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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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.


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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.   

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.

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.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Collaborative Potential Behind Yes' "Heaven and Earth"

The secret to Yes’ longevity is not merely their penchant for lineup changes, but also the band’s willingness to incorporate new talent. Historically, Yes members have rarely (but sometimes) been treated like talking heads. A change in personnel was expected to change the band’s sound. Whether these various changes are positive or negative is the topic of constant debate amongst Yes’ fan base. At the very least, Yes’ fluid identity and inclusive ideology has kept them interesting, if not consistent, for well on 45 years.

Jon Anderson’s departure from the group has been the divisive issue in recent times. Clearly, Anderson’s voice lies at the very foundation of the Yes sound, but in his later years with the group, he seemed to grow increasingly unfocused. I think that if the Yes name was to go on, a change was bound to occur. Granted, installing a new lead singer is a delicate process, but by and large is it possible for a band to survive and even progress once they make it through the procedure.

As I stated in a previous post, I cautiously came to accept current singer Jon Davison. I am now a pretty staunch advocate. In both voice and philosophy, Davison is Anderson’s heir apparent. His presence became more interesting as information about Heaven and Earth began to leak, because he was emerging as proactive contributor to the band’s creative process. He traveled quite extensively to collaborate with the various members of the band, and his writing credits are all over the Heaven and Earth. The album would be the first from Yes in over a decade that would feature entirely new material – no re-visits to unrecorded tracks or other such insecure practices.

In the YesYears documentary, Bill Bruford described the internal politics of Yes as “democratic,” with sometimes exhaustive debate and collaboration. By 1978’s Tormato, however, this approach seemed to run itself dry. Since then, Yes has worked best with a clear conjurer in their midst to focus the band’s creativity. Initially, this role was filled by Trevor Horn, then by Trevor Rabin, then later by Billy Sherwood. I had high hopes that Davison might be able to similarly reinvigorate Yes on Heaven and Earth.

But way before the album’s release, the early reviews started trickling in, and the naysayers took the lead.  I will not repeat this somewhat shortsighted negativity, but by and large, surprisingly little criticism centered on Davison’s performance or even his material. Yes fans were more concerned about the overall relaxed feel and pop sensibilities of Heaven and Earth, despite the fact that the band has dabbled in accessible songwriting since their inception.

Personally, I like the album. First and foremost, it sounds like Yes. Drop the needle nearly anywhere on Heaven and Earth and its bright ambience recalls other great Yes works like Going for the One and The Ladder. Additionally, songs are generally memorable and harmonically interesting, with lyrics that are the usual balance of profundity and cliché that can be found in Yes’ text throughout the band’s history.

But I have some reservations. While I think that there is enough outstanding material to make Heaven and Earth a great album, there are also some hokey, underdeveloped parts that come off as dispassionate. It feels like there is quite a bit of unrealized potential that could have been brought out with a little more cross-collaboration and editing. Here is where I think Davison was, to a degree, hung out to dry. Despite what seemed to be his intention to recreate the collaborative environment of the classic Yes period, the writing credits hardly cross over. He ended up writing separate songs with separate people, which, I speculate, were recorded with relatively little reflection once Yes convened in the studio.

Still, although Heaven and Earth may not be the pinnacle of Yes’ recorded output, it is still a very good album with lots of details hidden in the effortless virtuosity of the band’s veterans. As the newest member, Davison clearly has a passion and enthusiasm for Yes music, and I genuinely think he has a great Yes album in him. With the band’s eldest members comfortably residing on the four corners of the globe working at a distance, however, coming up with new material that stands alongside their best work might be difficult.  My dark side secretly wishes that Davison could just get all those old guys out of the way so that he could make some Yes music.

That’s right, I said it. More on this topic shortly….

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Transatlantic's "Kaleidoscope" and a Tale from the Sea

When I stumbled across Transatlantic in the late 90s through my sputtering dial-up internet, I had already been a longstanding fan of Marillion and had developed a healthy respect for Dream Theater. I was completely unaware, however, that other progressive rock bands existed. My eyes opened, and suddenly The Flower Kings and Spock’s Beard displaced my power pop agenda, rekindling an interest in the style that I so strongly identified with in my youth. This carried me for quite a while, but a huge rupture occurred when Neal Morse announced that he would be leaving Spock’s Beard to more ardently pursue his religious beliefs. While Spock’s Beard sauntered on, it seemed that without Morse, Transatlantic would cease to exist.

I was quite surprised, then, when a couple of years ago, Transatlantic announced their reformation. They concomitantly released The Whirlwind, their finest work to date and an album that which solidified their identity as a self-sufficient band, distinct from the member’s home groups. It would have been a fitting final act for this “supergroup” to end on. If anything, however, Transatlantic seems to be gaining more momentum. Early this year, they released Kaleidoscope, their fourth studio album. Kaleidoscope isn’t as immediately impressive as The Whirlwind, but it is still an incredible statement that displays Transatlantic’s evolution into true masters of the symphonic style, at least as it appeared at the end of the 90s.

Initially, Kaleidoscope seemed to be a throwback to Transatlantic’s early releases. Morse’s characteristic compositional style provided the framework upon which the other members realize their own contributions. Certainly, the album’s overall structure, with two multi-movement epics and a few shorter form songs, has more in common with their first two albums than the hour-long song cycle that makes up The Whirlwind. Like its predecessor, though, Transatlantic’s lyrics have a noticeably heartfelt conviction (not reflected in their lip-synching abilities) that was not always present in Morse’s earlier work.

Despite Morse’s influence on the album’s large-scale construction, however, Kaleidoscope is a step forward for the entire group in terms of their unified chemistry. Gone are the days where Transatlantic ground its gears between the stylistic preferences of its discrete members. The album definitively consolidates Transatlantic as a unique, distinctive band, with members displaying an intuitive understanding of each other’s compositional and technical strengths. Like a lot of the best progressive rock, Kaleidoscope takes some patience. There is a lot of material on the album, and it really has to be “learned” for its vast harmonic and melodic nuance to have full impact.

Kaleidoscope’s prominence in my current listening just happens to coincide with an increased interest in progressive rock in general due to the release of Yes’ new album Heaven and Earth. While my opinions on the album are best relegated to their own post, it is safe to say that the progressive community is sharply divided on the album, due in no small part to Jon Anderson’s absence as lead vocalist. This topic has been a hot one for several years now, and I would imagine hung like an awkward cloud on the Progressive Nation at Sea, last year’s at-sea progressive rock festival.  For all the attention that Yes has been enjoying, thanks to Transatlantic, Anderson was afforded his own chance to shine at this event.

The Revealing Science of God is the side-long opening track from Tales from Topographic Oceans, an album that is notorious in Yes' catalog for its conceptual density.  The current iteration of Yes is forging their own path, and it is unlikely that this composition will find its way onto their set list in the near future. With Transatlantic as his backing band, however, Jon Anderson performs as good of a rendition of this piece as one could wish for. 

Particularly with limited rehearsal time, performing a song as complex as this one requires more than just cohesion - it takes a cooperative awareness cultivated in mutual respect and trust.  With the synergy that they exhibit both here and on Kaleidoscope, however, I see virtually no limit to their mastery.  They could conceivably function as the “house band” of multi-band progressive festivals, backing any number of walk-on musical legends with deferential, high-energy performances of classic progressive material.