07.31.2008

“As Long As You’re Mine” is the obligatory love song from Wicked. As the article “Wicked’s Musical Themes”, from Stephen Schwartz’s fanpage musicalschwartz.com, pointed out, the opening chord progression to this song is the same as the opening chord progression of the show in the first song, “No One Mourns The Wicked.” But instead of being a loud, bold brass fanfare, the same progression in this song is a soft, understated piano theme. (Sorry, I wasn’t able to find sheet music for “As Long As You’re Mine” that was viewable online; for the first page of “No One Mourns The Wicked,” which has the chord progression at the beginning, click here.) In the article, Schwartz notes that Elphaba and Fiyero in this scene are in danger and have little time to spend together, and so the song starts in a minor key (the original progression is in minor as well); but it ends in a major key (lame moment of dialogue notwithstanding) to express their happiness at finally being together.

You can listen to the whole song, courtesy of iLike, here: click on the second “play” button on the left in the list (next to “As Long As You’re Mine by Stephen Schwartz”).

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07.30.2008

The same college friend Albert who talked about inspiration as aesthetic also told me once, “Music is all about space.” He used as an example one of his favorite bands, Dream Theater, saying, “They’re a group of amazing musicians who have no concept whatsoever of musical space.” The concept of musical space can refer to horizontal space, such as pauses or rests in the music; vertical space, such as the voicing of a chord (which notes of the chord are played in which registers); or a third dimension, for example involving other instruments. Albert’s example of Dream Theater suggested that they lacked a proper understanding of 1) horizontal space, because there were never any breaks in the music and there was sound going on constantly; and 2) spatiality, because instruments would step on each other’s toes and get in each other’s way instead of giving each instrument its own space (musically speaking, not physically, of course).

The song “What Is This Feeling?”, from Stephen Schwartz’s soundtrack for Wicked, is an example of an excellent use of musical space, while also being one of my favorite songs in the show. In the intro and beginning of the song, the instrumental accompaniment is sparse, both in the number of instruments and in the notes that they play. The texture of the music (which Wikipedia defines as the number of musical voices and their relationship to each other) is very light: not many instruments are playing, and they only put in a few chords here and there with lots of empty space in between, which creates a clear, open feeling.

(There is also a great detail in this section, as I mentioned in my opening post about Wicked. Notice that the hi-hat cymbal precedes each chord played by the other instruments: quick note by hi-hat–chord!…space…quick note by hi-hat–chord!, etc. It’s a small, delicate touch, but it punctuates the chords and sets them off very nicely.)

The song also makes good use of form, as the texture consistently thickens as the song progresses. The accompaniment grows denser and becomes more complex, although the general feel remains light. The choir enters to attest their agreement with Galinda’s loathing of Elphaba; then, after they sing a short interlude by themselves, they sing a chorus layered on top of Galinda and Elphaba singing the verse in harmony, which is a very effective use of space in which each part has its own room to work without getting in the way of the others.

Finally, the melody of the song is also worth noting. While the verses are pretty conservative and stepwise in motion, the chorus consists of leaps that are not as conventional in vocal music, but work well and make the song unique. Next to “Defying Gravity,” which shall perhaps be the crowning post of this week, “What Is This Feeling?” is probably my favorite song on the soundtrack.

You can listen to the whole song, courtesy of iLike, here: click on the third “play” button on the left in the list (next to “What Is This Feeling? by Stephen Schwartz”).

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07.25.2008

John Cage Performing One Of His Compositions

Posted by AJ Harbison at 1:13 am

Although he doesn’t post much anymore, in the past I’ve enjoyed reading Greg Wilbur’s blog. Wilbur is the director of music for a PCA church in Tennessee, and his blog most often deals with topics regarding music, worship and the church. He recently posted this video of John Cage performing one of his compositions on an old TV show. John Cage was a controversial American composer of the 20th century (he died in 1992) who experimented conceptually with the line between music, noise and silence. His most famous piece is probably 4’33″, which consists of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence–or, as Cage understood it, of the sounds of the environment that the listeners hear for the duration of the piece. He was also famous for the invention of the “prepared piano,” in which objects such as screws, coins and paper were placed in the strings of the piano, altering its sound. The video is nine and a half minutes long, but intriguing, to say the least.

Wilbur’s comment on the video: “This is long, but the absurdity of what is meant as ‘music’ is worth watching.”

I commented on his post and said this: “At least people back then had the good sense to laugh at him. It’s all too easy to imagine a concert hall of musicians and composers from academia sitting and listening quietly today. I take it as a sign of my musical sanity that I laughed as well.”

His response: “I agree. Even the host’s need to express that this was ‘serious’ music but that people would laugh is a far better indicator of musical judgment than ivory tower academicians. It’s an interesting thing to see how someone’s artistic philosophy actually serves to destroy that which they say they value. In this case, broad theories of sound as music replaces that which makes music music.”

It certainly brings up some intriguing questions. What makes music music? What is the line between music and noise? Does that line remain constant through different times and different cultures?

What do you think? Leave a comment and join the discussion!

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07.20.2008

Walking Music

Posted by AJ Harbison at 6:15 am

Two weeks ago I was sitting at my desk at work, minding my own billings, when I noticed the sound of one of my female coworkers walking through the office. She was wearing the kind of shoes that have heels but are flip-flops at the same time–they look like this (image courtesy of timeout.com). So they look dressy while still making the “flip-flop” sound when you walk. I’m not sure what the combination of sounds was, exactly, but it was in this rhythm:

which sounds like this:

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Although I must confess I don’t know how that rhythm was created just by her walking, it sounded cool. And it would work well as a drumbeat rhythm, which (spread among different drums, with added cymbals and a cheesy ending) might sound something like this:

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All from a pair of flip-flop heels.

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07.17.2008

Blue Soliloquy, Steven Winteregg

Posted by AJ Harbison at 4:06 am

I mentioned in my post about the NYT article that I’m a member of the Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers, CFAMC for short. Every month they produce a listening page featuring a work by one of their member composers, which is generally very good. I wanted to share the latest one here because I enjoyed the piece very much. It’s called Blue Soliloquy, and it was written by Steven Winteregg, who is the Dean of the School of Humanities and Professor of Music at Cedarville University (in Ohio). The piece is for unaccompanied horn, and it was composed as a remembrance for the performer’s father, who was a lover of old jazz; so the piece is flavored with jazz idioms and an elegiac mood. By way of my analysis of the piece, here are my comments, as expressed in an email to the composer after I’d listened to the piece:

“Reading your program notes, it was difficult to imagine a piece that would fulfill your stated purpose better than yours did–it was perfectly suited to the story you shared. From a compositional perspective, I always enjoy music that unfolds slowly–I tend to write slowly developing pieces myself–and I very much enjoyed how yours evolved that way. I also appreciated your careful and artful handling of your motives (the minor third and stepwise fourth ideas), in the way they were sometimes flipped and the way they developed. Great piece. I heard it also as being very easily adapted to a film noir-type scene in a score: a dark city alley in the pouring rain, with some soft jazz drums and a light string background accompanying the horn. Well done, from an admiring young composer!”

You can view the listening page, which has program notes and a statement of faith and bio for the composer as well as the recording, at the following link:

CFAMC Listening Page #44: Blue Soliloquy by Steven Winteregg

I’ll likely be sharing more CFAMC listening pages here in the future, as I hear them. And in the meantime, if you’d like, you could always check out CFAMC Listening Page #41, which featured my piece I Am Phoenix.

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07.12.2008

New York Times Article On Electronic Instruments

Posted by AJ Harbison at 4:42 am

Peter Alexander, a fellow member with me of the Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers, yesterday brought to the attention of the group this New York Times article (and I thought I’d share it with y’all):

“Turning Guitar Heroes Into Composers”

It talks about a new generation of electronic instruments, with the electronic instrument the theremin for heritage and the video game Guitar Hero for inspiration. It’s an interesting article, and its sidebars include some YouTube demonstrations of the instruments. Check it out.

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07.10.2008

"Flutey and the Beast"

Posted by AJ Harbison at 5:15 am

My friend Jeff is a music ed major at California Baptist University and a tuba player, and his senior tuba recital is coming up next spring. On one recent evening out to dinner with him and his wife, he half-joked that if I wrote a piece for him, he would play it for his recital–better yet, write a piece for tuba and flute, and he and his wife could play it (she is, obviously, a flutist). I laughed at the idea of writing a duet for flute and tuba, but it was such a compelling challenge that I had to take it.

I tried to think of some inspiration that would make such a duet work musically, and the best thing I hit on was a sort of “beauty and the beast” idea, with each instrument playing one of the roles (I’ll leave you to guess which is which). I ran with it, and completed the rough draft of the piece a few weeks ago.

It starts with a (probably over-)dramatic introduction, followed by the beast’s theme, a gruff and angry set of fourths and octaves in the mid-to-low range of the tuba. There is a brief glimmer of the beast’s longing to be, well, not so beastly, a tender midrange melody, but it is quickly interrupted by the gruffness. The flute’s “beauty” character tries to interject here and there but is also interrupted, although she gets in a few echoes of the longing idea. Finally she plays her own beauty theme, by herself: much more tonal and sweet-sounding, based on ascending fourths and thirds, but is outspoken by the beast when she’s finished. The middle section is the softening of the beast, as he slowly but surely is won over by the beauty, until finally he consents to play his longing theme accompanied in harmony by the flute (similar to the Vox Balaenae principle, though not quite as dramatic), and even plays her theme down in his low range. The flute takes over with one last triumphant restatement of the beauty theme, with the tuba playing a bass line. The introduction returns, slightly modified, as the conclusion.

It’s a little ridiculous, musically speaking, but pretty comical. And if you know the story behind it, I think it makes sense when you hear it (although it might not make as much musical sense if you didn’t know the story). I went over to Jeff’s house the other day and he and his wife read through the piece a few times, and it went off rather well. It’s strange; I thought the musical colors of the two instruments would clash, but they actually blend surprisingly well, and the timbre of the flute is able to cut through the tuba’s sound to be heard (although I’m sure at forte or fortissimo dynamic levels the flute wouldn’t stand a chance). I’m going to make some revisions to the piece, but I’m excited at how it’s turning out thus far.

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07.08.2008

Contact Soundtrack, Alan Silvestri

Posted by AJ Harbison at 4:44 am

Over Subway sandwiches on an evening a few months back, my brother and father and I watched Robert Zemeckis’ film Contact, an excellent sci-fi film from 1997 starring Jodie Foster. The score is by Alan Silvestri, with 102 film scores to his credit (IMDB.com), including Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Back To The Future parts II and III, The Polar Express, Night At The Museum and most recently Beowulf, the sex-blood-and-guts animated version. He also has composed scores for “family” films such as FernGully: The Last Rainforest, Lilo & Stitch, and Stuart Little; but his most well-known score is that for Forrest Gump, for which he was nominated for an Oscar. It would seem he tends to specialize in simple, childlike and fantastic scores, and Contact is no exception. There’s not too much music in the film, and apart from the “excitement” theme when the message from outer space is first discovered, the music serves two main purposes. The first is poignancy, when one character (usually Foster) is looking wistfully out into space, which is accomplished primarily by soft chordal piano passages not unlike those I wrote about in Scent Of A Woman, except not quite as original or interesting. The second is the simple, childlike fantasy theme, recalling Foster’s character’s simple passion for science as a child, which goes something like this:

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(Whadda ya know? All those ear-training and dictation classes from my music degree come in handy–if only for a “Figure 1″ on my blog. The key of G is arbitrary; I don’t know what key[s] it appeared in in the movie. G just fit nicely on the staff.)

Simple stepwise movement with conservative leaps, all diatonic and based around the tonic triad, simple tune, easily remembered–very folk-ish and childlike. Not particularly original or interesting, either, but it works and certainly serves its purpose. The movie is very well-made, but it is about science after all, and art (in this case the score) is used mainly in a strictly practical manner. But that could of course be as much a reflection on the director, in the end, as on the composer.

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07.04.2008

Eyes Open, Snow Patrol

Posted by AJ Harbison at 5:24 am

In the past week on my commute to work, I’ve been listening to the CD Eyes Open by the band Snow Patrol. It’s a CD that Courtney had on our trip, which is where I was introduced to their music. I enjoyed it so much that I got the CD myself upon our return.

There are several reasons why I like the CD. I have to admit, at the outset, that their lyrics aren’t the best. They’re good, for sure, and more intelligent than most, but they lack the depth and particularly the subtlety of really good lyrics (U2 and Coldplay, of course, are the two examples you knew I’d bring up). Snow Patrol’s lyrics tell much more often than they show, which means they just say things straight out instead of implying things, which makes them less interesting. But at any rate, this is a music blog, not a lyrics blog, and the lyrics really aren’t bad at all.

The first reason I like the CD has to do with the singer, Gary Lightbody. Despite having (in my humble opinion) a non-rock-star-like name, I realized these past few listens that I actually like his voice a lot. Those of you who know me know that I’m really, really picky about singers, so to say that I like his voice is saying something. It has that breathy quality that makes it chill and unique, without actually being breathy–it actually has a good core and tone behind it. And his tone, support, etc. are all very good. In short–his voice just sounds really good.

Another reason I like Eyes Open is that it uses chords that are pretty typical–nothing too crazy here–but it has a sound that’s fresh and interesting. I really like the pianistic chord progression of the seventh track, “Make This Go On Forever” (you can listen to a sample on Amazon’s product page), for example. And the eighth track, “Set The Fire To The Third Bar,” has a very simple progression (Bm – A – G, over and over again) but the melody and the way the progression is played (how it’s voiced, its instrumentation, the musical space involved) are creative enough that it doesn’t get old even though it’s the same progression through the whole song.

One more thing that interests me about the CD is the typical pattern of the guitars. In many of the songs, the electric guitar plays its chord progression in repeated straight eighth notes, with no rhythmic variation. Listen to the Amazon samples for tracks 5, 9 and 10 and notice how the guitar doesn’t play anything outside of repeated notes of the same rhythmic value. While sounding simple, this is actually quite hard to play well; and it’s something that I’ve been trying out in my own guitar playing recently.

And, as a final note, I have to say that I like the CD because I really love the song “Chasing Cars,” which is track 3. It’s a great love song, the lyrics are quite good, and the form of the song is creative and effective: it starts very simple, with soft picking by the electric guitar, and steadily builds through each verse and chorus until the final chorus comes in full strength with the entire band. The lyrics also follow the same pattern: each chorus successively gains a few extra lines (i.e. the first chorus is two lines, the second chorus four, and the last chorus eight). I love it when bands are musically savvy enough to match the form of the lyrics and the music–that’s one of the reasons that Coldplay is so brilliant, especially on their album X&Y. You can listen to “Chasing Cars” for free here, your friendly neighborhood Last.fm.

Eyes Open. It’s a good CD. You should check it out.

Anyone heard anything else from the band? Is it as good as this CD is? Should I listen to it, and then blog about it to share it with y’all?

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07.01.2008

Listening to the "Whistles of Death"

Posted by AJ Harbison at 1:49 am

I just saw a fascinating article on CNN.com; it’s a story about a mechanical engineer who is experimenting with and replicating ancient Aztec whistles, flutes and noisemakers. The story makes an interesting read on its own, but when you’re done reading it, click on the “Slideshow” tab at the top of the article. There’s a short slideshow of images, but it’s accompanied by demonstrations of the instruments, and good demonstrations too–ones that are varied enough to showcase their versatility and complexity. Pretty amazing. Check it out:

Recreating the sound of Aztec ‘Whistles of Death’

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