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 in his zip code who would dare make a case for Sarah Palin occupying a national office (and have enough command of the facts to make you buy it. For a few minutes at least.)
Although the topic of the song was set from the beginning, the structure was much less clear. The original title was “The Nicest Republican You’ll Ever Know” with the vague concept of a Republican having a hard time getting a date in San Francisco, but I couldn’t quite get a full song out of it. I had a lot of gags, but no arc, no strong chorus, no song. Then, while driving back from LA (where our previous video, I Got Mail, was playing at the Feel Good Film Festival) I had the idea that this would work well as an barbershop quartet. Read the rest of this entry →
When measuring success, if you haven’t yet inspired a YouTube parody, you’re probably an also-ran. When you’re REALLY successful, you become a template for parodying other things. That would make Guitar Hero pretty successful.
The earliest Guitar Hero parody I know of was forwarded to me by the internetally omniscient non-aardvark Curtis Chen (who runs the very worth your time snout.org). The gag is even funnier if you’re familiar with the More Cowbell skit on SNL.
While not exactly a YouTube parody, the Onion had it’s own take on the Guitar Hero phenomenon with their report of lackluster sales for Sousaphone Hero. I love the idea of 135 virtual sousaphone players competing in Marching Band mode, and any brass player will sympathize with the need to keep the controller’s spit valve drained.
And most recently, we have the world cup edition: Vuvuzela Hero. Well played, sir, well played.
Time for another transformative cover. This time the source material is Radiohead’s Morning Bell This track isn’t exactly uncoverable. There’s plenty of harmonic and melodic material in there with room for an artist to interject their own sensibilities.
And now here’s a cover by bluegrass super group, The Punch Brothers. That’s right, bluegrass. Chris Thiele is the driving force behind the band and is on the short list of my favorite musicians alive. Back in 2007 I won tickets to see Nickel Creek in a 100 seat theater and it remains one of the top 5 musical experiences of my life. He recently composed a mandolin concerto (co-commissioned by my alma mater Interlochen Center for the Arts) and I swear I just read this now, but apparently he’s working on a collaboration with Hillary Hahn. (Not that surprising since they have the same publicist, blogger Amanda Ameer.)
I LOVE this cover. Behind the virtuosic solos and Thiele’s perfectly attuned singing, there’s this percolating murmur of plucked and strummed strings. The harmonic rhythm is pretty static. Chords don’t change very often, and when they do, it’s sudden and almost completely unprepared. In the context of prerecorded electronica, that’s not such a big deal, but in a live “jam band” situation it’s exhilarating. These are some serious musicians.
If you happen to be in San Francisco tonight, The Punch Brothers are playing the Herbst Theater as part of the SF Jazz Festival. It’s going to be a great show.
Interestingly enough, Radiohead themselves released another version of Morning Bell on their Amnesiac album. They switched the meter from 5 to 4 and removed the drum track. In this version, the plodding duple meter lurches through a haze of reverb. It’s almost relentless.
Actually it was Jennifer Higdon who won the Pulitzer for a violin concerto written for Hilary Hahn. Most folks have never heard of this composer, but if you followed the links from my earlier post about Hilary, you may have stumbled upon her interviews with this now Pulitzer Prize winning composer. It’s almost like I broke a story! Kinda.
OK. Now I gotta stop writing about Hilary Hahn. I’m starting to sound like some sort of fan boy or something. I mean, it’s not like I’m writing a bunch of violin music, secretly hoping that she’ll champion it or anything. Nope. Not like that at all.
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.
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.
Hilary Hahn is one of the most successful classical music artists alive. Debuted with Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at the age of 12, finished her bachelor requirements at Curtis at 16, signed with Sony at 17, and was named “America’s Best” young classical musician by Time Magazine at 22. She recently turned 30, and like any good generation Y-er, she has a Twitter account. Or, at least, her violin case has one. (Take some time and click the link. It’s ridiculously adorable. But do come back.)
A few years ago I was torn between seeing her play a brief free show at Amoeba Records on Haight and seeing the a Blood Brothers opening for …And You will Know Us by the Trail of Dead at the Fillmore. It was a tough call. I opted for the post-hardcore screamfest, figuring that Hilary was much less likely to flame out (or overdose) in the next five years. The Blood Brothers were amazing, but the highlight of the evening was when Trail Of Dead announced a very special guest. Out of nowhere, Hilary Hahn joined them on stage to play “To Russia My Homeland”, a song she recorded with them on their latest album, cuz that’s just how she rolls. I had no idea.
Some things about Hilary.
She likes defying genres (see above).
She likes communicating directly with her audience (see further above)
She’s a big proponent of new music.
Which brings me to my point. (Almost.)
Hilary Hahn has a youtube channel where she keeps her fans up to date as she travels and tours. As part of this channel, in conjunction with the new music blog Sequenza 21, she has a series of interviews withemerging composers. What a great idea! Here’s a popular and engaging classical violinist trying to get some traction for some folks making new music.
But wait. How many views does that have? A little over 1,300? Heck, The Richter Scales latest animation has more views than that and that’s our least successful video by far. This is a truly world class musician talking to a composer who is no slouch herself. And we’re getting more views with cutout animation, archival footage, and a dick joke? Actually, our video is kinda cute, but come on, this is HILARY HAHN!
So my point? Actually, I can’t remember. But it has something to do with the rewards for this new music thing being fairly meager. It’s a pretty small pie we’re fighting for. And you should all go subscribe to Hilary’s youtube channel and follow her tweets. And if nothing else you should go take a few minutes to listen to her rock the hell out of the fourth movement of Stravinsky’s violin concerto. Especially the end. The Blood Brothers would be proud.
Brian M. Rosen loves music and theater and wants you to love music and theater too (especially if it happens to be music or theater that he's written). Read about the stuff he likes and why he likes it.