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).


Andrew Lloyd Webber vs. Stephen Sondheim

Posted by AJ Harbison at 5:56 pm

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.


“Icicle,” Under The Pink, Tori Amos

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:58 pm

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.


Listening On the iPod

Posted by AJ Harbison at 5:32 pm

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:

And here are a few albums I’ve taken out: