12.01.2008

Flutey And The Beast Is Complete!

Posted by AJ Harbison at 3:07 am

I wrote back in July about Flutey and the Beast, a tuba and flute duet I was writing for my friend Jeff. After much procrastinating on my part, the piece is finally complete! The only way I have to share it with you is the MIDI realization that Sibelius, my music notation program, provides; it doesn’t sound good, and it hiccups a bit (anything that sounds like a performing mistake is a hiccup), but you’ll get the idea. Before you listen to the piece, here are the “performance directions” I included in the score (there’s also a description of the piece in the post linked above):

This piece is a dramatic work, telling a “beauty and the beast”
story, and it should be performed in a very expressive and dramatic
fashion. The tuba plays the beast, who states his gruff theme after
the introduction in the pickup to measure 8. The short theme in the
tuba in measures 14 through 16 represents the beast’s longing to
be, well, not so beastly. The flute plays the beauty and is
continually interrupted and rebuffed by the beast, until the full
statement of her theme in measures 29 through 35. The beast is
slowly but surely won over by the beauty, until he plays her theme
beginning in measure 55 and then plays a bass line supporting her
final triumphant statement. The introduction returns in a slightly
modified version as the conclusion.

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11.26.2008

Wedding Music, Part 2

Posted by AJ Harbison at 3:55 am

As I mentioned in my first wedding post, I’ve taken on the responsibility of planning the music for our wedding, and that includes the music for the wedding ceremony itself.

TheKnot.com is a wedding planning site that I would normally stay far, far away from, as a guy, but as a fiancé I guess I get a bit of extra slack. I decided, after spending an hour or two or three on Gigmasters, that I would check it out just to see if it had any good suggestions for wedding music. In the sidebar of an article entitled “Ceremony Music: The Basics,” I found the following list of ceremony music suggestions, which was rather amusing and entertaining in itself:

Your selections will speak volumes.

Traditional
Processional: Bridal Chorus (Wagner)
Recessional: Wedding March (Mendelssohn)

New Traditional
Prelude: “Apotheosis” (Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty)
Processional: “Spring” (Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons)
Bride’s Processional: “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” (Bach)
Recessional: “La Rejouissance” (Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks)

Gospel/Religious
Prelude: “Amazing Grace” (John Newton)
Processional: “In This Very Room” (Ron and Carol Harris)
Bride’s Processional: “St. Anthony’s Chorale” (Haydn)
Recessional: “Blest Be the Tie That Binds” (Hans Georg Nageli)

Modern
Prelude: “You and I” (Stevie Wonder)
Processional: “In My Life” (The Beatles)
Bride’s Processional: “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” (Lauryn Hill)
Recessional: “Beautiful Day” (U2)

Hipster
Prelude: “J’ai Dormi Sous L’Eau” (Air)
Processional: “Luna” (The Smashing Pumpkins)
Bride’s Processional: “Fade Into You” (Mazzy Star)
Recessional: “Love Song” (The Cure)

It was funny just to note my own knowledge of these pieces–I recognize all the songs listed under “Traditional” and “New Traditional;” about half of the songs under “Gospel/Religious” and “Modern;” and none of the songs under “Hipster.” I guess that tells you where I fall in my musical tastes….

Several years ago, an old friend of mine asked me to write a bridal processional for her wedding–the song that would accompany her as she walked down the aisle. I wrote it, incorporating a lot of musical symbolism–even basing the melody of the middle section on her name–and in the end she decided against using it. (She already had music in mind for the bridesmaids’ processional, and I guess it didn’t flow well with my piece. She ended up using the piece that she had sent me as an example of what she wanted it to sound like.) A short while ago, Eleanor and I were talking about music for our ceremony, and I mentioned that piece (which I had entitled “Passion and Purity,” based on this book). She got very excited, and asked if I would want to compose music for our wedding ceremony. I got pretty excited myself.

After that I looked at the Passion and Purity Wedding March again, and was horribly disappointed–it’s really not well-written at all. I composed it in the spring of 2006, which I suppose is not very long ago but rather a long ways away in terms of my development as a composer. So, for our wedding ceremony I will be rewriting the Passion and Purity Wedding March. (Not least among the revisions will be the middle section, which will no longer feature the name “Hannah.”)

In further discussions, Eleanor said that the more music I composed for the ceremony, the happier she would be. I don’t know how much I’ll have time to write, but I love the thought of writing all the music for my own wedding. Seán Dunnahoe did it for his, and (although his style was very different from mine) it was really cool and worked out very well.

Most likely we’ll have just a piano (to keep costs down, and make my writing easier); I guess if I wrote everything I would compose the processional, the bridal processional (a new incarnation of “Passion and Purity”), and the recessional. I’ll keep you all posted on thoughts as I go!

P.S. Amazon is having a Black Friday sale all through this week and next, with different deals each day. And, as always, if you click through any of the Amazon links here on TLB, your favorite starving composer-blogger gets a commission on whatever you buy, with no extra cost to you! If you’d like to do some of your holiday shopping online and support me in the process, please click here: Black Friday 2008 Deals.

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11.19.2008

I was going through some old emails today, and I came across this Washington Post article that my friend Stephen emailed to me May 3rd, 2007:

“Pearls Before Breakfast: Can one of the nation’s great musicians cut through the fog of a D.C. rush hour?”

I don’t think I ever actually read the whole article until today. It’s very long–about 18 Microsoft Word pages–but it’s really, really good. It’s an experiment that the Post conducted: having Joshua Bell, one of the world’s greatest violinists, play in a busy Washington D.C. Metro station to see if anyone stops to listen:

“No one knew it, but the fiddler standing against a bare wall outside the Metro in an indoor arcade at the top of the escalators was one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made. His performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and priorities — as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?”

In addition to reporting on what happened and interviewing Bell and many of the passersby, the article reflects on the philosophy of beauty, comments on the intricacies of violin-making, and describes the pieces that Bell played. It’s very well-written, dramatic and poetic as well as journalistic, and it includes several video clips showing some of the people who stopped to listen and toss change (and many who didn’t). I would recommend reading the whole article, even if it takes a few sittings. It’s an interesting commentary on our culture, and an intriguing take on the human perception of beauty.

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11.11.2008

Two Flute Solos For Your Listening Pleasure

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:47 am

In my car for the past two days I’ve been listening to the album The Ultimate Collection by Michael Card–a greatest hits CD by a Christian musician who’s been making music for a really long time. I remember listening to his music growing up, and based on my memories I’m not at all sure that the songs on this CD are really his greatest hits; I remember many better ones, and I even remember better versions of the songs that are on the CD. But I digress. What struck me this past time listening through the CD (it’s actually a 2 CD set) were a pair of flute solos on two different songs, and I wanted to share them with you, my loyal readers. Flutes are seldom utilized in popular music, and even seldomer (is that a word?) are they given solos; but these two solos are excellent ones, and it’s kind of refreshing to hear.

The first can be found (courtesy of Last.fm) here (click the black play button in the player on the right), in the song “Lift Up The Suffering Symbol.” Again, this is not Card’s best work, lyrically or musically; but it’s a decent song, at least, and the solo is cool. Since the player has a time counter, I’ll mention that the solo starts at 2:24; but you can’t fast forward, so you’ll have to listen to the whole song anyway. Also listen to the brass swells, in clusters of notes–eerily reminiscent of the score to The Matrix.

The second solo, which is even better than the first, can be found here on iLike–click on the first play button in the list. Listen especially for the clarity of the quick repeated notes; every note is clear, distinct from the others around it. Excellent playing. There’s no timer on iLike, so you’ll just have to listen for the solo yourself. I like in this song how the strings imitate the flute at the very end of the solo–a high trill and then a downward arpeggio by the flute, echoed just afterwards by the strings. Continue to listen to the flute through the rest of the song; it reuses some of the material from the solo to add color as an accompanying instrument.

I hope you find these flute solos as entertaining as I did. Enjoy!

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11.05.2008

TLB Election Night Special

Posted by AJ Harbison at 5:22 am

Congratulations to Barack Obama, the next president of the United States of America. I did not vote for him, but I believe in the system of democracy and republicanism that has made our country great, and I accept him as my president because he was chosen as such by that system. John McCain gave an honorable concession speech, and Obama accepted the victory graciously. I wish Obama and his family the best; may he be given wisdom and make good decisions as he becomes the leader of the free world.

My roommate Mike and I held an election night party at our apartment; we just finished watching Obama’s acceptance speech. After he finished his speech, victory music started playing at the location of his event (Grant Park in Chicago). It was not a fast-tempo, excited fanfare, but more of a slow, deeply triumphant movie-score-like piece. A quick Google search doesn’t reveal what the piece was, although it sounded vaguely familiar to me. I’ll see if I can discover its identity within the next few days. But notice (if you saw it or can find a clip online) the characteristics that make this a triumphant movie-score-like piece: slower tempo, instrumentation mainly brass and percussion, major key with mostly major chords, high strings to fill out upper countermelodies.

Did any of my loyal readers recognize this piece? Leave a comment if you recognized it, or if you found it online! And once more, for the record–congratulations to Barack Obama.

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10.21.2008

Glass Violin

Posted by AJ Harbison at 8:07 pm

I’m going to apologize in advance for not posting much this week; I have something scheduled every single night from yesterday (Monday) all the way through Sunday. But I’ll try to post an update on Sean’s and my audition tonight in a day or two, and in the meantime, you can enjoy this post!

On our road trip last fall, one of our stops was in Colonial Williamsburg, a reconstruction of Williamsburg, VA as it existed in colonial times, complete with artisans plying trades the way they were plied at the time and reenactments of historical Revolutionary War events. I was particularly interested in a musical demonstration by Dean Shostak (www.crystalconcert.com), a musician who plays all manner of glass instruments from colonial times (such as Ben Franklin’s glass armonica of 1761) up to some crazy instruments of the present. On my cell phone I captured a video of him performing on a glass violin–a marvel of modern musical engineering, and one of only two that exist in the whole world. The video quality is bad, and you can’t even really see the violin because of the lighting, but you can hear how the sound is different from a normal violin: more silvery, thin, sparkling yet haunting–much like you’d expect a glass violin to sound.

And here are some photos, for those of you who didn’t believe that he was really playing a glass violin:

Wind instruments have a long history of being made from lots of different materials, flutes in particular–everything from metal to wood to glass to clay. But stringed instruments less so. Props to Shostak and whoever had the engineering and musical savvy to construct a violin made of glass.

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10.12.2008

"Cemeteries In London," Viva La Vida, Coldplay

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:30 am

It took me a little longer than the other ones, but the final song I fell in love with on Viva La Vida was “Cemeteries Of London,” which is track two. The other songs on the CD, the ones I haven’t written about this week–”Life In Technicolor,” “42,” “Lovers In Japan / Reign of Love,” “Yes,” and “Strawberry Swing”–are all good songs and of course contribute to making the CD great; but the five I’ve written about this week are the ones that really stood out to me.

“Cemeteries Of London” is the first vocal track on the CD, since there are no words to “Life In Technicolor,” and it’s a really interesting song. As I said, it took me longer to understand than the others did, but once I got the feeling for the song it jumped into the ranks of my favorites on the CD. And this is what I think: It’s Coldplay’s 21st century rock-band version of a ballad of the Wild West.

You know the type of song I’m talking about. Something like the song here, although I have to admit that the first thing I thought of was this video clip (from this movie). It’s a good example, although almost a parody, of the style I’m talking about; but if you do watch the video, skip to the 50 second mark to experience as little pain watching it as possible.

But this is the type of song that “Cemeteries Of London” is. The lyrics, first of all, point to it; they’re kind of eerie and very evocative, conjuring the same type of mood as a ballad, and the chorus sounds just like one of them: “Singing la la la la la la la lay / And the night over London lay….” The chord progression and melody are very suggestive of a Western ballad too–particularly in the first two chords of the progression, minor i to major III (e.g., in the key of E minor those two chords would be E minor and G major).

I like the instrumentation of the song. The soft swirling piano figures in the first verse do a good job of setting the scene, evoking perhaps the London fog, and the guitars that take over in the second verse hearken more traditionally back to the ballad style. You can also hear hand claps enter the picture halfway through the second chorus that continue through the guitar solo. The solo itself is very interesting; apart from the first note and the return to that note upon the repeat, each note that the solo pauses on is dissonant with the concurrent chord. It sounds really cool. The second half of the solo (a repeated four-note idea) is reminiscent of a U2 solo, to my mind. The soft piano comes back at the very end of the song, playing two phrases. I didn’t like this at first, because it didn’t make sense musically; it seemed out of place and just tacked on to the end. But I grew to really like the phrases themselves, so I really enjoy it now. Perhaps it’s another example of a cyclical song, bringing the song full circle, as I wrote concerning the whole album in my post about “Death And All His Friends”.

There’s one more point about this song that I wanted to mention, related to a point I brought up in my last post about setting up expectations and then either fulfilling or frustrating them. The chorus of this song is another good example of this principle. It’s only two lines, which is short for a chorus (it’s really more like a refrain, I guess), and you expect it to be repeated, either with the same lyrics or different ones. But each time it’s kept to just the two lines–except for the last time, when it is repeated and the lyrics to the second line are slightly changed, fulfilling the expectations you’ve had all along. Another good example of the excellent songwriting.

You can listen to the song here, courtesy of Last.fm: click on the black play button in the player on the right side of the page.

And that will conclude our week of Viva La Vida posts! I hope you enjoyed them. And, while we’re talking about the week–I want to hear from you, my loyal readers. Do you like these weeklong series on a single topic or album? Do you prefer the individual posts I do the rest of the time? Would you like to see more series? Fewer? Leave a comment and let me know what you want to see–and as always, thanks for listening!

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10.09.2008

"Viva La Vida," Viva La Vida, Coldplay

Posted by AJ Harbison at 1:04 am

The title track on Viva La Vida, i.e. “Viva La Vida” (track seven), was the next song on the CD to attract my attention. In many ways, it’s a very appropriate title track in that it epitomizes many of the themes of the album. It’s energetic, it deals with revolution and it has many nuances and details that lift it from being a good song to being a great song. The lyrics–the meaning of which is hotly contested on sites like www.songmeanings.net–seem to deal with the deposition of a king: “I used to rule the world / Seas would rise when I gave the word / Now in the morning I sleep alone / Sweep the streets I used to own….” There are multiple layers of meaning to be found in the song; it seems like it could equally be a description of a historical event (many people think it’s the beheading of Louis XVI), or a whole-song extended metaphor for something else, perhaps losing someone. In either case, the lyrics are very well written and the music is an excellent support for them.

In “Lost!”, as I wrote about, the harmonic base–that is, the instrument primarily responsible for filling out the harmony–was a pipe organ; in “Viva La Vida,” it’s the string section. The song opens with an energetic and syncopated chord progression by the strings, and they play an indispensible role throughout the song. Underneath the strings, the bass drum beats out steady quarter notes, also throughout the song, which drives the rhythm forward even more. Interestingly enough, for all the rhythmic drive, there is no drum beat anywhere to be found–only the steady kick drum. The rhythms of the strings, voice and other instruments here and there are enough to fully carry the song and give it more energy than you would expect.

There are several musical details in the song that took me a while to notice. Listen carefully during the chorus, on beats two and four, and you’ll hear a bell or a chime playing way in the background, in the musical space typically occupied by the snare drum. It’s a nice subtle touch that enhances the song’s revolutionary feel–perhaps evoking bells being rung to celebrate liberation, for instance.

It’s also interesting to listen to the higher strings–in the range from middle C to an octave higher (if you know where that is). They undergo several variations and are arranged very nicely. Immediately following the first verse (“…streets I used to own”), they play two alternating notes about two and a half octaves above middle C, A-flat G A-flat G, which form the basic motive for that group of strings. During the first half of the second verse (“I used to roll the dice….”), they play a cool countermelody that is the only musical element besides the syncopated rhythm and the voice. During the second half of the second verse (“One minute I held the key….”), they invert the two alternating notes and instead of alternating down, alternate up: A-flat B-flat A-flat B-flat, before returning to the countermelody for the last two lines. The chorus uses them mainly in whole notes to fill out the harmony. In the third verse (“It was a wicked and wild wind….”), they alternate down again, but in the middle range: A-flat G A-flat G, in a syncopated rhythm of their own, more energetic than the rhythm of the A-flat B-flat idea. And in the second half of that verse (“Revolutionaries wait….”), they return to whole notes, their rhythmic space taken up by a honky-tonkish piano (also kept in the background). This is a sign of good arranging: they don’t play the same thing each time but actually develop a musical motive. Really good stuff.

I have to make mention of the ending: the song fades out on a weird-sounding choir singing the chords of the original string progression (without the syncopation). This is my least-favorite part of the song; I feel like they could have at least layered Chris Martin’s voice rather than using synth voices. But it’s not bad enough to ruin the rest of the song, and if this is the only thing wrong with it, it’s a song that’s a heck of a lot better than most.

You can listen to the song here, courtesy of Last.fm: click on the black play button in the player on the right side of the page.

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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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09.06.2008

Viva La Vida, Coldplay: First Impressions

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:04 am

Here it is, Mark: The long-awaited Viva La Vida review!

But before I dive in, two quick backgrounds. First, the background of the album: It is the fourth album of the rocking British band Coldplay, following the immensely popular X&Y of 2005. The album’s title, “Viva La Vida,” roughly translated means “Long live life.” The album’s cover art is a painting by Eugene Delacroix entitled Liberty Leading The People, which depicts a woman personifying Liberty and commemorating both the French Revolution of 1789 and the July Revolution (also French) of 1830. The album’s producer is Brian Eno, who is known in the capacity of a solo artist as “the father of ambient music” and in the capacity of a producer as such of U2′s album The Joshua Tree.

Second, my background with Coldplay: I consider Coldplay one of my favorite bands, and often cite them as an influence on my own music. I quite enjoy their first album, Parachutes–most of the songs are good but the really good songs are really good. Their second album, A Rush Of Blood To The Head, is better all around and I very much enjoy it. And the album that precedes Viva La Vida, X&Y, I consider to be my single favorite album of all time. I am not so presumptious as to consider it the best album of all time, as my experience is not so wide as to make that declaration; but it is alone atop all the others I have heard. There’s not a song on it that I dislike or even feel indifferent about. It is excellent in every way and I simply love it.

With these prerequisite backgrounds now dispensed of, we move on to the TLB review.

I listened to the album one time through (thus the title, “First Impressions”) on Wednesday night; I wanted to share my first thoughts with you, my faithful readers, and I plan to elaborate in future posts as I listen to it more.

Listening to Viva La Vida was a paradoxical experience for me. Part of me felt like I loved it, while part of me felt that I didn’t understand it musically. It was simultaneously a completely fresh and original sound, while also suggesting many comparisons in my mind. The album progressed at a leisurely pace, but when it was done it seemed no time at all had passed.

The thing that stood out to me the most, above all else, was the album’s energy, its exuberant exhilaration (if I may make such a bold alliteration). X&Y was dark, chill, mellow, while it seems Viva La Vida is almost bursting with excitement. It reminded me vaguely of Derek Webb’s first two solo albums, She Must And Shall Go Free and I See Things Upside Down–although in that case the moods of the CDs were reversed.

Viva La Vida finds one of the world’s greatest bands contemplating its mortality. With a title meaning “Long live life,” song titles like “Cemetaries of London,” “Viva La Vida” and “Death And All His Friends,” and the lyrics of songs like “42,” the whole album points to the coming to grips with death. It reminded me also of another great album that had a similar theme: Linkin Park’s most recent album, Minutes To Midnight. But the contrast is perhaps more interesting than the comparison. In Linkin Park’s case, the album is much more restrained, sober-minded and contemplative than their previous releases (and, in my opinion, is their best). With Viva La Vida, however, Coldplay responds to the contemplation of death with a celebration of life.

Such, in my opinion, are the philosophical underpinnings of the music–but on to the music itself.

The music itself is also rather paradoxical. As I just remarked to my roommate Mike, it’s a sound unlike anything I’ve heard. In many ways it includes more elements of electronic music than their previous work: many of the beats are more reminiscent of electronic music than rock music, and many of the synth and atmospherics effects are as well. “Life In Technicolor,” the instrumental overture to the CD, could very easily have come from a CD in Mike’s electronic collection. And yet in other ways it’s more acoustic than X&Y and sounds more like a live band jamming onstage than a carefully produced album from the studio. I must confess I’ve never seen Coldplay live–although to do so would be an experience only to be topped by seeing U2. But I imagine live performances of X&Y as a classic rock music performance, the band members rocking out because the music is just awesome; my imagination of a Viva La Vida performance is of the band members smiling, laughing and bouncing off the walls, not to be showy but just because the music is so much freakin’ fun to play. The album also includes some Latin, African and Asian elements, apparently culled from playing world tours while writing the songs. The combination of styles is exquisite, intriguing and totally original in my experience.

Another thing that stands out very quickly is the mixing of the voice. I wrote in a post about Elton John that Coldplay sometimes mixes the voice at a similar volume level to that of the instruments, so that it doesn’t stand out as it often does in popular music. I wrote that “they see the voice (at least in these particular songs) as just another instrument, no more or less important than the others, and so the blending in the mix is intentional. It puts the voice on equal artistic footing with, say, the guitar and drums,” and that is very much in evidence on this record. I even mentioned the song “Viva La Vida” in the post, as it was available as a single on iTunes at the time, but that mixing style certainly pervades the album, with a few notable exceptions (such as “Violet Hill”). In a subsequent listen I’d like to listen with the lyrics in front of me, as they were often obscured by the other instruments.

The instrumentation of the album is also noteworthy. It is most certainly a rock album, with guitars, bass and drums holding sway. Coldplay’s signature piano and pipe organ also make appearances, although much less than in X&Y. But the band makes use of a more colorful instrumental palette overall (to mix my artistic metaphors). The electronics and synths used are simultaneously similar to ones used previously and different, often more evocative of electronic and ambient music (likely Eno’s influence). And while strings have been used on each of the band’s previous albums, they are featured here in a hitherto unseen prominence. The Latin-flavored flourishes in “Yes” are particularly interesting (as are, in the same song, the luxuriously long electric guitar bends).

Some of the songs’ rhythms are notable as well for their adventuresomeness (is that a word?). The instrumental interludes in “Yes” throw in an extra beat or take one away here and there, just to throw you off. And the final track “Death And All His Friends,” after the first piano/vocal section and a more conventional 4/4 groove, settles into a rocking (but very atypical) 7/4 for the song’s climax.

I know this post is already waxing very loquacious (perhaps too much so), so I will endeavor to bring it to a close. Overall, I must say that I greatly enjoyed Viva La Vida, but I look forward to uncovering further layers and nuances in subsequent listenings. True to the album art, the sound is revolutionary, certainly for Coldplay and (considering Coldplay’s influence) possibly for others as well. It is a blend of styles that have worked for them in the past, while
also being a departure and an attempt at something vastly different. The album’s energy is abundant and infectious, and had me tapping my feet and bobbing my head even as I sat in my desk chair listening to my computer speakers. At this point, after one listen, it hasn’t dethroned X&Y; but it’s a pretty darn good record.

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