Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Superhero Theme Project Part 11: Robin

I generally tend to be a fan of stories in which Batman is a standalone character, but like it or not, anytime you have Batman, sooner or later you have to address Robin. The two go hand in hand. For example, the Batman figurine in the Little One's superfriends collection included a tiny Robin which, due to its minute stature, has gotten lost several times. Somehow, though, he always seems to turn up. This ongoing game of "Where's Robin?" has emphasized the character and, eventually, brought attention to the fact that he did not have a song.

Although I am not the most devoted fan of the character, I inadvertently began looking into Robin when I was investigating Batgirl.  Because they both exist in Batman's universe, they share some conceptual overlap.  There have been many incarnations of the character with attendant variations in their origin stories, but generally Robin is depicted as young and headstrong, with motivations that are usually more serious than Batgirl’s. He is not, however, nearly as grim as Batman.

I still felt a need to pay homage to the already existing music in the franchise. Despite the fact that the movies themselves are some of the worst Batman movies ever made, I delved again into Elliot Goldenthal’s scores for the Joel Shumacher films. I was ready to pull the trigger on the title sequence theme from Batman and Robin.

Aside from being marred by an incongruous percussion break, however, it was, like the majority of Shirley Walker's work, more Batman than Robin, so I discarded it.  Shortly after I adopted Batgirl's theme, however, I discovered Michael Giaccianco’s score to Star Trek: Into Darkness, which I really liked.  In fact, the only thing keeping me from using this piece as Batgirl's theme was the very distinctive Star Trek watermark at the end.

So far, my strict "no editing" rule had remained unbroken, but this one was giving me pause to reconsider when the Steamboy track showed up. Still, in retrospect, I felt a little regret that I did not use it, so I did a bit more scouting around in Giaccicano’s work. His soundtrack for the previous Star Trek reboot also received accolades from reviewers. Like the track from Into Darkness, the track Enterprising Young Men has a youthful exuberance that I thought represented Robin well, but also a slightly dark edge that acknowledges the deeper motivations of the character.

As all this was going on behind the scenes, the Little One's interest in the project was starting to wane. She was still enjoying listening to the music and enthusiastically identifying the heroes that the represented, but she was not initiating as much as she was a few weeks ago. When I introduced Enterprising Young Men as Robin's theme, however, it seemed to reignite the her interest. Not only does she regularly request Robin by name, she gets excited about playing the piece for her mother and other people that might be in the car.  She is also discovered that my phone, when equipped with headphones, can also play superhero music, and Robin is her go-to in this setting.


Additionally, I put the full soundtrack on my list, and it showed up in a robust stack of CDs that I received for my birthday. Although in my eyes it is not as innovative a as Hans Zimmer's recent work on Inception and Man of Steel, as an entire work, Star Trek is very good. Enterprising Young Men is probably the most succinct and cognizant expression of this "new" Star Trek theme, but Giacchino gets quite a bit of convincing mileage out of it over the course of the whole album. The ending credits music is particularly entertaining, as he quite ingeniously mashes this melody up with the distinctive theme from the original series.

By embedding essential characteristics from the old with a fundamentally new premise, Giacciano creates a very smart representation of J.J. Abrams' mission statement of the recent movie reboot.  It comes highly recommended for soundtrack fans.

To go to the final post in the Superhero Theme Project, click HERE.
To back up, click HERE.

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Superhero Theme Project Part 10: Hawkgirl

Speaking of ancillary female superheroes, Hawkgirl is another DC character that owes her existence to a male character, except the one she is attached to is far less established than Batman. Hawkman has been retconned and rewritten so many times that only dedicated fans have an idea about what is canon, so it is no surprise that Hawkgirl is relatively obscure. This worked in her favor, however, when she was written as the second female lead in the Justice League animated series. Without an accepted canon to stick to, she was a relative tabula rasa and thereby free open to interpretation by the show's writers. She evolved into the most complex character on the show, grappling with some very grownup issues surrounding loyalty, love, betrayal, and regret.

These concepts were mostly over the Little One's head, I think, but doubtlessly, the show made her aware of Hawkgirl's existence. Once Hawkman entered the scene, I knew the request for Hawkgirl was soon to follow. Because these characters are often depicted as lovers, even spouses, I played with the idea of just collapsing the both of them into one song. She would have none of that. When I tried to play off the Shostakovich piece as Hawkgirl, she immediately called me out, stating that the song was "not Hawkgirl," but "Hawk-MAN."

It was clear that I was going to have to come up with something, but I knew nothing of her accepted background. Because the character has such an interesting arc on the show, however, I adopted her run on the animated series as canon and I used it as my conceptual reference for Hawkgirl's personality and motivation.

On the series, she is the team's loose cannon, but is also a fierce warrior with an equally fierceful sense of loyalty. Her dedication to her friends and sense of duty, however, becomes her downfall as she gets caught between her peers and her people. She turns traitor at one point, betraying the man she came to love, and grapples with the consequences of her decisions.

I thought that her personality asked for a martial quality in her theme, but I also wanted to acknowledge her inner conflicts. I did not push too hard on this one, but while doing research for another character, the Game of Thrones theme fell into my lap.

The drums lent the piece a menacing overtone while, simultaneously, its distinctive legato melody seemed to reflect Hawkgirl’s more melancholic aspects, and, more objectively, it contrasted my usual fanfarish brass-heavy selections. Consequently, it is also not most adrenaline-fueled song in the playlist. Although I can visualize Hawkgirl’s wings gently beating against a sky lit by the orange glow of the sunrise, the Little One rarely requests this theme. She has been known, however, to exclaim “I like Hawkgirl!” when it plays, so I think that it could still be counted as a success.

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

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Superhero Theme Project Part 9: Batgirl

The comic universe is male-dominated, but nowhere is it moreso than in the DC universe. Aside from Wonder Woman, many of DC's established female characters came about as lip-service to women's liberation in the 60s and 70s. In some cases, they have grown into their own, but ultimately they are ancillary to more prominent male counterparts. Batgirl is certainly one of these characters, but despite being a branch on Batman's family tree, she was, in a way, the Little One's very first superhero. When she was an infant, she showed an enthusiastic interest in a Funco Pop Batgirl figurine, which subsequently found its way into her toy chest. There was some confusion when Batman came into the picture, and it took a little bit of work for her to realize that they were two entirely different characters. In the end, however, Batgirl has always been around for her, and I felt an obligation to come up with a distinctive theme.

Distinctive or not, I thought she should still be embedded in the Batman universe. I revisited the various Batman movie soundtracks, but Elfman's work was too defining, and I simply didn't like the music from the terrible Joel Schumacher films. I have been wanting to use something by Shirley Walker, who essentially took over for Elfman as the soundtrack of the animated Gotham universe in the 90s, but a lot of her ideas just seemed too dark to come off as a Batgirl theme.

Traditionally, Batgirl's motivation for what she does doesn't stem from a personal trauma like Batman's or even Robin's. At least initially, she became Batgirl partially for the sense of thrill, and eventually I came across a Walker clip that nailed this aspect of the character.

This was perfect, but I couldn't use it. At a minute long, it was just too short. A snippet like this would become irritating really quickly under multiple repeats. Second, and more practically, I could not find it as a download. Additionally, a lot of Shirley Walker's CDs from this era are out of print and, in some cases, too expensive for a single one-minute clip.

I wanted to match the style more than the notes, so I tried not to revisit Walker's theme too much during my continued research.  It gave me the impression that Batgirl needed to be swashbucking, but not too pirate-y, with the feel of detective noir and the energy of a thrill ride.  Narrowing it down this far might seem to help, but it actually made things more complicated.  For quite awhile, nothing seemed to fit, until I remembered an anime I saw several years ago called Steamboy.  In my memory, the steampunk vibe of the movie seemed to fit, and its American score, by established video game and movie composer Steve Jablonski, was readily available. A track called Raid by the Airship seemed quite appropriate in terms of length and feel, so I, perhaps hastily, downloaded it and put it on my phone.

The Little One loves its energy of this piece, and its rhythmic ostinato is distinctive enough for her to easily identify out of context. I think it does a pretty good job of capturing the playful seriousness of Batgirl. After spending some time with it, however, I am afraid it is not the strongest piece on her Superhero playlist from a compositional standpoint. I think that it is safe to say that it functions more readily as an accompaniment than as a standalone piece of music. It doesn't stand up to the work of Shostakovich or Mussorgsky, but at any rate, the song is definitely a favorite for her now, and this project really is all about her.

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

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

2013 Honorable Mentions: All is Quiet.....

I am sitting in my garage at 5 am on New Year’s Day, up early for a CrossFit class that didn’t make. I did not figure that it would. Judging by the energy level of the neighborhood, everybody was up late, but I did not cancel the WOD just in case anyone decided to make an early start on their resolutions. I know that I could go right back to sleep, but I kind of like these moments.  I can sit quietly and do nothing more than listen to the owl living in the tree across the street coo softly in the early morning. Quite predictably, this came into my head.

That was SO LONG ago, and the reality of how much U2 has changed, from outspoken political idealists to promoters of Apple products, makes me more sad then nostalgic. I think this feeling generated less by Bono, or the early 80s release date of WAR, or remembering the faces of very young people who loved the song but whose names I have forgotten. Instead, it comes from the realization that the same amount of time has passed for me. Certainly, I am no longer the embarrassingly na├»ve middle schooler that I was when this song was gaining momentum, and that’s mostly a good thing. It was, however, a long time ago.

Someone once said that change is a misnomer. We don’t ever really change - we grow.  I take this to mean that the seed of who we will become resides in our present selves and a nugget of who we are today can be found in the person we once were. Like it or not, I am still that kid, and although somewhere inside I am still making dumb, inappropriate decisions, these intentions are thankfully tempered by my increasing number of years on this planet.

So, if you really want to make a resolution for yourself this year, trying to make a change in who you are might not yield the results you want. Instead, grow – and grow in directions that provide better perspective about the things in your life that you would like to alter. It will not be comfortable, but the most important changes happen at the margins of what we are comfortable with.

A few honorable mentions for 2013 before 2014 starts in earnest.  This is a particularly strong list this year - each of these albums are really incredible in their own right and there is no discernible reason each one of them shouldn't find their way in to your listening in the upcoming year.

My Bloody Valentine – m b v: I’m not sure what happened here - I had every intention of including this gem on the top 20, but when I looked back, I noticed it was overlooked. I guess the fact that I forgot about it says something, but no one is more disappointed than myself that the album was excluded.

Sound of Contact – Dimensionaut: The only thing that kept Sound of Contact out of the top 20 was that it was too stylistically similar to the new Spock’s Beard. Dimensionaut held the #19 spot for quite awhile until Brief Noctournes and Dreamless Sleep found its way into rotation at year’s end.

Nine Inch Nails - Hesitation Marks: Reznor has finally come to a place in which his angst doesn’t come off as petulance. Although this album is his most believable in a while, at times it feels a little forced, which knocked it out of the top 20.

Flying Colors: Like the output of a lot of supergroups, Flying Colors is circumscribed by extreme highs and, in this case, a few noticeable sags. Its outstanding moments buoyed it to the top albums of the year, but its filler, however minimal, kept it out of the top 20.

James Blake – Overgrown: Blake went into a bit more traditional songwriting territory on his sophomore album, and although it captures the same evocative mood, it just didn’t have the same staying power with me as his debut. Plus, I really don’t see what everyone’s fascination is with the RZA – I think his contribution to the album brings it down.

Plant seeds and grow this year. Best of fortune and take care.