Friday, November 28, 2014

Discovering the Shakuhachi: Aikido and Ethno

When I began practicing aikido in earnest in 1998, I was fortunate to walk into a tight-knit community of Texas dojos that stretched from San Antonio to Denton. I remember taking every opportunity to practice at a new dojo in a different town. While I certainly had personal reasons for starting to practice in the first place, this sense of community often kept me going. Since then, teachers have retired and passed on, and I would love to be able to say that we, as a body of practitioners, have navigated these losses gracefully, but this has not been the case. Instead, due to the egos of individuals who feel entitled to some sort of authority and recognition, the organization has splintered. Perhaps Western culture just isn’t ready for the kind of lesson that O-Sensei was trying to teach with aikido.

Aikido practice, however, also generated a personal interest in Japanese culture. When I finished my ethnomusicology degree, it dawned on me, perhaps too late, that my martial arts experience might dovetail nicely into Japanese music studies. Clearly, if there was any culture in the world I really wanted to “immerse” myself, it was Japan. Towards the end of my research, I began to think about ways to use instruments as a lens to view culture. For me to continue on this research path, it made sense to adopt a Japanese instrument.

I started to look into traditional Japanese music. One of my favorite recordings I unearthed was the Nonesuch album Japan: Traditional Vocal and Instrumental Music by the Ensemble Nipponia. It represents a remarkable variety of traditions, but it’s also unified by the outstanding musicianship of the ensemble’s members. While all of the performances are remarkable, the shakuhachi performances really caught my attention. The track Edo Lullaby, which is an original arrangement of a traditional melody, singlehandedly convinced me to adopt the shakuhachi.



I procured an instrument and was very fortunate to find an experienced teacher. I took lessons for nearly two years with the intent of focusing on the shakuhachi in a PhD program. I have not entirely given up on this research agenda, but life has put the immediacy of doctoral work on hold for the time being. Japan: Traditional Vocal and Instrumental Music, however, remains, and has evolved into a personal and family favorite. Both my wife and daughter enjoy the album beyond its merely exotic exterior (I think). As I revisited it earlier this year, I found that The Little One particularly likes Ozatsuma for its angular, frantic energy.



My genuine appreciation for the aesthetic beauty of this music assures me of one thing: my ethnomusicological degree broadened my horizons. It gave me an irreplaceable experience that permeates the breadth of my musical experiences. When I finished my degree, however, I found myself back on the path that I left. I ended up with a challenging and rewarding job as a band director at a title one school to begin paying off my student debt. I genuinely enjoy what I do, but I sometimes wonder about the meaning of my studies, not with a sense of regret, but rather with anticipation. I suspect that their true worth has not yet been revealed.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Dr. Spin's Top 20 for 2014

Aside from the Superhero Theme Project, the blog has lain somewhat fallow this year. I make no apologies: life is busy. Still, I don’t want to give the impression that all I have listened to this year has been the 23 compositions on that playlist. In fact, quite the opposite – the playlist has only occupied a small ratio of my listening habits. It has, however, been pretty easy to write about. Aside from my attempts to program the Little One with an ear for orchestral music, a lot of fabulous music has passed through the player, resulting in an all-new, largely undocumented top 20 for 2014.

As I outlined a couple of years ago, inclusion in the year-end top 20 is not confined to 2014 releases. In addition to being musically outstanding, a top 20 album has to be somehow emotionally or episodically associated with the year of its release. Some of them are from artists that I discovered this year, while others are albums that I have had for awhile that, for one reason or another, never connected with me.

Actually, an unusual number of this year’s albums have been new releases by old favorites. While I started the year in a soundtrack and pop music phase, there was a decisive turn back towards progressive and experimental music about halfway through the year. While this temporality is not expressed in the top 20, it does seem to skew the results towards a specific style.

Presented below is the second half of the top 20, with the top 10 being announced at the end of December.

20. Oneohtrix Point Never – R Plus 7: I received this album as an act of kindness from my wife and became so excited about it that I convened a neighborhood listening party around the album. While certainly more accessible than Replica, its 2012 predecessor, R plus 7 is an intellectually stimulating foray into the boundaries current electronic music.


19. Billy Bottle and the Multiple – The Unrecorded Beam: A uniquely creative recording that sets the words of Thoreau to jazzy Canturbury style progressive rock.  O Nature has risen as one of my favorite tracks of the year. -

17. Opeth – Pale Communion: Opeth fully commits to the progressive rock paradigm with spectacular results. Pale Communion boldly and confidently strides into areas where Heritage tread lightly and cautiously.

16. Nakoi Sato – Space Battleship Yamato OST: In retrospect, I am not exactly sure how I was fortunate enough to stumble across this outstanding soundtrack. Fans of melodramatic science-fiction music should immediately take steps to add it to their collection.

15. fun. – Aim and Ignite: As I filled in Nate Reuss’s timeline between the first Format album and Some Nights, I found a lot on fun.’s first album to like. There is a broad variety of musical styles represented on the album, held together by good, if sometimes inconsistent, songwriting and the devastating strength of Reuss’s lyrics.

14. Imogen Heap Sparks: No doubt about it, Imogen Heap is a 21st century musical whiz kid, much in the way that Peter Gabriel was when he was in his prime. Her musical restlessness gives the sense that she is on a quest, with no real idea where it will end, only that there are steps to be taken to get there.

13. LITEPhantasia: As fate would have it, I received 2008’s Phantasia as a Christmas gift, only to find that a new album, Installation, would be released in Feburary, 2014. Although both albums boast the LITE’s characteristic flurry of interlocking rhythms, Phantasia’s raw energy won out as LITE’s representative.

12. Wild Belle – Isles: This great suggestion turned out to be just the right mix of whiteboy reggae and indie songwriting. It avoids exoticizing the former by delivering the latter with equal parts seduction and buoyancy.

11. Pink Floyd – The Endless River: In the big scheme of things, Roger Waters' conceptual contributions to Pink Floyd’s nearly 50 year legacy are undeniable, but they are only one aspect of the band. At their best, Pink Floyd was a band with a distinctive instrumental voice, and that is what is on full display on the Endless River.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Superhero Theme Project: Overdosing on Venom

The Little One likes her juice. Oh, yes she does. Our local HEB has single-serving juices with a variety of characters on top, and it’s not unusual for me to purchase one as a reward for patience and listening ears when she and I go to the grocery store together. Last time, she picked out one with Spider-Man on top. She noticed, however, one in back with a black Spider-Man on top. Now, those familiar with the Spider-Man mythos know that tor a brief time, Spider-Man wore a black suit. This suit ended up being an alien entity that evolved into a symbiotic monster that called Venom, one of Spider-Man’s more visually disturbing villains. I have avoided emphasizing villains with her, especially scary ones. Venom, however, was the easiest, one-word answer I could come up with on the fly.

Venom, as a character, does not play a role in any of her current books or TV, so I thought that would be the end of it. The next morning, however, she asked who that “black guy” was at the grocery store.

That one took me a minute.

Eventually, however, I figured out what she meant. She carefully practiced saying Venom’s name properly and told me that he needed to “be on my phone.” Like immediately.

Now, Venom was one of the reasons that we stopped watching Ultimate Spider-Man last year. She doesn’t remember, but the times he was on the show, he kinda freaked her out. While the bust on the juice was pretty tame, Venom is usually depicted as monstrous, with sharp teeth, snaking tongue, and a veined, hypermuscular physique. No two ways about it, he can be frightening. I tried to remind her that Venom was a “bad guy” and that he was kind of scary. This did not matter to her one bit. Over the next two days, she became obsessed with Venom and wanted to hear what he sounded like.

I certainly wanted to take advantage of her enthusiasm, but like The Hulk, I had to navigate this one carefully. I found a picture (seen above) that was creepy, but not too monstrous, and I examined several themes that seemed appropriate. I started with the Venom theme from Spider-Man 3, which I did like, but this score is commercially unavailable. The composer for Spider-Man 3, Christopher Young, did the soundtrack for Nightmare on Elm Street 2, which had a creepy theme that I personally liked.

Main Title by Christopher Young on Grooveshark

Still, I did not want to overly accentuate Venom’s more terrifying characteristics. Even though she would have no context for the nightmarish Freddy Kruger, that choice did not sit right with me. My research for She-Hulk, however, put the soundtrack for the recent Godzilla movie on my radar. I felt this theme was too fearsome for She-Hulk, but it had just enough unease to make for a convincing Venom theme. Plus, it has a great 15/8 riff that I was personally attracted to.  I gotta keep myself entertained here, too.



The Little One liked it – a whole lot. She asked everyone she knew if they knew who Venom was and happily told them that he was on my phone.  When I asked her what was so cool about it, she said that “Spider Man’s song is happy, but Venom’s is angry.” I agreed wholeheartedly. The problem now is that it is the only song on the playlist that she wants to listen to.

I kinda get why. We have been listening to the playlist in its entirety on shuffle now for over a month solid, and she has reacted very well to the additions to the list. I have been a little concerned, though, that she won’t connect with these newer songs in the same way as she did the older songs on the playlist. She can sing Aquaman (AKA the Great Gate at Kiev) and others from this era on command, but she has been listening to these compositions on and off for almost a year now. Mixed in with the more recent additions, the earlier selections on the list continue to get reinforced while simultaneously decreasing the chances that we will hear the new ones enough to make them similarly meaningful.

Yesterday, I decided to concede to her wildest dreams. Just to see what would happen, I put Venom on repeat for the entire ride home. She was ecstatic and listened intently the entire time. Today, however, she requested it, listened to it twice, sang along with parts of it, and then said that she was done. When the shuffle came back on, she said that she didn’t want to listen to any other superheroes. She wanted, and I quote, some “fresh music.”

Ooooookay. It seemed like the success of Venom might have shed some light on the more stagnant tracks on the playlist, potentially putting the Superhero Theme Project on ice for awhile. I pushed play on some Ethno-Jazz and let it go for the rest of the commute. Just as we turned into our driveway, however, she spontaneously sang the opening string riff to Hawkman (AKA Shostokovich 10, Mvt. 2), which she had never done before. Surprised, I whipped my head around to find her grinning from ear to ear, as if she was trying to see if I was paying attention. I guess I passed the test.

So, I’m not sure what happens next. I’ll keep you posted.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Superhero Theme Project: She-Hulk and the Lamp

Before the Little One was born, we envisioned her room as a post-modern landscape in which ladybugs and superheroes co-existed. Perhaps ill-advisedly, we agreed on a retro She-Hulk lamp, arguably with the intent of displaying one of the few explicitly strong female superhero characters. In truth, we thought it looked cool. As she became more aware and her imagination began to blossom, however, she concluded that due to the She-Hulk's raging facial expression, she was “not very nice.” For a while, the lamp got moved to the upstairs room, and only recently got moved back in once she was convinced that She-Hulk was a “good guy” (and, admittedly, after the purple teddy bear lamp broke).

In the big scheme of things, She-Hulk is actually a pretty marginal character in the Marvel universe, but because of the situation with the lamp, she warranted positive representation in this phase of the Superhero Theme Project. It would, however, have to be delicately handled from all angles. To start with, finding a picture of She-Hulk that isn’t threatening or near-pornographic took more research than you might think.  I settled on the one below to the right here.  She is smiling, showing off her muscles, and is also reasonably dressed.  Winner.

The music was even trickier. She-Hulk was not known for having uncontrolled rages like her gamma-powered cousin, nor did she have the same struggles as Banner did in controlling the monster within. She was able to retain quite a bit of control over her green identity, and actually embraced it as a coping mechanism for her own insecurities. She enjoyed being a superhero, so it did not seem appropriate to render her with the same menacing introspection of the Hulk.

She is strong, though, and not without her own struggles with the characteristic Hulk rage. I had nothing in my catalog that I found satisfying. For several days I streamed a broad variety of soundtracks - everything from Godzilla to Cosmos – looking for something that made musical sense. I get apprehensive about finding music for the playlist this way. Without some time to simmer I have to really be attentive to hear structure, which is the hallmark of a substantial theme. One hasty choice and I am stuck listening to meandering noodles for the next few months.

One of the great, unending resources for distinctive soundtrack music is anime. There is so much of it out there and so much of it is done well that once you start down that path, it can be overwhelming. I was fortunate to stumble across the soundtrack to Blood+. I own the DVD for Blood: the Last Vampire, and I would not have thought that the music from a series spun off from that hyperviolent anime would suit the She-Hulk so well. The minute I heard it, however, I knew that I was onto something. A process of elimination brought me to the track Chasing Thru Time.



It was immediately dark, triumphant, exciting, and not too scary. It was also unified by incredibly strong theme and variation and featured an electronically enhanced section towards the end that could, with a little stretching, tie in to Craig Armstrong’s Hulk Theme.

I put both The Hulk and She-Hulk on the playlist at the same time, so she was introduced to both tracks on the same commute. We had already had an interesting discussion about The Hulk, and we were sitting in the driveway when She-Hulk came on. She gasped when she saw the picture pop up on the screen, and sat in rapt attention as the song played out. After it was over, we had another interesting discussion about The Hulk and She-Hulk being cousins.  You never know what is going to end up being important.  Certainly, She-Hulk is far more interesting, and less threatening, now that she has been included in the playlist.

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Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Superhero Theme Project: A Picture of Cyborg

To put it in current Marvel terminology, the Superhero Theme Project has moved into Phase Two. Not only have I appropriated several more orchestral works and assigned them to various characters to function as their theme music, I added graphic tags that display the characters as album art. With this latter innovation, the Little One’s obsession with the playlist has reached an all-time high. She now carefully holds my phone as the playlist shuffles through the tracks, and sometimes asks to carry it around after our commute has stopped. This has made her a bit of a rock star at school drop-off.  One day, we came into her class with Superman blaring through my phone and all her friends crowded around her to see. As I put away her backpack, I overheard them saying “thass cool!” Every day since, we have had a welcome committee wanting to see what superhero is up that day, and she is proud to show them.

While the graphics have allowed me to introduce heroes that she may not have seen in books or TV yet, it’s also reignited her own search for heroes without themes. She recently discovered Cyborg, and became very excited about hearing his theme song. I did not grow up with this character, but he has risen to prominence in the DC Universe in recent years and looks to be a major player in the upcoming slate of movies.

With virtually no personal reference for Cyborg’s motivations, I decided to plunder Daft Punk’s hybridized soundtrack to TRON: Legacy. I was ambivalent about this soundtrack the year it came out, but the passing time has treated it well. Certainly, it boasted a memorable theme or two.  I felt a little strange putting Daft Punk alongside the likes of John Adams and Mussorgsky, but my prejudice against electronically augmented orchestrations have softened a bit since the project’s inception. Besides, it kind of made sense with Cyborg, a character that epitomizes the struggle between man and machine.

No sooner did I settle on to revisiting the TRON: Legacy soundtrack than the Little One asked about Cyborg’s theme, this time during bath. I suggested we put it on, and I played the whole album as we were getting ready for bedtime. The opening track immediately grabbed her attention.



She heard the spoken word section drift in from the living room and asked if Cyborg was talking.  With my fingers crossed behind my back, I said that it was.  With her mouth open in awe, she listened intently.  When the theme kicked in, she smiled and said "that makes me happy." Can’t argue with that.

Although this track definitely has the TRON theme I was looking for, I did not use it. It was too short and, although I rather liked the idea of Jeff Bridges' grizzled ramblings as voice of Cyborg, we had been entirely instrumental so far. I did not want to go so far as to introduce text into the playlist. I ended up using the track titled Flynn Lives.



This track starts a bit quieter than I had envisioned, but it features a clear statement of the theme and a very strong ending.  Of course, “Cyborg” doesn’t talk in this one, so I had an apprehension that she would have clung to that opening track. This was unfounded. She immediately asked for Cyborg during the commute the next day and listened from the back of the car, staring at the graphic with a big grin.  At its conclusion, she triumphantly exclaimed "Cyborg!"

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Friday, October 17, 2014

The Superhero Theme Project: The Hulk Makes Her Think

Marvel characters are generally more complex than DC characters, none more so than the Hulk. He's big, he's scary, he's angry, but somehow, he is still a “good guy,”  This is not easy to get across to a 3 year old.  He is, however, an iconic Marvel character, I felt with some conviction that he should be represented alongside Captain America, Spider-Man, Thor, and Iron Man in the newly expanded Superhero Theme Playlist.

In my mind, the music that defines the Hulk is the Lonely Man Theme from the 70s series.  I was 6 when this series premiered, but the image of Bill Bixby walking away with his back to the camera still floats into my mind's eye when I hear this piece.

The Lonely Man Theme by Joe Harnell on Grooveshark

The Lonely Man Theme made such an impression on me back then that my mother used to play a rather dynamic version of Moonlight Sonata on the piano when I went to sleep at night and called it "the Hulk." These two songs are forever woven together in my subconscious as representations of the character, a fact that has I openly admit influenced my conception of the Superhero Theme Project

Without the reference of the TV show, though, this beautifully melancholic piece of music doesn’t have an obvious connection to the Hulk.  It's just too conceptually complex to get across, especially in Hulk's current hypermuscular renderings, and to be honest, it also doesn't fit the orchestral scope of the rest of the playlist.  As much as this song touches me personally, I decided not to use it.

There have been other Hulk films, however, and my desire to stick with franchise music revealed examples that ran in extremes: either incredibly intense and scary or incomprehensibly atmospheric and brooding.  I eventually became fascinated with Craig Armstrong's soundtrack to the woefully underrated Incredible Hulk film that featured Ed Norton as Bruce Banner.  This soundtrack featured a cameo appearance of the Lonely Man Theme, so I felt confident that Armstrong could connect with the character in a way that honors the Hulk's history.  Although the track with this melody was too short and soft to be usable, I was soon drawn to the pensive menace in The Hulk Theme.  



This track still contrasts very strongly with the other pieces on the playlist.  It is easily the most atmospheric, and boasts the most overtly electronic soundscape.  It is identifiably orchestral, however, and it still manages to capture a complex, dynamic snapshot of the Hulk.  More importantly, its melodic unity allows it to stand as an independent musical entity that doesn’t need the action of the film to provide a narrative.  After what happened with The Martian Manhunter and the music from the Matrix, this is a necessary prerequisite when I search for new themes.

Eventually, The Hulk came up in the car, and halfway through the track, the little one flatly stated, for the first time ever, “I don’t like it."  I was quietly crushed.  Reluctantly, she listened to the whole thing, and I did not say anything else.  I guess she just needed a little time to think about it, though, because about fifteen minutes later, about half way through current favorite  "Thor" (AKA Space Battleship Yamato), she said "The Hulk makes different sounds than Thor."  I was taken a bit off-guard, but I emphatically agreed with her.  As soon as Thor was over, she asked to listen to The Hulk again.  It is currently her first-call track and the one that she most often talks about.

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Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Superhero Theme Project: Thor and Captain America

Several months ago, I set my sights on adding Captain America and Thor to the Little One's Superhero Theme playlist.  When I added graphics to the songs on the playlist, it seemed like an opportune time to subtly expand it to include more Marvel characters. The dissatisfaction I had with my initial Martian Manhunter choice last year, however, taught me to be careful.   I certainly wanted to use franchise music if at all possible, but to be honest, despite being a devoted fan of the recent Marvel movies, I think the area in which these films could use some improvement is in their soundtracks.

The Iron Man 3 theme was already a favorite on the playlist, though, so earlier this year I proactively got Bryan Tyler’s soundtrack to Thor: the Dark World. I spent some time with it and finally watched the movie. After getting to know it, I will say the music is quite good, and certainly serves its purpose. In a side-by-side comparison, however, it seemed an awful lot like Iron Man 3 with less electronics and more choir. As a result, despite having existing music in the franchise, I decided to outsource Thor’s theme.

I appropriated the opening track from Space Battleship Yamato. The timing was off for me to use this outstanding soundtrack for the previous run of heroes earlier this year, so I was enthusiastic about getting it in the playlist. I think it is an absolutely perfect theme for Thor. Like a lot of the Marvel heroes, Thor is a bit complicated for the Little One to understand. Most current depictions of him are brooding and grim, so she often interprets him as a “bad guy.” It’s true that in the comics, Thor is the Thunderer, a warrior-god whose affection for humanity is often strained by their own ignorance. He is also noble and majestic, though, and this track allows both of these aspects of his character to shine through in its contrasting battle themes and flowing cosmic vocalizations.



Still, the clincher, especially in this phase of the project, is to get a picture that isn’t “scary” for her to look at while this track is playing. When it finally came up in the shuffle, she still took the stance that he wasn’t a very nice guy. I explained to her that Thor was a friend of Iron Man’s. A few minutes later, she was grinning and striking poses with an imaginary hammer.

Of all of the current Marvel heroes with big theatrical releases, the Captain America movies have been my favorites. I really wanted to adopt something from the first film, because it told the Captain America backstory so well. It emphasized the fact that Captain America is a soldier, but one that is driven more by personal convictions than blind adherence to chain of command. After listening to the soundtrack to The First Avenger several times, however, I didn’t latch on to any stand out moments that fit the 2-4 minute time requirement. I toyed with the idea of using a patriotic march, but that seemed too cliché. He is more than a mere soldier, he is an ideal. Rendering him with something as obvious as a march seemed inappropriate.

So I waited until I watched the Winter Soldier. Although this might be my favorite Avengers-related movie to date, the soundtrack seems to capitalize the on movie’s overtones of espionage and betrayal. The movie plays up the fact that Captain America is a patriot from a bygone era, which keeps his commentary on contemporary society relevant. I wanted to capture this idealized patriotism without selling it out.  I decided on Fanfare for the Common Man by Aaron Copland.



It just made sense: Copland endeavored to create a distinctively American style of orchestral music. While many of his pieces attempt to capture the flavor of the old west, Fanfare for the Common Man can’t be beat for its majestic nobility. Additionally, from the perspective of character continuity, with a 1942 composition date, it could conceivably be a song that Steve Rogers might have found inspiring. Plus, it is a personal, long-time favorite of mine. I seriously doubt that any film composer would ever be able to come up with a more effective theme.

The first time she heard Fanfare for the Common Man was through the phone’s speaker while she was playing upstairs. The audio quality was laughable, but still, the song stopped her in her tracks. I did not have to explain who it was at all. With the graphic up, she told me who it was. Then she sat down and listened to the entire thing….twice.

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