I recently read Virgil Thomson‘s book Music With Words: A Composer’s View, which has as its subject pretty much what you’d expect from the title. I was a little disappointed in the book itself, but he had two passages where he talked about the state of modern composition that I thought were interesting. Here they are:

Symphonic composition, either [in England or America], I have little faith in. And chamber music everywhere is chiefly tolerable today as an experiment in methodology. Writing more solo works for the pianoforte, the organ, the violin, or the cello is looking backward to the masters who by creating for these instruments with so comprehensive a palette actually patented, and exhausted, the gamut of feelings that anybody now living can find urgent in the sound of those instruments. There is still fun to be had with woodwinds maybe, just maybe. And the concert song in English is, I fear, a never-never land from which few invaders bring home booty.

But opera composed in English is still unfinished business, worth working at, and possibly, in view of what has happened since 1930 both in the United Kingdom and with us [in America], possibly alive and certainly wiggling. (page x, in the Preface)

Choral writing goes on busily everywhere with great expertness, with the best intentions, and with enough good musical ideas to keep the choirs a part of the modern-music establishment. Opera writing too goes on apace, though with little sympathy, I must say, from the great houses anywhere except in France, and occasionally in England. But opera is all the same the musical domain where music’s life is least nearly extinct. Symphonic composition? Dead as a doornail. Important piano works? Yes, there are many. Chamber music has still some life in it too, though not much liberty. Musical fun and games, let’s face it, are today in the musical theater. And I don’t mean the theater of dancing, where audiences avid for bodies pay little attention to sound. I mean the singing stage, both popular and classical. In both these domains activity is constant. Should miracles begin to happen there none need be surprised. And not just one miracle but a chain of them, a going-on phenomenon of the kind that happens somewhere in music about every half-century with seemingly no preparation, no reason for it, and no promise in it save for the fact that it does keep going on.

That I should like to see; and indeed I may see it, since it is almost the only door in classical music still ajar. (page 25)

Thomson wrote the book in 1989 (and thus did not live to see the miracles he wrote of, since he died later that year). Now, 22 years later, what do you think? Do you agree with his thoughts on the various genres alive and lifeless in classical music? Were they true at the time? Are they true now? I’ll share my thoughts in a future post, but first I want to hear yours!


I was listening to my iPod at work today, shuffling through my work playlist that contains mostly pop/rock stuff and musical theatre, working along, when suddenly a song struck me dead in my tracks. (Figuratively speaking; though probably “struck my hands,” or “struck my fingers” dead in their tracks would be more truthful, since I work at a computer.) It was a song I hadn’t heard before from a soundtrack I’d recently added to my iPod, and the beauty of the opening made me stop what I was doing, close my eyes for a moment and listen. The song was “Your Daddy’s Son,” from the soundtrack of the musical Ragtime by composer Stephen Flaherty. I’ve never seen the show or heard the soundtrack, so I don’t know anything about the story, but the song is apparently a mother singing to her son about his father who left her. The opening begins only with some thin, high woodwinds, then adds some very quiet percussion and picking guitar as the mother’s voice enters, singing a simple tune only on the sound “ooh.” The song continues with simple scoring of piano, woodwinds, and strings, but picks up with percussion and brass as the words build in intensity and climax. The woodwinds, guitar and piano return for the third act of the song through the quiet dénouement. The melody of the song is in minor, with intervals and rhythms very reminiscent of a folk tune, and the orchestration adds to the haunting beauty of it. You should go check it out. You can listen to it for free on Grooveshark (which I’ve found to be more reliable than Last.fm or iLike) here (just double-click on the song’s name in the window).


Andrew Lloyd Webber vs. Stephen Sondheim

Posted by AJ Harbison at 5:56 pm

For reasons that will remain undisclosed for now, I’ve been listening to a lot of musicals on my iPod at work lately. Most of this music, of course, comes from my wife, since she studied musical theatre in high school and owns lots of soundtracks. A few that are on there now are Phantom (not Phantom of the Opera, but a different musical on the same story), The King and I, and Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, which is awesome. In addition to those, I also have Andrew Lloyd Webber: The Music, The Magic, which is a three-CD set of some of his “greatest hits;” and Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim. (If you’ve never seen the Into the Woods DVD, recorded from the stage production starring Bernadette Peters as the Witch, you owe it to yourself.)

It’s been interesting to compare Webber’s music to Sondheim’s in Into the Woods. Webber’s songs are basically pop music adapted to the theatre: simple, catchy hooks and melodies, pop-style chord progressions and relatively tame rhythms with pop-style syncopations, with pop-Broadway orchestrations. Sondheim’s music, though, is closer to opera (or at least to classical) than to pop music. The melodies often contain difficult jumps that aren’t typical for vocal music and are more fragmented and motivic than long and flowing. The chord structures are often very complex. And the rhythms are constantly changing and shifting, difficult to pin down to a pattern or single time signature, and more closely follow the pattern of speech than typical musical patterns. I was surprised and impressed when my lovely wife and I watched Into the Woods a few months ago; the performances were good in themselves, but they were terrific considering how difficult the music was.

There’s nothing wrong with Webber’s music, of course; it’s pop-music candy for the ears. But for a substantial meat-and-potatoes meal, Sondheim delivers something unique and masterful that’s quite inspiring to an aspiring composer such as myself.


The Matrix Score, Don Davis

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:08 pm

A little while ago, my lovely wife and I made a movie-watching deal with each other. She wants me to watch the 6 hour BBC version of Pride and Prejudice; I’m not opposed to watching it, but since it’s such a feat I thought I’d make a deal out of it. So the deal is that I’d watch Pride and Prejudice with her if she would watch the Matrix trilogy with me. (She had seen the first one and parts of the second one before.) Last week we watched the original Matrix film to start off the deal.

I was reminded why The Matrix is my favorite movie of all time. Great story, brilliant symbolism, great casting/performances, innovative special effects, killer action scenes, trenchcoats and sunglasses. And a stunning score. The composer is Don Davis, who scored all three Matrix movies and The Animatrix, but otherwise nothing too significant. After listening to the score again, though, I’m not sure why. The score is just as brilliant and innovative as the rest of the film, and is a perfect counterpart.

The main motif of the movie, which most people would immediately associate with the Matrix score, is swelling brass chords in alternating octaves. You can hear them in the opening moments of the movie, over the Warner Bros. and Village Pictures logos, and throughout the movie, usually at points where something particularly unbelievable has happened in the Matrix (Trinity’s leap between two buildings in the opening sequence, for example). On the Amazon product page you can hear them in track 8, “Bullet-Time;” if you watch the movie, listen for them as a recurring motif throughout.

The score also makes effective use of a wordless choir to evoke the otherworldliness and horror of the human fields (which you can hear in track 3, “The Power Plant”). The choir enters in very close intervals, creating clusters of notes that grow with the addition of brass clusters and other elements to create a big dissonant soundscape that corresponds with the emotions that the visuals create. Another effective use of vocals in the score is the wordless boy soprano, who sings a simple alternating melody over the montage of Neo’s awakening in the real world and being restored to health. In a similar manner as the choir, the wordless voice creates an otherworldly effect that corresponds to the literal other world that Neo is experiencing.

If you haven’t seen The Matrix in a while, or if you’ve never seen it, give it a watch and let me know what you think. Were there any other aspects of the score that you noticed, liked, or disliked? What stood out to you?


Check out this video–Bobby McFerrin demonstrating the pentatonic scale with audience participation. Interesting and very cool. (HT to @joshthemoore on Twitter)

World Science Festival 2009: Bobby McFerrin Demonstrates the Power of the Pentatonic Scale from World Science Festival on Vimeo.

For the full World Science Festival video, check out http://vimeo.com/5732745.


“Happy Birthday”

Posted by AJ Harbison at 9:19 am

My wife and I attended a holiday/birthday party on Labor Day, and we sang “Happy Birthday” to the lady who was turning a year older partway through the festivities. (Instead of a birthday cake, Irish cupcakes were served, which are cupcakes made from Guinness with Baileys frosting. They were delicious.) Being a musician, I’m often asked to lead the group in singing everyone’s favorite (or least favorite) birthday song, but in this case, someone else, who is not a musician, did the honors. It’s hard, especially for non-musicians, to start singing something a cappella, because you don’t know exactly where you’re starting pitch-wise so you don’t know whether the range of the song will eventually take you too high or too low to sing comfortably. And, of course, it always takes a while for a non-musical group that’s singing to agree on a pitch. There were probably 15-20 people at the party at that time. I decided to listen intentionally to the group’s singing to see how long it took for them to fall into something close to a unison agreement. Unsurprisingly, it took two whole phrases: “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to–” and then by the second “you,” they were pretty close to singing the same notes.

It was an interesting experiment. Try it the next time you’re at a birthday celebration–and let me know what you hear!


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!


Red Balloon, Sandra McCracken

Posted by AJ Harbison at 9:11 pm

This past week and a half or so, I’ve been listening again to an album by Sandra McCracken, Derek Webb’s wife. Her latest, entitled Red Balloon, is my favorite of her seven albums, and the best in my opinion (which I recently relayed to her, although sadly I didn’t get a response).

In order to make some of the comments I’d like to make about this CD, I have to go back a bit and mention a few things about her last few albums. (If you’d like to follow along you can see her discography here.) She’s always had a folk/acoustic/singer-songwriter sound, with some country flavoring, and apart from her third release (Best Laid Plans) her music has always fallen on the underproduced side, opting for real-life simplicity and grit instead of slick production. However, following Derek Webb who used the technique beginning with his album Mockingbird in 2005, on her next few albums (The Builder and the Architect and Gravity | Love, as well as Ampersand EP with Webb) she adopted what I tend to think of as a “tired” sound. Most of the instruments and vocals on those albums were recorded in her home as opposed to a studio, and so have a very unproduced, almost grainy sound to them. (This sound, though, is intentional, it’s not due to a lack of quality recording or production.) The songs were generally slow or mid tempo, without too much energy or quick movement. The main aspect of the “tired” sound, though, was a technique of recording the main vocal track twice, that is, singing and recording it once, and then singing and recording it a second time without changing the first one. The slight differences in intonation, different timings for final consonants (e.g. the “t” sound at the end of a word being heard twice, one a little after the other), and lack of polishing on the vocal production leads to a sound that is very original (in my experience). It’s almost like an in-tune, good-song version of the Juno sound”, in a way. But it’s still not a sound that I particularly enjoy, or at least it’s not one that I could listen to all the time.

Which is why I love Red Balloon, which was released last September and produced by McCracken, Webb, and often-collaborator Cason Cooley (whom I recently wrote about on TLB). It keeps the best aspects of the “tired” sound–the house-recorded feel, the cool drum sounds, some effective use of the vocal doubling–without the tiresome aspects, like the lack of variation in tempo, the lack of energy and too much use of the doubling. Guitar and piano (both of which Sandra plays) freely trade primary importance, and the drums and percussion sound really good and have some really cool grooves (listen, for example, to the sweet percussion on the sixth track, “On The Outside,” and the drums on “Halfway,” track seven).

I also enjoy the lyrics quite a bit. Red Balloon was her first solo studio album released after the birth of her first child, and most of the record is about the emotions and experiences that that brought with it. (I especially love the opening lyrics to the second song, “Storehouse”: “The first uninterrupted sleep since July / The first waves of wisdom swing like a wrecking ball / A child takes the throne / Displacing us all / In good time, just in time…”). McCracken is not as brilliant a lyricist as Webb, but she’s got skills and the lyrics on this album are particularly emotional and evocative.

I only have two problems with this album. The first is that her promotional email touted it as including “ten previously unreleased songs.” Technically that’s true, but the last song, “The High Countries,” was previously released by Caedmon’s Call on their album Back Home, and so I didn’t get the ten brand-new songs that I was hoping for. Even though it’s a different recording, calling it a “previously unreleased song” is a bit of a stretch. And that’s really the only song I’m not a big fan of on Red Balloon–I think the Caedmon’s version is better. The other problem I had was that it came “in a special two-disk package.” The entire album consists of ten songs, of normal song length (between three and five minutes); but it arrived as two CDs, labeled “Side A” and “Side B,” each containing five songs. Kind of a cool idea in theory, and listening to the songs there’s definitely a coherent feel to each of the halves by themselves; but practically, that’s just annoying. The first thing I did when I got the album was to burn all the songs onto a single CD.

But those are my only beefs. This is a great album and I’ve listened to it a lot without growing tired of it. The songwriting is great (especially when you know the back story about her son being born), the sound is original, and it’s inspiring to those of us who are aspiring independent songwriters ourselves.

You can find Red Balloon on iTunes and Amazon, as well as at the Sandra McCracken Official Online Shop. If you’d like a test drive first, you can hear four tracks from the album (“Guardian,” “Lock and Key,” “On the Outside” and “Big Blue Sky”) on Sandra McCracken’s Myspace page. You can see video of Sandra and Derek performing “Halfway” and “Lose You” at a recent house show by clicking on the links; and on that same page you can read Sandra’s account of the recording of the album.


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 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.


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