Pharrell Williams: Happy arr. Christopher Bill

Every so often I find a difficult time in choosing what to write about. It usually happens when I coincidentally get too busy to really devote any valuable time researching artists/composers/pieces for the blog and Friday rolls by at light speed and nothing's been done.

This entry was supposed to be about J.J. Johnson.

It also was supposed to be done by Friday.

If you're keeping score we're down by 2 and in overtime. This happened a lot when I was a teacher as you may be (or probably aren't) aware that teachers get squat when it comes to time to actually plan anything useful. Fortunately, there are those in our society who dictate what teachers are actually supposed to do without requiring them to think. But that's a topic for a much more cynical and jaded blog than this one.

Today we're "Happy" courtesy of Pharrell Williams (b. 1973) who is proclaimed by Wikipedia to be "an American singer-songwriter, rapper, record producer, musician, and fashion designer," which is an actual job title somewhere in the world.  

Williams released this single which became almost instantly a chart-topping hit worldwide. Accompanying the tune is a 24 hour music video, which www.24hoursofhappy.com purports to be the world's first 24 hour long music video. Basically, the song is looped continuously while a camera follows random people around, which sounds kinda fun.

In reality, it's somewhat like being stuck on "It's a Small World" for an entire day.

We feed on the boredom of small children.
Anyway, the song (like most top 40 stuff) is a little more than its deliciously catchy hook, and basically everything you'd expect from a tune called "Happy", just fun without much depth.

Much like this blog.

One thing I did pick up in listening to it was that Williams does possess a very lyrical tenor voice that just floats along in a wonderfully trombone-like tapestry.  I found myself thinking each time I heard it (which was a lot because Clear Channel and iHeartRadio won't stop playing a song until it's beyond dead) that this would be excellent fodder for a transcription for trombone ensemble.

It turns out I was right.

Enter Christopher Bill (b. ?), a trombonist out of New York who has grown in popularity by producing clever covers of top 40 hits and releasing them, performed by himself, onto YouTube.  His most recent one of Williams' tune has garnered a lot of attention on FaceBook and the like, however he has numerous on his website at www.classicaltrombone.com and here's the really cool part, the arrangements are 100% free.

Of course, there is a recommended donation.  After all, Mr. Bill is in fact a student at New York's SUNY Purchase Conservatory of Music and probably could use the scratch. To me, it's especially enthralling to see a classically-trained musician, let alone trombonist, using his talents to reach into the large audience share of popular music. Throughout my time co-existing with such types as "trombone jocks" and other titans of the performance factories of the world, I often noted their inherent disdain for anything less than your standard Hindemith or Mahler.  I think it does a disservice to musicians and music alike.

So, Mr. Bill strives (perhaps inadvertently, I don't know the guy personally) to establish some sort of bridge here between hither and yon. I am reminded of a recent FaceBook post I observed regarding a video of Britney Spears having some sort of lip sync meltdown.  I also think back to the Red Hot Chili Peppers and their so-called debacle at the Super Bowl and any other innumerable instances where a professional musician has been called out on using any number of digital aids.

There are many sides to this issue.

To dissect it a bit, we have to analyze the fact that live performance and recorded performance are two very different and very disparate animals.  What sounds good live, may not (and often doesn't) translate well to recording.  Since the wax cylinder, man has been trying to achieve that holy grail of audio medium that will reproduce live performance with such astounding quality so as to make God himself weep.

By the same token, transferring what sounds good on an album to a live performance is not always a feasible task either.  Often times when recording, you're dealing with numerous takes, isolation booths that split the group apart, different microphone placements that hinder mobility and that's all before it's processed through a digital audio workstation.  After that occurs you have literally millions of tweaks and effects that can be applied to adjust the sound of the track to absolute aural perfection, a process that can literally take months to complete.

Now in today's world, we are experiencing a blur of the digitally altered reality of the album track and the gritty analog of the real world.  More and more musicians are using digital effects in live environments and with that comes a sense that the performance is somehow more artificial than before.

Couple things:

Well, just the one thing I guess.
The music industry is by all intents and purposes a consumer-driven market.  If a song doesn't sell, or generate hits, radio stations don't play it because they won't attract an audience to pay their advertisers. That doesn't even get into ticket sales, but if no one listens online or over the air it's not going to be played at the super bowl.

Now, the whole RHCP unplugged thing was a result of nothing more than the environment.  When you're playing to a 100,000 seat stadium you are going to be playing hell with sound delay.  Since we live and operate in a medium within which sound travels significantly slower than does light, this becomes a concern in larger venues, especially when you factor in that somehow that mix has got to be set up to go live to 5 million viewers as well.

So, take your gritty analog live product, amplify the hell out of it through some crazy digital signal processing miracle to reduce the echo delay from the fact that your audience is sitting 100 yards from your speakers and then pile on the crap salad the fact that you've got to go live audio to the biggest audience in the entire history of mankind?

So what if Flea didn't plug his bass in?

In order to give you, the listener, the CD-ready product you demand and expect, there are sacrifices that have to be made.  It's up to you if it's worth the perceived sacrifice in musicianship and/or performance value.  I don't really know if it's right or wrong, because I'm more of the mindset of what matters at this point is the product.  Because our analog and digital worlds are colliding like two neutron stars, there's not a solid place to stand in order to make an accurate judgement of whether it's less musical for someone to play along to a track of themselves.  I would posit that so long as they made the track themselves, what's the difference?

Enter Mr. Bill and his charming YouTube videos.  In his "Happy" cover, he utilizes a digital looping device that he records each portion of the song about 4-8 bars at a time and then loops it in a very specific order under him playing new components that he adds intermittently throughout the track.  It requires no shortage of dexterity and timing to get it to work right.

Also, he has to actually play the trombone too.

Now, what you're hearing is anywhere from 0-100% of him actually playing while you're watching. But it's 100% him, just recorded.  And for that matter, you're watching him on a recording too.  So, what's the difference?

Now, you may be saying, "Well, the Chicago Symphony doesn't use digital effects when they play Brahms 4, so this guy is out of line."  OK, they don't.  But when they record Brahms 4, you can bet your ass there's an engineer that's editing the absolute pants off those tracks so that the final product will sound as immaculate as everyone says the CSO actually is (which is not a dig, the CSO is awesome).

My point is, if a piece of music or a specific performance means something to one person, then what difference does it make whether or not it's "real" or "artificial"?  If it means nothing to you, then it's no harm done if you don't listen to it, but all it takes is just making one person happy.

See you next Friday.


http://www.classicaltrombone.com GO VISIT THIS MAN'S SITE RIGHT NOW!


Clifton Williams: Symphonic Dance No. 3 "Fiesta"

Ok, so I'm a little behind the times with this.  A lot of stuff happened this past week and frankly, I didn't have time to sit down and devote my usually exhaustive researching skills to writing the latest entry. So, I elected to take a week off.


This week marks a very important milestone in the history of Listening Friday on the web.  It is now officially one year since I first embarked on publishing my little LF assignments to the world (and mostly the Ukraine).  I can't say I have any remarkable or earth-shattering things to say about this other than...

Which is a lie.
So, Happy Birthday, ListeningFriday.com!  The actual birthday is March 18th, which also is Rimsky-Korsakov's birthday.  So there's that.  I guess we could do an entry about him.

But we won't.
Today is all about Clifton Williams (1923-1976) and a badass little piece he wrote called "Symphonic Dance No. 3 "Fiesta"".  Aside from generally being awesome for most of his life, the last professional position he held was on the faculty at the University of Miami where he worked with Alfred Reed and also taught composers such as W. Francis McBeth and John Barnes Chance (among others).

The San Antonio Symphony commissioned Williams to write a piece for their 25th anniversary and he created a five movement work that explored the many cultural influences that intertwine the fabric of the Southwest town.  The 5 dances are:No. 1: Comanche Ritual,  No. 2: Military Ball: The Maskers, No. 3: Fiesta (duh, try and keep up), No. 4: Square Dance, No. 5: New Generation.  Later, after these premiered, he went back and arranged 2 and 3 for concert band.  His former student (and equally prolific composer of wind band lit) W. Francis McBeth set the 1st movement for band, but wikipedia reports that Williams daughter is in possession of that manuscript.  The interesting movement now is that a lot of Williams' unpublished music is starting to be revealed and placed into print, almost 40 years after his passing.  Very cool from a composer that really had an understanding for composing for wind bands.

Plus, he rocks the goatee.

It is an interesting conversation to have, discussing the differences in the compositional worlds of band and orchestra.  John Mackie, a more recent and still very alive composer of several popular works for band, has a tremendously awesome blog entry detailing what it's like to be a composer caught between both worlds.  Here's an excerpt:
Band is loud. She’s not quite as pretty as Orchestra, and she’s a bit, shall we say, bigger-boned, but she has that truly “hot” aspect to her that Orchestra never had. And most importantly, Band loves what you do. Whereas it was like pulling teeth to get Orchestra to look at your new music (and if she looked, she was generally not impressed, often comparing you unfavorably to one of her many ex’s — like Dvorak), Band thinks it’s awesome. Band tells you things like “you’re special and perfect and I’ll appreciate you and your music like Orchestra never has, and never will.”
I would encourage you to read the full entry here. His blog is also pretty awesome in general, and probably more useful than this one at any rate.   Anyway, Williams was also caught between both worlds and became more successful in the then-burgeoning realm of concert band literature.

"Fiesta" is meant to evoke the emotions and sensory stimulation of a carnival-type atmosphere one might associate with the many...well, fiestas that occur in Mexican culture.  The lively street bands, the colorful costumes and parade floats, and of course bull fighting.

A blood sport to the core, the powerful image of the toreador taking on the massive bull evokes a lot of emotion and imagery (both good and bad) and Williams captures that in an immense brass section toward the middle of the work, precipitated by a solo trumpet herald.   This work reminds me of one of my favorite pieces of art, The Hallucinogenic Toreador by Salvador Dalí.  In this work, Dalí was inspired by a box of pencils he had bought that featured an image of the Venus de Milos on the front. Reportedly, he ran through the store, remarking to anyone who'd listen that there were two toreadors he was able to see within the visage of the goddess and thus this work was born.  Dalí himself was a big fan of bullfighting, growing up with it as a boy and thus he painted himself at a tender age, looking up toward the arena where the bullfighter blends into a mixture of Venus' (Venii?), gadflies and an expiring bull, while his wife's disembodied head floats angrily over the scene.

She didn't like the fights.
So I invite you to sit back, investigate some surrealism courtesy of Mr. Dalí and transport yourself to the Latin side of our continent with Mr. Williams.

See you next Friday.


PS.  I'll work on getting an entry for last Friday up later this weekend.  Pinky swear.



Karel Husa: Music for Prague 1968

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it"
George Santayana

"What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun."
Ecclesiastes 1:9

In January of 1968, Alexander Dubček was elected First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and began a sweeping reform, introducing the concept of freedom of the press, speech, and travel to the Communistic country.  He also proposed a decentralized Czechoslovakia, one where different regions would have the ability to govern themselves as they saw fit. 

In January of 1969, Jan Palach, a college-age, history student was dead from self-immolation, protesting what he perceived to be the acquiescence of his countrymen to their old, restrictive way of life.

What happened in between was nothing really out of the ordinary for the Soviet Union and its dysfunctional family of neighbor-states.  Since Dubček had decided that Czechoslovakia deserved the opportunity to decide more of its destiny than had previously been determined as adequate by the Eastern Bloc, the Warsaw Pact nations (led by the USSR) attempted to leverage (initially through heavy political posturing) the suddenly self-aware state to remain stoic, powerful, and reserved as far as Communist nations go.  

Eventually, seeing that talking was not going to deter Dubček and his liberalization agenda, the USSR took action and invaded Czechoslovakia.  

In one night in August, some 200,000 troops moved into the Eastern Bloc country and began systematically disabling and corralling the Czechoslovakian military forces.  There was little resistance and even if they would resist, both sides knew that it would only have ended in massive bloodshed.  

What did occur though was a strong passive resistance.  Many villages painted over all their directional signs, except those indicating the direction of Moscow.  They obscured the names of their villages and frequently gave wrong directions to the invading soldiers.  

This was pre-Tom Tom.
Dubček encouraged his country to accept the inevitable and to not risk their lives by picking fights, but a few did and about 72 people were killed during the invasion. As part of their propaganda campaign, the Soviet press ran an anonymous letter, purportedly from Czech and Slovak leadership that implied a request for military aid, that the Soviets and the other Eastern Bloc countries were being summoned by a contingent within the CSR that were holding out against Dubček and his filthy capitalism.  

A year later, Jan Palach did not burn himself to death in protest of the invasion. One of the first burn specialists to work on him had this to say about his actions:
"It was not so much in opposition to the Soviet occupation, but the demoralization which was setting in, that people were not only giving up, but giving in. And he wanted to stop that demoralization. I think the people in the street, the multitude of people in the street, silent, with sad eyes, serious faces, which when you looked at those people you understood that everyone understands, that all the decent people were on the verge of making compromises."
Karel Husa (1921-2016) watched the events of the Prague Spring unfold from the safety of the United States.   He was moved to see his homeland suffering a fate that seemed all too familiar and thus was moved to compose "Music for Prague 1968".  

It is set into four movements and is written as program music, meaning that it is designed to provoke mental imagery by how the music is crafted.  I could sit and paraphrase, but Husa's own program notes do a far better job:
Music for Prague 1968 was commissioned by the Ithaca College Concert Band. It was premiered by the commissioning ensemble in Washington, D.C., on 31 January 1969, Dr. Kenneth Snapp, conductor, at a concert for the Music Educators National Conference. 
Three main ideas bind the composition together. The first and most important is an old Hussite war song from the 15th century, "Ye Warriors of God and His Law," a symbol of resistance and hope for hundreds of years, whenever fate lay heavy on the Czech nation. It has been utilized by many Czech composers, including Smetana in My Country. The beginning of this religious song is announced very softly in the first movement by the timpani and concludes in a strong unison (Chorale). The song is never used in its entirety. 
The second idea is the sound of bells throughout; Prague, named also The City of "Hundreds of Towers," has used its magnificently sounding church bells as calls of distress as well as of victory. 
The last idea is a motif of three chords first appearing very softly under the piccolo solo at the beginning of the piece, in flutes, clarinets, and horns. Later it reappears at extremely song dynamic levels, for example, in the middle of the Aria. 
Different techniques of composing as well as orchestrating have been used in Music for Prague 1968 and some new sounds explored, such as the percussion section in the Interlude, the ending of the work, etc. Much symbolism also appears: in addition to the distress calls in the first movement (Fanfares), the unbroken hope of the Hussite song, sound of bells, or the tragedy (Aria), there is also the bird call at the beginning (piccolo solo), symbol of liberty which the City of Prague has seen only for a few moments during its thousand years of existence. * 
-Program Notes by Karel Husa

This is not an easy piece to listen to.  It's about 20 minutes long and if you do this correctly, you will feel a great deal of emotion while it is performed.  Husa captures the sounds of the invasion through the use of low brass imitating planes flying overhead.  There's a general sense of confusion and depression, but in the end you hear the solidarity of the Czech and Slovak people become overwhelming. You get a sense that despite their inability to repel those that wish to keep them as they are, there will one day be another opportunity, another chance to fight. 

Husa wrote the following footnote with the program notes, and again I'm having trouble saying it any better than he did:
* It is the composer's wish that the preceding note be printed in its entirety in all concert programs or read to the audience before each performance of the work. 
"It is not as beautiful a music as one always would like to hear. But we cannot always paint flowers, we cannot always speak in poetry about beautiful clouds, there are sometimes we would like to express the fight for freedom." -Karel Husa
See you next Friday.


As a post-note, this particular example is the FSU Symphonic Band performing this work at which time, I was fortunate enough to be a member of this ensemble.  It is one of the finest and most cherished musical experiences of my life.  



Bruce Yurko: In Memoriam: Kristina

Sometimes, life just does not make sense.

There are moments we encounter that cause us to give pause and reflect, occasionally with severe emotion, and examine the aftermath for any shred of cohesion. The idea that what is or has happened is part of the fabric of a larger tapestry that makes up the universe in which we live and operate.  It is in these moments where we often fall prey to coincidence, I would suspect, begging and pleading to be at peace with our unrest.  Even at the cost of coming to believe a complete lie.

And yet somehow he copes.
We often encounter this dilemma at a point of great and tragic loss. At a moment, when the catharsis of just having a thread to cling to might be the difference between composure and collapse.

So, with that lens, we examine Bruce Yurko's (b. 1951) "In Memoriam: Kristina".  It was written following the death of a young French horn player in 1995 named Kristina Damm who perished following a walk on a beach in Virginia with her father.  A storm had just passed, the sky had cleared and a bolt of lightning came out of the blue and hit them both.

Her father was unharmed, but Kristina succumbed to her injuries the following day, two days before she was to return to her high school for marching band camp.  The story goes that Mr. Yurko was Kristina's horn tutor, a title he bore proudly as she would often demonstrate a great faculty and eagerness in approaching her studies on the instrument.

Yurko's piece begins with a very ethereal, haunting mallet motif that is repeated intermittently throughout the piece as it develops.  At an early point an off-stage horn player is heard playing a solo, and (if memory serves me, I don't have the program notes in front of me as of writing) a vacant chair is placed in the horn section. This evolves into a choir-like woodwind echo of the horn solo, punctuated by the mallet theme as it spreads out to a full band texture into a climactic statement of the primary theme.

As it resolves from this first statement, the clarinets and mallets escort us into a final statement from the off-stage horn, that introduces a secondary theme that sounds reflective and hopeful, performed as a brass chorale.  This segues into a mechanical, clockwork of what I can only presume is the composers interpretation of someone mentally wrangling with finding purpose in the purposeless.  It's chilling and uncomfortable as a very melodic, consonant melody interacts with an underlying tone of dissonance enhanced by a sustained piano.  This theme of confusion eventually builds into a full-out roar only to sink back into a clarinet and oboe texture that slowly returns us to the brass chorale, as played by the flute section.  Eventually this returns to the brass and eventually the horns as a prominent statement of that melody turns back to the terrifying percussion of the introduction, echoing into the distance as the solo horn plays once more.  Finally, a brass chorale answers the horn player to bring us to a close.

I was happy to realize that Mr. Yurko studied composition with Karel Husa (who we will be examining next week), because there is much of his use of percussion and underlying dissonance that makes me think of Husa's own work, "Music for Prague".  There's just this general feeling that we are walking along a thin line between sanity and crazy, and trying to make sense of the middle while the world around us slowly goes to hell.

Nothing about this story makes sense.  Kristina should still be alive today, playing horn or being successful at whatever she does. It's a freak accident that had no reason for happening, and begs the question: what kind of loving God would take away a child from her parents without any provocation or sense of reason? It's a contradictory line of thinking and therefore without reason.

I never had the pleasure to make her acquaintance, but through Yurko's writing I somehow mourn her loss. I can feel what kind of person she was, at least what kind of person she was to Yurko.

In the end, we can try and search for a reason for this, or for any number of terrible, awful things that occur in and about our daily lives on this rock, and we will come up empty.  And we can grapple with the uncertainty of our decisions and actions and the resulting consequences, both good and bad, and find no rhyme nor reason to the resulting outcomes.  

Sometimes, life just does not make sense.

And without any sort of accompanying glance to a tapestry of great conspiracy.

Kristina's band went on to have a very successful season, no doubt driven to work by the memory of their friend.  Their band director, Paul Tomlin, was quoted as saying, "It's nice that we won this, but quite honestly the trophies are dust collectors. But it's what comes out of [the students'] hearts that was important for Kristina's memory."

In that sense, we don't really die when we cease to breathe, or when our brain function flat-lines.  Our existence becomes solely fused with those that remember us.  Our thoughts and mannerisms live on continually in their minds and affect their being until they die.  And as we each interact with each other, these traits are transitioned and blended into a matrix of behavior and thoughts that becomes a sort of algorithm that runs on the intelligence of the entire race.

I can't speak on what Yurko was trying to say in this piece, nor can I begin to understand what Kristina's parents experience must be like, but I can say I've shared in the sorrow of knowing a version of Kristina, part of her algorithm, and knowing that it can only live on in those that hear it and remember it.  

Music is a beautiful artform, that it can only be observed through experiencing it, performing or listening.  

It becomes part of our own algorithms.

See you next Friday.