Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Superhero Theme Project Part 5: Aquaman

Despite being an original member of the Justice League with a history that predates DC comics as a company, Aquaman gets very little respect. The ability to breathe underwater and control aquatic life was compelling when the character was pitted against World War II U-Boats in the pages of propaganda comics. Outside of this environment, though, he’s just another strong guy that talks to fish. Today, he’s best written as an environmental crusader and sometimes even a dissident, which doesn’t translate well into the street-level settings that his more visible peers inhabit. Still, there are dedicated writers who believe in the character, and for those that are willing to check the footnotes of comic history, Aquaman has suffered through no small amount of tragedy and triumph in his canon.

Probably for no other reason than his gravelly-voiced rendering on the Super Friends animated cartoon I watched in my youth, I also have a soft spot in my heart for the character. I completely understand why he is a hard sell to a wide audience, but I still see him at the sitting at the very foundation of the DC universe. I was happy to see that he regularly appears in the Little One’s bedtime board books alongside Superman, Batman, Flash, and Green Lantern, so she had an opportunity to connect with the character.

When it came to looking for Aquaman’s theme, I obviously had to acknowledge the splendor of the ocean. My first pick was the final movement from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, a composition called The Great Gate at Kiev. This piece had a couple of strikes against it, however, he most troubling of which was that most renditions pass the five minute mark. Also, it is not a driving piece like many of her favorites. The Great Gate of Kiev derives its interest from its proud theme and dynamic contrasts rather than brisk tempos, and I was not sure that it would hold her attention throughout the quieter sections.



I continued doing research, reviewing the space opera themes that I came across during my research for Green Lantern, but they did not sit right. The imagined majesty of space is probably informed by the actual grandeur of the sea, but I don’t think that they should be synonymous. The ocean’s magnificence is distinct in that it is ancient and dichotomous. As long as humans have stared out into it, we have been viscerally aware of how it is simultaneously serene and terrifying, welcoming and defiant. As the King of the Atlantis, Aquaman doesn’t just survive in these extremes, he is the master of them. His theme had to be more than majestic – it had to be regal. I came back to The Great Gate at Kiev, counting on the piece’s thematic strength to keep her engaged.

Once I decided on the piece, I began planting seeds for the Aquaman theme during her evening book readings. When Aquaman came up, I pointed out to her that he was one of two heroes in the book that still don’t have songs. I told her that he had one and that if she could remember to ask for Aquaman next time she was in the car that I would to play it for her.

The next day we were going through her usual favorites while out on errands. While we were waiting in the parking lot for my wife to run into a store, the Little One, without any prompting, requested “Aquaman.”  She was immediately very, very excited by its attention-grabbing opening.  Because the car wasn't in motion, I was able to guide her through the imagery I had in mind.  Her interest in The Little Mermaid and the Dinosaur Train submarine episodes thankfully provided some context for what lies above and below the ocean’s surface.  Our imaginary Aquaman navigated these extremes with ease, alternatively mastering the waves above water or swimming peacefully under the surface.  Needless to say, the five minutes went by very quickly.  When my wife came back out to the car, the Little One excitedly screamed “MOMMY, AQUAMAN!”

Success.

To go to the next episode, click HERE.
To go back, click HERE.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Superhero Theme Project Part 4: The Flash

He is not particularly strong, he doesn’t fly, and he’s doesn’t talk to fish, but The Flash is still very easy to describe to a two year old: he’s “fast.” That description implies a lot musically, but I did not think that it would do for his theme to merely have a quick tempo. I had a specific sound in mind, and although there were many pieces with parts that were appropriate, there was not a single one that seemed to fit. The opening of Holst's Jupiter, with its rippling arpeggios and driving pulse, rang pretty loudly in my ears, but as an entire piece, it is too long. I want to save The Planets for when astronomy catches the Little One’s attention, anyhow.

Jupiter, The Bringer Of Jollity by Holst, Gustav - von Karajan - Berlin Philharmonic on Grooveshark

With this vague idea as a starting point, the list of contenders seemed to grow longer and longer, but nothing seemed right. One of the finalists was the Flying Theme from E.T.

Flying Theme from "E.T." by Boston Pops Orchestra on Grooveshark

It is undeniably fleet of foot, and has a memorable melody that I could pull out of context to define the character. Still, it was a bit too soft, and as a definitive John Williams composition, it broke the “musical favoritism” rule.  Additionally, a quick poll revealed that E.T. is still relevant kid’s TV, so she might end up seeing the movie. Finally, the last two themes I had pulled from existing soundtracks, and it was not my intention to co-opt her entire superhero theme repertoire in this way. I wanted to mix in more "serious" literature as well.

The texture I was looking for was minimalist, but most of my go-to composers in this genre capitalize on the meditative qualities of the style. I was looking for something brighter and more driving. After seemingly endless digging, I recalled a work called Short Ride in a Fast Machine by John Adams. I had not heard this song for many, many years, and even then it was only by relatively superficial exposure in a 20th century music class. Its name alone, however, suggested a revisit, and it immediately caught both my attention and imagination.



This song was driving and intense, and it captured the bright, festive intensity that I saw as essential to The Flash. More importantly, it was a piece that was relatively unfamiliar to me, and I was excited about examining it more closely alongside the Little One. It did break a cardinal rule, however, because the song is not defined by a clear melody. Its musical interest is generated by broad harmonic changes and disorienting rhythmic dissonance. Short Ride in a Fast Machine would, in a sense, be the most programmatic selection I had made, but once I seriously considered it, any other song just did not seem right. I took the risk.

By the time I got the song on the playlist, she had been asking about The Flash for a couple of days. I was not sure exactly what her ear would be drawn towards, so I did not give her much of a cue. I just asked her if she wanted to hear “The Flash,” and she excitedly said she did. Within moments of its first playing, her eyes widened excitedly and she gleefully screamed from the back seat “HE’S RUNNING!”

Success.

To go back to the previous episode, click HERE.
To go on, click HERE.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Superhero Theme Project Part 3: Green Lantern

Green Lantern is hard to easily characterize because he’s not just “strong” or “fast.” He is a member of a space police force and uses a cosmically powered ring to create anything imaginable by the sheer power of his will. It’s pretty hard to boil that down to a 2 year old. He has long been one of my favorite DC superheroes, however, partially because his universe is so complex. It's even more complicated because there have also been many people to wear the costume. I was raised with Hal Jordan, who is, like most of the superheroes that taught me to read, white and male.  The Little One, living in a world that fortunately recognizes diversity more readily than the one I was born into, usually sees the black John Stewart as Green Lantern. There are also others, and each one is a distinct character with a unique contribution to the canon.

Startrek by Jeff Hodges on GroovesharkAlthough I was still figuring out how to easily describe to her what Green Lantern does, It was not a stretch for me to decide the musical genre I was going to delve into to find his theme. His setting is the vast cosmos as realized by the DC universe, and, looking at some of my past posts, it’s probably not a secret that I am something of a sci-fi fanboy. I went right to space opera, which, thanks to John Williams iconic work in Star Wars, sets a pretty high standard. The problem was trying to figure out which one. My first choices were from Star Trek.

I was apprehensive, though, because these themes are really close to my heart. There was a time in my life that the escapism of the 90’s Star Trek universe was the high point of my week. I was not sure that I could, or even wanted to, attach either of these songs to Green Lantern. I also admit that I secretly hope that she will one day become a Trek fan. I wanted choose a tune that might inform her future appreciation of these compositions rather than prematurely and perhaps artificially pilfer them.

Looking back now, I sort of regret not using these themes. As much as I have listened to them in their respective shows, their majesty still moves me. At the suggestion of a reader, however, I decided to go back a bit further. I was a fan of the original Battlestar Galactica when I was very young, but unfortunately, the show really doesn't hold up well, especially in the light of its reboot.  She will probably never go back and see it.  The original theme song, however, is the granddad of both of great Star Trek themes. It’s grandiose and powerful, and at the same time contrasts the other pieces that she has heard so far. I can easily imagine the Green Lantern Corps gliding through space as it plays on. (we have an extended version, but I could not pass up on indulging in the intro as it was seen back then).



Once the Little One started to realize that there were themes for other heroes beyond Superman and Batman, she started making some inquiries. Just to be prepared, I put the Battlestar Galactica theme on the playlist at the same time as Anvil of Crom. Sure enough, the morning that she discovered Wonder Woman, she requested Green Lantern, and I was ready.  Wonder Woman won her attention that morning, but she requests Green Lantern regularly, as well as several subsequent replays.

In the midst of this, I decided on a the character's one-word descriptor. As a prerequisite for being given a power ring, a Green Lantern is supposedly “born without fear.” When the Little One and I talk about him, then, his power is that he is “brave.” While the comic purist would probably balk at this, I think it’s not a bad start, and certainly a trait that I would like for my Little One to aspire to.

To go to the previous post, click HERE.
To go on, click HERE.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Superhero Theme Project Part 2: Wonder Woman

I always expected to connect with my offspring through the shared mythology of superheroes. This world is one created by men and generated by their boyish fantasies, however, a fact of which I became acutely aware when I found out that I was going to be father to a daughter. While I did not want to oppose the Little One from becoming a fan of male superheroes, I also wanted her to be aware that there are equally inspiring female options. As the most established comic heroine, Wonder Woman was the obvious choice, but at the time my knowledge of this character’s accepted canon was relatively shallow.

I did some research on her more current iterations, and while I admit that I was a little disappointed when I found out that the invisible jet had been retconned out, I certainly got a better feeling for what makes her unique and distinct from other iconic DC characters. Wonder Woman is both an idealistic princess and an archetypical Greek warrior. She isn’t a sheltered farmboy like Superman, but she is, in some ways, more alien to the world that she defends. She isn’t darkly damaged like Batman, but she answers to a morality that stands outside of the status quo.

Despite my efforts to make the Little One aware of Wonder Woman, she has a clear preference for Superman. Who can blame her? Although female superheroes are deeper and more prevalent than in the past, there is still virtually no effort to make these characters more visible. Superman is everywhere, while Wonder Woman is still mostly relegated to the flattened page. I hoped that musically rendering her would add some dimension to the Little One’s concept of the character as it had for Superman. When I was looking for music to represent Wonder Woman, the obvious choice would have been to play on her Olympian roots. The Olympic Fanfare and Theme was a contender.

Olympic Fanfare and Theme by The Boston Pops Orchestra, John Williams on Grooveshark

Due to its length, however, this one would require some editing. Also, as a John Williams piece in a fanfare style, I was concerned that it would not contrast enough with the Superman March to stand on its own. As I talked to more people about this project, Basil Poledouris’ soundtrack to Conan the Barbarian was a recurring suggestion. It has been many, many years since I have seen the movie, and in truth, I really didn’t remember the soundtrack at all, but the serendipitous nature of these recommendations forced me to revisit this forceful theme.



Anvil of Crom has a raw power that immediately started turning my wheels. It was certainly different from the Williams and Elfman themes, and it would make sense for Wonder Woman if I played up the “warrior princess” aspect of the character. Still, because Spider-Man had been so successful, I wanted to get it right. I had not made a conscious commitment when the Little One unexpectedly asked me, pointing at a picture of the character, “How does Wonder Woman go?” Without a better idea, I sang the pulsing rhythms of the opening to Anvil of Crom. She looked at me and said “Wonder Woman is strong.”

Seed planted.

I was still a little apprehensive on next day’s commute when, after a couple of plays through Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man each, I asked if she wanted to listen to Wonder Woman. She enthusiastically agreed, but as it thundered forth from the speakers, her initial reaction was a little opaque. She stared out the window for the entire song, and did not request a replay when it was over. I thought that I had lost her. When I came around to get her out of the car, however, she smiled and said “DUN-da-da-DUN-DUN-DUN-da-da-da…….Wonder Woman! She’s strong!” We kept this up as we walked all the way to her classroom.

Success. 

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

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Superhero Theme Project Part 1: Spiderman and Zappa

I did not expect the Little One to connect so strongly with the Batman score when I reviewed it earlier this month, but she surely did. She got some exposure to Batman and the whole DC pantheon through the animated Justice League series this summer on Netflix, and it seems to have provided her with enough context to give Elfman’s relatively complex orchestral compositions some meaning.  Once I told her that we were “listening to Batman” in the car, she grinned and wiggled, cheering on his imaginary exploits. After that, Batman became a repeated request.  Excited and intrigued by her interest, I wanted to see if I could stretch it further. The next logical step was Superman, who has always been her favorite. John Williams’ Superman March signifies as much about that character to me as Elfman’s theme does about Batman. With very little introduction, she immediately took to this composition – in fact, it seems to have deepened her interest in the Superman character.

Superhero themes seemed to be her "way in" for orchestral music. Most of the other characters that she knows well have not been well-developed in the cinema, however, and therefore do not have a definitive theme attached to them – certainly not one that could exist in the same “world” as the work of Williams or Elfman.  Even Spider-man, who does have well-developed movies, is not associated with any particularly memorable themes.

I decided to take it upon myself to “create” some great superhero themes for her by recontextualizing music from orchestral literature and soundtracks. This would be a somewhat sneaky way to get her listening to good examples of the style while enriching her expanding superhero world.

Some rules began to emerge:
  • The composition had to have a clear melody that she could identify out of context.
  • It would need to be between two and five minutes long to satisfy her attention span.
  • I did not want to take it upon myself to edit down great works, so I felt like any composition would have to be self-encapsulated, although a movement from a larger work would still be acceptable.
  • Using theme music from already existing sources would be acceptable as long as it was from a work that would most likely not play a big role in her childhood (which immediately ruled out Star Wars).
  • The music had to co-exist in the same “world” as the Williams and Elfman compositions, which ruled out the dated 70’s Wonder Woman theme or the campy theme from the late 60’s Spider-Man cartoon.
  • I wanted to avoid playing musical “favorites” if I could, which meant that I couldn’t just give in to my temptation to run to John Williams for everything.
  • Finally, it had to be something that I could take listening to repeatedly, perhaps even endlessly, because I most assuredly would.
I plunged into my own library, pulling out everything that I could that might fit these constraints, while simultaneously taking informal polls through social media.  I was listening for themes that might fit well with the superheroes that she currently knows by name: Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, The Flash, and Green Lantern. Very early on, I thought I had a lock on Spider-Man with Havendance by David Holsinger.

Havendance by University of Nevada, Reno Wind Ensemble on Grooveshark

I have had lots of music education experiences with this song, and it seemed to capture lots of aspects of the character. It has both heroic themes and sneaky, quiet sections that dance nimbly through jarring, arrhythmic time signatures. Part of me felt that it might be a bit too long to hold her attention as a singular composition, though, and perhaps a bit too bombastic for the character. Still, I clung to the song.

As I was searching for fast, driving songs for The Flash, however, I decided that Frank Zappa’s orchestral rendition of G-Spot Tornado from The Yellow Shark sessions was the one. Admittedly, the track pushes the length barrier to its limits, but it is also exciting, agile, and angular enough to represent the “Spiderness” of Peter Parker’s alter ego. Plus, how many other opportunities would I get to expose her to Zappa that wouldn’t require an in-depth discussion of his usually outrageous and sometimes offensive satire?


Despite the somewhat shocking video (which she will not see for many, many years) it was too good a musical match to pass up, so I planted the seed. One evening I asked her “how Spider-man went” and she looked at me quizzically. I sang the first couple of riffs from G-Spot Tornado (with a little quirky dance to drive it home) and she smiled. I left it at that. Next time we were in the car during our usual Superman and Batman playlist, I suggested we “listen to Spider-man.” She really, really liked it, dancing uncontrollably in her car seat and giggling. When I looked over my shoulder, she excitedly exclaimed “this is Spider-man!”

Success.

To see the origin story of this project, click HERE.
To go to the next post, click HERE.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Flying Colors and an Altercation at the Hotel Congress

The Hotel Congress in Tuscon advertised that it was “an urban, historic hotel,” and that my room “may be affected by plaza, nightclub, or street noise.” I knew that they meant business when I noticed that alongside the usual hotel soap and shampoo there were also complimentary earplugs. I wasn’t too particularly worried about the noise, though, and the hotel itself was pretty cool. It was founded in 1919, and the management, using “authentic” technology, capitalized on the establishment’s history whenever possible. Just look at that switchboard!

It also lived up to its promise as a contemporary hot spot, with a wedding party and bands playing well into the night. I gave this whole scene a wide berth. With the exception of a slightly surreal trip to grab some mint tea across the street, I stayed blissfully isolated, watching prog-rock videos through the hotel’s free, decidedly non-authentic shared WiFi.  I was, however, distracted by a heated and loud altercation between another patron of the hotel and a person who I assume was the hotel manager. The guy was obviously inebriated and causing trouble downstairs, and the manager wanted him to sleep it off. After a few tense minutes and a bribe of complimentary booze, the patron agreed to stay in his hotel room. This seemed to work, at least for a few hours.

When this shouting match died down, I was able to refocus on the the new Spock’s Beard tracks that I had stumbled across, featuring Ted Leonard of Enchant on lead vocals and, more excitingly, Neal Morse as a co-writer.  I was an avid Spock's Beard fan in the early to mid 90s, but after lead singer and primary songwriter Neal Morse left the band to go on a religious quest, the band’s distinctive chemistry was, in my opinion, crippled. Aside from his mission, however, Morse has been quite busy with solo albums and collaborations in the decade since he left the group, one of which was one-off debut album by Flying Colors.



Flying Colors is, in every sense of the word, a supergroup formed primarily through the member's various connections with ex-Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy. It is not guaranteed that musicians in these situations can create instant chemistry, but Flying Colors, with the experienced virtuosity of Steve Morse and Dave LaRue, coheres  quite well into a distinctive iteration of the hard rock/progressive pop formula.

The band is like a primordial soup of creativity. Each of these musicians are strong contributors to the groups from which they come, and wild card Casey MacPherson snatches the album from the edge of cliche with gratifying regularity.  Still, the as a whole, some songs are clearly more refined than others.  Flying Colors was, however, crafted in an incredibly short amount of time (nine days!), so the few tracks that seem less strong should probably not be judged too harshly. In any case, the album clearly reflects the collaborative potential of these top-notch musicians.



After waiting on the hotel's sputtering WiFi, I started to feel a bit worn out.  Despite the noise levels, however, I was apprehensive about putting in earplugs and oversleeping on the second day of my lifting seminar. As I'd hoped, the music and noise really didn't bother me too much.

At 1:15, however, I was awoken when the patron, even louder and more far gone than before, had apparently finished his "payment" and snuck back downstairs and was being resolutely forbidden from returning.  The manager was threatening to call the police to have him removed from the hotel entirely, but the tenant was far too inebriated to reason with.  He seemed to soften, however, when he somehow remembered that his previous outburst got him some free booze .  When he tried to plie the manager for a similar deal, manager told him, unapologetically, that his maneuvering was embarrassing.  Without even his dignity to sell, the tenant sheepishly went back into his room and quieted down.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Sounds of Batman Then and Now

Before the year 2000, the comic book fan had relatively little to be excited about at the box office, Most superhero movies simply were not possible on a reasonable budget without some serious imagination. Back in 1988, Tim Burton certainly had that to offer, and his take on Batman generated quite a bit of excitement in certain circles. The dedicated comic fan will doubtlessly argue the strengths and weaknesses of the movie, but its influence on the character’s ongoing evolution has been undeniable.

The score to Batman was composed by Danny Elfman, who at the time was better known, at least to me, as the lead singer of Oingo Boingo. Elfman has gone on to have quite a bit of success as a movie composer, but Batman was probably his breakout moment - his Star Wars, so to speak. As a much younger musician, and one who judged orchestral music mainly by what it would sound like on the marching field, I thought it was brilliant. Certainly, Elfman’s playful, imaginative style clearly brings back imagery from the film and in small doses, it’s electrifying.



I revisited this soundtrack recently and was initially quite exhilarated. The opening theme is now, in retrospect, iconic. Burton’s dark imagination may have changed Batman visually, but Danny Elfman’s attendant soundtrack shaped the way Batman sounded for the next decade. The Batman Animated Series, which was arguably one of the finest renderings of the Batman mythos, featured a variant theme by Elfman. This tied the series into the same world as the movie, and as the DC animated universe grew, the shadow of Elfman’s themes stretched further and further.



Despite its influence, over the course of the Batman OST, as a more mature listener I began to feel less and less engaged. It’s pervasively nervous, anxious energy soon becomes exhausting, and the themes that were so compelling at the outset are repeated and reinvented endlessly with relatively little harmonic or rhythmic variation. By the album’s end, it starts to feel like the whole thing has been nothing more than that one theme over and over again, dressed up in Elfman’s characteristic flurry of strings.


These days the cinema is a much different place for those of us that grew up reading comics. There are many amazing movie adaptations, not the least of which was the genre-defining Dark Knight trilogy from Christopher Nolan. His gritty, real-world take on Batman appealed to both comic fans and non-fans alike. Like its concomitant movie, Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s soundtrack to the second of these films, The Dark Knight, is a much different rendering of Batman’s soundscape.



The Dark Knight OST often has more in common with the moody, minimalistic ripples of Phillip Glass than the thematic bombast of John Williams. This impression is doubtlessly due to its use of repetition as a compositional tool. At no time, however, does it sink to redundancy (which, taken as a whole, Elfman’s score does). The Dark Knight uses melody sparingly, instead conjuring a sinister, cerebral mood through a staggeringly broad spectrum of timbres and sounds. Perhaps because it is relatively sparse, it is still possible to hear vague outlines of Elfman’s thematic material if you are imaginative. Mostly, however, The Dark Knight is a defiantly original tightrope walk between contemplative focus and terrifying, explosive fury.

Because melody is not at the forefront of The Dark Knight, Zimmer and Howard’s score is not as immediately memorable as Elfman’s, but it is in some ways more engaging. Its strengths are far more subtle, and are not overused to the point of exhaustion. Unlike the Batman OST, which fatigues the focused listener, The Dark Knight gives the listener enough room for their own place in the soundscape. It feels as if it is over too soon, which infuses it with an aesthetic value outside of its status as the accompaniment to an amazing movie.

EDIT: This review became an episodic project that formally started HERE.