Posted by AJ Harbison at 9:37 pm

Thanks to my company being so cool, I had the chance to watch part of the inauguration ceremony on Tuesday morning of this week. They set up the big-screen TV in the conference room to stream the video feed; unfortunately it kept hiccuping, the audio and video were out of sync, etc. which was pretty annoying. But I enjoyed the chance to see it regardless.

As you probably know, famed film composer John Williams composed a piece specifically for the inauguration entitled Air and Simple Gifts, based on the famous Appalachian folk melody, and it was performed live by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Itzhak Perlman, pianist Gabriella Montero and clarinetist Anthony McGill. My first thought upon seeing the performers was “They can’t really be playing, it’s way too cold for the instruments to stay in tune!”

You know, turns out I was right. I saw an article on MSN today making that same point. The musicians were in fact performing live, so the people who were close enough to them could hear them playing; but the instruments were not amplified and the music that was broadcast over the speakers at the event and to the millions watching on TV (myself included) had been recorded several days before.

That’s a reasonable decision–really the only reasonable one, if you think about it. The temperature was about 30 degrees, as the article points out, too cold for any of the instruments to play in tune but especially “play[ing] havoc” on the piano. This happens pretty frequently with classical performances in very cold environments, and even the great tenor Luciano Pavarotti famously lip-synced his final performance. I fully support the decision of the musicians at the inauguration, as I imagine any reasonable person who understands the factors involved would. But I find it amusing that the press wants to make a point of revealing this fact. The article can be found at the link below.

“Their performance was live — but music wasn’t”

When I wrote the first draft of this post, I replaced my original text “I find it amusing that the press wants to make it a big deal” with the text of my penultimate sentence above, thinking the word choice of the former was too strong. But several hours later, the article made it to a more prominent place on MSN’s front page and also added a reader poll, entitled “Vote: Bad Choice?” So now I return to my original thought. It’s ridiculous that the press is making such a big deal out of it. The actual question on the poll is practically incriminating: “Was it wrong to ‘fake’ music at the presidential inauguration?” Fortunately, 68.2% of the people who voted in the poll voted no. But some of the responses (you can comment as well as vote in the poll) are rather amusing in themselves; one person who voted yes commented “Just more smoke & mirrors from the obamamite camp.” The third option in the poll (besides “yes, it was wrong to fool the masses” and “no, who cares, it sounded good”) is “Maybe. If this is how the administration starts out …”, and one of the readers who voted that option also commented “i’m not at all surprise if it was recorded, everything sorrounding the obama campain has been stained with deceitfulness” [sic]. As if Obama or his “obamamite camp” or “campain” had anything to do with the performance (whatever the heck they are). Doesn’t anyone have any common sense anymore?


Wedding Music, Part 3: Recessional

Posted by AJ Harbison at 8:01 pm

One of my favorite TV shows is House, a medical version of a Sherlock Holmes mystery: “House solves mysteries where the villain is a medical malady and the hero is an irreverent, controversial doctor who trusts no one, least of all his patients.” It’s now in its fifth season, but since I’m watching it on DVD and very slowly, my lovely fiancée and I are only in season two. One of my favorite episodes, which was the fourteenth episode of season one, is “Control,” in which House, by questionable ethical means, saves a young CEO who has destroyed her heart by ipecac self-poisoning and bulimia. I don’t think I agree with his decision in the episode, but despite that disagreement the episode is very well-written and the ending is one of the most satisfying that I’ve seen yet on the show. After his final conversation with the patient, House returns to his office and begins playing “Baba O’Riley” by The Who over his iPod speakers. The song has an awesome intro, and the feeling of triumph is unmistakable. (You can watch the whole episode for free, albeit in low quality and with Spanish subtitles, here. If you’d like to skip to the last scene, start playing the video and then click around in the timer bar until you get to about the 38’30″ mark. If you really trust me on this one and want to watch the whole episode on Amazon for $1.99, click here. You can listen to the entirety of “Baba O’Riley” for free, courtesy of our good friend Last.fm, here.)

As I’ve mentioned, I really love this episode and I really love the way the song is used to evoke elation in the watcher/listener. So, a few days ago I got an idea for the recessional for my wedding. (As I wrote before, I’m going to be writing all the music for my wedding ceremony.) The piano would start by “fading in” with a high ostinato repeating pattern, perhaps based on the keyboard intro to “Baba O’Riley” but not the same. The anticipation builds as the pattern continues and the pastor says: “I present to you, for the first time, Mr. and Mrs. AJ Harbison!” at which point I give a quick conducting cue beat and the pianist crashes down on low octaves in the left hand–the same notes and rhythm as in the song. (Believe it or not, Eleanor actually really likes the conducting cue idea.) Hey, satisfaction, elation and triumph all count at the culmination of the wedding ceremony, right? I think it’ll make a rocking recessional. And I can’t wait to give that cue–more fun than a composer should be allowed to have!


My Speakers Live!

Posted by AJ Harbison at 3:12 am

Earlier this year, I acquired a pair of Pioneer CS-G404 speakers for 40 bucks at a garage sale in Redlands. I brought them down a month or so after moving into my apartment in Irvine in June, but I didn’t know how to hook them up so they just sat there looking imposing (they’re each about 2.5 feet tall and 1.5 feet wide) for a long time.

I took a trip to RadioShack two months or so ago, and asked them how to hook the speakers up to our HDTV, cable receiver box and DVD player. Note to self: Go to RadioShack for purchases, not advice. The associate who helped me steered me in several wrong directions and I ended up with a bunch of cables–complicated cables that involved me putting them together, no less–that did absolutely nothing to make my speakers work.

Ryan Fleming, who is one of my best commenters on this blog, finally came over one night with an audio receiver/amplifier that he owned, and proved that my speakers did in fact work. Turns out that the TV by itself doesn’t have enough energy to power the speakers; you need another device (i.e. the receiver) to amplify the signal and power the speakers themselves. This led to another long lull in the story, as I didn’t want to put forward the money to purchase a receiver for myself (I had other big purchases in mind at the time, like a diamond ring) and I was kinda waiting on someone else who maybe might perhaps be able to provide me with a free one.

But in the end, my roommate and best-man-to-be Mike Morabito came through–or rather, his brother did. He and his brother both used to do quite a bit of DJing, and receivers are very important in that line of work as well as in the TV-to-speakers line. So randomly a few nights ago, Mike’s brother asks him, “Hey dude, do you want this receiver?” So Mike took the receiver and brought it back to our apartment. After a bit of fiddling around with it on Wednesday night, I discovered that all I needed was to leave everything connected as it currently was–and then simply run an RCA cable out from the TV into the receiver, and then run speaker wire from the receiver to each of the speakers. And it came to pass that I did so; and it came to pass that my speakers woke from their long dormancy to rock my apartment with their excellent sound. So now TV, movies, and music will sound so much better. I can’t wait!


My Favorite Olympic Commercials

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:32 am

And, bringing my Olympic posts to a close:

My favorite commercial during the Olympics–or rather my favorite series of commercials–has been United Airlines’ “It’s Time To Fly” campaign. I’ve seen four of the five commercials in the series at various times, the most prevalent being the one entitled “Two Worlds,” in which a business man from a black-and-white world rises to a fantastic colorful world in the sky, and when he returns, begins to spread color throughout his world. The earliest one I saw, “Sea Orchestra,” employs a very colorful, illustrative-type style to depict an orchestra of various sea creatures heralding a transoceanic flight. The other two I’ve seen, “Butterfly” and “Moondust,” utilize a very fluid sidewalk-chalkesque animation style that I enjoy very much.

All the commercials, however, are notable for their background music: Rhapsody In Blue by the American composer George Gershwin. Gershwin was a jazz musician in the early twentieth century, but he was also an art music composer, and Rhapsody in Blue represents one of the first pieces considered a “crossover” blending jazz and classical music. It has become one of America’s most performed concert works, is instantly recognizable by its famous themes, and all in all is a really cool piece.

This piece forms the background for each of the five commercials in the United campaign (United has been using the piece in commercials since the 1980s), and is featured very prominently as the commercials contain no dialogue and limited narration. Perhaps the commercial drawing the most attention to its soundtrack is the “Sea Orchestra” spot, in which different groups of sea creatures perform the different groups of instruments in the piece. Perhaps I’m biased because of my affinity for Rhapsody in Blue; but I enjoyed the visual art of each of the commercials as well, and they’ve been the best spots I’ve seen in the three weeks of the Games.

You can see the commercials by following this link to United’s website; click on “Commercials,” then mouse over the small thumbnail picture to expose all the individual commercials. You can also see “behind the scenes” material for each one; the “Music Sketch” PDF file for “Sea Creatures” is pretty interesting.


The Star-Spangled Banner In Beijing

Posted by AJ Harbison at 1:00 am

As post number two of three in my Olympic series, I wanted to point out that in watching the Olympics on NBC this year–probably more television than I’ve watched in the past two years combined–I’ve noticed two distinctly different arrangements of the American national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner.

This news story from the official Beijing Games website details the delivery of national anthem recordings to “BOCOG,” an acronym (somehow) for “The Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad.” The Beijing Symphony Orchestra, representative music ensemble for the host city, recorded the national anthems of all participating countries (a huge and daunting project that began in May 2007) for welcoming and victory ceremonies–presumably including ours. (Meaning no offense to any TLB readers outside America; but I don’t think there are any of those, as of yet…)

The arrangement of the anthem is typically done in a fanfare-type style, using lots of brass and percussion. But the arrangement that I’ve heard the most is notable because the middle section (“And the rockets’ red glare…”) is played only by the strings, and uses harmonic progressions I’ve never heard used before. It also contains an atypical (but cool-sounding) 4-2-3 suspension on the last chord. It’s not bad, per se (although the “actual expert” quoted in this Seattle Times blog story certainly thinks it is), but it’s certainly unusual.

The most interesting thing, though, is not that arrangement, but the fact that I’ve also heard a more traditional arrangement in which the middle section was played by the brass and the rest of the orchestra, with the typical chord progression. I don’t remember the specific context in which I heard it, but I’m almost positive that I heard both arrangements at medal ceremonies.

While trying to find online corroboration for this strange phenomenon, I discovered that the unusual arrangement is likely being plagiarized from the arrangement of Peter Breiner, as detailed in this story from the Washington Post. Not surprising, considering all the other various controversies and scandals coming from the Beijing Games, but certainly of interest.

Am I off my musical rocker? Or has anyone else heard these two different versions?


The Olympic Fanfares

Posted by AJ Harbison at 7:00 pm

In honor of the final weekend and close of the Games of the XXIXth Olympiad, I’ll be posting three TLB entries over the next few days concerning the Olympics and their televised coverage by NBC.

There are actually two common fanfares used as themes for the Olympics. The first, entitled “Bugler’s Dream,” was composed by Leo Arnaud in 1958 as part of his Charge Suite. It was first used in ABC’s television coverage of the Olympics in Mexico City in 1968, and picked up subsequently by NBC. “Bugler’s Dream” is a stately march, beginning with a timpani cadence and moving into a theme played by the brass.

The second fanfare, entitled more specifically “Olympic Fanfare and Theme,” was composed by none other than the great film composer John Williams specifically for the 1984 games in Los Angeles (which were televised then by NBC). It is a fast and energetic fanfare also utilizing a lot of brass and percussion, and it is sometimes combined with Arnaud’s piece, as in the arrangement for the soundtrack album of the Games in Atlanta in 1996.

In addition to these familiar fanfares, there is also an official Olympic Hymn, known informally as the Olympic Anthem, composed for the first modern Olympics in 1896 and adopted as the official Olympic anthem by the International Olympic Committee in 1958. Up until the 1960 Games in Rome, it was customary for each host nation to commission a new Olympic hymn from a native composer for their year. I assume that this practice was discontinued since the official hymn was adopted around that time; but perhaps it should be reinstated. How cool would that be, to compose an Olympic hymn for your own country? I could be the Michael Phelps of composers….

Samples of each fanfare can be heard on the Wikipedia page; as always on Wikipedia, click the triangular play button twice. A YouTube vide of the Olympic Hymn, performed at the Opening Ceremony of the Athens Games in 2004, can be found here.


Alias Ends in B-flat Major

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:10 am

I used to watch the TV show Alias on a weekly basis, but that weekly routine was interrupted by going off to college, where I lived in a dorm and had no TV reception. I recently watched the final season (Season 5) in its entirety on DVD with some friends–the first time I’d seen it. The series finale, “All The Time In The World,” was more or less satisfying in terms of storyline resolutions, etc. I certainly enjoyed it. And the musical end of the series was appropriate, to my mind: a B-flat major chord in the strings, with the third on top. When you think about it, that’s the only way you could really end a dramatic series–a minor chord wouldn’t fit with the story’s “happy ending,” and anything other than the third on top would be less fulfilling. The only other possibility I envision would be ending on a unison, which would be satisfying but not as rich-feeling (for obvious harmonic reasons). I enjoyed the plagal cadence, as well: an E-flat major chord (I think also with the third on top) preceded the final chord.

My friends and I watched all the bonus features on the DVD, one of which (the most interesting to me, apart from the blooper reel) was “Heightening the Drama: The Music of Alias.” The composer for the entire series was Michael Giacchino, who was tapped by J.J. Abrams (Alias’ creator and executive producer) to score his show after being impressed with Giacchino’s score for the video game Medal of Honor. In the interviews, Giacchino talked about how the music for Alias in the beginning used heavy techno beats over orchestral scoring, but as the series became more about character development as opposed to simply action, the scoring developed as well. By the end of the series (as was in evidence in the Season 5 episodes I watched), the score was almost exclusively orchestral. And his orchestra was an interesting one: a normal-sized string section, four horns, bassoon, alto flute, and percussion. Minimal, but used to striking effect. I like the idea of a self-imposed limit on one’s palette of colors; in some ways it makes things simpler because there are fewer options, but in other ways I imagine it makes things more difficult by forcing one to use only what one has to express all one’s ideas. I’ll have to try it someday.

(I have to confess that I was pretty proud of the whole knowing-it-was-B-flat thing. I announced to my friends that it was a B-flat major chord–they didn’t care, of course–and when we rewound it briefly to watch the final scene again, I sang the B-flat and ran over to the other room to check it on my friend’s keyboard. And I was right.)