I was listening to my iPod at work today, shuffling through my work playlist that contains mostly pop/rock stuff and musical theatre, working along, when suddenly a song struck me dead in my tracks. (Figuratively speaking; though probably “struck my hands,” or “struck my fingers” dead in their tracks would be more truthful, since I work at a computer.) It was a song I hadn’t heard before from a soundtrack I’d recently added to my iPod, and the beauty of the opening made me stop what I was doing, close my eyes for a moment and listen. The song was “Your Daddy’s Son,” from the soundtrack of the musical Ragtime by composer Stephen Flaherty. I’ve never seen the show or heard the soundtrack, so I don’t know anything about the story, but the song is apparently a mother singing to her son about his father who left her. The opening begins only with some thin, high woodwinds, then adds some very quiet percussion and picking guitar as the mother’s voice enters, singing a simple tune only on the sound “ooh.” The song continues with simple scoring of piano, woodwinds, and strings, but picks up with percussion and brass as the words build in intensity and climax. The woodwinds, guitar and piano return for the third act of the song through the quiet dénouement. The melody of the song is in minor, with intervals and rhythms very reminiscent of a folk tune, and the orchestration adds to the haunting beauty of it. You should go check it out. You can listen to it for free on Grooveshark (which I’ve found to be more reliable than Last.fm or iLike) here (just double-click on the song’s name in the window).
For reasons that will remain undisclosed for now, I’ve been listening to a lot of musicals on my iPod at work lately. Most of this music, of course, comes from my wife, since she studied musical theatre in high school and owns lots of soundtracks. A few that are on there now are Phantom (not Phantom of the Opera, but a different musical on the same story), The King and I, and Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, which is awesome. In addition to those, I also have Andrew Lloyd Webber: The Music, The Magic, which is a three-CD set of some of his “greatest hits;” and Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim. (If you’ve never seen the Into the Woods DVD, recorded from the stage production starring Bernadette Peters as the Witch, you owe it to yourself.)
It’s been interesting to compare Webber’s music to Sondheim’s in Into the Woods. Webber’s songs are basically pop music adapted to the theatre: simple, catchy hooks and melodies, pop-style chord progressions and relatively tame rhythms with pop-style syncopations, with pop-Broadway orchestrations. Sondheim’s music, though, is closer to opera (or at least to classical) than to pop music. The melodies often contain difficult jumps that aren’t typical for vocal music and are more fragmented and motivic than long and flowing. The chord structures are often very complex. And the rhythms are constantly changing and shifting, difficult to pin down to a pattern or single time signature, and more closely follow the pattern of speech than typical musical patterns. I was surprised and impressed when my lovely wife and I watched Into the Woods a few months ago; the performances were good in themselves, but they were terrific considering how difficult the music was.
There’s nothing wrong with Webber’s music, of course; it’s pop-music candy for the ears. But for a substantial meat-and-potatoes meal, Sondheim delivers something unique and masterful that’s quite inspiring to an aspiring composer such as myself.
Another entry in the recently reshuffled iPod playlist category….
I wrote a year ago about how my friend Rae hooked me up with some free CDs she didn’t want. Two of them happened to be the Greatest Hits of Billy Idol and the Greatest Hits: 1974-1978 of The Steve Miller Band. (What it says about the band that they have a Greatest Hits album with 14 tracks that spans all of 5 years, I’m not sure.) I put both those albums into my playlist, and I’ve heard multiple songs from both of them over the last week or so at work.
I’m not too impressed with either album. It’s definitely the 70s-80s rock sound that I would expect, not knowing much about either artist, and to be honest it bores me. Sure, there’s a lot of energy. But the style is quite outdated (insert your favorite cliche about 80s music here), and there’s nothing in the music that transcends the style–nothing that’s designed to last beyond the style itself. Especially in the Billy Idol tracks. They’re all constructed the same way, with the same instruments playing the same types of musical lines in every song. There are very few interesting details. The one exception is the live version of “Rebel Yell,” featuring some rocking acoustic guitar from Steve Stevens. He plays some unique accompaniment patterns, does some “superstrumming,” plays rhythms on muted strings, etc. That is worth listening to. But none of the other songs have the same redeeming quality (or any redeeming quality, to my mind).
Right after a song of Billy Idol’s and a song of The Steve Miller Band’s the other day, the song “All Your Reasons” from Matchbox Twenty’s album Exile On Mainstream started to play. It made me smile, because I love that song and it was a breath of fresh air after the other two. But then I started to wonder why–what was it that made “All Your Reasons” better than “White Wedding” and “Take The Money And Run”?
First of all, “All Your Reasons” is more intelligent than the other songs because while it has a distinctive pop/rock style, it transcends it because it’s a parody of the style. (The song starts out, quite humorously, with a couple of singers singing, with much feeling, “Ba da da da ba ba ba ba da” etc.) Maybe the parody won’t last for decades, but at least it’s a sentient style, so to speak–it’s aware of the style it’s operating in. Secondly, even though “All Your Reasons” is a simple song, there’s more detail in it than in five of Billy Idol’s songs combined–more subtle nuances in the instruments’ parts themselves, on a small scale. And thirdly, there’s more detail on a larger scale: there are great variations in texture (how many instruments are playing and what they’re playing), from the acoustic guitar and voices in the intro, to the full guitar-bass-drums chorus, to a driving bridge, to a chorus with only high guitar (punctuated by small drum fills, otherwise known as “details”).
Perhaps Matchbox Twenty’s music won’t last too far beyond its own style, either. But, while we’re still in a time where their style is relevant (and even if we’re not), it’s better music, and more worth listening to, than Billy Idol or The Steve Miller Band.
I mentioned the other day that I’d been introduced to Tori Amos’ album Under The Pink by an old friend of mine, and that I’d recently put it into a playlist on my iPod. My friend had attended a church I was a member of a long time ago, and she thought I would find it interesting that Amos makes use of a hymn in one of her songs on that album. She couldn’t find it on the record she was playing at the time, but I found it when I got the CD and listened to it on my own.
In the piano intro to the song “Icicle,” Amos writes a deconstruction of the hymn “O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing” (careful, a crappy MIDI piano version of the hymn will start playing if you visit the site). After some meandering chords that change modalities (switching from major to minor, mainly by switching from F to F-sharp), the hymn begins at the 53-second mark. Although she adds an extra beat here and there, it’s a faithful rendering of the hymn through one verse. But the last chord of the verse is swapped for a flat-VI (an A-flat major chord replaces the expected C major), and she launches into her deconstruction through another verse. She first simply adds the flat seventh, turning C major chords into C dominant sevens, but then really throws it off by switching between major and minor tonalities (by switching from E to E-flat and then from D to D-flat) and collapsing into a dissonant mess. After hanging out on the final cluster chord for a while, the accompaniment to the song proper begins, an A-flat 5 arpeggio.
The subject matter of the song concerns Amos’ exchanging of her parents’ religion for her own ideas, and thus the gradual decline of the hymn into chaos is a brilliant musical mirroring of what she’s about to sing. You can listen to the whole song here, courtesy of Last.fm. Be forewarned that the song contains some sexually suggestive material; but you can listen to the intro and then stop the song when she starts singing if you’d like to avoid it.
Usually, I can’t listen to music while I do something else, because I’m always listening to the music and analyzing it, whether I want to or not. In college I was never able to listen to music while I was studying because the music would be too distracting. Even when I’m eating out at a restaurant, some back corner of my mind is always listening and analyzing. I like to call this one of the “occupational hazards” of being a composer.
All this to say, I don’t have much occasion to make use of my iPod. However, occasionally at work I’m given some mindless tasks, like data entry for reports or conversion of a bunch of files from one format to another; and so I keep my iPod at work for such situations. It’s not large enough to sync with my entire iTunes library (it’s a 4GB iPod nano), so I have to pick and choose what I put on there. Here are some of the more interesting things I’ve recently put into my shuffled mindless-work playlist:
- The entire Wicked soundtrack. I hadn’t listened to anything from Wicked in a while, so I thought I’d get it back into the rotation; and just hearing a couple of the songs again is enough to make me wonder at Stephen Schwartz’s genius. Even the “non-greatest-hits” songs (e.g. “Dear Old Shiz,” “I’m Not That Girl,” “Thank Goodness”) have very clever words and catchy, quality music; and when Schwartz is at the top of his game (e.g. “What Is This Feeling?”, “Popular,” “For Good,” “Defying Gravity”) there’s no one better.
- Strange Attractor, Mercury Rev. I wrote about this album a few weeks ago. Even though it’s instrumental pop music, which normally doesn’t interest me too much, Strange Attractor is strangely attractive and I find it engaging, detailed and well-put-together. And for free, it’s hard to beat.
- Under The Pink, Tori Amos. An old friend of mine from Colorado who lived in LA for a while introduced me to Tori Amos by way of this CD. Amos is weird, there’s no doubt about it, but some of her writing is really good in her own eccentric way, and as a performer there’s much I can learn from her unique piano playing style.
And here are a few albums I’ve taken out:
- Turning Point, The Emmons Sisters. This was a family band (four sisters) that I met on our road trip two years ago up in Oregon; they play folk/acoustic/country-style music. But the songwriting is not very good, and the vocals are far too nasal to be easily listenable. A shame, because I had a lot of fun jamming with them while we stayed at their house.
- Kicking Television, Live in Chicago, Wilco. A friend of mine from Redlands gave me this CD to borrow, and it was the first time I’d heard Wilco. I’ll grant that a live album might not be the best way to be introduced to a band, but I really wasn’t feeling it. It’s difficult to put my finger on, but nothing really stood out to me and I don’t understand what the big deal is about Wilco. Any fans care to enlighten me?
- Stockholm Syndrome, Derek Webb. The only reason I took this off is because I’ve been listening to it incessantly since I downloaded it. The (censored) physical album comes out on September 1st, but it’s still available to order in its original form at http://www.derekwebb.com/store; so head on over and get yourself a copy!
08.03.2009Posted by AJ Harbison at 4:55 pm
Way back in March, coldplay.com featured an interview with Mercury Rev, a band that was opening for them at that time on their tour. In the interview, they mentioned that they had an album available as a free download on their website. As someone who (at least in principle) is always interested in free music, I headed over, signed up for their email list and downloaded the album; as someone who (at least in practice) is always interested in procrastination, I hadn’t listened to it until today. But when I did, I found a very pleasant surprise.
On Wikipedia, the genres listed for Mercury Rev are “alternative rock,” “art rock” and “dream pop,” whatever those mean. Apparently the band normally has vocals, but the free album, entitled Strange Attractor, is all instrumental. I guess “dream pop” isn’t quite my cup of tea, but it was an enjoyable listen. The first track, however, captured my interest immediately. It’s called “Love Is Pure;” but it’s essentially a rock/pop remix of Arvo Pärt’s art music composition Fratres. I wrote about Fratres in the short-lived Listening Page feature on my former blog (short-lived because I soon expanded it to become this Listening Blog); here’s my description of the piece:
Pärt is an Estonian composer of minimalistic music, particularly a style known sometimes as “holy minimalism” (and ridiculed sometimes as “Holy minimalism, Batman!”). This is one of his best-known works–a hauntingly beautiful piece for four cellos. It’s one of those pieces in which the composer sets up a pattern, writes the beginning, and then lets the rest of the piece write itself (I hope to write a piece like this someday, it just seems too easy). In this particular piece, he writes a chord progression which begins at a very high pitch; then he repeats the progression nine times (I think), and each time the progression starts on a different, lower pitch, until it ends in the deep middle-low range of the cellos. The piece is about 10 minutes long, but it never gets boring because of the balance of repetition (the same general progression) and contrast (different chords in the progression in different ranges)…. It’s a really cool piece.
Mercury Rev’s version doesn’t repeat or change pitch, but it does use the same chord progression. The rhythm is jazzed up and delay is added, but the progression is clearly the same. It even retains the low held interval that the original Fratres does. Very cool.
You can listen to a recording of Fratres here, courtesy of Last.fm; and you can listen to “Love Is Pure” (by itself) here. However, the free download of Strange Attractor is still available at Mercury Rev’s website, and I’d recommend checking that out instead!02.26.2009Posted by AJ Harbison at 6:37 pm
Last week I finally got around to listening to Prospekt’s March, Coldplay‘s EP companion to Viva La Vida. The album is a set of songs that weren’t finished by the deadline for Viva, as well as the full version of “Life In Technicolor” (complete with lyrics), a remix of “Lovers In Japan” and a new version of “Lost!” featuring a rap by Jay-Z.
I’ve listened to it twice now on my iPod at night, both for the purpose of listening to it and for the purpose of calming my mind and trying to rid it of wedding planning thoughts so I could fall asleep. And it’s every bit as fascinating as Viva was on its first few listens. It’s even more experimental and out there as the full album, and just as full of energy, just as creative, and just as poignant. It runs the gamut from the quiet piano solo track “Postcards From Far Away” to the exuberant rock-out-ness of “Glass Of Water,” from the quiet, bare guitar-and-voice intro to the title track to only-strings and only-brass accompaniments in “Rainy Day” and “Now My Feet Won’t Touch The Ground.” The EP remains interested in the questions and issues of mortality, spawning another set of well-written and thought-provoking lyrics. In sum, it’s an excellent chaser to Viva La Vida.
Each of the songs is so interesting in and of itself, and so unique, that when I return from my honeymoon I’m planning another weeklong series so I can look at each of them individually. And in the meantime, check it out and take a listen!01.30.2009Posted by AJ Harbison at 7:31 pm
My soon-to-be former roommate (and soon-to-be best man) Mike alerted me yesterday to an article published on Macworld. Apparently, when iTunes upgraded to higher quality, DRM-free music, you could pay 30 cents per song to upgrade music you’d already purchased–but in order to do that you would have to upgrade your entire library all at once. This would have (and did) cost iTunes users hundreds or even thousands of dollars if they chose to do so, and left them without the ability to only upgrade certain songs.
But fortunately, as the article says, iTunes has announced that users can now upgrade individual albums and individual tracks to iTunes Plus. There are still restrictions–as some of the comments say, if you purchased an album as an album you can’t upgrade individual songs from that album–but it’s much improved. It does make one wonder why they didn’t implement this policy when they first introduced iTunes Plus; it’s a rather shady business move if they were just trying to get some dedicated suckers to give them some extra cash before they introduced the pick-and-choose version. But in any case, I’m glad of the new turn of events. The article can be found at the link below.01.09.2009Posted by AJ Harbison at 3:44 am
In other musical news, Apple announced on Wednesday that the iTunes store has been upgraded and all new songs will now be offered in higher quality (256-Kbps AAC encoding) and (more importantly) DRM-free. DRM stands for Digital Rights Management, which in turn stands for that pesky technology that prevents you from playing songs from the iTunes store on any digital device you want or copy them to another computer, and limits the number of times you can burn the songs onto a CD. Many consumers felt that the DRM technology was too restrictive, but of course many artists supported it because it was able to increase the likelihood that they would be paid for their product–consumer convenience versus artists’ rights.
In order to allow the new DRM-free music, Apple negotiated with record companies to offer songs at three different price points: 69 cents, 99 cents and $1.29. But the company assures us that most songs will be offered at the lowest price. And your current iTunes library can be updated to “iTunes Plus” (higher quality and DRM-free) for 30 cents a song.
I should point out that just because music is DRM-free does not make it legal to burn CDs for other people from your music library.
P.S. I should also point out that this blog marks the 101st post on TLB! I would have pointed out that my last one was #100, but I failed to realize it until this one. So raise a glass of champagne, good wine or your drink of choice and toast to another hundred posts on everyone’s favorite listening blog!06.28.2008Posted by AJ Harbison at 7:10 pm
On Wednesday night after work, I felt that the air was cooler than it had been over the past few days, and I could feel the ocean beckoning me. So after a brief stop back at the apartment, I hopped in my car and headed down to the beach–Newport Beach, to be precise. I felt that this occasion, which was the first time I’ve gone to the beach alone since I moved to Irvine, warranted some particular music to fit my mood: excited, adventurous, free. I chose U2, unsurprisingly–All That You Can’t Leave Behind, to be precise. “Beautiful Day” is the first track, and one of the most popular songs of their whole career; it seemed to embody the feeling I needed. It was the first song we listened to as we set out on our road trip last fall, so perhaps that gave it an adventurous and free connotation in my mind. Wednesday was a beautiful evening, at the least; the orange sun burned in a pink and cloudless sky. I raced it down to the horizon, and won by a little, as it hung red just above the fog when I arrived at Newport.
I set up my beach chair a little way back from the water, and journaled for a while. When I was finished, I pulled out my iPod and looked out over the sea. I love the ocean, and again I needed to find music that fit the mood of the situation. I felt as if I needed something to match the grandeur of the sea and the vastness of the sky, and as I browsed through the artists on my iPod I settled on some excellent choral music: the Mass of Swiss composer Frank Martin. (The recording I have comes from the CD Cathedral Classics, by the Dale Warland Singers, and it’s AMAZING.) I promise I’ll write a post about the Mass within the next week or so, because it’s such an awesome piece that it deserves its own post. But for now, suffice it to say that it served my purpose perfectly: sometimes big, grand and soaring, sometimes soft and sweet, always creative and evocative. It was a little hard to hear when it got softer in volume, due to the roaring of the waves, but otherwise it matched the emotion and mood of the scene.
After the Mass was over (it’s about 25 minutes long), I felt I needed some Chopin. Chopin was a Romantic composer (i.e. he lived in the 19th century–1810 to 1849, to be precise) who wrote almost exclusively for the piano, and his music is so distinctive that it’s almost immediately identifiable by anyone who knows his style. His music is very poignant, evocative and emotional, and often is characterized by a longing or yearning feeling that I felt would be appropriate to the sea following the Martin. (It was, in some senses, like choosing which fine wines would pair well with the various courses of a meal. The Martin Mass communicated the grandeur of the ocean and the sky in themselves; the Chopin matched the longing and intimacy of me, a lone man, standing before them in their grandeur.) I chose his Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, from a recording by Krystian Zimerman.
(Incidentally, an interesting side note: a short time into the Ballade, I changed the EQ setting on my iPod from “Loudness” to “Piano.” The difference was very noticeable; the piano didn’t necessarily sound better–I actually felt like it got a little shallower and brighter in sound–but it was much better defined and much clearer, and I could even hear the pianist taking breaths as he played. It was in short a very helpful EQ setting.)
All of the ballades of Chopin (he wrote four) are worth listening to, but the first is my favorite, followed closely by the second (which I’ll also blog about soon, perhaps). And the first again was a perfect choice to pair with the cuisine of sea and sky; its yearning seemed a fitting musical counterpart to the constantly breaking waves.
When the Ballade ended, due to the waves covering some of the sound and the fact that I was getting very cold, I decided to pack up my chair and backpack and head home. Back in the car, I returned to the U2 CD; but things seemed to revert to my usual listening-to-music-in-the-car mood.
I’ve noted in the past that listening to an iPod while doing something else like walking, or watching the ocean, or whatever, is good training for being a film composer. Film composers need to be able to capture whatever human emotion is being displayed on screen and express it through music. And if I’m listening to something on my iPod, it’s almost like a movie soundtrack to the life that I’m experiencing; I can note what emotions that type of music stirs in me in that particular setting, and that would help me if I was ever to compose music for a scene in a film with a similar setting and emotion. So, Mark, if you ever make a film that has to do with the beach and you need some scoring for it, you know who to call: me–to be precise.