06.21.2008

Target Rips Off U2

Posted by AJ Harbison at 5:07 am

I was in a Target this evening doing some shopping, and my shopping happened to cause me to pass by the electronics section, and the electronics section reminded me of a post I wanted to write here.

You know the video that they play in the electronics section at Targets? It’s the one that shows on all the TVs they’re selling, that highlights particular products in movies or music or whatever. But in between the product highlights, there’s a little video interlude with a red background, and the Target logo flying around everywhere (go to www.target.com and look at the “Save 10% today…” banner; after the words on that banner, the picture with all the logos is basically what the video looks like). There’s some simple music to the video that consists essentially of two chords alternating, a major I and a minor v (major tonic and minor dominant). In chordal terms, this could be, for example, a D major chord alternating with an A minor.

What’s particularly interesting about the voicing and instrumentation of these two chords is that they sound an awful lot like a famous U2 song: “In God’s Country” from the album The Joshua Tree. The “hook,” the electric guitar riff at the beginning of the song, is the part that Target apparently ripped off. Unfortunately, neither Amazon nor Last.fm have samples that play the riff. But you can find a YouTube music video of the song here, and that works just as well. Listen to what the electric guitar starts playing, up high, at the 10-second mark. Hey–it sounds just like that Target video!

(I scoured the internet for a sample of the Target video, but predictably found none. Hang out in the electronics section for a few minutes the next time you’re in a Target, after listening to the opening of “In God’s Country,” and I’ll bet even non-musicians will be able to tell that it’s a direct ripoff.)

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06.19.2008

Juno Soundtrack, Various Artists

Posted by AJ Harbison at 3:29 am

I saw the movie Juno for the first time a few weekends ago. It was, of course, a nominee for the Best Picture Oscar last year, and it was a very well-hyped movie in my various circles, which led me to high levels of anticipation. As a movie, I felt that it was definitely good but not quite as great as everyone had made it out to be (though, as my roommate Mike pointed out, definitely better than most movies nowadays). The soundtrack, however, was disappointing to me. A quick click through some of the samples on the Amazon page for the soundtrack, particularly the songs written and performed for the movie by Kimya Dawson, reveal the general style of the songs–a sort of stripped-down emo feel. Meaning no offense to those who may have enjoyed the soundtrack, I really dislike that kind of music. The lyrics are often silly or downright stupid, which is not necessarily bad in a light-hearted movie like Juno; but the music is played on often out-of-tune guitars and sung by almost always out-of-tune singers. And the melodies tend to be boring, simplistic, and monotone, which makes all the songs sound the same.

I appreciate the quality of “authentic-ness” that I assume this music tries to portray–just a songwriter strumming and singing, as if in a living room performance. And I know that this is one of the reasons some people enjoy this style. But to me, it seems like a bunch of songwriters who can’t write songs, guitarists who can’t tune their instruments, and singers who can’t sing. And that makes it really hard to listen to for extended periods of time, and even harder to enjoy.

But, apart from the music, the movie was very good.

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06.17.2008

Mixin' It Up With Elton John

Posted by AJ Harbison at 2:11 am

Last night my good friend Rae was kind enough to donate to my girlfriend and I some free CDs that she didn’t want. One of the ones I took was Elton John’s Greatest Hits Volume II. Now, I’m not a huge Elton John fan (except for a live version of “Candle In The Wind”), but I’ve enjoyed the CD as I’ve listened to it last night on my drive home and today on my commute to and from work. The three songs I recognized from hearing them elsewhere were his cover of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” “Tiny Dancer” and “Levon.” But the thing that struck me specifically (at least on my first listen-through) was the mix, particularly where his voice fits in. When he’s not singing up high (like the chorus of “Tiny Dancer,” for example), his voice is often partly obscured by the instrumentation because it’s at a similar volume. The Amazon.com page with song previews isn’t particularly helpful in illustrating my point, because most of their short samples come from softer parts of the songs where his voice is prominent. But you can hear a little of what I mean in the samples of “Philadelphia Freedom” and “Pinball Wizard.” You can pretty much make out what he’s saying, but the drums and guitars are loud enough that they threaten to overpower his voice.

Most of the time in popular music, the lead vocal is mixed to a high enough volume that it stands out noticeably from the instruments since it’s the main musical (and of course lyrical) idea. There are exceptions even in mainstream rock, most notably U2 (Achtung Baby, for example) or Coldplay (like their new single, available now as a single on iTunes, “Viva La Vida”). But U2 and Coldplay do it for musical reasons: 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. But the instruments on the Elton John album are clearly providing a background for the voice–they’re not nearly as interesting or original, musically, as the instruments of U2 or Coldplay. I don’t mean that in a negative way; the players of those instruments are not necessarily worse musicians (although, most likely, they are), they’re just called on to fulfill a different role. Thus, while the mix for U2 or Coldplay is an artistic decision, it seems the mix for Elton John is just a poor one.

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06.12.2008

My Favorite Film Production Company Video Logo

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:17 am

Of all the short video logos I’ve seen for film production companies (you know, the three or four or more short little deals that show up right before the opening credits of every movie), my favorite is the one for Castle Rock Entertainment. I like the piano, I like the winds, I really like the chord progression. You can find a video of the video logo here.

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06.10.2008

The Spitfire Grill Soundtrack, James Horner

Posted by AJ Harbison at 6:08 am

I apologize for not posting in a few days–I had a busy weekend, and I’m still settling into my apartment and adjusting to the life of a full-time employee. But here’s another movie score post for you, faithful reader.

I just rewatched one of my favorite movies, The Spitfire Grill, a few weeks ago. It’s a 1996 movie about a woman just released from prison, looking for a new start in a small town in Maine, and it’s brilliantly written, directed and acted. If you’ve never seen it you need to check it out. James Horner wrote the music, and listening to the score more closely this time than in times past I understand more fully how it blends with the other elements of the film and elevates the story.

Like the movie, the score sparkles and is full of hope, featuring broad strings in often simple harmonic progressions, high twinkling percussion, and poignant piano writing. A clear, high major third in perhaps a piccolo or other high woodwind seems to represent the curiosity and wonder laced throughout the film, and at other times Horner (who also did the movie’s orchestrations) writes strings in open fifths that invoke a Coplandesque, Americana sound (complemented in other places by bluegrass-type music). The piano sounds almost improvisatory, with simple fantasia-type flourishes that are very evocative and also conjure up an almost childlike wonder.

I noticed that the hopeful effect was created, in addition to the orchestration choices, by mostly major chords that are denied tonic resolution. The score hangs out on the IV chord quite a bit, with lots of embellishments: added notes in the sustained strings, swirling piano lines, etc. It simultaneously creates the effect of stasis, by staying on the one chord, and tension, by virtue of the IV needing to resolve. And I suppose that’s what hope is: looking ahead from where you are. A brilliant musical counterpart to a superlative film.

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06.04.2008

The Vox Balaenae Principle

Posted by AJ Harbison at 3:56 am

Forgive me for not posting in a few days; I’ve just moved into a new apartment in Irvine and just started a new job in Costa Mesa, and consequently have had less time and no internet until tonight. Hopefully I’ll be back to posting regularly now. And in the meantime, thanks so much to all who have been commenting–I really appreciate your feedback, insights or random thoughts on what I’ve written. Keep ‘em coming! Now to the real post:

I heard George Crumb’s work Vox Balaenae (Latin for “Voice of the Whale”) several years ago at Cal State Fullerton’s new music festival. It was performed by three members of the incomparable eighth blackbird ensemble (the scoring is for flute, cello and piano, all amplified), as the score specifies, in black half-masks and under deep blue stage lighting. It was an eerie setting for a really cool piece.

I have to confess that I haven’t heard it since then, so my recollections are vague, but the main thing I remember is the subject of this post. The piece utilizes lots of extended techniques to evoke the sea and the whalesong, meaning unconventional ways of playing the instruments–singing through the flute, playing on the strings inside the piano, etc. And (we remember) it’s by George Crumb, which together with the extended techniques means that it isn’t always easy to listen to, often has a random/incoherent feel to it, and denies any kind of resolution most of the time. But in the middle of the piece, it suddenly broke out into a clear, tonal, chordal passage that was absolutely lovely. And because of the style of everything that had come before it, it was heartbreakingly beautiful–much more so than it would have been on its own, without the surrounding material. It was so much a contrast to the preceding music that it was thrown into sharper relief, and the effect was amazing.

The principle proved itself again a few weeks ago. I went to the senior composition recital of a friend of mine named Seán Dunnahoe, and the three pieces on the program were of a similar mold as I’ve described above. The middle piece was entitled Textural Study and was scored for three flutes, clarinets in Bb, A and bass varieties and portative organ. It included lots of aleatoric elements: cells of notes repeated arhythmically playing against other cells in other instruments, and that type of thing. But at several points all the instruments came together and played a few chords of the major and minor varieties, and the effect was similar to the one in Vox Balaenae. It was such a contrast to what had come before that it was beautiful, and it had a very dramatic effect.

Therefore, from henceforth I shall call this “The Vox Balaenae Principle.” I may even try to use it in one of the compositions I’m working on now, an a cappella choral piece about the fall of Rome. Hmm, that would actually work really well….

(If you’re interested, there’s an excellent page on Vox Balaenae on Crumb’s website that lists all the details of the piece and includes program notes and a review.)

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06.01.2008

Alias Ends in B-flat Major

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:10 am

I used to watch the TV show Alias on a weekly basis, but that weekly routine was interrupted by going off to college, where I lived in a dorm and had no TV reception. I recently watched the final season (Season 5) in its entirety on DVD with some friends–the first time I’d seen it. The series finale, “All The Time In The World,” was more or less satisfying in terms of storyline resolutions, etc. I certainly enjoyed it. And the musical end of the series was appropriate, to my mind: a B-flat major chord in the strings, with the third on top. When you think about it, that’s the only way you could really end a dramatic series–a minor chord wouldn’t fit with the story’s “happy ending,” and anything other than the third on top would be less fulfilling. The only other possibility I envision would be ending on a unison, which would be satisfying but not as rich-feeling (for obvious harmonic reasons). I enjoyed the plagal cadence, as well: an E-flat major chord (I think also with the third on top) preceded the final chord.

My friends and I watched all the bonus features on the DVD, one of which (the most interesting to me, apart from the blooper reel) was “Heightening the Drama: The Music of Alias.” The composer for the entire series was Michael Giacchino, who was tapped by J.J. Abrams (Alias’ creator and executive producer) to score his show after being impressed with Giacchino’s score for the video game Medal of Honor. In the interviews, Giacchino talked about how the music for Alias in the beginning used heavy techno beats over orchestral scoring, but as the series became more about character development as opposed to simply action, the scoring developed as well. By the end of the series (as was in evidence in the Season 5 episodes I watched), the score was almost exclusively orchestral. And his orchestra was an interesting one: a normal-sized string section, four horns, bassoon, alto flute, and percussion. Minimal, but used to striking effect. I like the idea of a self-imposed limit on one’s palette of colors; in some ways it makes things simpler because there are fewer options, but in other ways I imagine it makes things more difficult by forcing one to use only what one has to express all one’s ideas. I’ll have to try it someday.

(I have to confess that I was pretty proud of the whole knowing-it-was-B-flat thing. I announced to my friends that it was a B-flat major chord–they didn’t care, of course–and when we rewound it briefly to watch the final scene again, I sang the B-flat and ran over to the other room to check it on my friend’s keyboard. And I was right.)

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05.31.2008

Scent Of A Woman Soundtrack, Thomas Newman

Posted by AJ Harbison at 1:00 am

I watched the movie Scent of a Woman for the first time two weeks ago. It stars Al Pacino and has a soundtrack by Thomas Newman, who has 78 movies to his credit as a composer according to IMDB.com, including Fried Green Tomatoes, The Shawshank Redemption, American Beauty, The Green Mile, Finding Nemo and the upcoming WALL•E–not a list to sneeze at, by any means. (What the heck is that phrase supposed to mean, anyway?) IMDB also notes, in the “Trivia” section on Newman, that he has scored at least one Oscar-nominated movie every year since 1994, which is rather impressive in itself. He showcases his obviously prodigious talent in the score to Scent Of A Woman; it was very well-written, with distinctive and memorable themes that had original thoughts to offer. My favorite of the themes, which appears first on the soundtrack in the second track, “A Tour Of Pleasures,” is a soft, chordal piano theme. It reminded me when I first heard it in the movie of the chordal movement of Arvo Pärt’s Fratres–a similar progression of faintly-related major chords. When I listened to it again on Amazon.com’s listening samples for the soundtrack, it also reminded me of some chordal passages of Morten Lauridsen’s Mid-Winter Songs (probably because I listened to Mid-Winter Songs the night before watching the movie). Good stuff. I also enjoyed the tango in the dance scene, which was not composed by Newman but was also good. As I discovered when I wrote a tango for a piano suite I was composing, the primary distinctive of a tango is the following rhythm (often with similar pitches to these):

Obviously this was used throughout the tango itself. But the tango became an important plot point in the movie, such as in this exchange, where Charlie repeats a line the Colonel had spoken to him earlier:

Lt. Col. Frank Slade [Al Pacino]: Oh, where do I go from here, Charlie?
Charlie Simms: If you’re tangled up, just tango on.
Lt. Col. Frank Slade: You askin’ me to dance, Charlie?

The tango symbolizes enjoying life, dancing it up, moving on–which Al Pacino’s character decides to do at the end of the movie. And in the closing music, in fact in the last 10 seconds of the film, the tango rhythm appears once in the orchestration, very soft and subtle. An excellent musical/psychological association by Newman, expertly applied. All in all a terrific score to a terrific movie.

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