Archive for the ‘Listen to this…’Category

Hem – Half Acre – Analysis of a perfect thing

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:

Pasted Graphic 5

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.


May 2015

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 was Empire Strikes Back. And the scene I chose was the scene where Han saves Luke from Hoth. Sung from the perspective of the Tauntaun. I wrote the first half and adapted the second half from A Little Fall Of Rain from Les Miz. It’s… a little sad. I don’t know about you, but that scene kinda traumatized me. I think it shows.

May the 4th Be With You

(Oh, and I took the helmet and chest panel off before sitting at the piano. It’s hard to play in the full costume.)

Edit: I posted a link to a higher quality video. Enjoy.


May 2012

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 out in subsequent conversations. I’m quite happy with the way it’s turned out and I’m still hoping that it will have a life of its own. So far, though, contemporary chamber music doesn’t seem to be a “If you write it, they will come” sort of endeavor. Still, I’m more confident than ever that this piece does not suck.

Here are the links to the videos (and program notes) for each individual movement.

Movement 1 – On the Rails

Movement 2 – Tango a la Peachy

Movement 3 – Off the Rails



May 2011

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.


May 2011

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, since the synchronization rights for the others were, shall we say, way out of my price range.

So if you visit the “Listen” page for A Brief History of Love and Poetry you’ll see the videos embedded in there.

In the days to come I’ll be posting the bits from Alice as well as the string quartet.


May 2011

TONIGHT! Cypress String Quartet Calls. Jeffery Cotton Responds

Cecily BETTER wear those boots tonight.

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 steady stream of new commissions for the genre. Their Call and Response program is a perfect embodiment of that ethos. They commission a composer to ‘respond’ to a piece (or pieces) already in the canon, thus creating a new work which has an explicit connection to a tradition. (The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is doing something similar with their¬†“New Brandenburg” project.)

This year’s composer is Jeffery Cotton and the premiere is tonight. I desperately want to go, but my a cappella group is having call backs at my house, so it’s kinda urgent that I’m there. Sigh.

Tonight: 5/5/2011
Cypress String Quartet
Herbst Theater (SF)
8pm (pre concert talk 7:15)


May 2011

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 subject that will air tonight on KALW. (And available streaming from KALW’s website for the next seven days.)

Preparing for this show forced me to clarify my thinking about the technique. For one thing, I’ve decided that we don’t really have a good label for it. Read the rest of this entry →

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Jan 2011

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 baroque vocal music as well as ancient church practices of all western religions, it has become the hallmark of virtuosity. “Good” singing has become measured in extraneous flourishes, grace notes, and the extending of a phrase well past any reasonable proportion.

So what is there to do? Read the rest of this entry →


Nov 2010

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 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 →


Oct 2010

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’t anyone done A Playa Home Companion? That would be a perfect thing for BMIR to play on a quiet midmorning as people are nursing their wounds from the night before.

So… I did it. I dashed out a quick prototype to see what it would sound like. I was aiming for wistfully amusing and not laugh out loud funny. It starts out a little slow, but picks up towards the middle. And I’m quite happy with the ending.

If you’re not familiar with Burning Man, it might not make much sense. And if you’re not familiar with A Prairie Home Companion, it also might not make much sense.

Or maybe it just doesn’t make much sense.

Regardless, here’s the News From Black Rock City, where the town is round, the earth is flat, and the burn was better last year.

[audio:|titles=Playa Home Companion]

Or right click to save it to your computer for future listening: Playa Home Companion


Aug 2010