Live Under Lights and Wires, Sandra McCracken

Posted by AJ Harbison at 4:20 pm

A few days ago I downloaded Sandra McCracken‘s latest album, Live Under Lights and Wires. It’s a live album, recorded by Sandra and Derek Webb (her husband) at a house show they performed in their own living room, just the two of them and their guitars. Derek just provides guitar and backup vocals, though; it’s Sandra’s show, and most of the songs are from her last album Red Balloon, which I wrote about a few months ago.

Live Under Lights and Wires is a fun listen–a glimpse into the songwriting process, by virtue of Sandra’s incidental comments and hearing the stripped-down versions of the songs, and a chance to listen in on a concert for the hundreds or thousands of fans who weren’t able to attend the private show. Sandra’s style is (as I mentioned in my Red Balloon post) “a folk/acoustic/singer-songwriter sound, with some country flavoring,” and it lends itself well to acoustic-guitar-only arrangements. She’s definitely a talented songwriter, and the personal songwriting shines through a personal and intimate performance. And it’s cool to hear her and Derek playing and singing together; if you ever get the chance to see them both live, it’s awesome to see the way they interact with each other during a performance, and there’s a small taste of that here.

A digital download of the album is only five bucks on Sandra’s webstore; a physical CD plus an immediate digital download is ten. The videos for “Halfway” and “Lose You” I linked to in the Red Balloon post are actually from the same show, so you can watch them as well. Sandra is an independent artist I would highly recommend, and this should be an enjoyable CD for fans and newcomers alike.


Fastest Violinist In The World

Posted by AJ Harbison at 4:23 pm

I came across this video on CNN.com a few days ago. The violinist is David Garrett, a Juilliard graduate who studied with Itzhak Perlman, did some modeling on the side, and wears (for the interview) a leather jacket and a Von Dutch cap; he plays both classical music and pop music, “channeling” Michael Jackson and Metallica. But he’s also going in the 2010 Guinness Book of Records as the world’s fastest violinist for playing Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee in 66 seconds–13 notes per second. If you’d like to skip the opening segments with the gushing interviewer who is clearly smitten with him, skip to the 1:30 mark.


Open Sound New Orleans

Posted by AJ Harbison at 4:32 pm

My lovely wife grew up in the city of New Orleans, and I was tipped off to this project by my cousin-in-law who emailed her and her parents when he heard about it on NPR. It’s called “Open Sound New Orleans,” and it describes itself as “a community media project that invites and enables New Orleanians to document their lives in sound.” The main page is an interactive Google map of the city, with sound bubbles in three categories (ambient sounds, music sounds and voice sounds) scattered around. You can click on the sound bubbles to hear the sounds that were recorded in that location of the city.


Eleanor and I clicked around for a while last night, and it was pretty fun. In the right sidebar there’s a list of “greatest hits,” which provide a better chance for interesting material than clicking on a random bubble. I’d highly recommend listening to “Amazing Grace at Cafe du Monde,” which is a recording of a violin and guitar playing the song at the famous Cafe–I think it’s the most soulful (and bluesy) version of “Amazing Grace” I’ve ever heard. Eleanor also liked “Cicadas at dusk,” which she said was a very familiar sound to her, though a new one for me (I’ve never lived in a place that had cicadas before). And, just for a laugh, listen to “Who dat!” on the last page of the “greatest hits”–the excitement and then disappointment of New Orleans Saints football fans (“Who dat” is their official chant).

It’s certainly a cool idea for a project, and it’s fun to click around for a while. I wonder a bit about the long-term value of the idea. But here’s their “vision statement:”

Our intent is to make more accessible the authentic, unedited sounds and voices of New Orleans. Sharing the sounds of our city as we hear them, move through them, and create them, is an act of celebration. But it also serves each contributor – you and me and anyone else who might participate – as a simple way to extend our own experience to others, harness our representations and those of our city, and participate in New Orleans’ public culture with intentionality.

Reminds me of The AudioBus Experience in San Francisco that I wrote about last summer, except less mobile and more authentic (since the AudioBus manipulated the sound live rather than recording it). What do you think? Cool idea that contributes to community, or a novelty with a little interest but no lasting value?


LeftRightLeftRightLeft, Coldplay

Posted by AJ Harbison at 4:32 pm

It took me a while, but I finally downloaded Coldplay‘s new live album a few weeks ago. It’s called LeftRightLeftRightLeft, and can be downloaded for free here (they’re also giving away free copies at their shows; according to the band, it’s a “recession-busting” thank-you to their fans).

It’s awesome, of course, since it’s Coldplay (and my love for the band is well-documented). But the dynamic of a live album is an interesting one. Of course it’s fun to hear the crowd in the background, cheering and singing along; to hear Chris Martin’s occasional comments; to hear the live version of “Death Will Never Conquer,” featuring “the singing abilities of Mr. William Champion” (their drummer). But for the most part, the rest of the songs appear very much like their counterparts on the studio albums (mainly Viva La Vida and Prospekt’s March, plus “The Hardest Part” from X&Y and “Clocks” from A Rush Of Blood To The Head). And that makes me wonder how interesting most people find the live versions. Take for example “Viva La Vida.” Apart from beginning with the chorus’ background vocals, the song is practically identical to the studio version, complete with the recorded string tracks, except for the fact that the vocals are a little less polished. I realize that this was a huge single, the title track from their last main record, their current signature song, etc., and that people would probably revolt in outrage if it was played a different way. But I, for one, would be interested to hear how the band might arrange it if they didn’t have the string tracks. Could the electric guitar take over the rhythmic harmony parts, with a keyboard doing some of the midrange riffs during the verses? Do I really want to get an album to hear a live track that could almost be a studio track with added crowd noise? (I know it’s a free download, but I’m talking about the principle here…)

Most of the tracks fit this bill, including “Glass Of Water,” “42,” and “Clocks”–the main difference is slight differences or added flourishes in the vocals–and the tracks that are different are the ones that stand out. “Strawberry Swing,” perhaps the song I underestimated the most on Viva La Vida, is basically the same instrumentally, but Martin changes some of the lyrics slightly (and they make more of an emotional impact in their changed form). It was exciting, listening through LeftRightLeftRightLeft for the first time, to hear the different lyrics–”that wasn’t how it was on the last record!” “The Hardest Part” is also interesting–Martin performs it solo on piano, so although the melody and lyrics are basically the same, it has a different accompaniment (and is also made into a medley with the instrumental track “Postcards From Far Away”).

Of course, these thoughts haven’t kept me from listening to the album nonstop for a week or two. But it’s interesting to me that a band as musically genius as Coldplay would not only play songs live the same way they appear on the album, but also release a live record of songs as they appear on the album. What are your thoughts?

P.S. For some reason, over the past few days TLB has been absolutely deluged with spam (in the space of two or three days I’ve gotten as many spam comments as I’ve gotten legitimate comments over the entire history of the blog). In the process of vehemently deleting the spam comments, I also deleted a few legitimate comments, back to April 20th–including the first comment on the redesigned site, which was from Idhrendur. So, even though the comment itself no longer exists, I can still commemorate his great achievement here in this post. I’ve installed the Akismet plugin, which has eliminated all the spam thus far, so hopefully this won’t be a problem again. And if I deleted your comment–you should just leave another one!



Posted by AJ Harbison at 5:23 pm

Thanks to Seán Dunnahoe for the tipoff to this…. Nothing too profound here, but it’s a lot of fun. Cookie Monster on xylophone and a pink gorilla on standup bass, plus a chicken on banjo in the second video, playing “novelty ragtime music from the 1920s” (http://www.myspace.com/xylopholks).

Seán’s wife’s comment: “Cookie Monster should definitely eat his mallets at the end of every set. Expensive, yet effective.”


Spill – Kinetic Music

Posted by AJ Harbison at 9:46 pm

While researching something completely unrelated last week, I ran across this video on YouTube. It’s a live performance of a piece called Spill, composed by one Erik Griswold, and it’s very intriguing. It consists of a swinging pendulum that also acts as a funnel, slowly pouring thousands and thousands of rice grains onto the ground as it moves back and forth. The performer then places things like bowls and sheets of paper beneath the funnel, creating different timbres and sometimes pitches as the rice pours over them. It’s strangely mesmerizing. What do you think? Is this music? It’s certainly organized and orderly, and more aesthetically pleasing than, say, this piece of John Cage’s. You can check out the website of the performer and composer at http://www.clockedout.org.

What I really want to know is: Who gets to clean up the mess afterwards? And is that considered part of the performance?


Susan Boyle on "Britain's Got Talent"

Posted by AJ Harbison at 3:59 pm

I’m sure by now many of my readers have seen the headlines, and maybe even watched the video, but I thought for those few who may have not I’d post this. Five days ago, on the reality show “Britain’s Got Talent,” a frumpy-looking, middle-aged Scottish woman who lives alone with her cat and admitted she’d never been kissed came to the stage to sing. Simon Cowell (one of the judges of that show as well as “American Idol”) and the entire audience were skeptical of her; but when the music for “I Dreamed A Dream” from Les Miserables began and she started to sing, their laughter was changed to surprise, thunderous roars of applause and even tears. (If you watch the video, there’s a priceless shot of Cowell’s eyebrows going up within the first couple of seconds.) She delivered an amazing performance with a lovely, powerful voice that, over the course of a day or two, has become a huge Internet sensation. The YouTube video has been seen almost twelve and a half million times (a full ten percent of the total views of YouTube’s all-time most watched video, in five days)–and that’s only the full version, never mind the couple million more views of other versions. It’s worth checking out.

You can read an article about the performance (albeit a flowery one) here. Unfortunately, embedding of the YouTube video has been disabled by request; please click here to watch it.

Is she the best singer on reality TV? No. Is she really a good singer? Yeah, she is. Was her performance expectation-shattering and moving? Heck yeah it was.


The piece that I introduced to our friend last weekend is a favorite of mine. It’s a much smaller piece, in length and in scope, than Pärt’s Credo, but it’s a brilliant concept.

I was first exposed to the music of the Norwegian composer Knut Nystedt (born 1915) at Cal State Fullerton; in the University Singers choir, we sang an a cappella piece of his called Be Not Afraid. After a powerful chordal introduction, the bottom three parts (alto, tenor and bass) settled into an almost pop-music-like “groove,” a repeating pattern of chords with a dynamic rhythm, while the sopranos sang the melody over the top of it. I thought that was really cool, so I resolved to research the composer a little more. My choir director gave me another piece of his called O Crux, which is another terrific piece that I should post about sometime. And for Christmas that year, after searching far and wide for it, my mother got me the CD Nystedt: Sacred Choral Music, which includes recordings of both O Crux and the piece at hand: Immortal Bach.

Immortal Bach (1988) is modeled on Bach’s chorale “Komm, süsser Tod” (“Come, Sweet Death”), and is a deconstruction of the piece for a cappella choir. The choir begins by singing the chorale through as it was written (or at least harmonized) by Bach–the original version, consisting of three phrases, each of which have a cadence, or a progression leading to a particular chord, at the end. (The piece is in C minor; the first phrase ends on an E-flat major chord [III], the second on a G major chord [V], and the last, of course, on C minor [i].) Then, the choir sings through each of the three phrases again. But this time, each part moves at a different slow pace through the phrase, so that all of the parts move independently of the others. The result is exquisite, as the parts combine in different ways, the dissonances of the piece are extended and new sonorities are created. At the end of each phrase, all the parts come to rest on the final chord (eventually), there is a pause, and the next phrase begins. It’s incredibly simple, but incredibly beautiful as well.

I’ve seen two performances of the piece, both of which included a unique element. The first (by the John Alexander Singers of the Pacific Chorale) was performed in “surround sound,” with the 24 singers arranged around the audience. I believe this is how the score dictates that it should be performed (I tried for a long time to find a copy of the score viewable online, because I’d like to see what it looks like, but my efforts were to no avail). It was a pretty cool effect, but I felt like I couldn’t hear every part as well as I would have liked to. The second performance (by the Chamber Singers of Cal State Fullerton), directed by the same conductor who introduced me to Nystedt (Dr. Robert Istad), used motions to represent visually what was happening in the music. Each of the phrases had a corresponding motion (raising the arms, etc.) that each member of the choir acted out through the course of the phrase, so that at first all of the motions were done in sync. But in the subsequent phrases, each singer moved through the motion at the same rate they moved through the phrase, so you could see how all of the singers were at a different point in the music; but they all came together to the same position as they came together on the chord at the end of each phrase. It was a clever idea, and I enjoyed that performance a great deal.

It may sound cool when I describe it, but of course you really just have to listen to it. Click on the video below to hear a recording by the group Ensemble 96, conducted by Øystein Fevang. Gorgeous.


I was tipped off last month to this video by @foxonthedocks, a Londoner on Twitter who tweets “about classical music recordings, broadcasts and performance. And other stuff.” It’s a video on TED.com, a site that I’ve heard about but successfully avoided till now. Foxonthedocks actually posted a link to the video the day of my wedding, February 22nd, but I just got around to watching it today. The video is a performance by the Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. The site explains that the orchestra “is the national high school age youth orchestra of El Sistema, Venezuela’s groundbreaking, life-changing musical education program. To put this ensemble’s musicianship in context, the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela is the next step for many of these young musicians. That orchestra, containing musicians from 18 to 28 years old, has toured the world with conductor Gustavo Dudamel and has made a number of recordings on Deutsche Grammophon. The Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra is the next level below, and will succeed the Simón Bolívar.” The T.C.Y.O. is conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, a hotshot young conductor (himself a product of El Sistema) who was named recently as Esa-Pekka Salonen’s successor as the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. Although his name is not quite as cool as Esa-Pekka’s (come on, though, how could it be?), he does have the hair to be a great conductor, and even though he’s only 28 he’s probably the world’s hottest conductor right now.

In the video Dudamel conducts the T.C.Y.O. in Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10, 2nd movement, and Arturo Márquez’ Danzón No. 2, with a brief speech in between. The video is 17 minutes long in its entirety, but the Shostakovich is contained within the first five minutes if you don’t have that much time.

If he can make a group of high school students, even one as great as this, sound this good, what do you think he could do with the LA Phil?


Honeymoon Pictures and Twitter

Posted by AJ Harbison at 11:05 pm

Forgive me for not posting in a little while, loyal readers; I’m still getting settled in at the apartment, still enjoying the start of married life and still catching up on things at work. I’ll try to write some interesting posts in the coming weeks. In the meantime, I’ve posted my honeymoon pictures to Facebook, so if you’re interested in seeing them, you can find them at the links below:

Honeymoon in Costa Rica, Part One!

Honeymoon in Costa Rica, Part Two!

(N.B.: You don’t need a Facebook account to see these photo albums.)

And, for those of you who don’t follow me on Twitter, I tried my first live-micro-blogging experiment this past Saturday evening. My lovely wife and I went to see a local songwriter at a local coffee shop, and I twittered from my cell phone throughout the night. It was kinda fun. Happened as follows:

Going to see Amanda O’Brien, local songwriter, at local coffee shop tonight with the wife. I’ll keep you posted. Twitter is fun. . . .
6:51 PM Mar 7th from txt

Nice low, sultry-ish voice and a keyboard (though there’s a guitar standing by). Some of her progressions are really creative. Good so far.
7:30 PM Mar 7th from txt

Guitar was for a “guest appearance” by some guy. Not nearly as good as she is. And he keeps making the amp feed back. Ouch.
7:42 PM Mar 7th from txt

Unfortunately she suffers from a common malady: too simple piano figures, and no high-end (cause her voice and playing are all mid and low).
8:27 PM Mar 7th from txt

Ah, she plays guitar too. I’d guess the keyboard is her primary instrument, though. Her songwriting is better than average for such artists.
3:06 AM Mar 8th from txt [somehow this came in at 3 am, although I actually sent it prior to the final message]

A well-spent evening – I may join her email list (maybe). Better than average, she is; good if not great. Thanks for listening!
9:04 PM Mar 7th from txt

I don’t know if anyone was following my notes, but I had fun posting them. Any readers who are Twitterers out there that I’m not aware of?


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