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!"

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.

Click HERE to go to the previous post in the series.
To see where it all began, click HERE.

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.

To go back to the previous post, click HERE
To go to the next one, click HERE.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Superhero Theme Project: Revived and Retconned

Earlier this year, I reported that her interest seemed to be on the wane for the Superhero Theme Project, and at the time, this was true. She was requesting to listen to the playlist with less and less frequency.  It would not be unusual, however, for me to catch her humming The Great Gate of Kiev when she was playing by herself. It seemed like something was rolling around in there.  Then about a month ago, for whatever reason, her interest returned. She began requesting Aquaman in the car, so I would start with The Great Gate of Kiev and just let the playlist play on shuffle. She often wanted to sit in the car and listen to music in the driveway after we had finished our commute home. One day, she asked if we could listen to superheroes in the house, so I pulled up several good quality orchestral videos on YouTube and we watched them together. This whetted her appetite even further.

Then a complication arose. She was looking at my phone while listening to Hawkgirl, (AKA the Game of Thrones theme), and began trying to spell out the name of the song. Clearly, Hawkgirl doesn’t start with a “G” sound, so she was justifiably confused.  Did I mention she just turned 3?

While I was more than happy that our work with the alphabet was starting to pay off, she was going to catch on to me very quickly.  I took some time to reformat all the files,  renaming them and editing the tags so that the character’s names would appear as the various compositions played (although I kept the composer’s names intact). Additionally, and this is the kicker, I reassigned album art to each track so that a picture of the superhero would display as the track played. Also, in true comic book fashion, I did my first, and probably only, retcon of a character.

Ever since last year, I have regretted adopting Main Title/Trinity Infinity from The Matrix to represent the Martian Manhunter. After nine months, she could still not identify it when it played. It just didn’t have enough melodic material as a standalone composition to stick, and it stuck out in the playlist because of this shortcoming.

When I revamped the list with graphics, I reassigned the Martian Manhunter’s theme with my original first instinct: Dream is Collapsing from the Inception soundtrack. I had initially dismissed this track because I envisioned the superhero playlist to be purely orchestral, and the prominent electric guitar in the introduction went against this conception. I continued listening to the Inception soundtrack on my own, however, and never gave the Matrix soundtrack a second look.

My justification for appropriating music from The Matrix was that shimmering chord progression that I playfully called “the Matrix Sound.” More than anything else, I thought that musical sound effect carried an ethereal otherworldliness that summed up J’onn J’onzz. That sound effect by itself, however, was never used in an independent musical fashion anywhere on any of the Matrix soundtracks. It always lined up with the action of the film, and without the film’s narrative to provide some structure there was just not enough for her to hold on to.

There is also, however, an “Inception Sound” to be found, although it is identified less by shimmering string chords and more by thunderous, blasting brass and percussion. While this incredible, physics-defying sound is also inextricably wound up in the narrative of the movie, Zimmer also quite brilliantly places it within musical structures that can stand on their own.

In my mind, Inception sits between The Dark Knight and Man of Steel, the middle entry in a trilogy of Zimmer’s soundtracks that have captured my interest in the past few years. While it inhabits the same dark, foreboding tone of its predecessor, it also has the startling dynamic impact that defines Man of Steel. No matter how low the volume level is on Inception, it creates the sense that it is rattling the very edges of universe, threatening to overwhelm and consume all sounds in its path.

Considering my increasing interest in Hans Zimmer’s work, it seemed appropriate for him to be represented on the playlist, and I would not have a more suitable chance than with The Martian Manhunter. I wasn’t so sure that the Little One would buy it, though. The last time I tried to pull a fast one on her, she called me out.  It was clear, though, that she was not connecting with the Matrix track. I felt pretty sure that with the picture of J’onn J’onzz on the display, she would not question the change too much.

I was right. She totally bought it. In fact, I think she likes is a lot better, especially when “The Inception Sound” begins to appear at the end of Dream is Collapsing (1:34 in the clip above), and we both start chanting “J’ONN J’OOOONZ……J’ONN J’OOOONZ” at the top of our lungs.


To go to the previous post in this series, click HERE.
To go to the next one, click HERE..

Saturday, August 30, 2014

"Sound Mirror:" Syd Arthur's Straight Line

A lot has happened to Syd Arthur since I stumbled across them last summer. On and On was a refreshing collection of prog-tinged tunes held together by asymmetrical time signatures and complex textures. They were accessible, however, in a way that set the more conservative prog community ill at ease.  I hoped that the band would not submit to the expectations of this sometimes insatiable audience.  Fortunately, as I had hoped, the band stuck to their original mission statement. Their sophomore release Sound Mirror is more of the same, only done better.  It is a deep exploration of the territory staked out by their debut that avoids exactly retracing its exact successes.

In addition to the artistic success of Sound Mirror, Syd Arthur served as the opening band for Yes on their recent tour. Considering Syd Arthur’s clear regard for prog days gone by, they could not have asked for a better venue.  From what I have seen, Syd Arthur was relatively well received, winning over new fans at every show.  I don't find this particularly surprising.  Fans of the current, non-traditional iteration of Yes are more likely to be more open minded progressive listeners.  Predictably, however, the positive response has not been unanimous. In particular, I was taken off guard when an old college friend whose musical opinion I value saw them on this tour and thought that they “had no songs.”

As much as I love Syd Arthur, I can see how it might seem that way, especially at first glance. It took me some time to decide if I liked the sounds or the songs from On and On. Viewed superficially, the ostinato riffs that serve as the foundation of their songs can seem a little jam-bandy and, by traditional progressive rock standards, a little repetitive. On the other hand, these riffs are pretty complex, and constructing memorable melodies over this texture takes more than just an ear for a tune.

It is common for contemporary progressive rock bands to lose sight of accessibility for the sake of complexity.  The melodic nature of Syd Arthur's music allows them to dodge this issue nicely and in doing so, cuts through the hazy space between progressive rock and more contemporary alternative rock styles. Although they exhibit a clear nostalgia for 70s psychedelia, they also a connect with more recent experimental rock.  The opening riff of Sinkhole, for example, would have fit nicely on any album released by Radiohead in the late 90s. 

Syd Arthur's navigation of these closely intertwined styles makes it tempting to engage in the increasingly threadbare "what is prog?" debate.  I'll save you the trouble: the distinction is subjective.  For some, like myself, Radiohead, Muse, and other adventurous acts are the next logical step in the ongoing evolution of progressive rock.  For others, the style is strictly defined by characteristics that were set in stone nearly forty years ago.  Syd Arthur, however, draws a straight line between these two conceptions of the genre in a way that challenges the boundary between them.   

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Zimmer's "Man of Steel:" an Impossible Balance

It was a couple of days after Christmas, and we were at my in-law’s vacation condo. I quietly crawled into bed between a feverish toddler and an exhausted wife. Both were finally asleep, and for the first time in what seemed like forever, I had a quiet moment. I slipped in a pair of earbuds and pulled up Hans Zimmer’s Man of Steel soundtrack, which I received from my family. I had been looking forward to getting a chance to sit down and listen to it, and although this was not entirely the setting I had anticipated, I did not want to pass it up.

It was as if I had stepped into another world.

Look to the Stars by Hans Zimmer on Grooveshark

From elegant themes that roll like thunder across distant hills to percussive polyrhythms that border on cacophony, Man of Steel is majestic, expansive, and gracefully melodic, and it continues the exploration of sound that Zimmer began on The Dark Knight and sustained into Inception. Across my examination of these soundtracks, I increasingly hold the opinion that Zimmer represents the best in contemporary soundtrack composition. Man of Steel does nothing but reinforce this view, especially the way in which he augments the orchestra without challenging its identity. Twelve drumset players, metal sculptures, and a steel guitar “choir” hardly represent the instrumentation of the average studio orchestra. That he can make this unique ensemble work as a whole is a feat of his artistic vision.

In any ensemble, an essential concern is balance. Musicians playing a group must instinctively play in relationship to another if all the important parts of the composition are to be heard. Man of Steel’s instrumentation, however, makes a true studio quality performance of the soundtrack problematic. For example, there is a certain timbral change in a drum sound when it is hit hard. Man of Steel pervasively employs the power of that sound, but for that many drummers to play that loud in the same acoustic environment as a string section just isn’t acoustically viable. It would change the intensity of the drums, and therefore the nature of the performance, if they were to play quieter or if there were less of them. In the real world, it just doesn’t work.

Man of Steel is, however, a studio construction, with parts recorded separately and assembled in a virtual setting. In the past, this might have set me ill at ease, but I have come to appreciate the amount of abstraction and vision this approach requires. Zimmer does not just rely on abstract soundscapes. Instead he captures performances of his compositions and assembles them to maximize their emotive potential in a supportive, sometimes propulsive harmonic environment. This allows Man of Steel to be both immersive and incredibly powerful while retaining the sound of human hands on instruments.

What I really like about Man of Steel is its noticeable narrative capacity. It tells a story of the film almost as clearly as the film itself. Superman has evolved and changed dramatically over the course of his existence. He has gone from being a strong, bulletproof guy who can jump really high to being nearly godlike. In his more recent history, there has been a general movement to humanize him, and in Man of Steel, the foregrounding of his struggle as an adoptee was particularly touching. A good portion of the movie is centered on Superman's self-discovery, not just of his powers, but his purpose.

For the careful listener, this manifests in the blossoming exploration of just a few simple themes that provide the framework for the entire soundtrack. Variations and extrapolations allow this melodic material, most of which starts as a murmur at the outset, to unfold into something immensely powerful and textured by the end of the listening experience.

Despite the somewhat surreptitious setting in which I gave Man of Steel its first listen, I was thankful that I took the opportunity to listen to it on headphones, because it is best taken in an immersive environment that will highlight its amazing dynamic range and atmospheric depth. Subsequent listens in other environments resulted in shaking rearview mirrors or nervous glances out the back patio door. Not that any of that stopped me – it has been in constant rotation for months. Man of Steel is quite amazing, to the point that is has made other soundtracks I have listened to since sound dated and clichéd.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Yes' Step Beyond: Imagining a Change

All week long I have been at Aikido Summer Camp, and have had the great pleasure of watching my wife take her black belt test.  Classes have been great, and her success has made me very proud.  As I climb in bed at night, however, I've been playing meaningless little imaginary games that only the hardcore Yes fans could even understand. If that's not you, this post might not make much sense.  At the very least, if you are just tuning in, you might want to back up to yesterday's post for context.

While Fly from Here was a pretty good effort, its essence laid in revisiting past material and really did not provide a sustainable vision for Yes’s future. Heaven and Earth, however, is quite a different story. Like it or not, it has an inarguable Yes-ness, and Davison's enthusiasm for the band hints at a longer range, perhaps past the point at which some of his elder bandmates might be willing or able to continue.

At different times, Yes' ex-keyboardist Rick Wakeman and bassist/musical director Chris Squire both have hypothesized that the band could, in fact, exist after its originating members have retired. Many people draw the line at Anderson’s departure, but with Jon Davison injecting new blood into the band, it kind of begs the question: Could the Yes name move forward with even more new blood than Davison, maybe without a single original or classic member?

It is a tricky proposition, but an important one for the classic rock generation. As bands with strong identities reach the age of retirement, can they “sell the business” in a way that the fan base will accept? Yes, a band whose identity has already survived so much change, is uniquely positioned to address this issue. There are certainly musicians out there with clear ties to the band’s heritage that could move the Yes name forward not by just playing the classic albums well, but by creating new music in the Yes tradition.

Because there is a tradition, there are roles to fill, but fortunately, Davison has emerged as Anderson’s heir apparent and a member to rally around. If a full changing of the guard were to come to pass, however, it would have to follow the retirement of Chris Squire, who has been keeping Yes’ flame alight for the past 45 years. In addition to his distinctive bass playing, his backup vocals are absolutely integral to the Yes sound, and he is, for all intents and purposes, the band’s musical director. The only person that could come close to covering all these bases would be Billy Sherwood.  He has worked behind the scenes with Yes for over a decade at this point, and it would be really exciting to see him form the core of a new Yes with Davison. Watch him tear up this classic:

A potential successor for Howe was a bit less obvious, but in doing research on Sherwood, I discovered a contender in the above video clip. Clearly, Jimmy Haun has some rapport with Sherwood and he has the flexibility to cover both Howe and Rabin’s guitar work. His contributions as Howe's stand-in on the politically troubled Union album weaves him even further into Yes’ DNA. It would be interesting to hear his unique voice officially take the lead in the context of a Yes project.

The most fluid role in Yes’ history is that of the keyboardist, and there are many players that the fanbase would love to see come back. In my opinion, however, Oliver Wakeman never really got a chance to shine on his own before he was ousted in favor of Geoff Downes during the Fly from Here sessions. His presence would simultaneously acknowledge and sidestep the issue of his father’s rather long shadow.

That leaves the drummer, a role that has not been as fluid, but perhaps the one that needs to be addressed. I can’t help but think that if White abdicated the drum throne and allowed some fresh hands behind the set, the energy of Heaven and Earth would have been much different. Despite White’s immense contribution to the Yes canon, significant part of the fan base still laments the loss of Bill Bruford. At the risk of turning this lineup into “Yes Kids,” bringing Dylan Howe into the fold is an interesting option, and one that would satisfy the more conservative fanbase. The last name alone buys him some credibility, and he would most likely bring back the jazzier approach that characterized the early days of Yes.

Davison, Sherwood, Haun, Wakeman, and Howe: I would like to think that if these five guys were put in a room and told to “make a Yes album,” the results would be phenomenal. At the very least, they would know what to do.  Of course, it’s all just fantasy football for the prog-rock nerd. These are real live musicians with their own careers and political complications, and not just pieces on a chess board. In any case, such a reconfiguration of the group would be interesting no matter what form it took, and would be a distinctly Yes thing to do. Considering the resistance to Anderson’s departure, however, I can’t imagine the resistance that would come from more conservative factions of the fanbase. Such a next-generation group would absolutely have to have Squire’s blessing if there were any chance of acceptance. That and a Roger Dean cover.