The Book of Secrets, Loreena McKennitt

Posted by AJ Harbison at 4:24 am

Among the smaller of the many benefits of marriage I’m enjoying is access to my wife’s music collection. This past week I’ve been listening to a CD of hers entitled The Book of Secrets, by Canadian songstress Loreena McKennitt. I posted a tweet on my Twitter page about listening to her music on Sunday night, although I misspelled her first name; I classified her style as “traditional Irish music with a New Agish twist.” McKennitt’s website describes her music as “eclectic Celtic,” while her Wikipedia article notes that her music “has generally been classified as World / Celtic music even though it contains aspects and characteristics of music from around the globe and is sometimes classified as Folk music in record stores.”

I’ve enjoyed the CD a great deal this week. The Celtic influence is certainly the strongest, yielding such things as traditional Irish instruments like the fiddle, pennywhistle and ethnic percussion, and songs that are often in natural minor (e.g. D natural minor: D, E, F, G, A, B-flat, C-natural, D). There is also Middle Eastern influence in some of the rhythms and other stringed instruments. But she also uses synths and atmospherics to lend her music a timeless, mystical feel. There are plenty of people who create hacked Celtic music nowadays, but McKennitt stands above the fray with a high-quality and eminently listenable product. I’ve noticed that a lot of the music on The Book of Secrets is pretty repetitious–a progression and melody line will often repeat four times without any variation–but that also adds somewhat to the mystical quality of the music.

Apparently, McKennitt is self-managed, self-produced, and the head of her own record label (called Quinlan Road) which has released all twelve of her albums (The Book of Secrets falls right in the middle of her discography, released in 1997). She’s written original music for several Shakespeare productions in Canada, as well as contributing songs to Hollywood feature films (Highlander III and The Santa Clause) and TV soundtracks (TNT’s miniseries The Mists Of Avalon, Due South, and Northern Exposure). A pretty impressive CV.

Eleanor has several other McKennitt CDs in her collection, besides The Book of Secrets. I have a feeling I’ll be checking them out soon.


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….


I was tipped off last month to this video by @foxonthedocks, a Londoner on Twitter who tweets “about classical music recordings, broadcasts and performance. And other stuff.” It’s a video on TED.com, a site that I’ve heard about but successfully avoided till now. Foxonthedocks actually posted a link to the video the day of my wedding, February 22nd, but I just got around to watching it today. The video is a performance by the Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. The site explains that the orchestra “is the national high school age youth orchestra of El Sistema, Venezuela’s groundbreaking, life-changing musical education program. To put this ensemble’s musicianship in context, the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela is the next step for many of these young musicians. That orchestra, containing musicians from 18 to 28 years old, has toured the world with conductor Gustavo Dudamel and has made a number of recordings on Deutsche Grammophon. The Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra is the next level below, and will succeed the Simón Bolívar.” The T.C.Y.O. is conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, a hotshot young conductor (himself a product of El Sistema) who was named recently as Esa-Pekka Salonen’s successor as the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. Although his name is not quite as cool as Esa-Pekka’s (come on, though, how could it be?), he does have the hair to be a great conductor, and even though he’s only 28 he’s probably the world’s hottest conductor right now.

In the video Dudamel conducts the T.C.Y.O. in Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10, 2nd movement, and Arturo Márquez’ Danzón No. 2, with a brief speech in between. The video is 17 minutes long in its entirety, but the Shostakovich is contained within the first five minutes if you don’t have that much time.

If he can make a group of high school students, even one as great as this, sound this good, what do you think he could do with the LA Phil?


Wedding Music, Part 4: All The Music

Posted by AJ Harbison at 8:30 pm

It’s here–the last week leading up to the wedding! I’ve been rather busy (as you might imagine) so I haven’t had much time to post. But I’m going to try to write a few entries over the next few days and then schedule them through the next week and a half, so even while I’m away on my honeymoon you can still get your TLB fix.

I thought that I’d post today, for anyone who’s interested, the overview of all the music I’ve planned for the wedding. The first three wedding music posts can be found at the following links: Wedding Music, Part 1, Wedding Music, Part 2, and Wedding Music, Part 3: Recessional.

For the ceremony, a member of our church community group agreed to play the piano for us–she has a master’s degree in performance so we were excited to bring her on board.

For the prelude, she’ll be playing a variety of classical music: some Bach, a little Debussy, etc.

There will be two hymns that the congregation will sing during the ceremony: “Be Thou My Vision” (careful; if you open that page a really crappy MIDI version of the hymn will start playing automatically) and a modern hymn, “In Christ Alone” (music starts automatically there too, but at least it’s a decent recording).

Then there’s the music I wrote, in three parts:

The processional: “Amazing Grace.” This is the song that all the bridesmaids and groomsmen will “process” to as they walk down the aisle. I wrote a flowing sixteenth-note pattern in D major (pretty cool, if I do say so myself) for the left hand and set a slightly altered version of the melody “Amazing Grace” over it. Then after a full verse of “Amazing Grace,” the left hand changes to portamento (i.e. slightly detached) single notes while the right hand plays an altered version of “In Christ Alone”–the two songs actually make for a pretty seamless medley, because they’re in the same meter (3/4) and have similar rhythmic patterns. After the last line of “Amazing Grace” returns to cap things off, there are four bars of anticipation while the piano plays around softly with a G major chord (the IV in D) and C-sharps, which create the feeling that something else has to come next. Then comes a hanging G major-add6-add7-add9 chord, the back doors of the church open to reveal the lovely bride, and the next piece begins:

The bridal processional: “Passion And Purity.” (See the Wedding Music, Part 2 post for details on this piece’s history.) The intro and outro of this piece are based loosely on the theme from the second movement of Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3, Op. 36, a piece that has a pretty fascinating history of its own. (If you happen to click on the audio sample from the Wikipedia article, please be advised that it does not contain the theme that my piece is based on.) It’s played in a simple, innocent-sounding setting in C major symbolizing purity. The main body of the piece is a setting of a simple melody I wrote a long, long time ago–the only musical connection in the wedding to anything else I’ve written. It begins in C major, but then transitions up to a more brilliant setting in A major (symbolizing, for me at least, passion), and includes a subtle quote of Bach’s piece “Jesu, Joy Of Man’s Desiring,” which is often used as a bridal processional itself. The conclusion of the piece, returning to the Górecki theme, remains in A major–suggesting a new kind of purity in the context of marriage.

The recessional: “With Joy.” (See the Wedding Music, Part 3: Recessional post for details on this piece’s history.) This piece was the most fun to write and is the rocking piece in the set. It is also in A major, continuing the idea of passion–and what a passionate piece it is. It starts with a high triplet pattern I stole from a Michael Card song, “The Voice of the Child” (click on the song’s title under “Song Clip” to listen to it–the triplet pattern is at the beginning; if that link doesn’t work, click here and click the play button next to track 7). The pattern builds as the pastor says “I now present to you, for the first time, Mr. and Mrs. AJ Harbison!” at which point I will give our pianist two quick conducting cue beats. On the downbeat, the triplet pattern shifts into overdrive (in sixteenths instead of triplets), and the left hand crashes down into low octaves à la “Baba O’Riley” as explained in the linked wedding music post above. It’s gonna be awesome. The middle section calms down a bit–I think it’s at that point that the pastor will invite everyone over to the reception–and is I think the only passage in all three pieces that is newly-written and not referencing something else. It’s mostly chordal and follows simple progressions built around the IV, V and vi chords. Then the high pattern/”Baba O’Riley” theme returns, in a slightly modified form that eventually dissipates up into the original triplet pattern, quiet and way up high. There’s a faint echo of the theme from “Passion And Purity”–tyin’ it all together–and then it ends on a high held A, and a low A octave as quiet as possible. I’m telling you, it’s gonna rock.

(I’ve joked to Eleanor that I could never publish the wedding suite, if I ever wanted to–there’s way too much plagiarism in it. I’d bankrupt us paying all the licensing fees. But at least it’ll be awesome on the day itself!)

Then comes the reception! We decided to hire Bonne Musique Zydeco to be our live band, and we can’t wait to dance the night away with them. My lovely bride and I will have our first dance to Derek Webb’s song “Better Than Wine,” she will dance with her father to “Up Around The Bend” by Creedence Clearwater Revival, and I’ll dance with my mother to “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” James Taylor-style. All with dashes of zydeco thrown in to spice things up. We’ll eat, drink, dance and party; and then my bride and I will make our getaway and ride off into the sunset.


"As Slow As Possible," John Cage

Posted by AJ Harbison at 3:29 am

While looking at some websites about John Cage for my last post, I came across this interesting one. In addition to his famous controversial pieces like 4’33″, he apparently also wrote a piece called “As Slow As Possible.” One current performance, which began in 2001, is scheduled to finish (after being performed very quickly) in 2640, a mere 639 years in duration. Allegedly more than 100 people showed up two and a half years ago to hear the chord in the piece change. The article is from May 2006, but I assume that the performance is still going on.

“John Cage’s Long Music Composition in Germany Changes a Note”

It’s a shame that avant-garde music like this doesn’t make much money. Anyone with a reasonable amount of intelligence could be a millionaire!


"Life In Technicolor," Viva La Vida, Coldplay

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:00 am

In my car this past week I’ve been listening again to Viva La Vida, and it never fails to be awesome. I’ve been impressed recently with “Life In Technicolor,” the first track. It’s instrumental, so there are no lyrics and only a brief appearance by the vocals. But it’s an example of perfectly crafted “unfolding” (a term, I believe, used by John Cage in some of his lectures–a professor at CSUF introduced me to the concept). I’ve written before that musical form is the balance of repetition and contrast, and “Life In Technicolor” is an excellent example.

After the initial fade-in of the electronics and a few times through their progression, a hammered dulcimer begins the main riff of the song by itself. Then the song continually builds, gradually adding instruments and slowly morphing the chord progressions, all the while having way too much fun. The balance of continuity and repetition with new, evolving, unfolding material is pitch-perfect–which is hard to achieve in a pop song. Since most pop songs have simple progressions and standard instrumentation, an instrumental pop song without vocals can get boring very quickly. But even though “Life In Technicolor” still uses only standard pop chords (I, IV, V and vi, for those keeping score at home), it mixes up the instrumentation a little and manages to sustain interest by keeping that perfect balance. It builds to an exciting climax and then quickly falls and blends seamlessly into the next track, “Cemeteries Of London” (which I just now realize is incorrectly labeled “Cemeteries In London” in the title of the linked post… darn it).

You can listen to “Life In Technicolor” here, courtesy of Last.fm: click on the black play button in the player on the right side of the page.



Posted by AJ Harbison at 9:37 pm

Thanks to my company being so cool, I had the chance to watch part of the inauguration ceremony on Tuesday morning of this week. They set up the big-screen TV in the conference room to stream the video feed; unfortunately it kept hiccuping, the audio and video were out of sync, etc. which was pretty annoying. But I enjoyed the chance to see it regardless.

As you probably know, famed film composer John Williams composed a piece specifically for the inauguration entitled Air and Simple Gifts, based on the famous Appalachian folk melody, and it was performed live by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Itzhak Perlman, pianist Gabriella Montero and clarinetist Anthony McGill. My first thought upon seeing the performers was “They can’t really be playing, it’s way too cold for the instruments to stay in tune!”

You know, turns out I was right. I saw an article on MSN today making that same point. The musicians were in fact performing live, so the people who were close enough to them could hear them playing; but the instruments were not amplified and the music that was broadcast over the speakers at the event and to the millions watching on TV (myself included) had been recorded several days before.

That’s a reasonable decision–really the only reasonable one, if you think about it. The temperature was about 30 degrees, as the article points out, too cold for any of the instruments to play in tune but especially “play[ing] havoc” on the piano. This happens pretty frequently with classical performances in very cold environments, and even the great tenor Luciano Pavarotti famously lip-synced his final performance. I fully support the decision of the musicians at the inauguration, as I imagine any reasonable person who understands the factors involved would. But I find it amusing that the press wants to make a point of revealing this fact. The article can be found at the link below.

“Their performance was live — but music wasn’t”

When I wrote the first draft of this post, I replaced my original text “I find it amusing that the press wants to make it a big deal” with the text of my penultimate sentence above, thinking the word choice of the former was too strong. But several hours later, the article made it to a more prominent place on MSN’s front page and also added a reader poll, entitled “Vote: Bad Choice?” So now I return to my original thought. It’s ridiculous that the press is making such a big deal out of it. The actual question on the poll is practically incriminating: “Was it wrong to ‘fake’ music at the presidential inauguration?” Fortunately, 68.2% of the people who voted in the poll voted no. But some of the responses (you can comment as well as vote in the poll) are rather amusing in themselves; one person who voted yes commented “Just more smoke & mirrors from the obamamite camp.” The third option in the poll (besides “yes, it was wrong to fool the masses” and “no, who cares, it sounded good”) is “Maybe. If this is how the administration starts out …”, and one of the readers who voted that option also commented “i’m not at all surprise if it was recorded, everything sorrounding the obama campain has been stained with deceitfulness” [sic]. As if Obama or his “obamamite camp” or “campain” had anything to do with the performance (whatever the heck they are). Doesn’t anyone have any common sense anymore?


Wedding Music, Part 3: Recessional

Posted by AJ Harbison at 8:01 pm

One of my favorite TV shows is House, a medical version of a Sherlock Holmes mystery: “House solves mysteries where the villain is a medical malady and the hero is an irreverent, controversial doctor who trusts no one, least of all his patients.” It’s now in its fifth season, but since I’m watching it on DVD and very slowly, my lovely fiancée and I are only in season two. One of my favorite episodes, which was the fourteenth episode of season one, is “Control,” in which House, by questionable ethical means, saves a young CEO who has destroyed her heart by ipecac self-poisoning and bulimia. I don’t think I agree with his decision in the episode, but despite that disagreement the episode is very well-written and the ending is one of the most satisfying that I’ve seen yet on the show. After his final conversation with the patient, House returns to his office and begins playing “Baba O’Riley” by The Who over his iPod speakers. The song has an awesome intro, and the feeling of triumph is unmistakable. (You can watch the whole episode for free, albeit in low quality and with Spanish subtitles, here. If you’d like to skip to the last scene, start playing the video and then click around in the timer bar until you get to about the 38’30″ mark. If you really trust me on this one and want to watch the whole episode on Amazon for $1.99, click here. You can listen to the entirety of “Baba O’Riley” for free, courtesy of our good friend Last.fm, here.)

As I’ve mentioned, I really love this episode and I really love the way the song is used to evoke elation in the watcher/listener. So, a few days ago I got an idea for the recessional for my wedding. (As I wrote before, I’m going to be writing all the music for my wedding ceremony.) The piano would start by “fading in” with a high ostinato repeating pattern, perhaps based on the keyboard intro to “Baba O’Riley” but not the same. The anticipation builds as the pattern continues and the pastor says: “I present to you, for the first time, Mr. and Mrs. AJ Harbison!” at which point I give a quick conducting cue beat and the pianist crashes down on low octaves in the left hand–the same notes and rhythm as in the song. (Believe it or not, Eleanor actually really likes the conducting cue idea.) Hey, satisfaction, elation and triumph all count at the culmination of the wedding ceremony, right? I think it’ll make a rocking recessional. And I can’t wait to give that cue–more fun than a composer should be allowed to have!


Handbell Quartets For Christmas, Paul Ellsworth

Posted by AJ Harbison at 3:28 am

I’ve written before about the Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers that I belong to, and their monthly listening pages. For their Christmas edition this year, the featured works were by a young composer named Paul Ellsworth (www.ellsworthcreations.com): two Christmas songs for handbell quartet. I always enjoy handbell music, so I headed over to the YouTube videos linked on the listening page and checked them out. I was pleasantly surprised–they really are for handbell quartet, meaning there are only four people, but they do things with handbells I’ve never seen at speeds I’ve never imagined. Most people, I think, enjoy handbell music, but it’s worth checking out these videos just to see the performers and all the cool stuff they do. Not least of their accomplishments is that these long and complicated arrangements are all memorized–not that they’d have time to look at music anyway. The group is called Five Octave Frenzy, and they’re part of the music department at The Master’s College. The first video is five and a half minutes long, the second is five and a quarter. The performers from left to right are Amanda Madrid, Leslie Ann Tulloch, Hannah Cooper, and the composer himself, Paul Ellsworth.

“Sing We Now A’Wassailing”:

Merry Christmas from all of us (i.e. me) here at The Listening Blog!


La Vie En Rose Soundtrack, Christopher Gunning

Posted by AJ Harbison at 9:22 pm

Well, so much for posting more consistently….

A few weeks ago, my lovely fiancée and I rented the movie La Vie En Rose and watched it for the first time. It’s a French movie (originally titled La Môme in France), in French with English subtitles, about the “extraordinary life” of the French singer Édith Piaf. The actress who plays Piaf, Marion Cotillard, won a Best Actress Oscar for the role last year–only the second time a foreign film has ever garnered that award. So, between the critical accolades (a draw for me) and the fact that it was French (a draw for Eleanor), we decided we would check it out.

It was a very good movie–very long and very sad, but very good. Cotillard’s performance was heralded as “breathtaking” and “one of the greatest performances on film ever,” and it is certainly a superlative one, especially as Piaf near the end of her life.

Of course, since the movie was about Piaf, much of the score was comprised of her songs–sometimes with Cotillard singing but often the original Piaf recordings. The rest of the score was composed by Christopher Gunning, whose IMDB page reveals no other movies that I recognize–apparently he’s written a lot for TV. I found it interesting that in many of the movie’s moments where the score enters, when it didn’t involve a Piaf song, the composer employed a lone piano with no other instrumentation. Often the rest of the movie’s audio (dialogue, sound effects, etc.) would fade or disappear completely, leaving only a piano playing generally chordal passages in minor keys. It was an interesting touch, and a poignant one. As portrayed in the movie, Piaf had few friends and very few close ones; I wonder if Gunning’s choice of a single instrument was representative of her loneliness. In any case, the score did not make a great impression on me otherwise, but I enjoyed this particular concept and the rest of the movie was excellent.


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