Friday, October 30, 2015

The Superhero Theme Project: Ant-Man.....and the End?

In the most recent chapter of the Superhero Theme Project, I added an “expansion pack” to the playlist inspired by four of the Little One’s favorite characters on Marvel’s Superhero Squad animated series. Although one was handpicked from a new source, for the most part I adopted these themes from personal favorites from my own past. Even though all of these characters have appeared on screen, I did not adopt music from their respective franchises. This last theme was different.

As those with nerdly interests are aware, the Ant-Man movie was in development for several years before its release this summer. I have been anticipating its release from its earliest stages. When it finally saw a release date, I convinced my wife to go out and see it. Although it was hardly a perfect film, it generally did not disappoint. Certainly, any fan of Ant-Man should not be terribly displeased that the movie was even made, much less made well.

Although he is not a regular character on the show, Ant-Man is featured in a Superhero Squad episode in which he shrinks down several other squaddies and narrowly avoids becoming cooked into a batch of “Quesada Joe” (“…’s extra cheesy!”). Although the Little One did not specifically cite Ant-Man as a favorite, she was really into this episode around the same time that I saw the movie. Christophe Young’s soundtrack for the film caught my attention, so I took the liberty of slipping the theme into the playlist along with the others.

I feared that if I played the compositions associated with her favorites first, this theme would be relegated to the background, so I led the whole expansion with Ant-Man. She took to it immediately. It took her nearly five plays to move on, and then it was only after some persuading.

I ended up purchasing the full soundtrack, and although Ant-Man may not represent the pinnacle of Marvel movies (we’ll relegate that title for The Winter Soldier), I think that its score might be the finest that the MCU has offered up yet.  It is varied in style, but conceptually cohesive, and it does an outstanding job of acknowledging what Ant-Man, both the character and the movie, is about.

The movie centers on Scott Lang, who is more recent, but Ant-Man has a long and complicated history that can be traced back to the very foundations of the Marvel Universe. Hank Pym, who plays a role in the film, was original Ant-Man in the 60s. Christophe Young’s score has a decidedly contemporary feel, but there is also the sense that it references this era of cinema. It carries the distinctive flavor of 60s themes like Mission: Impossible and I Spy. This sensation of espionage and intrigue is particularly effective because the movie is, at its core, a heist movie, which is only a slight genre shift from the spy film. As a result, a cold war aura hangs over the entire score, and is often so subtle that it might not seem intentional. Young shows his hand, however on the track Tales to Astonish.

Superficially, this is a bit of a stylistic gag in which the Ant-Man theme gets a surf-rock treatment.  It does not by any means represent the rest of the soundtrack, but it reveals something about Young's inspiration for the character.  The title refers to the comic book that debuted Ant-Man in 1962, around the time when Dick Dale and Duane Eddy pushed this style of instrumental rock into the mainstream. In a way, Tales to Astonish would be as relevant for Hank Pym as Fanfare for the Common Man might have been to Steve Rogers.

I know that I have said this before, but for several reasons, I feel pretty sure that this recent expansion will be the last. At 29 songs, the Superhero Theme Project playlist is as big as it needs to be (anyone interested in a master list?). We periodically go back and put it on shuffle and enjoy it, but generally she has moved on to other musical interests. I think that the seeds we have planted here have already taken root and are showing themselves through these interests in indirect ways.

Besides, Star Wars is coming…….and that’s a whole other ball game.

To see the previous post in this series, click HERE
To see how it all started out, click HERE

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Zeitgeist of Repetition: Steve Reich and Little Two

I have not made an official announcement here on the blog, so let’s do it: we are pregnant with Little Two. The feeling is a wadded up ball of excitement, joy, anticipation, stress, and fatigue. Certainly, there is a lot to look forward to. There’s also the downsides, not the least of which is the subtle dread that is attached to the feeding cycle of a newborn. I definitely remember taking my shift on the unenviable 2-3 am feeding time with the Little One a few years ago. Going to sleep was not really an option, but staying awake was nearly impossible.

I dredged the margins of my CD collection looking for albums that were intellectually stimulating enough to keep me awake yet soothing enough to allow her to sleep. I discovered a bunch of really interesting stuff that I had not listened to in a long time, or that I had ever really gotten into for lack of an appropriate setting. I eventually came to look forward to these meditative reprieves in the wee hours listening to jazz, Indian raga, shakuhachi repertoire, and chamber music. It was here that I rediscovered Steve Reich.

Again, for lack of an appropriate setting, I have not revisited Tehilium much since then, but I definitely notice when Reich’s name comes up. It really caught my attention, then, when the inimitable DFW personality and Ten Hands vocalist Paul Slavens cited Music for 18 Musicians as one of his most-listened to albums of all time. In my opinion, Slavens’ advocacy demands respect, and it got the album in my player at the first available opportunity.

I had an idea of what to expect. As is often the case with minimalist compositions, a superficial description of the piece sounds tiresome: an hour’s worth of simple melodies propelled forward by an unwavering, relentless tempo. In practice, however, I was taken aback by how was immediately likeable Music for 18 Musicians is. It is an enthralling journey through an ever-evolving landscape of rippling ostinatos that balances introspection and intellect with the greatest of care.

The piece’s debut recording was released in 1978, and it is somewhat difficult for me to listen to Music for 18 Musicians without thinking of the sequenced textures that would follow in the early 80s. Although I can’t necessarily envision Sting listening to the piece and being inspired to create the intro to Synchronicity I, I do think that the similarities indicate a broader interest in the creative potential of repetition.

This zeitgeist of repetition continues even today. Looping artists like Battles and Nissenenmondai employ it regularly, often with varying results. Music for 18 Musicians stands above, however, due to the intense investment of the performers, which infuses the music with subtle excitement. I don’t see how any contemporary looping musician could approximate the collective concentration that is necessary to play the piece.

A few months from now, Music for 18 Musicians will undoubtedly be floating in the air during our newborn’s late night feeding sessions. I have actually been considering it as one of the first albums she listens to. Her older sister began life listening to Kind of Blue, and by all rights it seems to have worked out pretty well. The Little Two’s life experiences will be completely unique, though, so perhaps starting off on a path distinct from her sister’s is more reasonable. In any case, I feel pretty sure that it won’t be bad for her synapses to hear such fascinatingly organized sound.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Tapestry: Picard, Spock's Beard, and Bennett's Machine

I was a fan of the original Star Trek, but it was the Next Generation that really came to mean something to me. Not at first, of course.  Most fans will acknowledge that it took a little while for the Next Generation to grow its own legs. I watched the first few seasons out a sense of obligation to the original show, but when it took off, I think it exceeded the scope of the original series.

The show’s evolution coincided with big changes in my personal life. The first season aired right as I was leaving high school, and Jean-Luc Picard's passion and intellect provided weekly inspiration to strive for excellence during my undergraduate studies.  I did not, however, really relate to the character. I did not always deal with things in healthy or positive ways in those days, and my awareness of my flaws distanced me from the ideals that Picard represented. Until, that is, an episode called Tapestry.

In this episode, Picard was given the opportunity to go back and undo an incongruously headstrong act from his youth that he particularly regretted, and saw how his life unraveled when his vigor was tempered by experienced wisdom.

It was an act of humility for Picard, who did not readily admit his faults, to look back and confess that his regrettable actions were actually essential in building his character.  Aside from the stereotypically awkward Trek-ish fight that ensues after, this was a particularly moving moment in the Star Trek canon for me, perhaps second only to the death of Spock.

Tapestry was encouraging, but in the time that has passed, I don't know if I have been successful in realizing its point.  It is a little hard to hear Q say what he does to Picard without wondering if I have "played it safe."  In any case. since the episode aired my squishy innards have proven to be particularly susceptible to impossible tales of time travel, reflection, and self-forgiveness, so Bennett Built a Time Machine, the lead single from Spock’s Beard’s recent release, hit me right in the feels.

Drummer Jimmy Keegan takes the lead and tells the tale of Bennett, a person so regretful of his past that he dedicated his life to creating a means to go back in time and guide his younger self onto a more fulfilling path.  Bennett’s myopic obsession has an undercurrent of desperation, as it blinds him to the potential benefits his discoveries could have on humanity. He just wishes that he had made better choices throughout his life, and traveling back in time seems to be the only way to find happiness.

Bennett Built a Time Machine fit into the Spock’s Beard canon in many ways.  That was a which was a relief, because I was a bit apprehensive about The Oblivion Particle.  It predecessor, Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep, featured a new Spock’s Beard lineup that successfully acknowledged the band's past while forging a distinctive version of its sound.  It also featured some writing contributions from founding (and defining) member Neal Morse, and I was nervous how The Oblivion Particle would work without his input.

With its memorable tunefulness, thought-provoking message, and evocative instrumental excursion that deepens the song’s narrative, however, Bennett Built a Time Machine immediately and wholeheartedly sold me.   The good news is that on the whole, the album is also an enjoyable, sometimes emotional listen.  It is, however, a little different in its execution than the Spock's Beard of old.

Although it’s a bit more like a cosmic-scaled Wind and Wuthering than a reimagined Power and the Glory that you can sing in the shower, The Oblivion Particle stands quite well on its own merit while simultaneously weaving its own way into the band's oeuvre.  Complexity and accessibility are the warp and woof, creating a tapestry that blends in comfortably within the Spock’s Beard continuity.  The Oblivion Particle also makes decisive moves to solidify this band's chemistry.  Ted Leonard is in fine form throughout, but it is still Bennett Built a Time Machine that I look forward to most when I spin the album.  My hope is that when it comes time to play the tune in a live setting, Keegan performs it from behind the drumset.  We all know that it can be done, and done well.  Make it so!