04.13.2010

Tragedy and Comedy

Posted by AJ Harbison at 10:31 am

Last week my lovely wife and I completed the deal that we’d made a while back, that I would watch the 6 hour BBC version of Pride and Prejudice with her if she watched all three Matrix movies with me. The double wedding at the end of Pride and Prejudice reminded me of a simple, generalized classification system I’d heard of for Shakespeare’s plays: if everyone dies at the end, it’s a tragedy, and if everyone gets married at the end, it’s a comedy. My thought on the subject was also influenced by a book I read recently, Frederick Buechner’s Telling The Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale. Among many other excellent insights, he describes tragedy as the inevitable–what we expect to happen, happens; and comedy as the unexpected–what we didn’t expect to happen happens. This complements the Shakespearean idea, I think: we expect that Hamlet will destroy himself and everyone else, and he does; we don’t expect Beatrice and Benedick to end up together, but they do. (Of course, now we’ve come to expect that two people who quarrel in a comedy will end up together, but I think it’s only because we’ve been culturally conditioned as a society to expect it. It still creates dramatic conflict, though, so I would say it’s still valid to think of it from an objective standpoint as being unexpected.)

Although my creative art of choice is music, I enjoy all other forms of art as well, particularly visual art (not least because my lovely wife is an illustrator and painter). And as a lover of all the arts, I’m continually exploring ways to apply concepts I appreciate in other arts—such as symbolism, imagery and negative space—to music. I recently finished composing a piece (which I may post about later in more detail) about the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage. One of the symbols of the pilgrimage is a scallop shell:

and the modern symbol of the way is a representation that looks like this:

One of the ideas behind this symbol is that of many people coming from different starting points but converging upon one destination. So in trying to depict that idea musically, I have each of the eight parts play the same theme–but they enter at different times and play it at different rates. Each instrument takes the same pilgrimage, so to speak, but in its own unique way, just as individuals on a journey would. And a good deal of interest and conflict is created in the way that the parts interact as they play the same theme in different ways. But then in the end every part converges into a unison note.

So I’m always looking for ways like that to incorporate aspects of other types of art into my music. And I love this idea of tragedy and comedy–of the sadness of tragedy being what is expected, and the joy of comedy being what is unexpected. But I wonder how to portray that musically?

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12.18.2009

La Moustache Score

Posted by AJ Harbison at 5:10 pm

A few nights ago my lovely wife and I watched La Moustache, a French movie with English subtitles that she had heard about somewhere. It’s a story about a man who shaves his mustache on a whim, but is then baffled when his wife and friends don’t notice–and then is more baffled still when they insist he’s never had a mustache. We weren’t sure whether it was a comedy or a drama–since it seems like that premise could go either way–but it turned out to be a mysterious drama which was kind of frustrating because it never explained all the weird happenings in the movie. I don’t mind ambiguous endings, in general, but it never even tried to explain the increasingly strange things that kept happening. And the hilarious part was that in the special features, even the lead actress admitted she had no idea what was happening in “the mustache story,” and even the director himself said he didn’t really know what was going on. Weird.

But in any case, the music for the film was interesting. There was really only one piece that was used throughout the film, and really only two sections of the piece. The main part that was used consisted of repeated chords and arpeggiated figures in the strings. It had a haunting, ominous quality to it, so it was used effectively in situations that required that feeling; but it seemed a little repetitive by the end. As we watched the credits, I discovered that the piece was the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra by Philip Glass, one of the most successful modern American composers. The piece is from 1987 and is a good example of his tonal, repetitive, and minimal style. And it worked, more or less, as the only score in La Moustache.

You can listen to clips of Concerto for Violin and Orchestra by clicking here and then clicking the “listen/watch” button on the left side of the page. Then click on “Violin Concerto” in the second list that pops up.

P.S. I’m sure most, if not all of my TLB readers have heard this news through other channels (email, website, Facebook, Twitter…), but just in case you haven’t: I’m going to be releasing a new recording of an original Christmas song, called “Paradoxology,” this Christmas Eve 12/24/2009. It’ll be my first released recording in four years–the first since my album Following A Star was finished, on Christmas Eve of 2005. You’ll be able to download “Paradoxology” from my website, for free, next Thursday. So check it out! http://www.ajharbison.com

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12.06.2009

Published!

Posted by AJ Harbison at 7:54 pm

I’m very excited to announce that I am now a published composer! Kallisti Music Press in Philadelphia has published an art song of mine that I wrote last year. Head over to http://www.ajharbison.com for the full story!

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11.11.2009

Songs From My Shelf Update

Posted by AJ Harbison at 6:39 pm

Good news, my friends and fans: I’ve started recording for my upcoming album Songs From My Shelf! It started last week with some guitar and vocal tracking for “Too Far.” I’ve been busy with lots of different things and I haven’t gotten “too far” along yet (ha ha), but I’m already very excited about this record and I can’t wait to share it with you all. Unfortunately it looks like the release date will be pushed out to early next year, rather than the end of this year as I’d originally hoped. But I’ll get it done as soon as I can so you can all hear it!

There are several ways you can stay updated on the progress of Songs From My Shelf, if you’re so inclined:

That’s all for now! Keep tracking with me using one or more of these methods, and I’ll make sure you’re in the loop as I make progress on the record. And thanks for all your continued support!

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05.26.2009

One year ago, on this date and at this time, TLB was born! So raise a glass of your favorite wine or champagne and toast to your favorite listening blog!

As you can see, I finished the redesign just in time. All your favorite features are still here–subscriptions via RSS and email, the Amazon widget (although it looks a little funny right now), post tag categories–but it’s packaged in a brand-new look (and the Twitter widget is much fancier now). I’m loving the new digs at WordPress as well. I’ll be making some tweaks here and there, but for the most part, this is how TLB will look from now on. Leave a comment and let me know what you think!

And now, for the big announcement I promised two and a half weeks ago! Drum roll please….

I’m going to be recording a new pop music album!

That’s right folks, for the first time since the release of Following A Star in 2005, I will be writing and recording a new CD. I have a collection of new songs, and a few old songs I want to rerecord, that have been sitting around for a long time; and now that I have new (and much better) recording technology and a renewed passion, I’m gonna do it. I’ll be writing some new songs for it as well, and my goal is to release it by the end of this year.

And that’s not all! You, my loyal readers and fans, can play a part in the making of this album. And here’s how: The CD will be entitled Songs From My Shelf, so-called because every song on the CD will contain at least one literary allusion–to a novel, a poem, etc. And as I mentioned above, it’s going to have at least a few rerecordings of old songs on it. So here’s how you can participate: Vote for your favorite previously-recorded song from the list below. The song or two with the most votes will get a brand-new recording and will make it onto the album!

And even that’s not all! The first five people who can correctly identify at least one literary allusion in each of the songs below will receive a free copy of Songs From My Shelf along with an exclusive bonus song.

So let’s recap:

  1. I’m making a new album!
  2. You can participate by voting for your favorite song to get a new recording and a place on the new album!
  3. If you correctly identify at least one literary allusion in each of the songs below, you’ll get a free copy of the CD with a bonus song!

If you need a refresher on the music or lyrics for the songs, click on the title to be taken to the song’s page on my website. Then click the link after the list to be taken to the voting page!

“All I Need”

“The Aisle”

“Beren’s Song”

“Too Far”

“Watchin’ From A Distance”

And now that you’ve refreshed your memory, click to vote here!

Thanks for your interest and support! I’m really excited about making this new record, and I can’t wait for you to hear it. Stay tuned to your favorite listening blog–further news will be forthcoming!

EDIT (5/27): All the old Blogger posts have now been imported, complete with their labels/tags/categories! Some of the links may not work anymore (since the URL path for links to other posts is different now), and it looks like embedded videos show up simply as links; but all the content is there now. Rock on!

EDIT (later on 5/27): I’ve reconfigured the RSS feed link in the sidebar. If you’ve previously subscribed to the RSS feed, you might need to subscribe again since the address has changed, and the past TLB RSS feed no longer works. Sorry for any inconvenience!

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05.13.2009

Agnus Dei, AJ Harbison

Posted by AJ Harbison at 7:10 pm

At my church, every Sunday morning we follow a set liturgy or order of service–the prayers, songs and Scripture readings change, but the structure of the service is always the same. Early in the service, there’s a time of confession where the congregation reads a prayer aloud, and then prays in silence for 45 seconds. Following this we sing the “Agnus Dei,” a traditional liturgical text originally used in the Catholic Mass: “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us / Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us / Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, grant us peace.” The Agnus Dei that we sing every week was composed by a member of the church, David Hlebo, who is a composer and musician who plays sax and flute on the church’s worship team. The Agnus Dei that he wrote is amazing. It’s very simple, and probably most lay people would think it adequate but unremarkable; but from a compositional standpoint, it comes close to technical perfection, and it works really well at the point in the service when it’s used.

After becoming a member of the church myself, I thought it would be fun to try to compose another Agnus Dei that could alternate with Hlebo’s version. (I suggested this to the pastor, and he was all for the idea, since he said “We’ve sung the same song every week for the past seven years”). It took me a long time to come up with a good idea, because Hlebo’s version was so ingrained in my head and so good–most of my early thoughts were far too similar to his. But eventually I came up with a melody and chord progression I was happy with.

My Agnus Dei is in 6/8 time, in C minor. Since the piece is for congregational singing, I wanted it to be a simple, almost folk-like melody that would be easy to catch onto quickly; and since it’s intended for use in the confessional part of the service, I wanted it to be solemn and reverent without being too slow or boring. I wrote along with the melody a suggested piano accompaniment; it’s not too exciting, but it has some cool moments and it helps to give the piece some movement and energy. At the moment I don’t have the ability to record the piano part, but in the future I will, and I’ll let you know when that happens. In the meantime, you can head over to the Agnus Dei page on my website to listen to a scratch recording with guitar. Leave a comment here and let me know what you think!

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05.07.2009

Christmas In May

Posted by AJ Harbison at 9:54 pm

I had a dream as I was lying in bed this morning that it was the Christmas season; and in my dream it was the first day that they started playing Christmas music 24/7 in stores, restaurants, etc. I like Christmas music a lot. There are a great deal of good Christmas songs, both sacred and secular, and while there are innumerable bad versions of them, there are also many creative and excellent ones. And I love the feel of Christmas that holiday music injects into the atmosphere. One of the sure signs Christmas was coming when I was growing up was when my mother would start to cycle through her Christmas CDs on the living room stereo (including an amazing CD by Robert Shaw, which I don’t seem to remember well enough to be able to find on the internet); we didn’t often have music playing in the house, but Christmas music was a sine qua non of the holiday season for me.

All of that as a brief aside to say: I’ve decided to enter the Welcome Christmas Carol Contest this year. It’s an annual composition contest, sponsored by the American Composers Forum of which I am a member, that asks composers to write new carols using a different given instrumentation each year; this year it’s for mixed chorus and viola. The text can be “sacred or secular, medieval to present, appropriate for concert setting,” and I decided to ask my brother to write a new Christmas text because I think he’d be good at that sort of thing, and he accepted.

Should be a lot of fun! I’ll keep you posted as we make progress on our new Christmas carol.

P.S. TLB is nearing its first birthday! I can hardly believe it’s been that long already. And as we near May 26th, there are some changes in the works. I’m contemplating a redesign of the site to make it look a little more professional, and also a move from Blogger to WordPress (thanks to Mike’s persistent suggestions). I’m also planning to make a big announcement here on May 26th–so stay tuned!

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04.08.2009

Two Exciting Opportunities–My Record: 1-1

Posted by AJ Harbison at 10:47 pm

I wanted to give you all a brief update on the two exciting opportunities I wrote about two weeks ago, one involving a string quartet from Arizona interested in my piece P.S.Q. and the other involving starting a choir at my church.

Unfortunately, the leadership of the church wasn’t interested in the choir concept I’d come up with and didn’t think it fit with their vision and direction, so there went that idea. However, I’ve had much better success with Quartet Sabaku. My contact in the group told me that they read through the first movement (based on Maroon 5′s song “Harder To Breathe”) and loved it, but they were really busy and were hoping to finalize next season’s repertoire in a few months. So that was a great start, if nothing concrete. But I got another email from her on Monday and she informed me that they were going to be using my piece for an educational workshop on April 17th. I’m not sure exactly what the workshop is about, but that was rather exciting in and of itself–and seems to up the chances of landing the piece in their next performing season. I’ll keep you posted on further developments!

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03.25.2009

Two Exciting Opportunities

Posted by AJ Harbison at 11:49 pm

I’ve come across two exciting opportunities for myself and my music over the last two days. The first came in the form of an email from a woman named Katie Shields, who is the violist in Quartet Sabaku, a string quartet based in Arizona. Apparently she saw my profile on the American Composers Forum website and then either did a Google search on my name or followed the link on the profile to my website. She said in the email that she loved my YouTube video (a fun project I did for Campus Crusade in 2004, which you can see here), and asked to hear or see any music I might have for string quartet, string trio or violin/viola solo. I emailed her back last night and gave her the score to P.S.Q., a string quartet I wrote at Cal State Fullerton that uses atonal pitch material but rhythms, articulations and forms from pop music to transform the string quartet into an avant-garde rock band. It’s never been performed (never well, at least), and I’m excited about the opportunity to possibly get it performed and get connected with an ensemble. And it’s even cooler that the ensemble actually sought me out on its own.

The second exciting opportunity has been brewing in my mind for some time, but was set into motion today. I met for lunch this afternoon with the worship director at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, the church where my lovely wife and I are members, to discuss the possibility of putting a choir together that I would lead. Redeemer is a church that places a great deal of emphasis on culture and art, and I think a choir would fit right in and add another level of depth to an already profound liturgy. When I was at Cal State Fullerton, I took two choral conducting classes with Rob Istad, and they were terrific; I picked it up quickly, though it was also challenging, and it was a heck of a lot of fun. So, in addition to enhancing the worship experience at Redeemer, it would also be a great opportunity for me to try my hand at conducting and leading a choral ensemble. We would probably start with just a hymn, singing it in four-part harmony (which sounds cool even if it’s just what’s written on the page), and if that worked well we might move on to more interesting choral repertoire. Eventually it might even become an ensemble I could compose for. I’m really stoked on the idea; the worship director will be talking to the pastors and the Session and presenting it to them, and if they give the go-ahead we’ll get started! I’ll keep you all posted….

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02.24.2009

Synesthesia: Seeing Sound

Posted by AJ Harbison at 3:14 am

I found a news link on CNN.com last week about synesthesia, a mental disorder that mixes sensory experiences. The most common form and the easiest to diagnose is when someone hears music or sounds and simultaneously sees colors. The article’s opening paragraph says this: “When Julian Asher listens to an orchestra, he doesn’t just hear music; he also sees it. The sounds of a violin make him see a rich burgundy color, shiny and fluid like a red wine, while a cello’s music flows like honey in a golden yellow hue.”

“Seeing color in sounds has genetic link”

Vladimir Nabokov, the author of “Lolita,” famously had this condition, which the study in the article has linked to genetics. There have also been a number of famous composers who had the disorder, notably Franz Lizst, Olivier Messiaen, György Ligeti, and (particularly) Alexander Scriabin. The linked Wikipedia article sheds doubt on the fact that Scriabin actually had the disorder, although he is known for associating colors with notes and keys. In his work Prometheus: The Poem Of Fire, composed in 1910, he actually wrote a part for a “color organ” which projected colors during the performance.

Since I was young, I’ve associated colors with keys as well (although I certainly don’t have synesthesia), but my associations are completely different from Scriabin’s. The Wikipedia article mentions a conversation between Scriabin and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: “Both maintained that the key of D major was golden-brown; but Scriabin linked E-flat major with red-purple, while Rimsky-Korsakov favored blue.” These all sound foreign to my color sense. This is how I’ve always thought:

C major: yellow (the color of light)
D major and D minor: deep blue
E-flat major: orange
E major and E minor: orange
F major: green
G major: light blue
A-flat major: red
A major and A minor: red

(Obviously it’s an incomplete list. I’ve never taken the time or had the inclination to sit down and work out a system, the way Scriabin did; these are just the particular keys that have always struck me in particular ways.)

Thus you may see the connection in the bridal processional I wrote for my wedding, where C major represented purity and innocence and A major represented passion.

It’s certainly an interesting topic. Any readers out there with synesthesia that would care to weigh in?

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