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!


The End of West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein

Posted by AJ Harbison at 9:53 pm

The other night my lovely wife and I watched the 1961 movie version of West Side Story, the musical with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and music by Leonard Bernstein. It won 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture, the most Oscars ever awarded to a musical. My wife had seen it before but it was my first time. I enjoyed it for the most part, although both of us felt that the last third of the movie was a little weak, both dramatically and musically. But I was struck by the way that Leonard Bernstein handled the music at the end of the film.

In the closing scene, [SPOILER ALERT] after Tony dies, Maria tells off the rival gangs and they begin to disperse, there is a pause in the underscoring before Bernstein begins his final chordal progression. It consists of high woodwinds and strings playing a D-flat major chord, punctuated with a G-natural (the tritone to D-flat) in the low bass. (Incidentally, this is the same progression that Stephen Schwartz uses in the closing bars of the first song and the finale of Wicked.) It contributes to the uneasy feeling of the scene: peace has been achieved, at least for the moment, but it isn’t pretty and it wasn’t won without a terrible cost. In the end, the high D-flat chord is played and rings out before dying away, but the bass is not resolved to a D-flat as you expect, leaving the music hanging on a consonant major chord but without a feeling of satisfying resolution.

(Start the video around the 5:20 mark)

However, at the end of the final credits, Bernstein repeats the same progression–but this time, at the end, he resolves the bass to D-flat as well, so that the movie does close with a satisfying and grounded resolution.

(Start the video around 4:15 to see the slightly amusing way Bernstein highlights his own name in the credits; the final progression begins shortly thereafter)

It’s a great way to illustrate musically the emotion at the end of the movie, while still providing a satisfying conclusion at the very end.


The Third Man (Score)

Posted by AJ Harbison at 5:52 pm

My lovely wife and I watched the 1949 movie The Third Man last week. It was a good movie, with an interesting mystery plot and featuring Orson Welles in what he called a “star role” (where people talk about his character for 45 minutes before he actually shows up). I was disappointed in the score, though. It was comprised entirely of zither music; the zither is a stringed instrument common in Eastern Europe, and since the movie was set in Vienna I suppose it made sense, as it would have been a style of music native to the movie’s time and place, and the carefree, happy folk music it played provided a nice artistic contrast to the film noir elements of the movie. But it did get annoying pretty quickly.

But it also set me thinking about the interesting challenge of setting the whole score of a movie for one instrument. I’ve written before of how I like the idea of a self-imposed limit on one’s palette of colors, and this seems like a great example. What would be a good instrument for such a challenge? (Solo piano doesn’t count.) Stringed instruments suggested themselves immediately; a violin or viola could certainly be used to striking effect, although a cello would have a richer tone and range. It’s hard to think of another instrument that could be used as effectively by itself throughout the course of a whole film (whether short or not). What do you think?


This past Christmas my mother gave me a subscription to Listen: Life With Classical Music, “America’s classical music magazine,” which is published by Arkiv Music. In the Summer 2010 issue, there’s an interesting article about Brett Richardson, a pianist who performs regularly in a bar in New Orleans called The Spotted Cat. Along with the usual suspects–stride piano, ragtime, blues–he also plays Chopin, Poulenc, Bach, Prokofiev, Schumann, and the music of other classical composers. The article isn’t available on Listen‘s website, but Richardson had a couple of great quotes that I hope they won’t mind me sharing with you here.

“I’m disgusted with [the institution of classical music]. And I participated in it for a long time before I was able to articulate what bothered me. Basically, I don’t think the tradition is currently conducive to the masses. It’s a stuffy thing. To force someone to sit still and pay attention, it’s just alienating and furstrating. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone! But if you go somewhere and play some Scott Joplin, play some blues, and then sneak in some Beethoven, people are like, ‘Oh, man, that’s great! Some fine piano-playing right there.’ People like Beethoven, they really do. But if you present it in a lofty way, people will be put off, agitated, even insulted…. Ultimately, I would prefer to contribute to the atmosphere rather than be at the center of it. To be on stage and playing Rachmaninoff is a big responsibility. To say, ‘Okay, you have to be still and quiet and pay attention while I do this,’ well, hey, you better do it damn good. But if you’re playing where people are telling jokes and flirting and you’re contributing to that, that’s the whole point of sharing music. If people want to sit and listen quietly, they can do that, but if they want to get in fights, well, that’s fine, too.”

Although I wouldn’t say I’m “disgusted” with the institution of classical music, I do agree with his comments about it to some extent. That’s the reason why the institution is struggling all over the country–because it’s not conducive to the masses. And that’s why a lot of the contemporary classical music that matters isn’t being written for and performed in concert halls (though some of it is, to be sure). It’s being fused with popular music and played in spaces like galleries, lofts, and yes, even bars; places where it’s not portrayed as “sophisticated” or “high-brow,” for the “hallowed halls,” but for people to come together, hang out, share and enjoy. I certainly wouldn’t want my only experiences of listening to classical music to be in a noisy club. But if I knew of a bar nearby that played classical music, you’d definitely find me there a lot.


Bach, Beethoven, Brahms–and Bits and Bytes?

Posted by AJ Harbison at 10:11 am

Slate.com has another intriguing article in their music section, this time a profile on modern composer David Cope, who wrote one of my college textbooks and works primarily in the field of computer music. He’s apparently created a computer program (christened “Emily Howell”) that takes input from the greatest composers of Western music, including Bach, Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Barber, and Copeland, and composes its own music by recombining elements from the music in its database. Now Cope’s primary method of composing is to listen to Emily Howell’s work and tell it what he likes and doesn’t like–most of his music is created by the computer. As usual, several clips of Emily Howell’s music are included in the article, though unfortunately they’re too short to make any judgments of quality.

Cope’s case is that all great music is created by this process of synthesizing bits and pieces of music that the composer has heard before, which is of course true and seemed rather self-evident to me, though not (it appears) to the author of the article. But what do you think? Is there something “inherently distasteful” about composing through a computer–or rather letting a computer compose for you? Do you have any aesthetic objections to the process? Why or why not?

“I’ll Be Bach: A computer program is writing great, original works of classical music. Will human composers soon be obsolete?”


Jan Swafford’s second recent article on Slate.com concerns the history of tuning and temperament, and it’s an excellent summary of the subject. It’s another enjoyable read–I particularly like the way he describes the impossibility of pure tuning as “the laughter of the gods” and continues the image throughout the article. And again he includes some great musical clips, including Peter Watchorn playing from Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier (which, Swafford says, was written “not only to show off this improved system but to help make well-temperament mandatory by writing irreplaceable pieces in every key”) and a side-by-side comparison of a Beethoven sonata movement in modern equal temperament and in a 19th century tuning called Prinz. Can you hear the difference? (Hint: I think it’s a little easier to hear listening to the Prinz first and then the equal temperament, rather than the other way around.)

“The Wolf at Our Heels: The centuries-old struggle to play in tune”


A little over a week ago I was both surprised and flattered to receive an email from a digital media company asking me if I’d like to review Sandra McCracken‘s upcoming CD, In Feast Or Fallow. I was planning on getting the CD for myself anyway, so I said I’d be more than happy to listen to the CD and post my thoughts.

In Feast Or Fallow, which was produced by Sandra’s frequent collaborator and always husband Derek Webb, is a followup to her 2005 album The Builder and the Architect. Both albums are comprised mainly of old hymn texts set to new music, sometimes written by Sandra herself and sometimes written by others, and several new songs written in a hymn-like style. She created a new website for this project, http://www.newoldhymns.com, which has information on her two hymns albums and includes a bunch of resources for reviving old hymns for a new generation. I am a big fan of The Builder and the Architect, and I’m eager to hear what Sandra and Derek have done on this new album.

I say I am eager to hear it, because I’ve decided to “liveblog” my first listen through the album: blogging as I listen, rather than writing my collected thoughts afterwards. I thought it might make for an interesting read (feel free to disagree in the comments if you don’t think it’s as good as a regular post). So, starting with track 1, here we go:

Track 1, “Petition” – The album starts with some interesting electronic sounds, heavily reverbed piano and shimmering high picking. Immediately something different from anything Sandra’s done before. The rhythms and meter are more syncopated and modern than the sometimes stiff rhythms of The Builder and the Architect. I like ‘em a lot. That album used acoustic instruments almost exclusively, heavily focused on guitar and piano, and none of the songs had a full drum set; this album starts at least with a wide variety of acoustic and electronic instruments, and I like the sound. Wish the vocals were mixed a little louder.

Track 2, “Can’t Help Myself” – Sandra sings “I confess the things I am afraid of”–she’s said that this CD is 15 different ways of asking the question, “What are we afraid of?” Nice layered vocals in the middle–a whole chours of Sandras. “Oh, trust the Lord, my soul, and all that is in me”: the answer to the fear.

Track 3, “A Narrow Cradle” – Instrumental track: a gradually growing progression of not-too-realistic but intentional samples. Something Derek did on his album Mockingbird, though in his case with real instruments. I dig it.

Track 4, “Justice Will Roll Down” – A more typical upbeat guitar/bass/drums groove. Adds an organ on verse 2; a great picture of the “new old hymns” idea. Noticing that the songs are pretty long; first was 5 minutes, second was 6, this one is 4 (rewritten hymns can tend to go by pretty quickly).

Track 5, “New Wonders” – Slower, more ballad-like, but the chord progression grabs me more so than any of the songs so far. Very Sandra-sounding, with idiomatic guitar sliding progressions and lots of suspended chords. The organ makes another appearance.

Track 6, “Give Reviving” – More production elements back in this song. I like the give-and-take between a more traditional sound and a more produced one; both feel natural rather than forced, and it makes for an album that’s never dull to listen to. Again I wish the vocals were just a little hotter in the mix; they tend to get just a little obscured by everything else.

Track 7, “This Is The Christ” – Again back to acoustic guitar and piano. I like the texture, with the picking guitar providing the main movement, and the piano providing only punctuating chords. The march snare beat is a little clichéd, but interesting in that it’s panned to the left and right on different beats.

Track 8, “Bands Of Angels” – The snare roll is carried over from the last song (without the marching beat). Another short instrumental track. I like the way that they break up the vocal songs; provides some variety on a pretty long album (15 tracks).

Track 9, “Hidden Place” – The high glockenspiel-type instruments/guitar pairing, along with the dark piano bass notes, reminds me of the sound of Sandra and Derek’s Ampersand EP album. The album recalls a lot of Sandra’s earlier works in multiple ways (chord progressions, instrumental textures), but simultaneously represents something totally new.

Track 10, “Eighty-Eight” – Starts with an accompaniment of only strings–creative texture, not just boring block chords.

Track 11, “In Feast Or Fallow” – The title track starts with a different singer (I think it’s Thad Cockrell), and also features Derek singing verse 2. The determined guitars make it sound like an anthem–albeit an anthem with much deeper and more meaningful lyrics than anthems typically have. I like the harmony of the three of them singing together, but the blend isn’t as tight as I’d like.

Track 12, “I Glory In Christ” – A song made up almost exclusively of produced sounds; reminiscent of Derek’s latest album, Stockholm Syndrome. Again a nice change-up from the guitar-based acoustic sound, and not at all out of place.

Track 13, “980 Anne Steele” – A bit of shifting meter here. Not as musically interesting as some of the other tracks, and the slow tempo makes it feel a little dragging. Kinda disappointed in this one.

Track 14, “Sweet Sorrow” – Nice finger-picking, but I was hoping it would be a little bit faster and more upbeat to pick up where the previous track took me down. Ending (particularly with the drums) feels a little awkward.

Track 15, “Faith’s Review & Expectation (Amazing Grace)” – This is, of course, one of the greatest and one of the most overdone hymns of all time; but Sandra said she wanted to record a version unlike anything you’ve heard before. She certainly succeeds with me. Starts off with just vocal and organ, but then the percussion and guitars kick in, followed by drums and organ. Rollicking in a folky kind of way; not what I’d call “rockin’,” but fun and upbeat nonetheless–and certainly very different. A few of her chord changes are unconventional and serve to change up the progression nicely. I’d like the texture to change a little more throughout the song, and particularly on the last verse to build rather than repeat a texture we’ve heard before. But she delivers a version of “Amazing Grace” simultaneously different from any I’ve heard and very patently her own.

My overall impression is of a record that is unmistakably a Sandra McCracken record, while taking her music in an entirely new creative direction. The juxtaposition of acoustic instruments and new electronic sounds is a perfect symbol of what she’s doing with the “new old hymns” concept, and produces a surprisingly coherent and natural synthesis that balances perfectly throughout. A very worthwhile listen, and one that makes me look forward with anticipation to what Sandra will do next.

In Feast Or Fallow officially releases tomorrow, April 27th, and can be bought on iTunes, Amazon and Sandra McCracken’s website.


Jan Swafford has recently written two interesting (albeit lengthy) posts on Slate.com‘s music channel that I thought I’d share with you. The first is about a unique collection of 19th century pianos in Massachusetts and their keepers, Pat and Michael Frederick, and how playing composers’ works on the pianos they wrote them for is a much different experience than hearing them on, say, a modern Steinway. It’s an enjoyable read, and best of all there are lots of music clips of performances on the older pianos to demonstrate the difference. The recording of the “Moonlight” Sonata on a Viennese piano from 1805 is a little disappointing–it’s very quiet, and there are lots of other ambient noises that obscure much of the effect–but the following recording comparing the modern and older pianos playing the “Appassionata” Sonata is much better and shows a very discernible difference in tone quality, especially in the lower register. The remaining comparisons are all pretty cool and worth a listen; and the closing remarks about the current homogeneity in piano brand sales and tone quality is also insightful.

“Why you’ve never really heard the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata”


Tragedy and Comedy

Posted by AJ Harbison at 10:31 am

Last week my lovely wife and I completed the deal that we’d made a while back, that I would watch the 6 hour BBC version of Pride and Prejudice with her if she watched all three Matrix movies with me. The double wedding at the end of Pride and Prejudice reminded me of a simple, generalized classification system I’d heard of for Shakespeare’s plays: if everyone dies at the end, it’s a tragedy, and if everyone gets married at the end, it’s a comedy. My thought on the subject was also influenced by a book I read recently, Frederick Buechner’s Telling The Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale. Among many other excellent insights, he describes tragedy as the inevitable–what we expect to happen, happens; and comedy as the unexpected–what we didn’t expect to happen happens. This complements the Shakespearean idea, I think: we expect that Hamlet will destroy himself and everyone else, and he does; we don’t expect Beatrice and Benedick to end up together, but they do. (Of course, now we’ve come to expect that two people who quarrel in a comedy will end up together, but I think it’s only because we’ve been culturally conditioned as a society to expect it. It still creates dramatic conflict, though, so I would say it’s still valid to think of it from an objective standpoint as being unexpected.)

Although my creative art of choice is music, I enjoy all other forms of art as well, particularly visual art (not least because my lovely wife is an illustrator and painter). And as a lover of all the arts, I’m continually exploring ways to apply concepts I appreciate in other arts—such as symbolism, imagery and negative space—to music. I recently finished composing a piece (which I may post about later in more detail) about the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage. One of the symbols of the pilgrimage is a scallop shell:

and the modern symbol of the way is a representation that looks like this:

One of the ideas behind this symbol is that of many people coming from different starting points but converging upon one destination. So in trying to depict that idea musically, I have each of the eight parts play the same theme–but they enter at different times and play it at different rates. Each instrument takes the same pilgrimage, so to speak, but in its own unique way, just as individuals on a journey would. And a good deal of interest and conflict is created in the way that the parts interact as they play the same theme in different ways. But then in the end every part converges into a unison note.

So I’m always looking for ways like that to incorporate aspects of other types of art into my music. And I love this idea of tragedy and comedy–of the sadness of tragedy being what is expected, and the joy of comedy being what is unexpected. But I wonder how to portray that musically?


My friend Jessica today pointed me to a cool video on Michael Giacchino’s score for the movie Up (which incidentally is a great movie; it won the Academy Award for Animated Feature Film and Giacchino won the award for Best Original Score). Giacchino is one of the fastest-rising young composers in Hollywood today, and he’s becoming a household name (at least as much as any composer can be) for his work in movies like Up, the latest Star Trek movie and The Incredibles, as well as scoring J.J. Abrams’ TV shows Lost and Alias (which I’ve written about here). The score for Up perfectly captured the simplicity and emotional power of the story, and the video is an interesting look at the way Giacchino portrayed the characters with their musical themes, and how those themes evolved and interacted throughout the film. Worth a watch!


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