Category Archives: Listen to this…

Hem – Half Acre – Analysis of a perfect thing

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I often suffer from a common malady amongst composers, the illusion that complexity can make a weak idea stronger. Or perhaps make up for a deficiency in structure. Maybe it stems from the thinking that if you impress someone’s ear with something complex, they will be so wowed by your sophistication that they’ll figure that the music MUST be good. If they don’t like the music, surely that’s THEIR deficiency.

From now on, whenever I start to feel like I’m adding crunchy harmonies or complex rhythms to dress up a goat (not that there’s anything wrong with goats… or dressing them), I’m going to take a few minutes to listen to Hem’s magnificently sparse masterpiece, Half Acre. It is, I dare say, a perfect thing.

Here. Listen.

Is that NOT perfect? (If you don’t think so, you can feel just free to skip to some other blog.)

So… what’s going on here? I took some time to identify the key elements that make up this piece, focusing on the core of the song, the melodic and harmonic gestures that make this piece work.

The piece is quite sparse and made of of a few static elements. First there’s an ostinato figure on a distant piano that continues for the entirety of the song (taking a couple of beats of rest at a few cadential breaths).


Pretty clear C tonality, major or minor is unclear.

Then the harmonic backbone comes in underneath the ostinato:

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Section A backbone

Expansive open fifths with a fast, fast, slow harmonic rhythm, landing squarely on a C tonality in the second half of each measure, clearly C major with the A and E naturals. There’s no attempt at any sort of voice leading, just sound, sound, sound.

At the same time, a mandolin comes in with an easy, lilting line in a pentatonic C, avoiding F and B. (I’d argue that this isn’t really a core structural element but it does add to the character of the piece):

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Mandolin line


And finally the real melody begins with the utterly gorgeous voice of Sally Ellyson.

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Section A Melody

[audio:|titles=A Section]

It’s sparse and gorgeous, wringing expression from a reach to the sixth scale degree (A to G) and then a fall from either the major third or the blues third (E to C or Eb to C). Note the change in harmony and harmonic rhythm in the last two measures. The pace of the harmonic changes is slowed by half and we hear the seventh scale degree for the first time, a flatted seventh in the backbone, the characteristic modal sound of much folk music. These two measures are both a cadential pause and a foreshadowing of musical material to come.

At this point the stage is set for what I think is the real magic of the piece, the transition into the B section, the material that takes this from a pretty little song to something unspeakably beautiful. It starts with a restatement of the A section, same ostinato  same harmonic backbone, but when it gets to those last two measures, where before we took a cadential pause, the melody breaks out into new heights:

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B section

[audio:|titles=B Section]

Gah! It gets me every frickin time. It’s magic! What makes this work? There’s the big seventh leap to a whole other register of her voice (stunning in any register), and this is the first time the melody has that flatted seventh (Bb) which was only teased at in the initial statement of the A section. But for me, the thing that really makes a difference is the slowing down of that harmonic rhythm. The open fifths in the bass are held for every two beats now as opposed to changing each beat, which makes the whole thing open up and feel vast and expansive.

Some melodic details worth pointing out, the G in ‘every’ in the first measure is the first real accented dissonance in the entire piece and it feels like so much heartache, landing right on beat three, emphasizing the slowed down chord changes. The B section consists of the same two measure melody repeated three times. And on that third time there’s a variation, a reach up to the appoggiatura D on ‘night’, which is the climax of this section (and the song). Then there’s another cadential breath, which parallels the last two measures of the initial A statement.

It’s worth noting that melodically, everything in this song moves by either leap or by whole step. The only time we see half steps at all is the slide from the bluesy Eb to D on the way to C and that’s more of a gesture than a melodic idea. In the melody, there are NO leading tones and NO ascending half steps. Nowhere. Not once. There is, however, one pseudo leading tone harmonically, the A in the bass that finishes each two bar phrase and leads into the Bb that starts each phrase that keeps the motion going throughout the section.

That’s the core of the song. There are certainly many other observations that could be made about the orchestration of the piece, the Es in the cello that sail through every other measure of the B section (1:10), the magical addition of the celeste with the piano playing the fifths an octave higher during the final verse (2:17), the beautiful descending piano scale that brings us into the final B section(2:46). But these are more production/arrangement decisions and not so much compositional ideas. The guts of this piece are a pure exercise in restraint, proportion, and making the right moments count. Certainly something worth considering when trying to write music that people respond to.

One Response to Hem – Half Acre – Analysis of a perfect thing

  1. Nolan Love says:

    Great analysis, Brian. The combination of puerile innocence in simplicity and repetition along with the world-wise bluesy accidentals in the melody give it a lovely balance. I’m also loving the clarinet which has it’s own mournful timbre to counter the sparkle of the other instruments. Good stuff!

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The Tauntaun Song

Last month I participated in A Musical Emergency, which is a loose collective of theater and music folks in SF that turns popular stories or movies into full length musicals. They divide the story up into bite sized chunks and everyone’s responsible for telling their part of the story however they feel. The movie wasContinue Reading

7 Responses to The Tauntaun Song

  1. Nolan Love says:

    This is just brilliant.

  2. Tom Shields says:

    Love the emotion! I laughed, I cried. It was better than Cats.

  3. Mark Casey says:

    “It didn’t hurt… that much.” Soooo good.

  4. Will Meyer says:

    Dude! I’m proud to have known you!

  5. Bayou says:

    This is the most brilliant thing I’ve heard in quite a while. I love Les Mis and the song selection was absolutely inspired. Tauntaun and Solo as Fantine and Valjean? Mind-blowingly awesome.

  6. Bayou says:

    Oh some Les Mis lover I am. Eponine and Marius… Still the sentiment holds.

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String Quartet video is up

The last bit of video from the concert has been posted. Liana, Stephanie, Evan, and Lucas did a great job with the quartet and I’ll be forever grateful to Mark Casey for finding them last year. The quartet got a great response at the concert and is consistently the piece that people have singled outContinue Reading

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Video from Alice is now available

The video excerpts from Alice are finally up. We’ve got the Chamber of Doors, Lullaby, and The Mad Tea Party (complete with me in mouse ears and whiskers.) This is more showtune-y than more recent stuff, but sometimes that’s just how I roll.

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Videos are coming in

After more wrestling with iMovie than I expected (why are video codecs so ridiculously convoluted. What year is this?) I’m starting to post video from last month’s concert on the webs. I’m starting out with the big premiere of poems set to music, or at least the poems that are in the public domain, sinceContinue Reading

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TONIGHT! Cypress String Quartet Calls. Jeffery Cotton Responds

Those of you who went to my recital last month (and also read the program notes) know that one of the primary inspirations for composing my string quartet came from my friendship with Cecily Ward from the Cypress String Quartet. The Cypress is unique in their commitment to the existing repertoire while providing a steadyContinue Reading

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Melisma on the Radio

Last month, inspired by a post on Chloe Veltman’s blog Lies Like Truth, I wrote a response addressing the melismatic, overwrought style of singing that seems to have been in vogue since the 1990s. Chloe read my piece and invited me to collaborate on an episode of her radio show VoiceBox dedicated to this subjectContinue ReadingContinue Reading

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Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, and… Benjamin Britten

I think it started with Whitney Houston. Then Mariah Carey. And then it spread to any R&B singer with a record deal. And then American Idol. And now, just about every YouTube video you see. It’s melisma. In singing, it’s any discrete changing of pitch while sustaining a single syllable. A common technique in baroqueContinue ReadingContinue Reading

One Response to Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, and… Benjamin Britten

  1. David says:

    That video is so terrifying.

    I shall not sleep this even’.

    Thanks Brian. Thanks a lot.

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Republican in San Francisco

It’s a new song from the Richter Scales! Followers of my blog are familiar with how my good friend Mark Casey surprised me on my last birthday with a premiere performance of my string quartet.  This year I managed to surprise him with an original song based on his life as the only person inContinue ReadingContinue Reading

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Garrison Keillor + Burning Man = A Playa Home Companion

If Garrison Keillor went to Burning Man, what would it sound like? That question popped into my head last Sunday as I was driving to get brunch with some fellow Black Rock Rangers in preparation for this year’s burn. The radio was tuned to A Prairie Home Companion and I found myself thinking… why hasn’tContinue Reading

22 Responses to Garrison Keillor + Burning Man = A Playa Home Companion

  1. bethany says:

    I love it! I hardly recognized your voice! Wonderful use of the laughter. Makes me wistful for the playa.

  2. Ren says:

    I love PHC and I love BRC and you totally just put your chocolate in my peanut butter! Great work. And, good Garrison Keillor impersonation. I hope to hear it on the Playa. Hugs.

  3. k8 says:

    i adore this. especially the breathing.

  4. Sunburn Sarah says:

    Oh yes, we need this for BMIR!

  5. baconqurlyq says:

    Brilliant! I hope I hear this on BMIR!

  6. Nolan Love says:

    So clever! Well done, BMR! Now onto BMIR!

  7. Librarian says:

    Beautiful! I just loved it. Well done!

  8. Schwabs says:

    Fantastic and absolutely brilliant. I look forward to hearing it again on the Playa!

  9. heddanewman says:

    I love this. rock on!!

  10. Izard says:

    For what it’s worth… I’m that big guy in line for coffee with the tangled beard and wonderwoman underoos, inviting you to attend Karaoke With The Super Friends.

    And I think I was puzzled by the quandary of the ‘4 bags for the price of 3’ while trying to decipher the sacred geometry someone wrote on my arm the night before… “Two bags will be fine.”

    “Well that’s just the magic of the playa right there, isn’t it?”

    Nicely done!

    • Brian Rosen says:

      izard… that part comes across less clearly than I’d like. The idea was that our protagonist writes on his arm when he wants to remember something important (like bringing his thermal underwear), but it never ends up legible when he actually needs to remember it. In this case, he wrote “buy more ice than you think you need” on his arm.

      Not sure if ANYONE picks that up (which is probably a failure in the writing.)

      Glad you enjoyed, and look forward to running into you in the coffee line…

      • LifeOnAString says:

        The reference to the ice decision comes through. In fact, it is better that you are not sure what he wrote, but that it might have had something to do with the ice…. or not.

  11. spongemonkey says:

    Mind if we play this on The BRBC?! Black Rock City’s first fully solar powered radio?!
    We aren’t BMIR… we are better! 🙂
    This would go great with out pledge drive!

  12. Patty says:

    Brilliant!! Come find us at 4:30 and B at our happy hour, we’ll pour you a great drink!


    Mystikal Mysfits

  13. I have to say this was so well executed. After the initial chuckle at the conceit and execution the actual words sunk in….much like the other “News from
    “. I found myself just coasting down the stream on the tone and words semi narcotized yet aware. Thanks for starting my burn early!

  14. Grokstar says:

    Thanks for the nice trip to the playa from my living room.
    Nicely done.

  15. Draper says:

    Are you scheduled for center camp stage?

  16. Bayou says:

    I just heard this for the first time (via Pred). It is awesome. We need a P.A. system at Ranger H.Q.. This would be perfect when we’re gathered around the burn barrel during a sleepy grave shift.

  17. Captain Jack says:

    Great Job that was fun

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