02.25.2010

In an interesting twist for a mainstream pop music album, the second track of Prospekt’s March is a piano solo. Clocking in at 47 seconds, “Postcards From Far Away” was written by frontman Chris Martin between recording sessions for Viva La Vida. While the piano style isn’t foreign to modern pop piano playing–alternating notes in the right hand, and a simple “oom-pah” accompaniment in the left hand–the chord progressions are reminiscent of the early Romantic period, and the whole piece sounds almost Schubert-esque. It ends, after a long drawn-out Gsus chord, on a G major chord–or rather just a B-natural, suggesting G major, after a piece in B-flat major (in which G would usually be minor); it creates a Picardy third-type effect. Another unique song on a unique album that continues to portend even better things to come.

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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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12.18.2009

La Moustache Score

Posted by AJ Harbison at 5:10 pm

A few nights ago my lovely wife and I watched La Moustache, a French movie with English subtitles that she had heard about somewhere. It’s a story about a man who shaves his mustache on a whim, but is then baffled when his wife and friends don’t notice–and then is more baffled still when they insist he’s never had a mustache. We weren’t sure whether it was a comedy or a drama–since it seems like that premise could go either way–but it turned out to be a mysterious drama which was kind of frustrating because it never explained all the weird happenings in the movie. I don’t mind ambiguous endings, in general, but it never even tried to explain the increasingly strange things that kept happening. And the hilarious part was that in the special features, even the lead actress admitted she had no idea what was happening in “the mustache story,” and even the director himself said he didn’t really know what was going on. Weird.

But in any case, the music for the film was interesting. There was really only one piece that was used throughout the film, and really only two sections of the piece. The main part that was used consisted of repeated chords and arpeggiated figures in the strings. It had a haunting, ominous quality to it, so it was used effectively in situations that required that feeling; but it seemed a little repetitive by the end. As we watched the credits, I discovered that the piece was the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra by Philip Glass, one of the most successful modern American composers. The piece is from 1987 and is a good example of his tonal, repetitive, and minimal style. And it worked, more or less, as the only score in La Moustache.

You can listen to clips of Concerto for Violin and Orchestra by clicking here and then clicking the “listen/watch” button on the left side of the page. Then click on “Violin Concerto” in the second list that pops up.

P.S. I’m sure most, if not all of my TLB readers have heard this news through other channels (email, website, Facebook, Twitter…), but just in case you haven’t: I’m going to be releasing a new recording of an original Christmas song, called “Paradoxology,” this Christmas Eve 12/24/2009. It’ll be my first released recording in four years–the first since my album Following A Star was finished, on Christmas Eve of 2005. You’ll be able to download “Paradoxology” from my website, for free, next Thursday. So check it out! http://www.ajharbison.com

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10.28.2009

“Farm Machine Music”

Posted by AJ Harbison at 11:02 am

I received this video in an email from my father-in-law this morning. This is what was in the forwarded message (not including his skeptical comment, “Is this for real?”):

Last seen and heard 2-3 years ago. Good to see and hear it again.
This incredible machine was built as a collaborative effort between the
Robert M. Trammell Music Conservatory and the Sharon Wick School of
Engineering at the University of Iowa .. Amazingly, 97% of
the machines components came from John Deere Industries and Irrigation
Equipment of Bancroft , Iowa ..Yes, farm equipment!

It took the team a combined 13,029 hours of set-up, alignment,
calibration, and tuning before filming this video but as you can see it
was WELL worth the effort.

It is now on display in the Matthew Gerhard Alumni Hall at the University
and is already slated to be donated to the Smithsonian.

Unfortunately, it’s pretty clear that this is fake. The whole look and feel of the video is very computer-animated-ish, and it would be very strange if the xylophonic-type instrument would actually light up as its bars were hit. But the most important tell-tale sign of fakery is the sound quality. There aren’t any microphones visible anywhere in the setup, and obviously if this was an acoustic instrument as the quote claims, there would have to be microphones to pick up the sound. And even if there were microphones that somehow weren’t visible in the video, the sound quality of the audio would not be nearly as neat and polished as it is–there would be a great deal of ambient noise, both from the space in general and from the bleeding of different parts of the “instrument” into each microphone.

And to confirm my suspicions, the trustworthy rumor-busting site Snopes.com has exposed it as false in their article “Farm Machine Music.” It was created originally as a computer animation, but then was picked up by someone and passed off as a real video.

Nonetheless, it’s definitely an impressive animation and a fun song. Enjoy!

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10.15.2009

Piano Stairs and The Fun Theory

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:36 pm

I saw this fun video in an email sent by a fellow member of the Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers, and thought I’d pass it on. A group of creative folks try to get people to take the stairs rather than the escalator by turning the staircase into a big keyboard. Check it out!

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10.12.2009

“Gustavo Dudamel: The Dude Abides”

Posted by AJ Harbison at 11:20 am

I wrote back in March about Gustavo Dudamel, the young conductor with awesome hair who just took over the LA Philharmonic. And I read a good article on him today by Allen Yeh on Scriptorium Daily, the blog of Biola’s Torrey Honors Institute. The article is a fun read with good commentary, and he even talks about his hair like I did. Check it out:

“Gustavo Dudamel: The Dude Abides”

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08.26.2009

Longplayer Live On Twitter

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:08 pm

No doubt due to my post yesterday, my TLB twitter account notified me that Longplayer Live (@longplayerlive) is now following me on Twitter. So if you’re interested in keeping up with the latest news on the Longplayer Live performance in September, head on over and follow them!

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08.25.2009

Longplayer

Posted by AJ Harbison at 7:24 pm

Thanks to Stephen (@idhrendur) for this one: So, apparently, Longplayer* is a musical composition that lasts for one thousand years. It began playing on December 31st, 1999, and will continue until the same date in 2999–when it will “complete its cycle and begin again.” It was composed by a UK-based musician and composer named Jem Finer, collaborating with the organization Artangel and a think tank of artists, composers and writers (including Brian Eno). It’s composed for singing bowls, and can be played mechanically, digitally, or live by human performers, which it will be on September 12th in London: 1,000 minutes of a 1,000 year-long piece of music–”the live debut of the longest piece of music ever written.”

“Okay, but how does it actually work?” you (and I) ask. This from the website (http://longplayer.org):

The composition of Longplayer results from the application of simple and precise rules to six short pieces of music. Six sections from these pieces – one from each – are playing simultaneously at all times. Longplayer chooses and combines these sections in such a way that no combination is repeated until exactly one thousand years has passed. At this point the composition arrives back at the point at which it first started. In effect Longplayer is an infinite piece of music repeating every thousand years – a millennial loop.

The six short pieces of music are transpositions of a 20’20” score for Tibetan Singing Bowls, the ‘source music’. These transpositions vary from the original not only in pitch but also, proportionally, in duration.

Every two minutes a starting point in each of the six pieces is calculated, from which they then play for the next two minutes. Each starting point is calculated by adding a specific length of time to its previous starting point. For each of the six pieces of music this length of time is unique and unvarying. The relationships between these six precisely calculated increments are what gives Longplayer its exact one thousand year long duration.

So there you have that.

“Okay, but how does it actually sound?” you (and I) ask then. We’re in luck: You can listen to a live stream by clicking here: http://longplayer.org/listen/longplayer.m3u. When you click on the file, you will download an .m3u file (1 KB); once it’s downloaded, it should begin streaming Longplayer live through your default music application (e.g. iTunes).

“Okay, but who actually CARES?” you (and I) ask then. I (and maybe you) wonder if such things are just a fad resulting from the existential crisis of our age; it’s certainly difficult to imagine Bach or Beethoven conceiving of a thousand-year piece, or caring about it, even if the technology to make it possible had been present. Interestingly enough, the website has this to say:

The second and more abstract question about Longplayer’s future is social – who will look after Longplayer as its technological, cultural and social environments change? How does one generation of custodians go about establishing a durable chain of succession, down which the responsibility for Longplayer’s survival can realistically be expected to pass, even over hundreds of years? How many institutions have survived, with their initial objective intact, over the last thousand years?

It’s good and smart of the people involved in Longplayer’s creation to think about such questions; but apart from establishing the Longplayer Trust to oversee and perpetuate the project, they don’t provide any answers. My question is this: as the “technological, cultural and social environments” around Longplayer change, who’s to say that we won’t get to a point where it won’t be seen as art or science or metaphysics or whatever it’s supposed to be, but just as a silly experiment by a less enlightened time, and shut it off? How disappointed would Mr. Finer be if the composition survived for a few hundred years–but then died because no one cared anymore?

* I didn’t place the title “Longplayer” in italics, as I normally would, because it’s not formatted that way on its website. It’s possible that this isn’t a conscious decision, but on the off chance that the creators intentionally left the title without any special formatting other than capitalization, I follow the same convention.

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08.21.2009

“Icicle,” Under The Pink, Tori Amos

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:58 pm

I mentioned the other day that I’d been introduced to Tori Amos’ album Under The Pink by an old friend of mine, and that I’d recently put it into a playlist on my iPod. My friend had attended a church I was a member of a long time ago, and she thought I would find it interesting that Amos makes use of a hymn in one of her songs on that album. She couldn’t find it on the record she was playing at the time, but I found it when I got the CD and listened to it on my own.

In the piano intro to the song “Icicle,” Amos writes a deconstruction of the hymn “O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing” (careful, a crappy MIDI piano version of the hymn will start playing if you visit the site). After some meandering chords that change modalities (switching from major to minor, mainly by switching from F to F-sharp), the hymn begins at the 53-second mark. Although she adds an extra beat here and there, it’s a faithful rendering of the hymn through one verse. But the last chord of the verse is swapped for a flat-VI (an A-flat major chord replaces the expected C major), and she launches into her deconstruction through another verse. She first simply adds the flat seventh, turning C major chords into C dominant sevens, but then really throws it off by switching between major and minor tonalities (by switching from E to E-flat and then from D to D-flat) and collapsing into a dissonant mess. After hanging out on the final cluster chord for a while, the accompaniment to the song proper begins, an A-flat 5 arpeggio.

The subject matter of the song concerns Amos’ exchanging of her parents’ religion for her own ideas, and thus the gradual decline of the hymn into chaos is a brilliant musical mirroring of what she’s about to sing. You can listen to the whole song here, courtesy of Last.fm. Be forewarned that the song contains some sexually suggestive material; but you can listen to the intro and then stop the song when she starts singing if you’d like to avoid it.

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08.18.2009

Listening On the iPod

Posted by AJ Harbison at 5:32 pm

Usually, I can’t listen to music while I do something else, because I’m always listening to the music and analyzing it, whether I want to or not. In college I was never able to listen to music while I was studying because the music would be too distracting. Even when I’m eating out at a restaurant, some back corner of my mind is always listening and analyzing. I like to call this one of the “occupational hazards” of being a composer.

All this to say, I don’t have much occasion to make use of my iPod. However, occasionally at work I’m given some mindless tasks, like data entry for reports or conversion of a bunch of files from one format to another; and so I keep my iPod at work for such situations. It’s not large enough to sync with my entire iTunes library (it’s a 4GB iPod nano), so I have to pick and choose what I put on there. Here are some of the more interesting things I’ve recently put into my shuffled mindless-work playlist:

And here are a few albums I’ve taken out: