Archive for March, 2010

Covering the Uncoverable

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.


Mar 2010

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 it yet. I’m sure it will show up eventually. At least that’s what I keep telling myself.

But here we are, the five top moments of Sondheim genius (read about numbers 10-6 in my previous post). Again, this is not a ranking of shows or songs, but of individual, isolated moments of genius. (In my browser it looks like he’s reading this paragraph… Eek!)

Read the rest of this entry →


Mar 2010

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 entire songs.  I’m not ranking the best Sondheim shows, or the best Sondheim songs, I’m identifying short bursts of time, rarely more than a few seconds, sometimes a single measure, when something remarkable happens. These are the moments to eagerly await each time a production shows up, the moments that reveal if the director and music director “get it”. And I’ve also tried to find moments that are not merely theatrical or musical, but moments when both the music and theater combine to make something amazing happen.  Any one of his shows contains dozens of inspired musical gestures that bear close analysis, but these are the instants where the musical and theatrical ideas converge to a razor point of revelation, providing multidimensional insights into characters or situations.

Today I’ll count down 10-6.  Stay tuned for the top 5…

Read the rest of this entry →


Mar 2010

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 would be the difference between composition and songwriting, and asked if I had any ideas to share.

My first thought was that songwriters have an inherently simpler task since they’re working within a well defined form.  In song there is the expectation of a verse, refrain, chorus structure, some division of discrete chunks of material, and the songwriter “simply” (sic) needs to fill those well defined modules with appealing enough melodies, harmonies, hooks, and grooves.  I’m hard pressed to think of any exceptions.  On the other hand, music composition, especially in the modern era, has few if any expectations of form or structure.  It is up to the composer to impose or realize a form appropriate to the material he or she imagines.

But the difference is less clear when you look at pieces in the classical era.  Forms were still quite well defined, and while composers were remarkably inventive within those forms, there was some amount of connecting the dots and following prescribed structural practices.  It wasn’t until Beethoven and the romantic era that form was subjected to the will of the composer in the name of their efforts to express the ineffable self.

Then what is the difference between composition and songwriting in the classical era?  It doesn’t feel right to call Shumann or Schubert songwriters, even in context of their art songs. They didn’t just write those songs, they COMPOSED them.

David’s feeling was that pop songs, the product of songwriters, are less about the material and more about the expressive abilities of the performer.  As evidence, he cited the dozens of covers of Beatle tunes in various styles, while there are no convincing reinterpretations or adaptations of Schubert songs or, arguably,  classical pieces in general, Wendy Carlos and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer notwithstanding. (Actually, a college friend is writing a rock opera where all the songs are opera arias re-imagined as rock songs, so perhaps I’ll have to amend this argument.). A Schubert song is meticulously through composed, every note in the accompaniment and the voice is meaningful.  You can’t change the notes, or alter chords or timbres without nullifying the end result.  Pop songs, on the other hand, can survive any number of transformations, inflections, or outright re-harmonizations and still retain their essential character. There is something about the stuff of pop music, the melodic and harmonic choices that lends itself to such transformations.

This is another facet of the Definite vs Formless Content distinction.  Pop songs are largely Formless while Schubert’s art songs are Definite.  (Note that in this context, “Formless” means a very different thing than the structural forms of the classical era).

What about pop songs which are less dependent upon harmony and melody? Songs more reliant upon an arrangement of sounds and samples are not easily covered or transformed.  Is it possible to cover a rap song, (other than ironically)? Do techno producers re-interpret the works of other techno producers to add their own personal expression of thumpa thumpa? If untransformability (ie Definite Content) is your metric, is it appropriate then to say that these untransformable works are more composed than written?  Does this make P Diddy more of a composer than a songwriter?

So. Like I asked. P Diddy.  Songwriter or Composer?

I’ll check in with David to see what he has to say…


Mar 2010

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 this blog?)

I hope you’ll take the time to listen and follow along with the program notes. I spend hundreds of hours composing this piece (not including the time writing up the essays for each movement) and I’m very proud of it. It’s all time wasted if no one gets to hear it. So I’m counting on you here.

The other two movements will be released in the weeks to follow (I’m editing as fast as I can), so be sure to check back.

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 by their bosses or girlfriends, and instead attend (i.e. suffer) a concert of classical music.

It pains me to see classical music as the butt of the joke, and the enthusiasm of the crowd when the match starts up makes me squirm a little. How must the poor string quartet have felt, hearing a crowd start cheering at the realization that they’re about to shut the hell up?

But what a divine bit of experiential theater. I wish the video did a more accurate job of portraying how things actually went down when the reveal was made (I sense a pretty heavy editorial hand in this clip). How quickly did different members of the audience catch on? How quickly did they start abandoning expected concert protocol? When did the beer start pouring?

I can think of some other examples of such extreme context switching in real performance situations. John Fisher’s Medea the Musical starts out as an ultra campy gay rendition of the Euripides yarn for a good 15 minutes before the director stops the show and you realize that you’re actually watching a play within a play about a gay theater company’s campy production of the Euripides yarn. Similar hijinks occur in Noises Off.

A lot of great theater is about the setting up of expectations and the twist, the surprise, the sudden reveal that makes you reconsider and reevaluate everything you had experienced up until then. But these are examples of a special kind of twist. This isn’t the story twist that you’ll often find in thrillers (Hannibal Lecter’s amazing escape scene in Silence of the Lambs is a great example), but an experiential twist. A twist that isn’t contained in the character’s world, but leaks into the audience’s world and their understanding of what they’re actually experiencing.

But if theater depends on a series of lies, an elaborate ruse, perhaps events that create disorienting moments when the “joke” is revealed are more honest than the ones that never acknowledge the lie.

Either way, Theater definitely kicked the stuffing out of Music in this video. But I’m pretty sure Music was payed good money to take a dive.

ps – My soccer hooligan friend Shona just informed me that the reveal is actually in the music.  The quartet starts playing the “Champion League Anthem”, which is apparently recognizable by any fan. There’s a surge of applause in there that doesn’t really make sense unless you recognize the song.


Mar 2010

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.  This show and its aesthetic epitomizes much of what I find interesting about theater.

The show was created by the origianl Neo-Futurist troupe in Chicago over twenty years ago. It is dedicated to “non-illusory” theater, that is, there’s no attempt to suspend the audience’s belief. The actors always play themselves, and while they may evoke other locations, there’s no attempt to pretend that they’re anywhere other than the theater.  The audience is always acknowledged and often integrated.  They don’t so much as break the fourth wall as they refuse to conceive of one. The material they use comes from experiences in their own lives and must be true.  If they perform a monologue about how they broke their leg last week, it’s because they broke their leg last week.

In Too Much Light, they attempt to perform 30 miniature plays in this aesthetic in 60 minutes.  In whatever order the audience calls out.  When the 60 minutes are up, the show is done. And then each week they replace a random number of those plays with new ones. So the piece is constantly evolving and changing from week to week. As they’re fond of shouting “If you’ve seen the show once, you’ve seen it ONCE.”

The shows are high energy, interactive, surprising, hilarious, surreal, and sometimes heartbreakingly beautiful. If a few of the small plays don’t connect, that’s just fine, cuz you can be assured that a bunch of the others will.  Plays can be one of the neos discussing their childhood aspirations while performing a classical ballet routine to Pat Benatar, or the ensemble taping streamers across the stage, putting on corsages and boutonnieres, and standing shyly against the walls while Phil Collins plays over the PA, until audience members catch on, come on stage, and ask them to dance. It’s purely Definite Content.  Translation into any other medium is impossible.

This weekend I was fortunate enough to be invited to a workshop given by two Neo-Futurists from Chicago. Over the two full day sessions we ran a series of explorative exercises, focusing on things like site specificity (doing a piece that can uses unique aspects of the performance space, again, making it a kind of Definite Content), adapting true stories for a non performative performance, and task based theater, theater that involves undertaking some actual activity on stage, whether folding laundry or making a sandwich.  Each student produced three complete Neo performance pieces, one of them written from nothing in 30 minutes.

One of the revelations of the class was how damn good everyone was.  Even though only one other student was directly familiar with Neo-Futurist ideals, all of the nine students seemed to immediately get it. I’m not sure if it speaks to the talent of the students, the teachers, or the intrinsic nature of the aesthetic but each piece felt rich, deep, and profoundly affecting.

So now I have to figure out how to integrate this style of work into what I’m doing right now.  After all, this is the theater I love, why not try to make some? Some of it’s already in my piece.  What would a Neo-Futurist opera be? While large chunks of my opera are “illusory”, I’m pretending to be someone else (a few people, actually), there are crucial bits where that all falls away.  But perhaps there’s a task that can be performed during an aria?  Something site specific?  Perhaps I could involve the audience directly?  Pull them onto the stage? How can I counter the distancing effect of opera, of sung dialogue.  Or at least utilize it as a foil to the more immediate, non-illusory moments.

PS In other news, I found time to edit the first movement of my string quartet.  Look for the audio and some detailed program notes about the composition of the piece later this week.  The rest of the piece will come in the weeks to follow.


Mar 2010

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 survives drastic restagings and reinterpretations, and the dichotomy of form and content. While sex and nudity are discussed, this is still a bait and switch technique, and as much as I resent such marketing tricks and believe they cheapen the content they try to promote, those sensationalistic tricks really do work.  At least in the short term. (Just ask Calixto Bieito.  Or the folks who market his productions. More on him in a bit.)

Read the rest of this entry →

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 on top of that, the video is yet another great example of non-invisibility, it breaks you-tube’s fourth wall around the halfway mark with startling effect.

Venetian Snares – Szamar Madar from David OReilly on Vimeo.

What a perfectly timed convergence of ideas.


Mar 2010

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?

Heck, when I saw it I couldn’t believe it was even nominated. I mean, really? This poorly crafted one-note gag filled with drooling dialogue and despicable characters (actually, I can’t even call them characters, since that would imply that some effort at characterization was apparent) was almost unwatchable. There was one high concept “we create a world constructed entirely of LOGOs!  Get it?!  It will be like Where’s Waldo but with trademarks.  Oh how clever we are.” But they skipped the part where they found some compelling reason for this world to exist or why we would want to be there.  Or develop anything resembling characters we should care about.  Or any reason for us to be invested in any outcome.  Or any sense of actions having any consequence at all. It’s just a random smattering of profanity, violence, and “oh look, we can use a Stop and Shop logo as a traffic light! Where’s my MacArthur grant?”

So to do my part to banish the bad juju surrounding this collective lapse of reason, I’d like to share a 10 minute animation that is a lovely antidote to the 15 minutes of screen poop that won the Oscar.

Read the rest of this entry →


Mar 2010