07.28.2008

Wicked Soundtrack, Stephen Schwartz

Posted by AJ Harbison at 9:05 pm

Last week on my commute to and from work, I was listening to the soundtrack of the musical Wicked. The musical premiered on Broadway in 2003; my brother obtained the soundtrack perhaps a year or two after that, and I had heard small snippets of it from his CD. But on my road trip last fall, my fellow Team Americans and I saw it on Broadway in New York City and I fell in love with it. Shortly after our return I bought the CD for myself (or rather bought it on iTunes and burned it onto a CD); and the fact that I listen to it in the car is a testament to how much I love the music. Orchestral music is often difficult to hear in a car because it has a much larger range of frequencies than popular music, and the quieter parts tend to be covered by the ambient noise driving entails. But I enjoy this musical so much that I’m willing to let parts of it be obscured, and have to adjust the volume multiple times, in order to listen to it while I’m driving.

Because there’s so much to love about Wicked, I’m going to dedicate a week’s worth of posts to it (and I may post a bit more frequently this week)–mostly short posts that deal with specific songs or ideas. To start off, I’ll mention a few general things.

The lyrics. Okay, I know this is a blog about music and sound; but I have to tell you, the lyrics to Wicked are magnificent. The fact that Stephen Schwartz could be a brilliant composer and such a genius of a lyricist boggles my mind. The lyrics are better, all things considered, than most of pop music and even much of classical music set to poetry. They’re not as serious, of course, as poetry per se; but the artistry with which they’re written is certainly on a similar level. He uses more internal rhymes than Billy Joel (which is saying a lot), and his rhymes aren’t throwaways or easy rhymes but often complex and surprising ones. Some of my favorite rhymes come from the song “Popular,” in which Glinda (the good witch) is telling Elphaba (who will become the Wicked Witch of the West) how to be popular:

“Don’t be offended by my frank analysis
Think of it as personality dialysis
Now that I’ve chosen to become a pal, a sis-
ter and advisor,
there’s nobody wiser!
Not when it comes to…

Popular! I know about popular
And with an assist from me
To be who you’ll be
Instead of dreary who you were… well, are,
There’s nothing that can stop you,
From becoming popular… lar…”

Any lyricist who can legitimately use the word “dialysis” in a song is pretty amazing, in my book. And if you listen to the soundtrack, or see the show, especially, there are a lot of little details in the lyrics that reference the original Wizard of Oz in very clever ways. It’s a blast.

The style. Wicked is what my girlfriend referred to as a “pop musical,” meaning that although it uses a full orchestra it’s written in a pop style more so than typical musicals–it owes its idioms more to pop songs than classical stylings, uses guitars, synthesizers and drum kits, etc. I enjoy this aspect of the music, although my girlfriend (who is much more a theatre aficionado than I) doesn’t like it as much.

The style is also rather varied throughout the musical. Although it’s all pop-flavored, there are big orchestral numbers (e.g. “No One Mourns The Wicked” and the “Finale”), tracks that are almost straight-up pop songs (e.g. the first part of “Dancing Through Life”), a ragtime (“Wonderful”), the obligatory piano ballad (“For Good” which, despite being obligatory, is actually a really good song) and even an alma mater/school song (“Dear Old Shiz”).

The leitmotifs. As originally conceived by the classical 19th century composer Richard Wagner, a leitmotif is a musical theme or idea associated with a particular character, place or plot point. It’s a concept used extensively in movie scores today, where each character often has their own theme. For example, everyone knows Darth Vader’s theme (technically titled “The Imperial March”) from Star Wars. This theme also pops up in subtle, understated ways in Episodes I through III, which detail how Anakin Skywalker becomes Vader–it could be played quietly in the low strings as he contemplates an evil action, for instance. In Wicked, the themes are not so much associated with characters as with ideas, but they function in similar ways. The “unlimited” theme, for example, which first appears in Elphaba’s song “The Wizard And I,” reappears later in “Defying Gravity” and “For Good;” and the original chord progression in the opening song (“No One Mourns The Wicked”) comes back periodically as well. Schwartz’s use of leitmotifs, while perhaps not innovative, is certainly excellent, and it lends the show a great deal of internal coherency–which I always appreciate.

The details. All well-written music is full of little details that make big differences, but I particularly appreciate the detail in the music of Wicked. I’ll get into more specifics as I write about individual songs throughout the week.

In the meantime, you can check out samples on Amazon’s product page. Also, you may be interested in this article: “Wicked’s Musical Themes”, from Stephen Schwartz’s fanpage, musicalschwartz.com. It talks about some of the themes and leitmotifs used in the show, and even uses Star Wars as an example. Great minds think alike, I suppose.

An old friend of mine in college named Albert, who was not a trained composer but nevertheless taught me important musical lessons, once said that with all the changing norms and styles in our musical culture today, perhaps the only universal aesthetic left was the ability to inspire. (I don’t necessarily agree with him, but it’s a thought-provoking point.) Wicked fires on many, many cylinders, but that is certainly one of them: listening to its soundtrack makes me want to write better music.

(P.S. In an interesting twist, our old friend Last.fm didn’t really have any of the songs that I tried to find; but I was able to find all of them on iLike.com. So all the links to listenable clips in my posts this week will be iLike links. Go figure.)

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07.04.2008

Eyes Open, Snow Patrol

Posted by AJ Harbison at 5:24 am

In the past week on my commute to work, I’ve been listening to the CD Eyes Open by the band Snow Patrol. It’s a CD that Courtney had on our trip, which is where I was introduced to their music. I enjoyed it so much that I got the CD myself upon our return.

There are several reasons why I like the CD. I have to admit, at the outset, that their lyrics aren’t the best. They’re good, for sure, and more intelligent than most, but they lack the depth and particularly the subtlety of really good lyrics (U2 and Coldplay, of course, are the two examples you knew I’d bring up). Snow Patrol’s lyrics tell much more often than they show, which means they just say things straight out instead of implying things, which makes them less interesting. But at any rate, this is a music blog, not a lyrics blog, and the lyrics really aren’t bad at all.

The first reason I like the CD has to do with the singer, Gary Lightbody. Despite having (in my humble opinion) a non-rock-star-like name, I realized these past few listens that I actually like his voice a lot. Those of you who know me know that I’m really, really picky about singers, so to say that I like his voice is saying something. It has that breathy quality that makes it chill and unique, without actually being breathy–it actually has a good core and tone behind it. And his tone, support, etc. are all very good. In short–his voice just sounds really good.

Another reason I like Eyes Open is that it uses chords that are pretty typical–nothing too crazy here–but it has a sound that’s fresh and interesting. I really like the pianistic chord progression of the seventh track, “Make This Go On Forever” (you can listen to a sample on Amazon’s product page), for example. And the eighth track, “Set The Fire To The Third Bar,” has a very simple progression (Bm – A – G, over and over again) but the melody and the way the progression is played (how it’s voiced, its instrumentation, the musical space involved) are creative enough that it doesn’t get old even though it’s the same progression through the whole song.

One more thing that interests me about the CD is the typical pattern of the guitars. In many of the songs, the electric guitar plays its chord progression in repeated straight eighth notes, with no rhythmic variation. Listen to the Amazon samples for tracks 5, 9 and 10 and notice how the guitar doesn’t play anything outside of repeated notes of the same rhythmic value. While sounding simple, this is actually quite hard to play well; and it’s something that I’ve been trying out in my own guitar playing recently.

And, as a final note, I have to say that I like the CD because I really love the song “Chasing Cars,” which is track 3. It’s a great love song, the lyrics are quite good, and the form of the song is creative and effective: it starts very simple, with soft picking by the electric guitar, and steadily builds through each verse and chorus until the final chorus comes in full strength with the entire band. The lyrics also follow the same pattern: each chorus successively gains a few extra lines (i.e. the first chorus is two lines, the second chorus four, and the last chorus eight). I love it when bands are musically savvy enough to match the form of the lyrics and the music–that’s one of the reasons that Coldplay is so brilliant, especially on their album X&Y. You can listen to “Chasing Cars” for free here, your friendly neighborhood Last.fm.

Eyes Open. It’s a good CD. You should check it out.

Anyone heard anything else from the band? Is it as good as this CD is? Should I listen to it, and then blog about it to share it with y’all?

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06.28.2008

Mood Music for the Beach

Posted by AJ Harbison at 7:10 pm

On Wednesday night after work, I felt that the air was cooler than it had been over the past few days, and I could feel the ocean beckoning me. So after a brief stop back at the apartment, I hopped in my car and headed down to the beach–Newport Beach, to be precise. I felt that this occasion, which was the first time I’ve gone to the beach alone since I moved to Irvine, warranted some particular music to fit my mood: excited, adventurous, free. I chose U2, unsurprisingly–All That You Can’t Leave Behind, to be precise. “Beautiful Day” is the first track, and one of the most popular songs of their whole career; it seemed to embody the feeling I needed. It was the first song we listened to as we set out on our road trip last fall, so perhaps that gave it an adventurous and free connotation in my mind. Wednesday was a beautiful evening, at the least; the orange sun burned in a pink and cloudless sky. I raced it down to the horizon, and won by a little, as it hung red just above the fog when I arrived at Newport.

I set up my beach chair a little way back from the water, and journaled for a while. When I was finished, I pulled out my iPod and looked out over the sea. I love the ocean, and again I needed to find music that fit the mood of the situation. I felt as if I needed something to match the grandeur of the sea and the vastness of the sky, and as I browsed through the artists on my iPod I settled on some excellent choral music: the Mass of Swiss composer Frank Martin. (The recording I have comes from the CD Cathedral Classics, by the Dale Warland Singers, and it’s AMAZING.) I promise I’ll write a post about the Mass within the next week or so, because it’s such an awesome piece that it deserves its own post. But for now, suffice it to say that it served my purpose perfectly: sometimes big, grand and soaring, sometimes soft and sweet, always creative and evocative. It was a little hard to hear when it got softer in volume, due to the roaring of the waves, but otherwise it matched the emotion and mood of the scene.

After the Mass was over (it’s about 25 minutes long), I felt I needed some Chopin. Chopin was a Romantic composer (i.e. he lived in the 19th century–1810 to 1849, to be precise) who wrote almost exclusively for the piano, and his music is so distinctive that it’s almost immediately identifiable by anyone who knows his style. His music is very poignant, evocative and emotional, and often is characterized by a longing or yearning feeling that I felt would be appropriate to the sea following the Martin. (It was, in some senses, like choosing which fine wines would pair well with the various courses of a meal. The Martin Mass communicated the grandeur of the ocean and the sky in themselves; the Chopin matched the longing and intimacy of me, a lone man, standing before them in their grandeur.) I chose his Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, from a recording by Krystian Zimerman.

(Incidentally, an interesting side note: a short time into the Ballade, I changed the EQ setting on my iPod from “Loudness” to “Piano.” The difference was very noticeable; the piano didn’t necessarily sound better–I actually felt like it got a little shallower and brighter in sound–but it was much better defined and much clearer, and I could even hear the pianist taking breaths as he played. It was in short a very helpful EQ setting.)

All of the ballades of Chopin (he wrote four) are worth listening to, but the first is my favorite, followed closely by the second (which I’ll also blog about soon, perhaps). And the first again was a perfect choice to pair with the cuisine of sea and sky; its yearning seemed a fitting musical counterpart to the constantly breaking waves.

When the Ballade ended, due to the waves covering some of the sound and the fact that I was getting very cold, I decided to pack up my chair and backpack and head home. Back in the car, I returned to the U2 CD; but things seemed to revert to my usual listening-to-music-in-the-car mood.

I’ve noted in the past that listening to an iPod while doing something else like walking, or watching the ocean, or whatever, is good training for being a film composer. Film composers need to be able to capture whatever human emotion is being displayed on screen and express it through music. And if I’m listening to something on my iPod, it’s almost like a movie soundtrack to the life that I’m experiencing; I can note what emotions that type of music stirs in me in that particular setting, and that would help me if I was ever to compose music for a scene in a film with a similar setting and emotion. So, Mark, if you ever make a film that has to do with the beach and you need some scoring for it, you know who to call: me–to be precise.

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06.17.2008

Mixin' It Up With Elton John

Posted by AJ Harbison at 2:11 am

Last night my good friend Rae was kind enough to donate to my girlfriend and I some free CDs that she didn’t want. One of the ones I took was Elton John’s Greatest Hits Volume II. Now, I’m not a huge Elton John fan (except for a live version of “Candle In The Wind”), but I’ve enjoyed the CD as I’ve listened to it last night on my drive home and today on my commute to and from work. The three songs I recognized from hearing them elsewhere were his cover of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” “Tiny Dancer” and “Levon.” But the thing that struck me specifically (at least on my first listen-through) was the mix, particularly where his voice fits in. When he’s not singing up high (like the chorus of “Tiny Dancer,” for example), his voice is often partly obscured by the instrumentation because it’s at a similar volume. The Amazon.com page with song previews isn’t particularly helpful in illustrating my point, because most of their short samples come from softer parts of the songs where his voice is prominent. But you can hear a little of what I mean in the samples of “Philadelphia Freedom” and “Pinball Wizard.” You can pretty much make out what he’s saying, but the drums and guitars are loud enough that they threaten to overpower his voice.

Most of the time in popular music, the lead vocal is mixed to a high enough volume that it stands out noticeably from the instruments since it’s the main musical (and of course lyrical) idea. There are exceptions even in mainstream rock, most notably U2 (Achtung Baby, for example) or Coldplay (like their new single, available now as a single on iTunes, “Viva La Vida”). But U2 and Coldplay do it for musical reasons: they see the voice (at least in these particular songs) as just another instrument, no more or less important than the others, and so the blending in the mix is intentional. It puts the voice on equal artistic footing with, say, the guitar and drums. But the instruments on the Elton John album are clearly providing a background for the voice–they’re not nearly as interesting or original, musically, as the instruments of U2 or Coldplay. I don’t mean that in a negative way; the players of those instruments are not necessarily worse musicians (although, most likely, they are), they’re just called on to fulfill a different role. Thus, while the mix for U2 or Coldplay is an artistic decision, it seems the mix for Elton John is just a poor one.

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06.06.2008

Those Dang Tenors

Posted by AJ Harbison at 1:31 am

I made myself a mix CD of some of the random stuff I’ve purchased on iTunes so I could listen to it in the car as well as on my computer and iPod. I always like to sing along to music when I’m in the car, and so I looked forward to the opportunity to sing along with these songs for the first time. These are the first few tracks:

1. “How Far We’ve Come” from Exile On Mainstream (Matchbox Twenty)

2. “I’ll Believe You When” from Exile On Mainstream (Matchbox Twenty)

3. “All Your Reasons” from Exile On Mainstream (Matchbox Twenty)

4. “These Hard Times” from Exile On Mainstream (Matchbox Twenty)

5. “If I Fall” from Exile On Mainstream (Matchbox Twenty)

6. “Can’t Let You Go” from Exile On Mainstream (Matchbox Twenty)

7. “Africa” from The Essential Toto (Toto)

8. “Ten Thousand Angels” featuring Derek Webb (single) (Caedmon’s Call)

9. “Bad Day” from Daniel Powter (Daniel Powter)

10. “Harder To Breathe” from Songs About Jane (Maroon 5)

11. “She Will Be Loved” from Songs About Jane (Maroon 5)

12. “Tangled” from Songs About Jane (Maroon 5)

All this to say, when I put the CD in the car and tried to sing along, I found that every single song had at least parts that were too high for me. (I’m a baritone / bass I.) I’ve noticed the same thing in Christian worship music (especially the Passion group–Chris Tomlin, David Crowder, Matt Redman, etc.): namely, that there are just way too many tenors. It seems like almost every male lead singer for popular rock bands is a tenor. Where are the baritones and basses? Has anyone else ever noticed this fact?

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