06.20.2011

I recently read Virgil Thomson‘s book Music With Words: A Composer’s View, which has as its subject pretty much what you’d expect from the title. I was a little disappointed in the book itself, but he had two passages where he talked about the state of modern composition that I thought were interesting. Here they are:

Symphonic composition, either [in England or America], I have little faith in. And chamber music everywhere is chiefly tolerable today as an experiment in methodology. Writing more solo works for the pianoforte, the organ, the violin, or the cello is looking backward to the masters who by creating for these instruments with so comprehensive a palette actually patented, and exhausted, the gamut of feelings that anybody now living can find urgent in the sound of those instruments. There is still fun to be had with woodwinds maybe, just maybe. And the concert song in English is, I fear, a never-never land from which few invaders bring home booty.

But opera composed in English is still unfinished business, worth working at, and possibly, in view of what has happened since 1930 both in the United Kingdom and with us [in America], possibly alive and certainly wiggling. (page x, in the Preface)

Choral writing goes on busily everywhere with great expertness, with the best intentions, and with enough good musical ideas to keep the choirs a part of the modern-music establishment. Opera writing too goes on apace, though with little sympathy, I must say, from the great houses anywhere except in France, and occasionally in England. But opera is all the same the musical domain where music’s life is least nearly extinct. Symphonic composition? Dead as a doornail. Important piano works? Yes, there are many. Chamber music has still some life in it too, though not much liberty. Musical fun and games, let’s face it, are today in the musical theater. And I don’t mean the theater of dancing, where audiences avid for bodies pay little attention to sound. I mean the singing stage, both popular and classical. In both these domains activity is constant. Should miracles begin to happen there none need be surprised. And not just one miracle but a chain of them, a going-on phenomenon of the kind that happens somewhere in music about every half-century with seemingly no preparation, no reason for it, and no promise in it save for the fact that it does keep going on.

That I should like to see; and indeed I may see it, since it is almost the only door in classical music still ajar. (page 25)

Thomson wrote the book in 1989 (and thus did not live to see the miracles he wrote of, since he died later that year). Now, 22 years later, what do you think? Do you agree with his thoughts on the various genres alive and lifeless in classical music? Were they true at the time? Are they true now? I’ll share my thoughts in a future post, but first I want to hear yours!

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02.10.2010

The Matrix Score, Don Davis

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:08 pm

A little while ago, my lovely wife and I made a movie-watching deal with each other. She wants me to watch the 6 hour BBC version of Pride and Prejudice; I’m not opposed to watching it, but since it’s such a feat I thought I’d make a deal out of it. So the deal is that I’d watch Pride and Prejudice with her if she would watch the Matrix trilogy with me. (She had seen the first one and parts of the second one before.) Last week we watched the original Matrix film to start off the deal.

I was reminded why The Matrix is my favorite movie of all time. Great story, brilliant symbolism, great casting/performances, innovative special effects, killer action scenes, trenchcoats and sunglasses. And a stunning score. The composer is Don Davis, who scored all three Matrix movies and The Animatrix, but otherwise nothing too significant. After listening to the score again, though, I’m not sure why. The score is just as brilliant and innovative as the rest of the film, and is a perfect counterpart.

The main motif of the movie, which most people would immediately associate with the Matrix score, is swelling brass chords in alternating octaves. You can hear them in the opening moments of the movie, over the Warner Bros. and Village Pictures logos, and throughout the movie, usually at points where something particularly unbelievable has happened in the Matrix (Trinity’s leap between two buildings in the opening sequence, for example). On the Amazon product page you can hear them in track 8, “Bullet-Time;” if you watch the movie, listen for them as a recurring motif throughout.

The score also makes effective use of a wordless choir to evoke the otherworldliness and horror of the human fields (which you can hear in track 3, “The Power Plant”). The choir enters in very close intervals, creating clusters of notes that grow with the addition of brass clusters and other elements to create a big dissonant soundscape that corresponds with the emotions that the visuals create. Another effective use of vocals in the score is the wordless boy soprano, who sings a simple alternating melody over the montage of Neo’s awakening in the real world and being restored to health. In a similar manner as the choir, the wordless voice creates an otherworldly effect that corresponds to the literal other world that Neo is experiencing.

If you haven’t seen The Matrix in a while, or if you’ve never seen it, give it a watch and let me know what you think. Were there any other aspects of the score that you noticed, liked, or disliked? What stood out to you?

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08.10.2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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05.07.2009

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!

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04.15.2009

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.

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04.12.2009

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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03.25.2009

Two Exciting Opportunities

Posted by AJ Harbison at 11:49 pm

I’ve come across two exciting opportunities for myself and my music over the last two days. The first came in the form of an email from a woman named Katie Shields, who is the violist in Quartet Sabaku, a string quartet based in Arizona. Apparently she saw my profile on the American Composers Forum website and then either did a Google search on my name or followed the link on the profile to my website. She said in the email that she loved my YouTube video (a fun project I did for Campus Crusade in 2004, which you can see here), and asked to hear or see any music I might have for string quartet, string trio or violin/viola solo. I emailed her back last night and gave her the score to P.S.Q., a string quartet I wrote at Cal State Fullerton that uses atonal pitch material but rhythms, articulations and forms from pop music to transform the string quartet into an avant-garde rock band. It’s never been performed (never well, at least), and I’m excited about the opportunity to possibly get it performed and get connected with an ensemble. And it’s even cooler that the ensemble actually sought me out on its own.

The second exciting opportunity has been brewing in my mind for some time, but was set into motion today. I met for lunch this afternoon with the worship director at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, the church where my lovely wife and I are members, to discuss the possibility of putting a choir together that I would lead. Redeemer is a church that places a great deal of emphasis on culture and art, and I think a choir would fit right in and add another level of depth to an already profound liturgy. When I was at Cal State Fullerton, I took two choral conducting classes with Rob Istad, and they were terrific; I picked it up quickly, though it was also challenging, and it was a heck of a lot of fun. So, in addition to enhancing the worship experience at Redeemer, it would also be a great opportunity for me to try my hand at conducting and leading a choral ensemble. We would probably start with just a hymn, singing it in four-part harmony (which sounds cool even if it’s just what’s written on the page), and if that worked well we might move on to more interesting choral repertoire. Eventually it might even become an ensemble I could compose for. I’m really stoked on the idea; the worship director will be talking to the pastors and the Session and presenting it to them, and if they give the go-ahead we’ll get started! I’ll keep you all posted….

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09.16.2008

This past Saturday night (9/13) my lovely girlfriend and I attended the Concert for Hope at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. The Concert for Hope was produced in conjunction with the opening of the Village of Hope, a new homeless shelter in Tustin. The Village of Hope is a branch of the Orange County Rescue Mission, built on the very interesting premise that beauty motivates people to change their lives for the better. Original artwork, sculpture and architecture were commissioned for the Village, all in hope that if the homeless who are sheltered there are surrounded by beauty, they will be more inspired to achieve self-sufficiency than if they were in a drab, purely functional environment.

In order to raise money and community awareness about this project (which officially opened on Sunday), OCPAC hosted the Concert for Hope on Saturday night, starring the Pacific Chorale and Pacific Symphony directed by Carl St. Clair. All proceeds from ticket sales were donated to the Village. The concert was held in the only two-year-old Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, which is an amazing performance space I’ve greatly enjoyed in the past. The program consisted of some Copland music and a new piece commissioned for the occasion, the cantata From Greater Light, by Californian composer Alva Henderson with a libretto (i.e. text) by Richard Freis (sorry, no link; I couldn’t find a good website on him).

The concert started off with Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, a stirring brass ‘n’ percussion tribute to the human spirit (presumably the reason it was included on the program). The acoustics in the hall are superlative, and the Fanfare was flooring. It was followed by a suite from Copland’s ballet Billy The Kid, and some of his Old American [folk] Songs sung by the famous baritone Jubilant Sykes. Why these were programmed was a mystery to my girlfriend and I; Copland’s main distinctive (apart from his music itself) is as the quintessential American composer. It was certainly good music, but in terms of thematic coherency it didn’t seem to apply much to the Village of Hope. It didn’t even fit with the “tribute to the human spirit” idea (the Billy The Kid suite includes the movements “Celebration [due to] Billy’s Capture” and “Billy’s Death”). But we enjoyed it nonetheless.

The first half ended with Sykes singing an uncredited arrangement of “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands” and an a cappella spiritual, which brought the house down. The entire second half consisted of From Greater Light, which lasted about 45 minutes.

The piece is a cantata (the Latin word for “sung”) scored for chorus, orchestra, solo baritone and solo tenor. Cantatas are dramatic pieces, often based on sacred texts, that tell a story but don’t fully stage it (there are no sets, props or costumes). Freis’ libretto dramatizes the biblical story of Job, a righteous man who loses all his property, wealth and children in one blow. In the piece, the angel Gabriel (“played” by the tenor) visits Job (“played” by the baritone) and tells of God’s love, proclaiming the message “We all live in one another and in God.” Freis then incorporates Jesus’ parable of the Final Judgment from Matthew 25, in which he states “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink,” etc. Gabriel declares that God is in the hungry and the one who feeds the hungry, God is in the thirsty and the one who gives a drink, etc., culminating in “God is in the homeless and the one who gives a home.” The choir sings the refrain “We all live in one another and in God,” occasionally takes a character part on itself (“We are the homeless….”), and generally serves to reiterate and comment on the soloists’ statements, much like the chorus in a classical Greek play. Eventually Gabriel implores that God’s invisible hands be made visible in service to those in need, and Job, no longer mourning for his children but still singing their names in remembrance, joins in, and the piece ends with a quiet “Amen” from the choir.

Henderson’s music was conservative, tonal and accessible, and while not being anything special was certainly good. Apparently Henderson is primarily an opera composer, and that showed in the music for this piece in that it was very dramatic, sometimes overly affected, but generally effective in conveying the emotion of the story. There was some nice word painting, notably shimmering high strings, winds and percussion for Gabriel’s entrance. I was particularly pleased, as well, to note Henderson’s skill in giving the choir several a cappella passages, free of orchestral accompaniment, to highlight the text and allow the singers to shine.

The libretto, however, was very weak in my opinion. The Christian tradition has a rich depth of theology and philosophy on the subject of suffering, which could have provided a wealth of richly meaningful and moving material for the piece, and certainly using Job as a starting point is creative and promising. But Freis opts instead for vague and vacuous sentiment, portraying the grief of Job but offering no consolation. It would seem to me that in the middle of the piece there should be a dramatic turning point, in which Job is comforted and uplifted and turns to service (who would serve others when they’re lost in the depths of unconsoled despair themselves?), but this point never comes. Instead there is no real transition, and thus rather than a coherent storyline arc the form of the libretto is nebulous and unconnected. (“Hey, Job, I know you’re bummed about your kids, but to take your mind off it why don’t you try helping others?”)

Because of this From Greater Light can’t achieve the greatness that it aspires to in the service of its worthy cause. The music is effective and dramatically well done, but the libretto falls far short of what it promises and the music is unable to redeem it. However, I have to emphasize that I fully support the concept–I love the idea that the mere presence of beauty can change lives, and I hope the Village is blessed by the awareness and funds contributed by the concert. Henderson’s music: B; Freis’ libretto: C; concept for Concert for Hope: A+.

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08.24.2008

The Olympic Fanfares

Posted by AJ Harbison at 7:00 pm

In honor of the final weekend and close of the Games of the XXIXth Olympiad, I’ll be posting three TLB entries over the next few days concerning the Olympics and their televised coverage by NBC.

There are actually two common fanfares used as themes for the Olympics. The first, entitled “Bugler’s Dream,” was composed by Leo Arnaud in 1958 as part of his Charge Suite. It was first used in ABC’s television coverage of the Olympics in Mexico City in 1968, and picked up subsequently by NBC. “Bugler’s Dream” is a stately march, beginning with a timpani cadence and moving into a theme played by the brass.

The second fanfare, entitled more specifically “Olympic Fanfare and Theme,” was composed by none other than the great film composer John Williams specifically for the 1984 games in Los Angeles (which were televised then by NBC). It is a fast and energetic fanfare also utilizing a lot of brass and percussion, and it is sometimes combined with Arnaud’s piece, as in the arrangement for the soundtrack album of the Games in Atlanta in 1996.

In addition to these familiar fanfares, there is also an official Olympic Hymn, known informally as the Olympic Anthem, composed for the first modern Olympics in 1896 and adopted as the official Olympic anthem by the International Olympic Committee in 1958. Up until the 1960 Games in Rome, it was customary for each host nation to commission a new Olympic hymn from a native composer for their year. I assume that this practice was discontinued since the official hymn was adopted around that time; but perhaps it should be reinstated. How cool would that be, to compose an Olympic hymn for your own country? I could be the Michael Phelps of composers….

Samples of each fanfare can be heard on the Wikipedia page; as always on Wikipedia, click the triangular play button twice. A YouTube vide of the Olympic Hymn, performed at the Opening Ceremony of the Athens Games in 2004, can be found here.

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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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