John Williams: Star Wars

So as I'm going through this whole round-up of post modern music that doesn't sound like giraffes stampeding through a Guitar Center, I find myself thinking, "Ed, you're sure picking a lot of instrumental works."

I get sort of indignant with this accusation and retort, "Yeah?!  So what's 'Hey Jude' then?  I even had two versions of it!"

I calmly counter, "And both were jazz bands."


"Maynard Ferguson didn't sing."

So, despite whatever your preconceived notions may be, I did actually consider shooting for something with some vocals in it.  That's about as far as I got.  Not that I have any sort of apprehension towards vocal music.  If you comb through previous entries, you will in fact find a good handful of such works.  So choral people can go whine about having to actually read music or some other such nonsense.

Today we're going to look at an artform that has been married to music since essentially the beginning of mankind's attempts to create aural art in any form.  Today we're looking at movie music!

Now, you may be wondering, "Ed.  Movies are only like 130 years old."  Yes they are, however before movies if we wanted to see celebrities acting we actually had to get our duffs off the couch and go find a theatre.  And almost since the beginning, there has been some kind of underscore to the action via live or recorded performance.  Going back to silent movies you'd have someone pounding away on an upright piano at the corner of the screen as Charlie Chaplin bounced around in black and white flickering light.  Predating that, you had live opera all the way back to the 1500's.  Before that you can find examples like our own Hildegard von Bingen and her Ordo Virtutum.  Prior to that you had the ancient Greeks who often employed music in ceremonies and in their theatre.  So, going the majority of the span of human history we've got a mix of acting and music.

The logical progression of this is to the screen as our technology has made it feasible to share information and data with a large percentage of the population in an insanely short amount of time.  Opera tended to be for the well-to-do, upper crusters of society.  It was (and continues to be) a cost-prohibitive endeavor as the capacity for observers of the artform is limited to the size of the venue in which it is performed.  It's also limited by its own ability to draw a respectably sized crowd and therefore there has always been a fine line to walk in the financing of such performances.

Movies on the other hand, while comparatively expensive, have the ability to be disseminated and reproduced without the requirement that the original cast, musicians, technical and administrative staffs be present at every screening.  It has a much broader reach.  Due to the greater number of people bearing the expense of production, the costs of tickets in comparison are relatively low, unless of course you want to see Jar Jar in 3D.

"Meesa gonna kill the franchise!"

So here's the point: Movies are a logical extension of that most sacred activity of dramatic theatre.  There are similar requirements within both.  Plot, characters, set, music.  For some time music remained unchanged from the stages of the Palais Garnier and Broadway.  Scores written for movies could easily be used in the same fashion on the stage.  One of the ideas that was a stay-over from the stage was the concept of the leitmotif which is essentially a musical phrase written for a specific aspect of the work (e.g., character, location, etc.).

This concept of "theme music" began in the end of the Classical era in French opera where we might hear a familiar passage as a character appears or does something integral to the plot.  However, the leitmotif blossomed in the Romantic era, where composers became enamored with the concept of melody.  Composers like Carl Maria von Weber and Richard Wagner both employed heavy use of the melodic character in their operas.  It provided a link for the audience member between past and present events.  The leitmotif could be played in different textures or styles to magnify emotions felt on stage.  For the first time in history, music became as much a character of the performance as the actors themselves on stage. We as audience members can "feel" a scene by how it sounds as well as by how it looked.

So, naturally we see this style of composition grow and mature and as theatre gives way to moving pictures it gets swept up into the mix.  You'd get pictures with a good guy and a bad guy and a girl in the middle and each of them would have a theme.  Sometimes it wasn't so much about the character themselves, but perhaps their relationship.  Between the good and bad guy you might have tension, fast-paced exciting music. Between the good guy and the girl is your love theme, between the bad guy in the girl maybe a dash of forbidden love.  Or if it's an adventure theme maybe a dramatic rescue theme as Mario rescues Peach from the clutches of the evil Bowser.

So, this is all fine and good, but somewhere in the past few decades we've seen a change. Somewhere noise was introduced into the music.  It's as though the sound effects guy and the composer had a few too many brews while doing post-production and everything became blurred.  

Foley artists and cellists living together, mass hysteria!  

The score became the soundtrack and the theme got lost in the mix.  A soundtrack that comes to mind immediately is "The Dark Knight".  Now, before I begin I do have to point out that the score to this movie does in fact use some thematic material.  However, I challenge you to find a tune you can hum on your way to get another popcorn.  Even Hans Zimmer himself said the theme was comprised from all of two notes.  Listen to this excerpt from the beginning of the film.

Silence plays a big role in the beginning and as the scene progresses percussive and subharmonic notes also add to the building tension, like subatomic gunfire. There's no discernible melody, but lots of unison percussion/orchestral attacks and a constant pulse under the current of the action.

It's like Adam West writing the soundtrack with his fists.

So, let's examine then a post-modern composer who still clings to the idea that too much melody is not necessarily a bad thing.  I speak of none other than John Williams (b. 1932). Now, much like Saturday Night Live, at some points in history it is a popular idea to hate the music of John Williams.  There are those among us who claim that his scores all sound alike and that there is a certain similarity between each of the blockbuster films he's associated with.  Well, OK. That argument is akin to saying you don't like Van Gogh because all his sunflowers look alike.  An artist will develop and demonstrate a similar style throughout their career.  You do get those like the Salvador Dali's of the world who are seemingly good at everything and can encompass multiple influences successfully within their work.  But even Dali could be taken apart by saying the dude just really liked melting clocks.

An artist's style is their signature much in the same way a composer's "sound" is their's. John Williams is good (if at nothing else) at writing melodies.  I have never heard a bad melody written by that man.  He is adept at capturing the spirit of a character and embodying all the flaws and defects as well as the latent altruism in those "heroes of convenient timing" that he and Spielberg and Lucas seemed to like to develop. He is one of the few film composers alive today that still believes whole-heartedly in the idea that the score is a character all its own. That it shouldn't merely be relegated to the confines of the soundtrack.  That it should be nurtured and allowed to grow.

One of the best examples of this (at least for me) is Star Wars.  Now here's a movie that was unlike anything we had really seen in the mainstream before.  Aliens and lasers and spaceships and Darth Vader.  And the London Symphony Orchestra.  So George Lucas and John Williams pile all these musicians into the studio, put on what essentially appeared to be 'Cowboys in Space' and recorded a masterpiece.  Many of the musicians weren't interested in the movie itself.  I know for a fact that the principal horn player, David Cripps, at the time has never seen the movie.  This is the man who played the famous horn solo as Luke looks out over the sandy hills of Tatooine and watches the binary sunset.  Professor Cripps was for a time a horn professor at Florida State.  Incidentally, I even had the privilege of being in the same restroom as him for a brief time.

The movie was far off-base so the producers knew they needed something solid to ground the audience, to relate the off-world antics on screen to their own personal experience.

John Williams was the tether.

He wrote the score in such a way as to be reminiscent of many popular classical works of the time.  Mars from Holst's "The Planets" is echoed frequently as is pieces of William Walton's "Crown Imperial".  Heck, Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" was actually used as a literal placeholder in some of the desert scenes as Williams finished the score.  The music is rooted in some of the greatest Romantic and Modern classical music we know.

Unfortunately, John Williams is also highly protective and litigious when it comes to his music, so once again we'll have to play second fiddle when it comes to an example.  Back in 2009 when I got married, I did the whole proper groom thing and basically let my lovely bride make every single decision possible about the wedding.

Most of this was in fact not only a good idea, it actually saved our marriage before it began.

However, I did have one trick up my sleeve.  I was arranging all of the music for the ceremony and as I am a trombonist at heart I felt it appropriate to arrange for a trombone quartet selections of music from important aspects of my bride's and my lives.  I pulled from Brahms, Grainger, even Rodgers and Hammerstein!  It was cool.  So it came down to the recessional and I needed to pull out one for the win.  Now, flashback about 2 years before when we're sitting down and watching a New Hope on television.  UNSOLICITED, my blushing then-bride-to-be comments how cool a wedding based on the Throne Room scene would be.

I took that gem and saved it for a rainy day.

My one sole contribution to the wedding ceremony (outside of simply attending) was this piece.  It is recorded poorly and in a ridiculously short amount of time by your's truly, so I do apologize for the hackingly bad quality.


Homework: Go to the movies.  Listen to the soundtrack.  Determine if what you're hearing is actually more musical or physical.  

See you next Friday.


All Star Wars stuff belongs to John Williams or Lucasfilms, LTD.
The Far Side comic is exclusive property of Gary Larson
Adam West and Batman belong to Warner Brothers


Béla Fleck and the Flecktones: Big Country

I think there's a point in life when you almost feel as though you've heard everything you can hear.

Sure, there will be new stuff. Composers gonna compose, writers gonna write, musicians gonna...musish? But for me it came when I turned on the radio and heard the same conglomeration of chords arranged over a drum track with various effects and over-processed mixing thrown in. And after a while it all begins to sound the same. Literally and figuratively.

And it's not specific to genre! No, no! Each genre and station has its own cycle, predetermined I would imagine by some devious oligarchy behind the doors of iHeartRadio and Clear Channel. "This is what the masses need!" To me, listening to the radio becomes a chore of finding something that I haven't heard before that doesn't suck (sorry college radio, I really don't care about your brother's sister's counsin's grandfather's great-nephew's uncle's band he started in the back of a Waffle House with a guy on Theremin who used to be a roadie for Slipknot).

And it's not all bad music. A good song can turn into an annoying one very quickly if you hear it three or four times per day every time you get into the car. Where's the variety? I know that many radio stations simply record 4 hour chunks of airtime so that they can easily replicate a set of songs complete with announcements and introductions, but only have to have the on-air personality in studio once. 

But where can we go for a break from the norm? Where is this tightrope where musicians who skirt the line between sucking and radio fame walk precariously in between? Well, one place I've found it is with an American banjo player named Béla Fleck (b. 1958).

We came to your planet in the 18th century bearing the Ophicleide.  Sorry 'bout that one.

Fleck is widely known as one of the most technically gifted and innovative banjo players in the world. He is mostly commonly associated with the group Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, comprised of himself, Victor Wooten, Futureman, and Howard Levy. The group has added in many members for special tours and performances over its existence as well, often incorporating odd juxtapositions of instruments from many varied cultures and genres. One of my favorite albums by them, "Live at the Quick" features several additional performers ranging from steel and tabla drums to bassoon and oboe to Tuvan throat singing. The odd part being not just that it works, but how well it works together. One of the main themes the group seems to embody is that if you put enough talent into a box, it doesn't matter where it came from originally. Good stuff will come out.

In the accompanying video for the album, "Live at the Quick", Fleck talks about his own experience in writing music. He explains about a trick where as an idea strikes him he'll call his answering machine and sing the melody into the phone, preserving it for a time later when he can jot down more about it. If he waits, the music is gone, the idea is lost. It's in that fleeting moment where suddenly a bit of magic is uncovered and preserved in order to be harvested and grown into something truly amazing. I've often wondered where that "magic" originates from. We've all experienced it in some facet of our lives or another I would suspect. Most often for me it comes just as I'm waking up. I've taken to jotting down these fleeting thoughts before I fully enter consciousness and lose them. Most of the time these are the leftovers from dreams that only exist in that moment between awake and asleep and will instantly be forgotten.  I don't usually remember writing them.

Every so often I find particularly odd notes about things crazy people in subway stations might yell, for example here's one from a few months ago:

Pool Game: Stabbing knives through a horizontal piece of foil in a pool. Two people on either side, half of the time you yell, "Flamingo!", especially when you make a hit.

Surprise!  No one wins.

I honestly can't remember this dream or writing this down. It looks about as insane and troubling to me as it probably does to you. However in performing this journaling, sometimes I find ideas that I can work into something I'm actually doing or an idea that can give impulse to something I want to write. For example, one other waking idea came from this thought:

Father playing at a park with son. Other patrons at park become increasingly aware of his actions, act strangely concerned about his presence. Father continues to play with son uninhibited by growing concern around him. Eventually, police are called. Father is escorted away, protesting. His son is left behind crying and alone, father violently resists as he is arrested and thrown into a police car.

At some point after being interviewed by police he is made aware that his son was not with him at the playground and in fact, his son died 2 years previously. The father firmly believes this to be false, but as he continues to uncover information he finds himself in a radically different present than what he previously knew.

So there's a neat and surreal prompt for an interesting short story or what have you. The subconscious mind is rife and teeming with these sorts of ideas, we just have to allow our conscious mind to be aware of and embrace them.

But back to Fleck! This gem plucked from the fleeting moment is of course, Big Country. It's hard for me to categorize this tune. Within it are the obvious elements of bluegrass and jazz, but in some moments I can hear Aaron Copland flowing through. Or even Charles Ives. Or Miles Davis. There is a certain American quality to this piece, but at the same time it's not patriotic nor nationalistic. It to me expresses a certain quality of living that embraces every aspect of our being and encompasses it all within the combined human experience. 

It's open in Big Country. 

Everyone is welcome to come and share what they have.  More importantly, in that moment of sharing we're liable to hear something new, something we've never heard before.  That's important.

As such, there are many renditions of this wonderful piece that have been recorded. I will share with you today two of my favorites. The first being a "Celtic" arrangement of the work and the second being the excerpt from "Live at the Quick" with an introduction to the piece by Fleck.

Homework: Make a dream journal. Write down whatever is in your mind the moment you awake. An easy way to do this is to type it into the notepad on your phone.

See you next Friday.


Flamingo picture is of Don Featherstone, an employee of Union Products and designer of the pink flamingo
Picture of "Bruce Dickinson" belongs to NBC
Bela Fleck and the Flecktones image and videos obviously belong to them


Paul McCartney: Hey Jude (as arranged for the Stan Kenton and Maynard Ferguson Orchestras respectively)

OK!  We're back with a vengeance!  This week we're pulling out all the stops and going to do something we've never done before!  Are you excited?!  You should be.




Bringing it down a notch- this week I've decided to take a new heading on LF.  We've talked about mostly instrumental music and almost exclusively what many of you might consider to be "Classical Music".  An odd misnomer that has stuck with our interpretation of music since...well...since people starting listening to music at the push of a button.  

And here's the modern interpretation of musical genres as perceived by the post-MTV-generation

"What happened?" you might find yourself asking.  Where were our champions of music culture when video did indeed kill the radio star?  The answer to that question is that they never left.  They've always been there waiting in the shadows.  Waiting to be discovered, hiding on some pawn shop shelf quietly gathering dust.  Biding their time.  And no, I'm not talking like some sort of musical hipster.

No, my dear readers, this music has always been there.  Sometimes on the surface and sometimes just below.  So, in order to hopefully push our demographics deeper into the 18-35 year olds we are going to being a new series entitled:

Music Written After 1960 That Doesn't Suck

In this series I hope to find four examples of very modern music that exhibits all of the characteristic symptoms of music that is beneficial and enjoyable to listen to.  Basically, anything that isn't Miley Cyrus riding construction equipment.  

"I'm not touching it."

In week one we're going to pull a piece that many of you probably know quite well.  For me it is a piece that brings back many happy memories of my salad days as a high school trombonist.  It is none other than "Hey Jude" written by Paul McCartney (b. 1942) and performed by none other than the Beatles.  

The tune itself has an interesting history.  McCartney eventually claimed that he wrote it for John and Cynthia Lennon's son, Julian, on the occasion of his parents divorce. McCartney and the younger Lennon grew very close over the years, to the point that Julian himself admitted he looked to McCartney as a father figure more so than the elder Lennon, even prior to his untimely assassination.  "Jules" was a difficult name to sing, so the change was made to "Jude" at some point in the history of the song.  Paradoxically, John Lennon thought it was about him, taking the lyrics "you have found her, now go and get her" to be some sort of mixed blessing about his relationship with Yoko Ono.  McCartney even claimed for some time that it was about himself, written as a mantra for pushing forward in the rough transition the Beatles endured in the Ono Era.  Though this may have been a means of protecting Julian from the spotlight.

It was 20 years before Julian Lennon knew the song was originally inspired for him, as a message of hope and support through a difficult hour.  Despite this narrow scope, the song seems to reach a broader audience and I think McCartney ultimately hoped it would.  The hybrid messages of carrying on and pushing forward despite the weight of the world held like Atlas speaks to many of us in our different stages of life.  The fact that all these people claim to think McCartney was writing it for them expresses volumes about the universal appeal for this song.  For me personally, my connection came in 2001 where our high school band had elected to perform a Beatles half-time show.  We included in this show several well-written charts and one of those was in fact "Hey Jude".  

Now, this was not your dad's "Hey Jude".  This version was written for none other than the Stan Kenton Orchestra.  The only recording that I can find that exists of this particular version is on the album "Live at Redlands University".  At this point in time (late 60's through the 70's) Kenton and his counterpart Maynard Ferguson were working primarily with college musicians and helped launch many a career for young talent.  It was an exciting point in jazz history, I mean- how often do you get to play for someone like Kenton or Ferguson and just be a college kid? 

Never, that's how often.  

Unfortunately, the only way to hear this particular track is to buy it and to your further disappointment you will have to buy the whole album (as per Amazon and iTunes purchasing requirements).  The main reason I like this version is that Dick Shearer has an absolutely, disgustingly sick trombone solo at the start.  It starts out with a super funky groove from the rhythm section and then goes into this nice rendition of the first verse. Second time around Shearer jumps up an octave and he nails a high F.  It's like trombone heaven up there.  

It sounds like angels printing money.

So, unfortunately for you I cannot publish a link to hear this golden funk on tap.  I can recommend that you do buy the album (there's a bunch of good tunes on there, not to mention a revisit of "Peanut Vendor" which is hot to the touch).  

Here's a link to that on Amazon:

It's worth the damn $8.99.

But for you cheapskates (I mean 99 percenters) here's a rendition that Maynard did in the 70's.  Pay special attention to the shag carpeted stage.

It's pretty nice.

Homework- Find at least one other rendition/arrangement of "Hey Jude" and write a note about the differences/similarities and if you liked it better or not.  

See you next Friday.




Gustav Holst: Second Suite in F for Military Band (Movement 4: Fantasia on the Dargason)

In our last week of the Desert Island Band Literature competition we are talking about folk songs again, but this time it's with Gustav Holst (1874-1934).  

Now, I realize LF has been on an unannounced hiatus for a few weeks now.  Long story short- I needed a break.  I do understand that the 2.3 of you who faithfully read this site must be devastated, but I have to explain a few things.  

Over summer I interviewed for, landed, and have begun a full time position outside of teaching.  I had been a music educator from January 22nd, 2007 until May 23rd, 2013. As a related side note, half of America's teachers leave the field after just 5 years.  

I made it 1 year, 4 months, and 1 day past that. 

And there was much rejoicing.

It was not an easy decision to come by, and that (more than anything else) has impacted my desire to sit down and write out the latest and greatest Listening Friday entry.  

The idea of pursuing a career in music entered into my brain sometime around middle school and into high school.  I played trombone starting when I was 10, and I had become highly involved in my church through running their sound board.  I participated in many performances through this time, both secular and religious, both with my school and with the church.  

I can remember being a young sound tech and running the board for a Christmas or Easter cantata and being overwhelmed by the musical performance.  Looking back, I'm sure it was a fine exhibition, but who knows what the quality actually was.  For some reason something clicked.  Something in my brain said, "This is what you are meant to do."  

I misunderstood.  

In the summer between my Junior and Senior years of high school, I was awarded a scholarship to attend the Florida State University Summer Music Camps in Tallahassee, FL.  At this point I was already well-acquainted with FSU and had been up for the Tri-State Band Festival they host (which is nothing short of a big recruit-a-thon, but a valuable experience none-the-less).  Dr. James Croft was conducting us for one week, and at this point he was still the Director of Bands and had not retired.  He chose several pieces for us to perform, but the one that remains lodged in my memory was Gustav Holst's "Second Suite in F for Military Band".  


Dr. Croft, for those who don't know him, was a tall, wiry, old man.  He had aspired to become a basketball player in his youth, but found a career in being a band director more fitting.  He had been at FSU a long time before I encountered him, and had been in front of many, possibly tens of thousands of high school kids at one time or another.  He spoke very softly most of the time, so softly the entire band would strain to hear every word, leaning in, not daring to move even a finger, lest the sound of a distracting movement obscure a gem of wisdom floating through the hall.  

Now, to someone who had not the distinct pleasure of being rehearsed by Dr. Croft this might sound a bit enthusiastic, and you would be right.  But I can't accurately describe the feeling of being in the room with this man and under his baton.  If there is magic in this world, Jim Croft was a proprietor.  

He began to rehearse the Holst.  We struggled in all the familiar places, the 3rd movement of course, the saxophone intonation at the beginning of the 4th.  He guided us down his well-trodden path and looking back I have to wonder what the first time he rehearsed this piece must have been like.  He explained the history behind Holst and how he and Vaughn Williams and Grainger had all become enchanted with folk music of the European continent and had basically spun these simple melodies into gold using only pen and manuscript.  

It was magic.  Pure and simple.

The fourth movement of the work encompasses two pieces from what was essentially a handbook on how to perform the country dances of the time.  These dances were intricate patterns involving on average 8-12 couples and the movements were all highly regimented and organized.  The two melodies are the Dargason and Greensleeves (also known as 'What Child is This?').  Holst begins simply enough with two saxes playing the main theme and then works his way around the band, feeling the lay of the land so-to-speak as he experiments with the texture a bit.  

At some point it all changes.  Greensleeves is introduced, but not as a separate entity.  It is woven into the texture created by the Dargason and essentially becomes one in the same. Now the Dargason is a melody in a meter that is known as 6/8.  This means that there are 6 beats in each measure and that each beat is marked by an 8th note.  Greensleeves is in 3/4 which implies 3 beats per bar and a quarter note as the beat. Mathematically, they're the same thing.  If you take half of a quarter note, you get an 8th note, which would mean that there are in fact 6 8th notes in a measure of 3/4, same as 6/8.  The difference comes when we examine how each meter is interpreted.  

6/8 is divided into two larger groups, 1-2-3 and 4-5-6.  A conductor will indicate where beat 1 and 4 are to the ensemble, the pulse is felt internally.  With 3/4 however, each quarter note is given its own pulse, thus making the feel of the melody a bit more triangular.  What Holst successfully demonstrated was that using a compositional technique known as the 'hemiola' you can juxtapose three over two evenly.  

He demonstrates this two times, the second is prelude to the finale of the movement where we are treated to polar opposites of texture.  A tuba and piccolo play the remaining lines of melody to a triumphant stinger at the end.  

It was through rehearsing this piece that I heard that voice again, I wanted to live this life of the magician and be constantly surrounded by this wondrous music that I was party to.  I would not be deterred and thus launched head-long into a music education degree the following year at FSU.  

Now I certainly live with no regrets of any of this, because my time at FSU was great. Performing with the many wonderful ensembles and learning from some of the finest men and women to grace the profession was nothing short of amazing.  However, upon entering the 'real world' and realizing that so little of the magic is actually available for use and on tap was quite defeating.  Limiting factors were incessant and quite frankly it ground me down.  I don't really care to go into the details, but know that with the exception of one year I truly feel my job was cleaning up one mess after another.  

Fix all the bands.

But even more basic than that, I started to notice that my personality did not fit in.  As many of my friends adapted and grew more and more acquainted with their musical endeavors, I felt more locked in and unable to escape.  I began to not care about progression or advancement.  It felt like being trapped.  I constantly felt like I was enclosed and was constantly being drained of any and all of the musical magic I could muster.  

So, I quit.

And I walked away from it.  

But it's not as easy as it sounds.  

My whole career I've toyed with the idea that my becoming a band director was a horrible, misguided mistake.  But walking away meant abandoning something I felt I could be proud of.  It meant letting down all the people who had held up a guiding hand along the way.  I felt burdened by guilt for wanting to get out.  Not to mention being unemployed wasn't necessarily the best option at the time what with a family to feed and all.  

But I left.  I took a big chance and tried to find other employment, initially looking towards something close to my degree and experience, but finally figuring out what I had misunderstood all along.  

I am not one to be the center of attention, but like standing to the left of it.  In all my years of running that sound board in church I had realized that I love the performing arts, but my place in it was not on the stage. 

My place is just off stage.  

Now, that's not to say I would ever sell my trombone or give up my J-Bass, but the terrific weight of building a band program and guiding them through the various stages of development is not something I am greatly built to accomplish.  

I've been thinking a lot lately about whether or not this was the right choice.  I have been having trouble finding the right way to word this entry, perhaps it's poetic justice to find myself having to visit this piece again at time like this.  

But ultimately, I do have a love for music and a passion to continually learn more about it and I don't think that will change any time soon.  So without further explanation, here is the final piece in our Desert Island repertoire: Gustav Holst's Fantasia on the Dargason.

Homework: Make a decision today to be happy.

See you next Friday. 

I promise.