06.15.2008

"Baby," Dave Matthews

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:02 am

I wrote last month about Dave Matthews’ song “Stay Or Leave” from his solo album Some Devil. This post is about track 11, “Baby.”

The track is a short one, just 2:19, and the instrumentation is just an acoustic guitar and strings. It’s a simple song, and a very enjoyable one. The thing that prompted me to post about it is the same element as my third point about “Stay Or Leave,” namely a meter change. One of the pervasive metaphors of “Baby” is “a ship in a bottle set sail.” The song is mainly in a straightforward 4/4, but after two instances of that ship-in-a-bottle line, it changes to 6/8, with a quarter note in 4/4 equaling an eighth note in the 6/8. (I suppose it could also be 3/4 with a boom-chuck-chuck waltz feel; the effect is the same.) The lyrics over the 6/8 talk about wind blowing over the water, and the effect is one of broadening, changing from a straightforward meter to a lilting one, and it dramatically conveys the feeling of a ship sailing. After a few measures of 6/8, the song returns to 4/4, not overdoing the change but just using it subtly to great effect. A useful device to know: slow, rolling 6/8 equals a ship on the seas. Mad props to Dave again.

(Last.fm again has the full track for your listening pleasure, here.)

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05.30.2008

"Stay Or Leave," Dave Matthews

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:00 am

While on my journey into the heart of America, my fellow Team American Courtney introduced us all to a heck of a lot of Dave Matthews Band music. Most of the time I enjoy his music quite a bit, though I still think that as a songwriter he doesn’t quite measure up to the likes of U2 or Coldplay or Derek Webb. On the trip, I secretly borrowed Some Devil, Dave’s solo album, from Courtney and put it on my computer to listen to at a later time; and I’ve only recently started listening to some of the songs. (For the record, as an artist I don’t support stealing music. I consider things like this to be akin to borrowing a CD for a while; after I’ve finished listening to the music, I’ll delete it from my computer. And in case you doubt me, I have done this multiple times before.)

I’ll post about a few of the songs separately, but the first one I want to write about (which I listened to a few nights ago on my iPod) is “Stay Or Leave,” which is track 8. The song was notable in my mind for three reasons. The first was the immediate association the chorus of the song created with Coldplay, particularly the style of Parachutes. I’m not sure what it is; probably the vocal leaps up to falsetto notes have something to do with it, à la the choruses of “Shiver,” “Yellow,” and “We Never Change.” The leap (at least the one on the phrase “stay or leave”) is up to the third scale degree over the IV chord, so it forms a major seventh interval with the root of the chord, and for some reason that just sounds like Coldplay.

The second thing that interested me about the song was its use of percussive vocalization for background effect. Not background vocals, just percussive vocal sounds. Something like “Shakacha cha-cha ooh ah” is the main one, in the interlude following the first chorus and during the second chorus; after the second chorus it’s something like “[rest] choo choo choo koo koo” in steady eighth notes (in 6/8); also in the beginning there’s some sort of sampled percussion that could be a voice saying “ks ks ks.” It’s interesting because pop music seldom utilizes the voice for anything other than pitched singing (speaking and rapping excluded, of course), apart from beatboxing, which isn’t quite what Dave is doing. Mad props for creativity here.

The third interesting thing is a subtle meter shift. The song starts out with a chill rhythm guitar progression in 6/8, and remains in 6/8 until the 2:43 mark, where it changes to a laidback, swung 4/4 with the “exchange rate” of a dotted quarter in the 6/8 equaling a quarter note in 4/4. It’s so subtle that most listeners might not even notice the change. After a new section in 4/4, he actually returns to a previous section of the song (the bridge), but plays it in the 4/4 instead of 6/8. And it still works because the change is so smooth. I have to confess that I’m often impressed by the musicianship of Dave’s songs, although most of the time it’s the other band members’ contributions rather than his playing or singing or the songwriting itself. But hats off for this song–great ideas, terrifically executed.

(The listening sample for “Stay Or Leave” on Amazon.com’s page for Some Devil comes from the first chorus and a little after, so you can hear the leap and some of the vocal percussion. You can hear the full track here on Last.fm. The timer counts down rather than up, so the meter change occurs at -1:19.)

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05.28.2008

In The Beginning, Aaron Copland

Posted by AJ Harbison at 5:15 am

A while ago I purchased a CD on iTunes entitled American Choral Music. The reason was because it contained a recording of Fern Hill by John Corigliano, which I was singing in Cal State Fullerton’s University Singers choir at the time; I fell in love with Fern Hill shortly after we began singing it, and it’s had my heart ever since. I’m sure I’ll post about it on this blog at some point. But the CD also contained a piece by Aaron Copland, called In The Beginning, which I had never heard or heard of before. I just listened to it again recently on my iPod.

It’s a setting of the biblical story of creation from Genesis 1:1 – 2:7 (King James Version), not versified in any way but just straight from the KJV text, for mezzo-soprano solo and unaccompanied chorus. The music is very accessible, and I must say I like this piece a lot. My previous experience with Copland had been confined to instrumental and orchestral music, and I was unaware of any choral repertoire; but considering how much I like this piece I may need to look into his choral works further.

Despite the challenges of setting prose text (which Copland of course handles masterfully) and unifying a through-composed piece, the creation narrative has a variety of recurring phrases, such as “And God said,” “And it was so,” “And God saw that it was good,” etc. These give Copland some chances for recurring motifs, which he uses to satisfactorily unifying effect. My favorite is his setting of “And the evening and the morning were the [first, second etc.] day”: he uses the same basic chord progression each time, with subtle variations–but each day is progressively one half-step higher than the last.

There is a lot of fun word painting in the piece, my own favorite being the sudden, clear high soprano entrance on the word “lights” in “Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night”; you can almost see the first star flashing into existence in the night sky. The climax is at the very end of the piece, stretching all the voices to the top of their ranges for the phrase “And man became a living soul.”

Listening to the piece, which was composed in 1947, this last time, I heard many elements that reminded me of Eric Whitacre: the same type of word painting and chordal coloring that make Whitacre’s music so distinctive. I wonder if Whitacre’s style was at all influenced by Copland.

Homework for me: Look up Copland’s other choral music, and investigate Copland’s possible influence on Eric Whitacre.

Links for you:
     - In The Beginning Fact Sheet (from the Library of Congress
       Aaron Copland Collection)
     - First page of the score
     - Excerpt from In The Beginning, sung by the MIT Chamber Chorus

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