Thursday, March 20, 2014

Four Scores and Seven Weeks Ago .....

I've been a bit obsessed with analyzing orchestral scores lately (one of the reasons a blog post didn't happen in February). I love to grab a pile of scores from the shelf, sharpen the pencils, and immerse my left brain in some mental calisthenics. My latest venture focused on one film composer, John Williams. I'm sure many of you are thinking, "Cool Lou, I love John Williams", well ..... truth be told, I don't. Mr. Williams is an incredibly talented and effective composer who isn't really my cup of tea. It's not about his level of talent, it’s about having different sensibilities. "So you may be asking - you're not much of a fan, but you are spending hours analyzing his work?"


During the early years of my music development, I mainlined heavy doses of 20th century icons like Bartok and Stravinsky. I worshiped them really, not just the compositions, but the orchestrations too. I could get lost in any movement of their masterpieces for days. At this age I was a bit black and white when it came to what I liked, and what I believed had value for my growth as a composer. One can then imagine my horror when my orchestration teacher told me that he and I would be studying Aaron Copland's Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo. "Frickin' cowboy music!!!" "All that Americana crap??" I was not enthused, but like most folks at that age, I would soon find out how wrong my opinions really were.

It is true that Copland's music goes hand-in-hand with the wide open spaces of the American west. That doesn't mean it's overly simplistic and without wonderful intricacies. Once I was forced to really look behind the curtain, I could really see his genius. I discovered techniques and some gorgeous instrument pairings that I use to this day. They may have been used in a context that evokes the imagery of Americana, however their use isn't limited to that context. Techniques can be incorporated without echoing the source so don't dismiss music that is 180 degrees from your own. The artists that differ greatly from your style can be a wonderful resource for expanding your musical identity. Thankfully this is a lesson I learned early on.

Here, in all its glory, is Copland's Rodeo and some of the selections of John Williams bountiful catalogue I've been studying.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Lust at First Listen

All too often these days we hear a piece of music and make a binary decision. It's either love at first sight or a complete strike out. We rarely take the time to allow a song or a symphony to grow on us. Yes I know you were afforded way too many chances to become acquainted with "Blurred Lines", but that's not what I'm talking about. Sometimes you have to listen to an album and let it get its hooks in you. Over the years there have been albums that did not excite me at all upon first listen. Yet after giving them a chance to marinate in my psyche they become some of my favorites.

This aural abandonment often occurs when an artist tries something new. Our ears have expectations, and when we are presented with a different sonic experience the reaction can be dismissive. Kinda like a drunk frat boy hitting on Angelina Jolie ....  ain't gonna happen. Two releases from last year are great examples, Daft Punk's Random Access Memories, and Arcade Fire's Reflektor.

As a fan of Daft Punk, once you heard "Get Lucky" you couldn't wait to hear the album. Your ears were eagerly awaiting an amazing groove-fest yet were greeted by a far more eclectic body of work. There were a few a disco-grooved cuts like "Give Life Back to Music" and "Giorgio by Moroder", however cuts like "Instant Crush" and the very cinematic "Motherboard" challenge your preconceived notions of what Daft Punk is about. "Touch" featuring the miniature 70's powerhouse Paul Williams is a real stretch, but I love it. There is a portrayal of loneliness both in the performance and in the arrangement that is not a staple of the Daft Punk catalog. It seems as if their experiences in scoring the film Tron:Legacy, really influenced this album.

Arcade Fire ditched many of the odd instruments they purchased at a yard sale some years ago and allowed James Murphy to add a dance-electro coating to their creamy indie rock center. It's an interesting and somewhat unpredictable evolution for them. There isn't that much for the fan of their previous work to hang onto, other than lyrics and the unique voice of Win Butler. Many of the songs are long, like Floyd long .... Plenty of atmospheric sound-scapes and synthesizers. Some are easier to like such as the groovy "Reflektor" and the more indie sounding cut "We Exist". I think overall it's a great album that challenges your ears.

Artistic growth isn't the only impediment you may find to connecting with a piece of music. Sometimes it's as simple as you not being in the right place mentally to really absorb and enjoy what is being offered. Perhaps you're on a real 20th century minimalist kick, Phillip Glass, John Adams, etc... the offerings of Drake or Rihanna will have a hard time finding a home in your heart.

I'm sure you have your own list of works that entered one ear and escaped through the other never to be listened to again. I would encourage you to give them another chance. I don't guarantee success though, upon a second listen you still may not like the above albums. I have never found a place in my ear for either Pet Sounds or The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Both are greatly celebrated works, but neither will ever be on my turntable or playlist ...... or will they?