Monthly Archives: March 2010

Covering the Uncoverable

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Whew.  A full six days since my last post! What can I say.  Those Sondheim posts wiped me pretty hard. That was at least a month’s worth of blogging concentrated into a week’s time. The next few posts will be a lot less dense.

I’ve been thinking about the point I brought up in my P. Diddy post, specifically how songs that make heavy use of sampling and the creating of soundscapes (ie Definite Content) aren’t really possible to cover without losing its identity, the essence that makes the song what it is. More traditional songs that rely on a flexible framework of melody and harmony can have that DNA transformed by other artists and it’s still very much that song, but songs that rely more on recording technology and less on melody and harmony (the stuff that older generations considered “music”) can’t be covered in the traditional sense.

Yet there are still examples of these transformative covers, and sometimes they’re really great.

Beyonce’s Single Ladies is an example of a song that relies upon recording engineering and digital manipulation of sounds (and skin tight catsuits) for its very existence. Just listen to the accompaniment. There’s virtually no harmony or melody , heck there’s almost no pitched material at all. There’s a single barely audible repeated note that serves as the tonic while Beyonce sings a bare  bones Do Re Mi melody.  Then at the chorus a synth comes in and emphasizes the minor subdominant. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE this song (particularly the flattened sixth degree in the chorus). But musically (as the older generations would define it) there’s not much there. How could you actually cover it? How can you change the sound without changing the song? The sound IS the song.

Pomplamoose gives it a shot. They’re a duo out of Northern California who create video songs of their own works as well as unlikely covers of other works. The idea behind a video song is that every element of the  song has to be videotaped as it’s recorded, so every sound that you hear on the track has to be seen at some point in the video. So if you hear a kick drum, you have to see the kick drum at some point.  If you use a polaroid camera to make a percussive sound, you need to see that camera making that percussive sound. Which also means that the source material has to be completely acoustic.

So how do you make an acoustic cover of Single Ladies?


It took me a while to warm up to this cover. For one, they flip the beat around.  In the original, the word “Single” is on beat two, while in the cover they place it squarely on the downbeat, which at first is really jarring, but after a few listens I totally dug it. It’s a truly transformative cover. They take the lyrics, the bare bones melody, add a distinctive rhythmic twist, (greatly abridge the bridge), put in very different harmonies, add Cocoa Puffs, and the result is great for entirely different reasons than the original was great.

Go check out there other videos on YouTube.  I particularly recommend their cover of Earth Wind and Fire’s September. Best use of a puppet in a music video since that Genesis video.

I’ll be posting more examples of transformative covers in the upcoming weeks. And I haven’t forgotten about the String Quartet. It’s coming. As soon as taxes are done.

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Top 10 Moments of Sondheim Genius (part 2)

Gah!  I would have published this earlier, but I spent two evenings tearing my house apart trying to find a photograph of me and Sondheim taken when I was in the ensemble for the 2001 PBS production of Sweeney Todd in Concert. I’m a bit freaked out that I haven’t been able to find itContinue ReadingContinue Reading

11 Responses to Top 10 Moments of Sondheim Genius (part 2)

  1. gerald rosen says:

    I knew it!!

  2. Brian Rosen says:

    You did? Well, that makes one of us. I was actually reordering up until pretty late in the game.

  3. Gina says:

    Absolutely loved this. Read every word and even listened to the clips. (“Even” because I’ve heard the music many times and knew which bits you were referencing even before you went into detail.) There were only a few things on your list that I already noticed, so it was wonderful to find out about the others. No doubt it helps to play an instrument/be a composer yourself.

    Bookmarking your page because I have much appreciation for a good theatre-related blog. There aren’t not enough out there. I’m always tempted to make one, but I really don’t know as much as I’d like to, unfortunately.

  4. Brian Rosen says:


    That’s the main reason I started this one. At first I thought, “what the heck do I have to say that other, more qualified people haven’t already said.” But I realized that a) I haven’t found many folks writing about this stuff and b) this would be a good way to introduce my own friends to the stuff that I care about.

    Thanks for reading…

  5. EricMontreal says:

    Great list, especially appreciated having the clips, even though I knew the music by heart, there were still some great revelations. I hate to complain with the typical “where’s [my fave show]” but I admit I missed not having anything from Company, Pacific Overtures and Passion, particularly.

    “It’s easy to imagine that it was the producer’s fear that audiences wouldn’t realize that a second act existed that led to the narrator’s non-sequitor interjection “To be continued!” right before the last chord of the act.”

    And that’s exactly what was done–in the original San Diego workshop audiences were leaving after Act I. I believe the line was thrown in some weeks into the Broadway production, in fact.

  6. Elliott says:

    I agree with ErikMontreal; the lack of Pacific Overtures, Passion, and Company was slightly saddening, but this was still a great read. 😀 Well done!

  7. Sister says:

    I can’t believe the falling chandelier didn’t make the top 10.

  8. Adam says:

    This was wonderful…thank you for writing it!

  9. Brian Rosen says:

    Adam, thanks for reading it! It was a fun one to put together.

  10. Wow, what a great essay. I am so with you about the chord at the end of Sweeney’s Ephiphany. What an amazing thing to do. It reminds me somewhat of the out-of-key chords at the end of Don José’s Flower Song, the way that the music communicates that this guy has departed the world that most of us live in and has encamped himself very firmly on the planet of his own obsession.

    I did see the first Broadway production of Sunday in the Park, and saw it before the cast album had come out, too, so hardly anybody in the audience including me knew any of the music and words yet. There are some things about that show that irritated me, but boy, watching the first act finale unfold without realizing quite what was coming was incredibly powerful.

  11. Charisma says:

    Wow, that was a wonderful read. It really exposed some nuances I hadn’t noticed at all before. I’ve just recently been getting into Sondheim, saw Sweeny Todd, Into The Woods and A Little Night Music (some live dvd’s and recordings), and I must say that Mrs. Lovett’s rendition of “Nothing’s gonna harm you…” back to Toby gave me shivers and was musically maybe the most impactful part of the show for me. I noticed the major dissonances in the two other parts you mentioned, though not in such exacting detail, and I hate the versions I heard where they removed that from the epiphany and make it meld ~ it’s so wrong for the play.

    I didn’t notice what was going on in the explanation that it’s okay to kill the giant and not the steward, though I must say the song always seemed to highlight for me how alone the giantess is, and how alone the witch is. I didn’t even notice those connecting “discovery” notes, nor the continuation of the waltz meter in A Little Night Music. I’m going to come back and read the other parts once I’ve watched those musicals. Maybe you could do a sort of sequel to this highlighting one favorite musical + theatrical moment in each of Sondheim’s plays (other than the one’s included in the top ten)? Thanks for the detail!

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Top 10 Moments of Sondheim Genius

In honor of the eightieth birthday of the greatest musical theater writer/composer to ever live, I’ve gone ahead and curated the 10 most brilliant moments in a body of work that is chock full of genius.  For purposes of this list, I’ve tried to identify specific moments, as opposed to stretches of time or entireContinue ReadingContinue Reading

7 Responses to Top 10 Moments of Sondheim Genius

  1. gerald rosen says:

    One of my favorite all-time lyrics from Sweeney Todd; “with or without his privates.”

  2. Brian Rosen says:

    Ahh…that gives me an idea for my next list, Top Ten Funniest Moments in Sondheim. That should be easier to write.

  3. Dave Moschler says:

    Brian, thanks for sharing this very well-written list and all the great recordings of each selection! I have to admit I was extremely disheartened not to see “Opening Doors” (or anything) from Merrily We Roll Along on the list (or “Someone in a Tree” from Pacific Overtures). Did Sweeney Todd and Into The Woods really deserve to occupy half of the list (and on that note is no. 7 a moment of genius)?

    I think you hit the nail on the head for Assassins though . . . always thought one of the most powerful moments of the show when Booth drops the N-bomb as well as the march from El Capitan rewritten. Thanks again for the post!

  4. Brian Rosen says:

    Dave, ya caught me. Merrily and Pacific Overtures are the two Sondheim shows I’ve never seen produced, so I can’t really speak to them. As for no. 7, I wrestled with that, but I decided to specifically single out those last measures of Moment’s In the Woods as “the” moment of genius in that whole discovery song concept. I think it’s the only time that Red’s theme comes back unaltered.

  5. Jeffrey says:

    How wonderful to read this post via a link posted on All that Chat. Great to get your insights.

    And the Act I closer for Sunday? It was my first Broadway show. With the characters stepping into their final positions, the painting scrim dropping with the actors aligned perfectly behind it, and the music swelling, I literally starting heaving tears. It’s one of the most brilliant piece of theatre ever.

  6. Brian Rosen says:

    Jeffrey, totally with ya there. I never got to see it on broadway, but even just reviewing the video while writing this post, I started tearing up. Ooops…did I just say that out loud?

  7. Noel Katz says:

    I very much enjoyed your analysis, and it brings to mind a similar explication of musical devices my wife did long before I met her: hearing about it was the first time marriage entered my mind.

    I’ll pick a bone with the Into the Woods songs of discovery. Yes, they’re connected by similar accompaniments, but, for me, this is something that made me go, in the theatre, “Haven’t we heard this one already?” A character telling the audience what he’s learned (from a familiar fairy tale, no less) is not my idea of effective entertainment. Ideally, we feel for the characters, so when they go through a dramatic arc, we feel what they feel, discover what they discover. Jack, Little Red and Cinderella announce to us that they’ve learned something profound, and Here It Is. But what they’ve learned isn’t profound or surprising enough, and it annoys me that an otherwise swiftly-told plot is being stopped for an ersatz revelation.

    In weaker Sondheim shows, I find myself not caring about the characters. The mob that claims to have saved Roosevelt are all very frenetic, but I was wholly unmoved, unclear as to what the show as a whole was saying about Americans. Or, I guess, the .0001% of us who shoot at politicians. How could you expect Booth NOT to drop the n-word? We already knew, from the history books, of his vile view.

    But I come here to praise: the torch song Losing My Mind takes familiar elements – the structure of Gershwin’s The Man I Love, the melodic motif of Rodgers’ He Was Too Good To Me – sets them to an ever augmenting chord structure, while the lyric talks about stasis. That’s crazy. Crazy good.

    When I think of the myriad paeans to my hometown, Sondheim’s Another Hundred People rises near the top. The busy synth paints the pace of the city, and each key change involving the singer sustaining an enharmonic, is a delightful surprise. Similarly, I get ecstatic about the harmonies under the lines “And the life moving on” in Move On.

    I love me a good quodlibet, and Sondheim wrote a couple of delights for the young ghosts in Follies. First came Who Could Be Blue?/Little White House, the tune of which is better known from its reuse in Stavisky. This was replaced by Love Will See Us Through/You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow, a deliciously cheerful output for Sondheim’s natural cynicism about marriages.

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P. Diddy. Songwriter? Or Composer?

You heard me. P. Diddy.  Songwriter? Or Composer? Perhaps I should back up… After yesterday’s  composition lesson with David Conte, he mentioned an upcoming radio interview with NY Times blogger and critic about town Chloe Veltman.  (The interview will air next Friday, on her VoiceBox show on KALW). He thought that one of the topics wouldContinue Reading

2 Responses to P. Diddy. Songwriter? Or Composer?

  1. > there are no convincing reinterpretations or adaptations of Schubert songs or, arguably, classical pieces in general

    There are countless examples of cover versions of lower-case-c classical music: let’s start with Brahms’ “Variations On A Theme By Haydn” (although it has been suggested that the theme didn’t, in fact, originate with Haydn), Gounod’s adaptation of Bach’s Prelude in C, and any number of orchestrations and reductions. Then we move on to “A Lover’s Concerto” by The Toys, an adaptation of the minuet in G from the Anna Magdalena Bach book (sidebar: I once heard a ghastly Muzak version of this song — NOT its forebear, which is in 3/4 — in a Safeway); “Joy”, Apollo 100s revved-up version of Cantata 147; the Roto-Rooter Good-Time Christmas Band’s hilarious brass version of Sacre du Printemps; “Past, Present and Future” by the Shangri-Las; … There’s no end to it. Classical pieces can be reduced to melody and chord changes along with all but the most idiosyncratic pop tunes; there’s even a Classical Fake Book or two on the market.

    And the most sublime pop music is no less reliant on specific arrangements than classical music is; comparing a cover version of, say, The Beatles’ “Yesterday” (of which there are many) with the original shows the differences. I would add that production technique is a third element in modern music of all genres; thus a cover of “Tomorrow Never Knows” or “Revolution No. 9” (or “Powasqaatsi” or a Nancarrow study) couldn’t possibly match the original exactly.

    Such distinctions as “popular/classical” or “composition/songwriting” are convenient shorthands for marketers and critics, but evaporate under the mildest of scrutiny.

  2. Brian Rosen says:

    JR Brody! An honor to see the likes of you on my humble blog. Wondering how you came upon it…

    You make a very good counter argument. While there is a distinction between music that can survive a distillation into “simply” changes and melody and music that needs to remain intact to retain its identity, there are examples of both in classical as well as pop music. The distinction between the two is, of course, a false one, but there still seems to a nugget of useful idea in the notion that some music is more wed to any particular realization than others.

    To the point of the original post, I would still say that the person responsible for “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Revolution No. 9” created them through a composition process as opposed to a songwriting process. But further thought might make me abandon the semantic construct and just get back to writing more music…

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First movement now available for download

I’m happy to announce that the first movement of my string quartet is now available for free download. I’ve also written up extensive notes for that movement if you’d like to know more about the composition and where it came from. (Of course you’d like to know more. Why else would you be reading thisContinue Reading

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When theater is a joke. Or vice versa.

There’s a fine line between a practical joke and engaging theater. This video (courtesy of the always entertaining Mind the Gap blog) documents an elaborate prank the likes of which could only be organized in the name of global commerce and fermented barley beverages. 1,000 soccer fans were forced to miss a championship game byContinue Reading

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Too Much Workshop Makes the Weekend Go Fast

Every time I’m in New York, I make it a point to see Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind.  Every time.   And I try to drag as many friends as possible (as any of my Facebook friends who live in NY can attest.) One visit I went to both weekend shows.  ThisContinue Reading

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Live! Nude! Opera!

Disclaimer – this essay doesn’t have a lot to do with nudity or sex. The title and photo are there to draw your attention to a topic that you may otherwise find fairly dry and uninteresting, even though I happen to care about it a lot. Specifically this is an essay about how opera survivesContinue ReadingContinue Reading

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A lovely convergence of my favorite things

I’m on something of a David O’Reilly kick here.  His stuff is fascinating.  And I just discovered that he made a video for the Venetian Snares track Szamar Madar off of their unpronounceable but very listenable DnB/IDM/Classical mashup album Rossz Csillag Alatt Született, which happens to be one of my favorite albums ever. And then onContinue Reading

2 Responses to A lovely convergence of my favorite things

  1. gerald rosen says:

    There must be something wrong with one of us, because I kind of like this music.

  2. Brian Rosen says:

    Wow. If I manage to get my dad interested in The Venetian Snares, then this blog has truly fulfilled its purpose.

    Actually, it’s not that surprising. I got my taste from somewhere. And the rest of the album may be a bit glitchy and noisy for you, but there’s a lot to like. It’s pretty much Stravinsky with the rhythms turned to 11 (and the harmonies turned down to 3 or 4).

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Newsflash: Crappy Movie Wins an Oscar

Yeah.  I know it’s not news. I’m used to the best film not winning, but it really galls me when the WORST film nominated gets the prize. Sure, none of the nominated films were all that great, but jeesh, what was the Academy thinking? Logorama is really the best animated short film of the year?Continue ReadingContinue Reading

4 Responses to Newsflash: Crappy Movie Wins an Oscar

  1. anonymous says:

    maybe that will change your mind about logorama. but I agree that david’s film was the best of that year.

  2. Brian Rosen says:

    Thanks for the link. It definitely doesn’t change my mind. In some cases, it makes me dislike the short even more. So “all van drivers have mustaches” is the reason that Mr. Pringle is the van driver? The author contends that this is evidence that “The film is not just a haphazard amalgamation of commercial symbols though. It is a carefully instigated scenario that took on challenging artistic as well as technical decisions.”

    I remain unconvinced. These guys have nothing to say.

  3. oscar the grouch says:

    PSS was hands down my favorite last year. IMO Logorama’s victory was predictable however given the value placed on political message in the Oscars of late.

  4. James says:

    Please Say Something made me completely change my mind about 3D animation, I had been completely put off 99% of it (probably because of the low quality soulless 3D films Hollywood has been churning out ) until I saw PSS.

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