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.


I’m surprised, upon a quick look back over TLB, that I’ve never posted about Derek Webb before and I’ve only mentioned him a few times in passing, since he’s one of my favorite songwriters. That makes it ironic, too, I guess, that this first time I post about his music, he won’t be the focus. Ah well.

After listening multiple times through The Book of Secrets this past week in my car, I switched it out for Mockingbird, Derek Webb’s fourth solo album, since I realized I hadn’t listened to anything of his for a while. Each one of his solo albums is in a completely different style than the others, and this one has a stripped-down, simple, house-recorded feel to it (I guess because it is all of those things). In recording the album, the band did very few overdubs (recording multiple times through a song on the same instrument, or a similar one), resulting in simple instrumentation and little reworking or extra production. It’s not a sound I could listen to all the time, but I do enjoy it on this album.

What caught my attention this time through, as it has several times before, is the piano playing by Cason Cooley. On Derek Webb’s previous album I See Things Upside Down, Cooley mostly played keyboards that did a bunch of crazy things, but on Mockingbird it’s almost all straight piano. What I love about his playing is that oftentimes it’s very simple, almost too simple, and yet with a few notes he’s able to create a memorable riff or accompaniment pattern that fits perfectly with the style of the song. On track two, “A New Law,” the piano provides the primary motion of the harmonic accompaniment as well as the main riff of the song–and all Cooley is doing is arpeggiating root position triads in a certain way. For “A King & A Kingdom” (track three), he does the same thing with even fewer notes: he starts by playing a held octave, then a major seventh (moving the bottom note of the octave up a half step), then a few descending notes before returning to the octave. Incredibly simple, yet along with the drums it sets the mood for the whole song. And his playing is in a similar vein all throughout the album. The Romantic composer Johannes Brahms once said, “It is not hard to compose, but what is fabulously hard is to leave the superfluous notes under the table.” Cooley is a performer who knows how to leave the superfluous notes behind and make the most of the ones he keeps. I wish I could play so well.

You can listen to “A New Law” and “A King & A Kingdom” courtesy of Last.fm by visiting their respective links and clicking on the black play button in the player on the right side of the page.


The Book of Secrets, Loreena McKennitt

Posted by AJ Harbison at 4:24 am

Among the smaller of the many benefits of marriage I’m enjoying is access to my wife’s music collection. This past week I’ve been listening to a CD of hers entitled The Book of Secrets, by Canadian songstress Loreena McKennitt. I posted a tweet on my Twitter page about listening to her music on Sunday night, although I misspelled her first name; I classified her style as “traditional Irish music with a New Agish twist.” McKennitt’s website describes her music as “eclectic Celtic,” while her Wikipedia article notes that her music “has generally been classified as World / Celtic music even though it contains aspects and characteristics of music from around the globe and is sometimes classified as Folk music in record stores.”

I’ve enjoyed the CD a great deal this week. The Celtic influence is certainly the strongest, yielding such things as traditional Irish instruments like the fiddle, pennywhistle and ethnic percussion, and songs that are often in natural minor (e.g. D natural minor: D, E, F, G, A, B-flat, C-natural, D). There is also Middle Eastern influence in some of the rhythms and other stringed instruments. But she also uses synths and atmospherics to lend her music a timeless, mystical feel. There are plenty of people who create hacked Celtic music nowadays, but McKennitt stands above the fray with a high-quality and eminently listenable product. I’ve noticed that a lot of the music on The Book of Secrets is pretty repetitious–a progression and melody line will often repeat four times without any variation–but that also adds somewhat to the mystical quality of the music.

Apparently, McKennitt is self-managed, self-produced, and the head of her own record label (called Quinlan Road) which has released all twelve of her albums (The Book of Secrets falls right in the middle of her discography, released in 1997). She’s written original music for several Shakespeare productions in Canada, as well as contributing songs to Hollywood feature films (Highlander III and The Santa Clause) and TV soundtracks (TNT’s miniseries The Mists Of Avalon, Due South, and Northern Exposure). A pretty impressive CV.

Eleanor has several other McKennitt CDs in her collection, besides The Book of Secrets. I have a feeling I’ll be checking them out soon.


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….


Nothing New Under The Sun

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:01 am

My lovely wife was in the kitchen the other day, and she hummed a short bit of a tune. I happened to be nearby, and, as I often do, asked her what it was she was humming– it sounded to me like “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” (the Christmas carol). She hesitated, so I next asked if it was from a song from Phantom Of The Opera–I can’t remember what song it’s from, but there was a part of a song (a bridge, I think) that sounded the same as the opening line of the carol. She said no, it was neither one of those; she’d actually just been humming without having any particular song in mind. We also determined that the folk song “My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean” also starts with the same melody line. So she was either humming something original, or three different songs all at the same time.

“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’? It has been already in the ages before us.” Ecclesiastes 1:9-11


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?


I'm Back!

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:09 am

Greetings, loyal readers–I have returned! My lovely wife (woohoo!) and I got back from an amazing honeymoon at the Doubletree Resort in Puntarenas, Costa Rica, on Sunday; we had Monday and Tuesday off of work and were able to open our wedding gifts and cards, buy a few gifts we hadn’t received and generally settle in to our new apartment in Costa Mesa (sounds similar, but is actually quite different). I have yet to import and organize all the pictures we took, but once I do I’ll let you know, for anyone who’s interested in seeing them.

Not much to post on at this point. My wife and I signed up on Monday for Netflix, an online movie rental service, so you can expect to start seeing a few more score reviews here at TLB. They may end up as brief 140-character reviews on Twitter, too, though, so be sure you’re following me there as well. Our first rental, since I was reading Shakespeare’s play Hamlet on our honeymoon, is Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet from 1948. The score is by William Walton, an English composer who wrote a really cool oratorio I sang at Cal State Fullerton entitled Belshazzar’s Feast. I’ve seen this film version of Hamlet once before, but I don’t remember much about the score. Stay tuned to Twitter later tonight….

I feel as if I’m in danger of making TLB into a Coldplay fan site, since I post about them so frequently; but at the risk of seeming so, I have one more note to make before I sign off for now (although I still do want to do a week’s worth of posts on Prospekt’s March sometime soon as well). It appears that Coldplay has posted a complete discography on their website, including 60-second audio clips of every song and (most exciting for me) band-approved lyrics. If you’re interested, you can check it out here.

Farewell for tonight–it’s good to be back; look for some new posts coming up soon!


The World's Most Unwanted Song

Posted by AJ Harbison at 8:50 pm

Last week I came across this website that looked intriguing (I can’t remember how I got there). Apparently some scientists and artists did a research study to determine the least desirable qualities of songs, and put them all together to create “the world’s most unwanted song,” supposedly one that “fewer than 200 individuals of the world’s total population will enjoy.” (For all you math fans, that’s 0.00000296% of the population of the world.) The song features a length of over 25 minutes, instrumentation including accordion, banjo and bagpipe, and styles ranging from atonal music and rap to advertising jingles and elevator music. I haven’t listened to the song myself yet, but it’s there on the page for you to check out–if you dare.

World’s Most Unwanted Song


Prospekt's March, Coldplay: First Impressions

Posted 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!


A Look At Coldplay In The Studio

Posted by AJ Harbison at 6:39 am

In the News section of Coldplay’s website, they have a blog written anonymously by “Roadie #42″ with updates from tours and time in the studio. The latest post is an interesting look inside their latest stint in the recording studio with Brian Eno. Even if you’re not particularly interested in Coldplay, the blog post is cool because it explains part of the role of a producer in the making of an album (which not too many people understand), and it’s fascinating to be brought into the band’s creative process. It’s well-written too; my favorite passage: “One of my favourite tracks from these sessions comes from a drum loop [drummer Will Champion] brings into the studio early on. It’s like the backing track from Lost! has been struck down with a very heavy fever and has taken off on safari through a surrealist painting.” Check it out!

“Roadie #42 – Blog #66 (#42 is our mole in the studio)”


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