, into a standard 4/4 groove, before hammering the same chord progression again. But this time, the progression adds an extra beat to accommodate two sudden solo guitar notes, and transitions seamlessly to an atypical but rocking 7/4 rhythm, with the solo guitar soaring over it all. It’s a climax so huge as to be almost transcendent. After one time through the 7/4 phrase, the whole band together sings twice, almost as a chant: “No I don’t want to battle from beginning to end / I don’t want a cycle of recycled revenge / I don’t want to follow death and all of his friends….” The instruments proceed with a quickly-paced denouement and drop out individually, and the song fades out into silence and then back in with the electronics of “The Escapist.” This is another part of the album where it leaves the listener wanting more–I feel like four repetitions of the chant wouldn’t be out of place at all–but again, it’s made me listen to this song, like, three thousand times. One of the greatest climaxes of any album I’ve heard.

You can listen to the song here, courtesy of Last.fm: click on the black play button in the player on the right side of the page.

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10.07.2008

"Lost!", Viva La Vida, Coldplay

Posted by AJ Harbison at 3:44 am

The first song on Viva La Vida that I fell in love with–only the second time I listened to the CD, in fact–was “Lost!”, track number three.

The first thing that stands out about this track is the beat, a very strong one with powerful bass and tom hits and handclaps for a snare–a beat more reminiscent of electronic music, perhaps, than rock. I forgot to mention in my post yesterday that I rock out in my car to this CD probably more than any other CD I’ve ever listened to, and this track’s beat is one of the reasons for that.

The second thing that stands out is the use of Coldplay’s signature pipe organ sound; it forms the harmonic base of the song, playing the progression Em – C – Bm – D. The cool thing about that progression, though, is that the Bm and D chords have a G added to them, so they actually become something like a Bm add6 and a D add4:

The added note is a nice detail that gives extra character to a good progression. I like the light “cluster” aspect it gives the D major chord; it seems reminiscent of something Eric Whitacre might do.

I also really like the melody in the song, particularly in the verses. It’s just really catchy, and very singable, and all the lyrics are excellent as well. The melody in the chorus is a good counterpart to the melody of the verses: it’s more expansive and leaves more space, and also switches up the harmonic rhythm with the quicker chord changes on the words “tried to cross.”

Every element on this CD seems pitch-perfect (no musical pun intended), especially in terms of proportion and balance. The form of this song, for example, is perfectly timed and balanced; it doesn’t feel like the chorus is too short, or it goes on too long at the end compared to the length of the rest of the song. The only thing I might even consider complaining about is that the song seems too short because it’s so good–give me another verse, or two, or three, I want to hear more! But that becomes typical of much of this album. Restraint, rather than excess, is the guiding principle. And, of course, that leaves listeners like you and me eager to hear it again and again.

You can listen to the song here, courtesy of iLike.com: click on the play button under the heading “Song Clip.” You can watch a video of Coldplay performing the song live on that page, as well; be forewarned that the video will start playing on its own once the site loads.

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10.06.2008

Viva La Vida, Coldplay: Revisited

Posted by AJ Harbison at 5:07 am

First of all, I must apologize to you, my loyal readers, for not posting for an entire week–I hope I haven’t lost any of you in that time. It’s been a busy week at work and at home, and I’ve had little (or no) time to blog. But I’ll make it up to you, I promise!

In the past few weeks, with only a very few brief interludes, I’ve only been listening to one CD in my car:

Viva La Vida, Coldplay

And the more I listen to it, the more I love it. I wrote in my first post about the CD that it hadn’t eclipsed Coldplay’s album X&Y as my favorite, but that it was still a great album. Now, a month later, I must confess it still hasn’t risen to that level; but it has definitely risen above many, many other albums to become one of my all-time favorites. Like I said, I’ve been listening to it almost continuously in my car for a whole month, and it keeps getting better and better.

Listen to the CD; it’s the sound of a really good band becoming a great band. The more I listen to it, the more I discover and the better it gets. I’ve uncovered multiple layers of nuances in each song, in the lyrics and in the music. I could go on and on. But instead of doing that, I’ve decided to do a week’s worth of posts about the album, focusing on individual songs in the order I fell in love with them. So sit back with a glass of your favorite wine, relax, and enjoy a week of Viva La Vida!

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09.29.2008

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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09.25.2008

"Thy Mercy," Sandra McCracken

Posted by AJ Harbison at 8:03 pm

Sandra McCracken wrote the song “Thy Mercy” (or “Thy Mercy My God”) as part of a movement to revive old hymn texts and set them to new music for the church. The lyrics were written by John Stocker in 1776, and the music was written by Sandra McCracken in 2001.

I want to focus primarily on the form of the song in this post. To my knowledge, the song has been recorded three times: once by Caedmon’s Call on their album In The Company Of Angels in 2001; once by the Indelible Grace project on their album Pilgrim Days: Indelible Grace II, also in 2001; and once by Sandra herself on her terrific album The Builder And The Architect in 2005.

The song is strophic, that is, it consists of four verses with the same music for each and no chorus. Simple enough, right? The question of form that prompted this post, though, has to do with a musical interlude and its placement. In a song with four verses of the same music and no chorus, an interlude seems a wise choice to break up the form and lend some variety. The interesting thing is that these three recorded versions do three different things with the interlude.

The Indelible Grace version places the interlude between verses two and three, so the form goes like this:

Verse 1
Verse 2
Interlude
Verse 3
Verse 4

You can listen to the IG version (sung by Sandra) here; “Thy Mercy” is the first track on the CD, so it should start playing when you load the page. The clip is (I think) two minutes long, so you can hear the first two verses, the interlude, verse three, and part of verse four.

The Caedmon’s Call version, which is sung by my favorite songwriter Derek Webb, places the interlude between verses three and four, so the form looks like this:

Verse 1
Verse 2
Verse 3
Interlude
Verse 4

iLike.com, which I’ve grown to appreciate more and more on this blog, has a video here where you can listen to the whole song (the video is just a still shot of the title and the band’s name).

And Sandra’s version on The Builder And The Architect, the most musically original of the three, also places the interlude between verses three and four. It develops a vocal idea that was presented in the introduction to the song, and thus is the most musically coherent of the three versions of the interlude. Our good friend Last.fm pulls through for us again, and offers the full track here for your listening pleasure.

If you glance back for a moment at the form charts I listed above, you’ll notice that the IG version is symmetrical, whereas the Caedmon’s Call and Sandra versions are asymmetrical since the interlude separates three verses from one at the end. Which form is better from a musical standpoint? One could of course argue that both are good in their own ways, and one is not “better” than the other; but I maintain that one is, and for the following reason.

The IG version is not particularly inventive musically, and the “riff” played between the verses is, to be frank, pretty boring. So the general feel of the song becomes static: not much is happening, and we return to the same riff every time between the verses. Thus we have the sequence: riff in the intro, verse one, the riff, verse two, and then an interlude that’s slightly different; then verse three, and then the same riff again. The riff between verses three and four kills any hope we might have had for an overarching dynamic form for the song, because instead of moving on to new or different material to drive the momentum of the song forward, we instead return to the exact same pretty boring riff we’ve heard before, with no variation whatsoever. And therefore the song almost stops dead at this point in terms of form.

Contrast the other two versions–we’ll focus on Sandra’s. To begin with, the instrumentation and style of this arrangement is much more original than the IG version, so we’re more interested from the start. We hear three verses with the same music, although the third verse has a different texture (variations in volume and instrumentation). Then comes the interlude, which is not the same thing we’ve been hearing in between the verses but is a developed and extended version of it–a good balance of repetition and contrast. That propels the momentum of the song forward. Then there is one last verse, returning to the music of the verses, and then the song ends. This form is much more effective because it doesn’t remain static but changes, evolves, through the course of the song, and reflects (in a way) the dramatic topography of the lyrics.

One of the most helpful things I learned in college was that form–in any art but particularly in music–is the balance of repetition and contrast: we need enough repetition to create a coherent song with things we recognize as the song progresses, but enough contrast to create an interesting song that does in fact progress instead of repeating the same material too much. The IG version doesn’t seem to understand this principle; but the Caedmon’s Call and Sandra versions do.

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