03.30.2009

A Link Between Listening and Seeing

Posted by AJ Harbison at 11:06 pm

Another short news post, before I get back to blogging about more interesting things….

This article is a quick read, and describes a study on why we so often mis-hear lyrics: apparently it’s much easier for our brains to get the words right when we can both hear and see the person singing–shockingly, adding visual information to auditory yields more accurate results than auditory information alone.

“Blinded by the lyric? Study reveals why we get the words wrong”

Maybe this should be The Listening And Watching Blog….

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12.16.2008

Noël, Josh Groban: Revisited

Posted by AJ Harbison at 11:34 pm

First of all, I must apologize (again) for my inconsistent posting of late. I’ve been quite busy over the past 5 days, but I would hate for you, my loyal readers, to feel neglected. So I will endeavor to do a better job in the coming weeks!

My last post, about Josh Groban‘s Christmas CD Noël, garnered five comments (with none from me)–the greatest number of comments I’ve ever gotten from readers, apart from the discussion generated by my first post on comprehensive listening. So, rather than replying to each of the five comments, I thought I’d write a dedicated post for that purpose.

Before I begin, let me say that perhaps I was a bit hasty and a bit harsh in my original judgment of the CD. I still stand by my principle that there’s not much that’s original or interesting in the arrangements, apart from “Little Drummer Boy,” although I’ve since gained a greater appreciation for “What Child Is This?” as well–it has a very appropriate quality of mystery and wonder about it that sets it apart from most of the other tracks. But upon further listening, I admit that the CD is not quite as cheesy as I made it out to be–sentimental, yes, but not (too) cheesy. And, as my lovely fiancée and at least one of my commenters pointed out, sentimentality is part of the whole point of Christmas music, so it can be forgiven perhaps more readily than in other genres.

So much for my preamble. On to the comments! The first one was from an anonymous poster:

The boy soprano on the “Little Drummer Boy” track is actually a girl! More specifically, David Foster’s daughter!

An honest mistake on my part, and one that I feel pretty foolish about. But, especially considering the boys’ choirs on a few other songs, I hope it’s a forgivable one–and come on, didn’t anyone else think it was a boy, without looking at the liner notes? N.B. David Foster is the musician who arranged and played piano on many of the tracks on the CD.

Another anonymous comment:

I always think it’s interesting that Josh’s voice still is trying to be forced into the classical category, when that’s not what he considers himself. While classicaly trained – which continues to this day – his love of music leads him in many directions….

The Christmas album was done at the urging of his fans who’ve wanted one for a few years now. It was fast – but turned out to be brutal to other artists in the record industry proving that Josh’s talent is not to be laughed at.

There are too many facets to this young man to hold him down to one genre, thank goodness. And still, he’s in his own lane.

It’s an interesting comment on our country’s musical culture to note that people try to force Groban’s voice into the classical category–perhaps we think that someone with such a great voice could not, would not or should not be performing in any other! His classical training is certainly evident in his singing, and I’m glad to hear that it continues. As I said in the last post, I would really like to hear him sing some great classical music, but at the same time whatever genre he doesn’t sing is another genre’s gain. It would be great to see him on a Broadway stage, assuming he can act as well. I’m not surprised that the album was done to placate his fans (it seems few popular artists escape a Christmas album these days), but I am glad it turned out better than most. I will check out the albums and YouTube video this commenter suggested (would you care to reveal your identity for this post, loyal reader?). And I agree that Groban is in his own lane.

The third comment was from Ryan Fleming, whom I can always count on for good insights:

I can see how a musician with a college degree in composition can find the arangement of most of Josh’s songs unoriginal or even cheesy; but while it may be unoriginal it still sounds good (in my opinion). I especially love the “inspirational” whole step key changes that you mentioned, especially when there is a break in the music right before hand. And I always find those sappy strings to be such a beautiful addition to any classical/pop music. I think these type of musical additions may be overused, but this is so because of the great impact it can have on a song. I do believe that they add a lot of power and feeling to a song.

As I am fond of saying, clichés are clichés for a reason–it’s because they’re so often true, or, in this case, because they so often work. As Fleming points out, these are all effective musical devices. However, these effective devices have become clichés precisely because they are overused. They do work, but they’ve been done so often that they lose some of their power and effectiveness. When I correctly sang along with the key change in “Little Drummer Boy,” it induced laughter rather than affected emotion because it was so predictable. I agree that they’re all legitimate musically, and that they sound all right; but with such a talent as Groban’s, I would have liked to see some more original arrangements–that is, arrangements that utilized skillful creativity, rather than resorting to hackneyed stuff that everybody does.

Darth_Harbison was the next reader to comment:

I don’t have enough musical knowledge to take issue with most of what you said, but I feel the need to jump to Groban’s defense because (while I don’t personally own any of his CDs) I greatly enjoy his music. I shall therefore refrain from taking issue with any of the musical issues and focus on the Christmas CD . . .

You criticize it as being “unoriginal” in “the most overdone genre of music in contemporary history.” This may be true, but I think that part of the charm of Christmas music is that it’s always pretty much the same. I love it as much as the next person when someone does something really new and creative without really changing anything (ala Mannheim Steamroller or Trans-Siberian Orchestra), but I think a lot of traditional Christmas music could be ruined in the name of “originality.” Of course, this might just be me, since as you know I’m big on tradition.

You also criticized it for sappy sentimentalism . . . And while generally I agree that it’s not a good thing (although I like “You Raise Me Up” a fair amount), I think that, again, it can be forgiven in Christmas music–in fact, I think it’s part of the point. There are, of course, some Christmas songs with enough actual depth that sappy sentimentalism seems almost irreverent (e.g. Joy to the World, perhaps the most brutalized-by-overuse song of all time), but I don’t think that indulging ourselves in enjoying sappy sentimentalism at Christmas is necessarily be a bad thing. The way I see it, as long as we keep in mind (for lack of a less cheesy phrase) the true meaning of Christmas, there’s really no harm in enjoying it as a secular holiday, as well.

And I’m happy that you think Little Drummer Boy is so good, because this CD basically made it one of my favorite Christmas songs.

My response here is basically the same as my response above–too much of a pretty good thing is not as good as just enough of a really good thing. (If that makes any sense…) I do agree that Christmas music can be ruined by originality. A case in point (at least for me) is the movement in recent years of arranging hymns, including Christmas hymns, in a light-jazz style with lots of unusual extended chords (seventh chords, ninth chords, eleventh chords, etc.)–which “O Come All Ye Faithful” on Noël falls into in places. That’s just annoying to me, and just because it’s original doesn’t make it good. However, I’m not advocating radical departures from tradition here. “Little Drummer Boy” is original a
nd creative without departing at all from the essence of the song. It’s just enough originality to spice up the song and set it apart from less worthy arrangements, while not going too far. Originality in moderation. And, as I said above, I suppose my view on its sentimentality is more lenient than in my original post.

And the final comment comes from a self-so-called lurker, Roberta:

OK. I feel the need to comment here even though I just usually just lurk.
I agree with both Darth and Ryan’s comments. Believe it or not, I own the CD. It was the third Christmas album I listened to this year, after Chanticleer and The Cambridge singers. I have to tell you that the reason I bought it is “The Voice.” I think sentimental can be overdone but this album has just the right amount that we expect from a Christmas recording. There are many others that are so sentimental they make me cry – and I don’t mean that in a good way! I have to admit, I always skip the track Josh sings with Faith Hill. That is simply painful for me to listen to. His voice, singing familiar songs makes this a must for my Christmas listening.

Again the sentimentality comes up–and again, I agree that Noël does strike a pretty good balance, upon further reflection. A CD like one by Mannheim Steamroller, as Darth mentioned above, perhaps avoids sentimentality altogether because its ideas are so different and fresh; and CDs that are nothing but sentimentality are so numerous that they need no example. But the present CD in question seems to fall comfortably (with its listeners and with itself) in the middle. And again, as Roberta points out, Groban’s voice is really the primary reason to listen to this CD. The arrangements may not be the best, the guest vocalists may be subpar, but ultimately the CD is carried by Groban’s talent. And that’s enough reason for one listen, at the very least.

So there you have it! Feel free to comment again if you’d like to respond to my responses–and I’d love for the anonymous commenters to reveal their identities, if they so choose. And keep the large numbers of comments a-comin’!

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12.12.2008

Noël, Josh Groban

Posted by AJ Harbison at 2:10 am

My lovely fiancée’s landlady graciously got me a Christmas gift last week, which Eleanor gave to me in her stead. Apparently not knowing too much about my tastes in music, she had purchased Josh Groban‘s Christmas album Noël. But, I cheerfully accepted the gift and thought I’d give it a listen to give myself a broader understanding of Groban’s music.

I’ve certainly heard Groban sing before, and I have to say that he has, hands down, one of the best voices I’ve ever heard. I don’t know much (anything, really) about his history or training, but his voice is exquisite and perfectly balanced, equally at home in soft, crooning lows or powerful highs. His vibrato in particular is nicely controlled and understated, and never overwhelms his tone or pitch, which is one of my primary complaints about opera and similar styles of music. He is 27 as of this writing, which means that his voice has pretty much fully settled (it happens in men around 25) and is only going to mature from this point on. I’m not sure what his future aspirations are (although his Wikipedia page suggests he’s interested in pursuing musical theatre), but he certainly has the foundation to become a truly great singer.

That being said, however, I haven’t been a big fan of his music up to this point. His most popular song, a cover of “You Raise Me Up,” is a pretty sappy song with little real content (perhaps the “Wind Beneath My Wings” of this generation). And the arrangements that he sings tend to be cast from the same mold: cheesy, overly sentimental, scored with sappy strings and plenty of dramatic cymbal rolls and “inspirational” key changes up a whole step.

Noël, mostly, is the same. Of the 13 tracks on the album, ten are Christmas carols or traditional “religious”-type songs and three are secular Christmas songs (“I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” “The Christmas Song” [that's the "chestnuts roasting on an open fire" one] and “Thankful”). Sentimentality and sappiness are present in large doses, and hardly any of the arrangements present original or even really interesting takes on perhaps the most overdone genre of songs in contemporary history.

The only thing that makes the CD worth listening to, in most cases, is Groban’s voice. I should clarify that I don’t say that because the arrangements are bad music per se; it’s just that (as I said) in such an overdone genre, an arrangement with nothing original or interesting to offer is not really worth one’s time. But Groban’s voice makes even the sappiest arrangement tolerable, at the least. It seems like a pretty poor choice (although an inevitable one) to pair him with other singers, as on “Angels We Have Heard On High” and “The First Noel,” because he shows them up so clearly. The latter, which is a duet with Faith Hill, displays this even more so than the former: Faith Hill is by no means a bad singer, but her vocal idioms and constant embellishment seem vulgar next to Groban’s clear and modest style.

There are a few exceptions to the CD’s rule, however–interesting moments here and there that are worth a listen. The boys’ choir that appears on “Silent Night” and “Ave Maria” is excellent and adds a nice shimmering touch. I appreciate the inclusion of two songs in Latin (“Ave Maria” and “Panis Angelicus”) and one in French (“Petit Papa Noël”). And there is one song that clearly stands out from the rest in originality and quality.

“Little Drummer Boy” is far and away the best cut on the record, and the most original in its arrangement. The CD mentions that it features guitarist Andy McKee, and it’s his guitar work that makes the track stand out. I also enjoy the boy soprano on the second verse who sings an echo to Groban’s melody, although I wish he was utilized more–it would have been nice to hear him singing simultaneous harmony as well, or hear his role develop through the song rather than just use him on the one verse. There is also a predictable key change in the middle of the song, which I actually anticipated and correctly sang along with the first time I heard it. But other than those two minor nitpicks, it’s a very good version of a good song.

Overall? Noël is maybe worth a listen or two if you don’t yet have an appreciation for Josh Groban’s voice. Christmas music as a genre has very positive connotations for me, as my mother would start to cycle through her various Christmas CDs after Thanksgiving to herald the Advent season. My first time listening through Noël made me happy because it was the first Christmas CD I’d listened to this year, and it did the trick of getting me in the “holiday spirit.” “Little Drummer Boy” is a track worth listening to, on its own. And as for Groban? I personally wish that I could hear him tackle some really great music–I’d like to know how he’d handle, say, a Handel aria or a Schubert art song. None of the music on this CD is difficult to sing, by any means, and it makes me wonder if his voice is really versatile or if he just sings this type of music really well. We shall see. But for now, a couple of tracks from Noël will make it into my own Christmas rotation. Let me know if any make it into yours!

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09.06.2008

Viva La Vida, Coldplay: First Impressions

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:04 am

Here it is, Mark: The long-awaited Viva La Vida review!

But before I dive in, two quick backgrounds. First, the background of the album: It is the fourth album of the rocking British band Coldplay, following the immensely popular X&Y of 2005. The album’s title, “Viva La Vida,” roughly translated means “Long live life.” The album’s cover art is a painting by Eugene Delacroix entitled Liberty Leading The People, which depicts a woman personifying Liberty and commemorating both the French Revolution of 1789 and the July Revolution (also French) of 1830. The album’s producer is Brian Eno, who is known in the capacity of a solo artist as “the father of ambient music” and in the capacity of a producer as such of U2′s album The Joshua Tree.

Second, my background with Coldplay: I consider Coldplay one of my favorite bands, and often cite them as an influence on my own music. I quite enjoy their first album, Parachutes–most of the songs are good but the really good songs are really good. Their second album, A Rush Of Blood To The Head, is better all around and I very much enjoy it. And the album that precedes Viva La Vida, X&Y, I consider to be my single favorite album of all time. I am not so presumptious as to consider it the best album of all time, as my experience is not so wide as to make that declaration; but it is alone atop all the others I have heard. There’s not a song on it that I dislike or even feel indifferent about. It is excellent in every way and I simply love it.

With these prerequisite backgrounds now dispensed of, we move on to the TLB review.

I listened to the album one time through (thus the title, “First Impressions”) on Wednesday night; I wanted to share my first thoughts with you, my faithful readers, and I plan to elaborate in future posts as I listen to it more.

Listening to Viva La Vida was a paradoxical experience for me. Part of me felt like I loved it, while part of me felt that I didn’t understand it musically. It was simultaneously a completely fresh and original sound, while also suggesting many comparisons in my mind. The album progressed at a leisurely pace, but when it was done it seemed no time at all had passed.

The thing that stood out to me the most, above all else, was the album’s energy, its exuberant exhilaration (if I may make such a bold alliteration). X&Y was dark, chill, mellow, while it seems Viva La Vida is almost bursting with excitement. It reminded me vaguely of Derek Webb’s first two solo albums, She Must And Shall Go Free and I See Things Upside Down–although in that case the moods of the CDs were reversed.

Viva La Vida finds one of the world’s greatest bands contemplating its mortality. With a title meaning “Long live life,” song titles like “Cemetaries of London,” “Viva La Vida” and “Death And All His Friends,” and the lyrics of songs like “42,” the whole album points to the coming to grips with death. It reminded me also of another great album that had a similar theme: Linkin Park’s most recent album, Minutes To Midnight. But the contrast is perhaps more interesting than the comparison. In Linkin Park’s case, the album is much more restrained, sober-minded and contemplative than their previous releases (and, in my opinion, is their best). With Viva La Vida, however, Coldplay responds to the contemplation of death with a celebration of life.

Such, in my opinion, are the philosophical underpinnings of the music–but on to the music itself.

The music itself is also rather paradoxical. As I just remarked to my roommate Mike, it’s a sound unlike anything I’ve heard. In many ways it includes more elements of electronic music than their previous work: many of the beats are more reminiscent of electronic music than rock music, and many of the synth and atmospherics effects are as well. “Life In Technicolor,” the instrumental overture to the CD, could very easily have come from a CD in Mike’s electronic collection. And yet in other ways it’s more acoustic than X&Y and sounds more like a live band jamming onstage than a carefully produced album from the studio. I must confess I’ve never seen Coldplay live–although to do so would be an experience only to be topped by seeing U2. But I imagine live performances of X&Y as a classic rock music performance, the band members rocking out because the music is just awesome; my imagination of a Viva La Vida performance is of the band members smiling, laughing and bouncing off the walls, not to be showy but just because the music is so much freakin’ fun to play. The album also includes some Latin, African and Asian elements, apparently culled from playing world tours while writing the songs. The combination of styles is exquisite, intriguing and totally original in my experience.

Another thing that stands out very quickly is the mixing of the voice. I wrote in a post about Elton John that Coldplay sometimes mixes the voice at a similar volume level to that of the instruments, so that it doesn’t stand out as it often does in popular music. I wrote that “they see the voice (at least in these particular songs) as just another instrument, no more or less important than the others, and so the blending in the mix is intentional. It puts the voice on equal artistic footing with, say, the guitar and drums,” and that is very much in evidence on this record. I even mentioned the song “Viva La Vida” in the post, as it was available as a single on iTunes at the time, but that mixing style certainly pervades the album, with a few notable exceptions (such as “Violet Hill”). In a subsequent listen I’d like to listen with the lyrics in front of me, as they were often obscured by the other instruments.

The instrumentation of the album is also noteworthy. It is most certainly a rock album, with guitars, bass and drums holding sway. Coldplay’s signature piano and pipe organ also make appearances, although much less than in X&Y. But the band makes use of a more colorful instrumental palette overall (to mix my artistic metaphors). The electronics and synths used are simultaneously similar to ones used previously and different, often more evocative of electronic and ambient music (likely Eno’s influence). And while strings have been used on each of the band’s previous albums, they are featured here in a hitherto unseen prominence. The Latin-flavored flourishes in “Yes” are particularly interesting (as are, in the same song, the luxuriously long electric guitar bends).

Some of the songs’ rhythms are notable as well for their adventuresomeness (is that a word?). The instrumental interludes in “Yes” throw in an extra beat or take one away here and there, just to throw you off. And the final track “Death And All His Friends,” after the first piano/vocal section and a more conventional 4/4 groove, settles into a rocking (but very atypical) 7/4 for the song’s climax.

I know this post is already waxing very loquacious (perhaps too much so), so I will endeavor to bring it to a close. Overall, I must say that I greatly enjoyed Viva La Vida, but I look forward to uncovering further layers and nuances in subsequent listenings. True to the album art, the sound is revolutionary, certainly for Coldplay and (considering Coldplay’s influence) possibly for others as well. It is a blend of styles that have worked for them in the past, while
also being a departure and an attempt at something vastly different. The album’s energy is abundant and infectious, and had me tapping my feet and bobbing my head even as I sat in my desk chair listening to my computer speakers. At this point, after one listen, it hasn’t dethroned X&Y; but it’s a pretty darn good record.

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09.02.2008

Wheel, Jona Lyons

Posted by AJ Harbison at 1:58 am

About two weeks ago, my good friend, former college roommate and current co-worker Doug sold me a CD by his good friend Jona Lyons. Lyons is an independent singer-songwriter from Fullerton who self-recorded and self-released this album, entitled Wheel, just recently. So, since I had an early listen, I thought I’d share it with all of you. Six songs from the album are on his Myspace page (linked above), so apart from my general comments I’ll focus on those songs so you can hear what I’m writing about.

First off, I have to say that recording and releasing an album on one’s own is a laudable feat and I applaud him for it–especially an album with a full band and 13 songs. So hats off to Lyons for succeeding in this.

Unfortunately, my first impression of the CD was not a particularly enjoyable one. The main problem the CD suffers from is a lack of quality production–understandable, certainly, considered it was recorded and produced in his house without the aid of a studio or engineer; but still disheartening. There are three primary things that particularly troubled me. First, the mixing is a little subpar: the voice doesn’t always stand out the way it should, the bass is too boomy, and the other instruments aren’t always mixed so that they come through clearly. (Similar to my complaints about Elton John’s CD that I wrote about here.) Second, there is little reverb used, and often the voice sounds somewhat flat and dry, where reverb would have filled out the sound a bit more. Third, and most troubling, is the fact that the crash cymbals seem to exceed the capacity of either the recording mikes or the sound board, and during big, loud parts of some songs (notably “Sorry” and “Tomorrow’s Up”), the sound of the cymbals actually cuts in and out a little. Added to a slightly unclear mix of the electric guitars, this creates a patchy and messy sound which almost ruins otherwise good songs. I also have to say that I am not the biggest fan of Lyons’ voice: he’s not always fully in control of it, nor always fully on key. But hey, he can sing a heck of a lot higher than I can, and those readers who know me know how picky I am about voices.

On my first listen through the CD, I found it hard to overcome these shortfalls. However, as I listened through it again and listened more closely to the songs themselves, I found myself enjoying it a lot more than I thought I would. “Wow, these songs are actually really cool!” The lyrics are not always as deep or well-written as I’d like them to be, but they’re good, and the music (while reminiscent of others) is pretty original and well done.

My two favorite songs on the CD are both on Lyons’ Myspace page: “Shining Knight” and “Six Years Ago.” Both have good imagery and insights in the lyrics and poignant, primarily acoustic music, and I’ve listened to them a whole bunch of times since I got the CD and I definitely haven’t grown tired of them yet. “Maybe Then You’d Love Me” (also on the Myspace page) is also simple, acoustic and enjoyable. “Sorry” and “Tomorrow’s Up,” despite their technical faults, are energetic and rockin’, as is “Honey” (another of my favorites). The second half of the CD, which contains the rest of the Myspace songs (“Every Daughter Is Defiled,” “Fullerton Boy” and “Wheel”), is not as enjoyable to me as the first half, with a few notable exceptions. “Saturday” is an ironically fun song–akin perhaps in some ways to my song “Coastin’”–and I like the Coldplay-esque progressions of “Something’s Not Right.” I’m not very fond of the song “Wonderful”; but in some way or another I enjoy each of the songs on the CD.

Lyons’ friend Jon Neal, whom I have met and jammed with before, produced the CD but is also listed in the credits as the performer of the “piano/organ/tympani/orchestra” as well, and his contributions to the CD make it stand out. He hasn’t had any formal musical training, to my understanding, but is very talented and very musical. His keyboard solo in the middle of “Shining Knight,” starting at the 3:10 mark, is the highlight of the whole CD for me; and his solo in “Six Years Ago” (at 1:58) is very reminiscent of Coldplay (in a very good way).

There is also a random moment in which Eric Whitacre makes a surprise appearance–at 1:39 in “Maybe Then You’d Love Me,” the front and background vocals suddenly break into a very Whitacre-like progression, complete with a diatonic cluster chord (a cluster using only notes from the major scale of the song). Very random, but very awesome.

Lyons classifies himself on the Myspace page as “Acoustic / Folk Rock,” and I think it’s a worthy appellation. Parts of his CD remind me of my own music; others of Coldplay, as I’ve mentioned; others of the Beatles; and others (quite a few) of the indie acoustic rock sound of groups like The Shins.

Would I recommend this CD to you? Yes (especially if you like what you hear on Myspace). Would I add Lyons to my list of favorite singer-songwriters? No. Would I go to another show of his (I’ve been to one before, prior to hearing the CD)? Yes. Would I sing along to the songs I now know? You bet.

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08.12.2008

More On Tuning And Temperament

Posted by AJ Harbison at 4:48 am

Since my last post sparked some interest in tuning, and just intonation in particular, I thought I’d offer a few more thoughts on the subject. My brother Mark asked the following questions:

You said that equal temperament has been the standard since the 19th century . . . was just intonation the norm prior to that? And do the two go beyond guitars (and similar instruments) into music at large, or are they fairly limited?

I thought that the guitar in the video seemed to sound more “classical” (in the layman sense of the word, not the technical musical sense) than I’m used to hearing guitars sound . . . is that because of the music he’s playing, because of the just intonation, or both? (Or is it because I was conditioned by your post to expect such a thing?)

Prior to equal temperament as the norm, there really was no “norm.” It depended on the instrument and the type of music. Singers, for example, since they’re not tied to any specific tuning like pianos or guitars, often would change their tuning as they sang, correcting intervals without fitting into any particular system. Keyboard instruments (including many organs late into the 19th century) were tuned in what was called meantone temperament, in which a very small interval (a few cents, or more specifically, a quarter comma) was chopped off of each note as one went around the circle of fifths. For example, from C, one would tune G, D, A and then E; and because of the quarter comma taken off of each note, the E (major third) would be in tune with the C. (In a tuning and temperament seminar I took at CSUF, I learned how to tune a harpsichord using this temperament. It was a lot of fun.) Just intonation was used as well, along with Pythagorean tuning (which is similar in that it deals with pure mathematical ratios). Stringed instruments such as violins often used Pythagorean tuning, because it complements the pure tuning of their strings (each a fifth apart). So, in short, equal temperament as the tuning standard for virtually all instruments at all times is rather unprecedented in Western musical history.

As far as the guitar performance in the video goes, yes, Lou Harrison was a composer of art music rather than popular music. But notice the energetic rhythm of the piece, and the occasional strummed chords followed by passages of fast single notes; both are examples of the influence of pop music on art music, and art music’s revitalization of rhythm, in the 20th century.

And my most prolific commenter, Ryan Fleming, pointed out how band leaders instruct brass instruments to lower the third. I believe he’s partially right, in identifying the purpose of that lowering as making the third more pure than the equal tempered interval of 400 cents. But in other cases, since brass instruments play in natural tuning, depending on the key sometimes the natural major third is actually very sharp (up to 427 cents, in some cases–remember, as Fleming said, that a pure major third is 386 cents); so the lowering of the third is not just to make it more pure, but to make it more musically usable.

And to Courtney: So tripped out.

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08.03.2008

“Defying Gravity” takes place in Wicked at the very end of Act I. When we saw the play in New York on our road trip, I described the end of the act to my brother as “literally breathtaking”: the song was so exciting, so powerful and so exhilarating that I was literally breathless at its end. (He, of course, was insanely jealous that I was seeing it live and replied: “I totally hate you.”)

All things considered, this is one of my favorite songs, pop music, classical music and musicals all included. The lyrics, of course, are terrific, talking about defying limits and striking out on one’s own. The staging in the show marks the first time Elphaba flies on her broomstick, literally defying gravity. And, of course, the music is superb.

The song on the soundtrack recording begins with dialogue and a few short snippets of singing before getting into the real start of the song: a syncopated chord progression in the piano and winds. It’s in the middle register instead of up high, and in a major rather than a minor key, but in some ways it’s reminiscent of the opening sequence of chords in “No One Mourns The Wicked” (you can listen to the latter here on iLike.com; it’s the second “play” button on the left, next to “No One Mourns The Wicked by Stephen Scwhartz”). Perhaps this is a subtle psychological hint by Schwartz; in the beginning it’s the “wicked” theme, but here in “Defying Gravity” it appears in a “good” form as Elphaba stands against injustice and refuses to compromise. (You can see the first page of the sheet music for “Defying Gravity,” which contains the opening chord progression, here; contrast it with the opening progression of “No One Mourns The Wicked,” here.)

The chorus of the song, which contains the lyrics about “defying gravity,” is quietly subdued the first two times it occurs. Elphaba sings a high melody over a sparser and simpler instrumental texture, which is very pianistic in its patterns. Two nice details are in evidence here as well. The first is the use of pizzicato violins in the highest register–plucking the strings of the instrument rather than bowing them. This contributes to the excitement and energy of the texture while keeping it light and allowing space (remember, music is all about space) between the rapid notes of the pattern. The second detail, which I didn’t notice until playing through the sheet music one day, is in the rhythm of the bass notes. The bass notes which define the chords don’t change on the downbeat of each measure, as one would expect, but slightly before the downbeat. Listen carefully and notice how the change comes at the very end of the measure, rather than right at the beginning of the next. This syncopation also adds understated tension and energy to the music.

The “unlimited” theme returns in the middle of the song, as Elphaba invites Glinda to come with her; together they would be unlimited. This leads to a bigger chorus, though it still has not reached full strength, with a drum beat and a duet by the two singers.

After this the song builds to an incredible climax, with the full orchestra and a full drum beat. At the end of the song (and the end of Act I), the chorus reenters to declare Elphaba the Wicked Witch, at which point the chord progression from “No One Mourns The Wicked” returns–signifying the crowd’s perception of her. And the act ends with a high held chord in the choir and brass, concluding with a low exclamation mark in true musical style. (I’ve heard this called a “button” ending, though I’m not sure if that’s really a technical term.)

But, ultimately, all I can say is that you should just listen to the song for yourself, and love it. You can listen to the whole song, courtesy of iLike, here: click on the “play” button on the left in the list next to “Defying Gravity by Stephen Schwartz.” (It’s the sixth “play” button not counting the video icons.)

(If you would like links to Amazon’s MP3 downloads for each of the individual songs I’ve written about, they can be found as following. But if you’d like to listen to the soundtrack, I’d recommend buying the whole CD [CD here, MP3 album here]; the songs I’ve posted about are highlights for me, but the entire soundtrack is fabulous.

“What Is This Feeling?”
“As Long As You’re Mine”
“No Good Deed”
“For Good”
“Defying Gravity”)

And thus ends the week of Wicked posts. Thanks for listening!

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08.02.2008

"For Good," Wicked Soundtrack, Stephen Schwartz

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:47 am

“For Good” is the penultimate song in Wicked, and (as I mentioned in the introductory post) the obligatory piano ballad; but, despite its obligatoriness, it’s very good. The lyrics are very clever, and even moving–they play on the different meanings of the phrase “for good:” “Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better? But because I knew you I have been changed for good….”

There are three musical things in particular I want to note about the song.

1. It marks the final appearance of the “unlimited” theme in the show. Elphaba finally admits “I’m limited–just look at me–I’m limited,” thus bringing that theme to a final resolution.

2. I like the introduction to the song, because part of the “hook” or riff idea in the piano is dissonant–instead of octaves or harmonious thirds or sixths, the high descending idea is in minor sevenths. (In the recording, it’s the second measure after Elphaba sings “Now it’s up to you….” Sheet music can be found here.) The song marks the point where Elphaba and Glinda finally part, and the dissonance portrays the sadness of their farewell.

3. The song also contains another subtle psychological detail. Throughout the entire show, whenever Elphaba and Glinda have a duet, Glinda sings the higher part and Elphaba the lower. In this song, they each sing their part separately and then sing the chorus in a duet–but Elphaba sings her part in a high register, above Glinda’s. In another reversal, she has taken on the role previously assigned to the “good” witch, confirming what we’ve known all along: that she is not really wicked but has only been perceived, painted and persecuted that way. Yet another example of Schwartz’s mastery of fine points that have a big impact.

This song was sung (as a solo) at the CSUF College of the Arts commencement ceremony last May when I graduated; following the song, the Dean of the college was in tears.

You can listen to the whole song, courtesy of iLike, here: I made it easy for you this time–click on the only play button in the list (next to “For Good by Stephen Schwartz”).

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08.01.2008

“No Good Deed” is one of the last songs on the Wicked soundtrack. In the story, it takes place when Elphaba fears she has lost her love, Fiyero, and faces the realization that all of the good she has tried to do has only turned out badly.

In addition to having great lyrics that explore the “moral ambiguities” that are the main theme of the show, the very beginning of the song contains another nice detail. After two bars or so of instrumental introduction, Elphaba screams Fiyero’s name. But instead of being an unpitched scream, she actually sings a high note that is a minor second above the tonal center of the song. (A minor second is an interval basically the same as a minor ninth, only the two notes are right next to each other instead of an octave removed.) This creates the effect of a scream, as the note is very high and dissonant, but it is much more controlled and musical than an actual scream. A nice touch.

You can listen to the whole song, courtesy of iLike, here: click on the second “play” button on the left in the list (next to “No Good Deed by Stephen Schwartz”).

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07.30.2008

The same college friend Albert who talked about inspiration as aesthetic also told me once, “Music is all about space.” He used as an example one of his favorite bands, Dream Theater, saying, “They’re a group of amazing musicians who have no concept whatsoever of musical space.” The concept of musical space can refer to horizontal space, such as pauses or rests in the music; vertical space, such as the voicing of a chord (which notes of the chord are played in which registers); or a third dimension, for example involving other instruments. Albert’s example of Dream Theater suggested that they lacked a proper understanding of 1) horizontal space, because there were never any breaks in the music and there was sound going on constantly; and 2) spatiality, because instruments would step on each other’s toes and get in each other’s way instead of giving each instrument its own space (musically speaking, not physically, of course).

The song “What Is This Feeling?”, from Stephen Schwartz’s soundtrack for Wicked, is an example of an excellent use of musical space, while also being one of my favorite songs in the show. In the intro and beginning of the song, the instrumental accompaniment is sparse, both in the number of instruments and in the notes that they play. The texture of the music (which Wikipedia defines as the number of musical voices and their relationship to each other) is very light: not many instruments are playing, and they only put in a few chords here and there with lots of empty space in between, which creates a clear, open feeling.

(There is also a great detail in this section, as I mentioned in my opening post about Wicked. Notice that the hi-hat cymbal precedes each chord played by the other instruments: quick note by hi-hat–chord!…space…quick note by hi-hat–chord!, etc. It’s a small, delicate touch, but it punctuates the chords and sets them off very nicely.)

The song also makes good use of form, as the texture consistently thickens as the song progresses. The accompaniment grows denser and becomes more complex, although the general feel remains light. The choir enters to attest their agreement with Galinda’s loathing of Elphaba; then, after they sing a short interlude by themselves, they sing a chorus layered on top of Galinda and Elphaba singing the verse in harmony, which is a very effective use of space in which each part has its own room to work without getting in the way of the others.

Finally, the melody of the song is also worth noting. While the verses are pretty conservative and stepwise in motion, the chorus consists of leaps that are not as conventional in vocal music, but work well and make the song unique. Next to “Defying Gravity,” which shall perhaps be the crowning post of this week, “What Is This Feeling?” is probably my favorite song on the soundtrack.

You can listen to the whole song, courtesy of iLike, here: click on the third “play” button on the left in the list (next to “What Is This Feeling? by Stephen Schwartz”).

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