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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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.

Success.

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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.