Radiohead, Albert Hammond, Mike Hazlewood, arr. Scott Bradlee: Creep

There is a perception that the music of this present generation is a lot crappier than it used to be. Now, I don't stand here professing that all contemporary music is quality, but I will tell you that music has existed for almost as long as humans have walked this Earth and for approximately the same amount of time several of them have made inordinately shitty music.

Perhaps the reason that this reality of music getting worse exists comes from a couple things that can easily be observed.  First and foremost, to quote Winston Churchill, "History is written by the victors."  Our entire cultural music experience is based on the premise that only music that gets listened to will be played.  We tend to look through music history with a lens that filters out all the gunk and tripe that never made it.  A downside to this is that sometimes things written in previous eras get tossed aside, and may remain undiscovered until someone later on can make it relevant to our cultural experience.  Case-in-point: Bach's Cello Suites and Pablo Casals.

The other aspect that is more apparent today than ever before is that music is an easily consumed commodity and much more accessible to the layman to both listen to as well as create. This sea change has created a music industry that frequently focuses on image and marketability over musical talent.  I reference my previous statement in saying that the only music that gets played is music that will be listened to.  In a capitalist society, if it wasn't making money, it wouldn't last long.  

Scott Bradlee (b. 1981) is an American musician, pianist, composer, and arranger from New York and approaches this new world of music creation and destruction with a backward looking glance. He's an incredibly talented pianist and has a natural flair for stylistically motivated arrangements that discover unknown facets of contemporary pop.  His experiment in sound operates on a favorite premise of mine in that if you get enough talent and put it into a box filled with instruments something good will come out.  

He is the founder of the Post-Modern Jukebox, a group of rotating and guest musicians who take various pop songs from different decades and reimagines them in alternate style universes.  He was actually tapped by the game developers of the BioShock series to create tunes that fit into the dystopian world of the game.  His formula usually is to take a tune that is presently popular and arrange it as a top 40 hit from the 30's (or any other decade that makes sense for that particular song). 

What interests me the most is his seemingly uncritical targeting for songs that will fit into his arranging machine.  He has rehashed several examples of pop music from today that would be rejected by the more conservative listening community as examples of the ejecta of the modern entertainment business and a byproduct to be consumed and destroyed- certainly not showcased and performed by ridiculously talented New York session musicians.

The example we look at today features a refresh of a song that can be considered to be part of the modern music "art" scene in and of itself.  "Creep" by the English alt-rock band Radiohead was released originally back in 1992 to a lukewarm reception in their home country.  The song did find a tremendous amount of success in Israel, several Scandinavian countries as well as the US.  In what is somewhat of a paradox, the band's general opinion of the song is somewhat jaded, initially fighting the pressure to re-release the song in the UK after it garnered world-wide attention.  

Postmodern Jukebox originally published their cover of "Creep" back in August of 2014, featuring a popular vocalist in rotation with the group, Karen Marie (who is nothing short of remarkable and hysterically funny too!).  Following a tour in Europe the band re-recorded the arrangement with Haley Reinhart who takes it in a different direction altogether.  

One of the more unfortunate things about the recent trends in popular music is not necessarily the embrace of image and marketability over all else, but more so the loss of musicality as something to be praised and embraced. The advent of autotune and the insane amount of post-processing technology that goes into producing an album allows for a sound that would be unobtainable under normal circumstances.  And before you go trashing Rihanna, et al...

...this sort of technology is present in the classical world too.  The difference between a classical recording today and one 50 years ago is worlds apart.  Sound design has evolved significantly, microphone placement and the sheer number of different microphones available means that in a studio every detail can be accounted for and captured and then processed into the final product.  Such music is also subject to the various edits and cut and pastes that any other music track would endure to be shaped into the final product.  This is just a part of where the music industry has gone with the tools that are now available and just like any other kind of tools you may find, these can be mishandled. 

So I invite you to sit back and put some headphones on and listen to good musicians playing good music. And remember, bad music has and always will exist.  There's nothing to be done about that. But take heart! 

Good musicians will persist and as a result... 

So will good music.

See you next Friday.




Johann De Meij: Symphony No. 1 "The Lord of the Rings"

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.
J. R. R. Tolkien 

Johann de Meij (b. 1953) is a Dutch trombonist/composer/conductor that incidentally we haven't talked about in over two years.  Born in Voorberg, Netherlands he is well known for his love of wind band and Tolkien.  He is a prolific and popular composer, amassing four large-format symphonic works for band as well as a quite a few popular concertos, including the T-Bone Concerto for trombone.

Normally I launch into some diatribe about how historical the composer was or what sort of environment existed to forge the work we're talking about, but this one is pretty straightforward.  de Meij is a low brass band nerd and he really likes Lord of the Rings.

The piece itself is divided into five distinct movements that all are sorts of character studies of the various characters and locations in the LOTR universe.  They are:

  1. Gandalf (The Wizard) 
  2. Lothlórien (The Elvenwood)
  3. Gollum (Sméagol)
  4. Journey in the Dark
    1. The Mines of Moria
    2. The Bridge of Khazad-Dûm
  5. Hobbits
The first movement begins with a triumphant, heroic theme that then transitions into another, quicker theme evoking imagery of a breakneck chase across Middle Earth.  These all feel very much like film scoring, with lush, full band sound supporting these massively sweeping melodies. The piece then brings about a hymn-like conclusion to the chase and enters a bit more introspective section that recaps the original 'Gandalf' theme.

If I had to compare it to a specific style in Western-Art Music, I'd say it's a bit like a symphonic poem, but instead of evoking specific imagery of setting, date and or time, this is more of a character study of sorts.  It explores the emotions and actions of the individual characters more so than setting any scenery in the mind's eye.  The exception to that would of course be the 2nd and 4th movements which do explore actual locations within the LOTR universe.  Movement II establishes a sort of curious, but slightly dangerous tone establishing the formal and reserved nature of the elves in Lothlórien with a stately waltz that echoes a Baroque ensemble that transitions to a forest of woodwind-inspired birds.  It concludes with a restatement of the original theme and fades into the darkness.

Gollum is this wickedly twisted, loping galop that effectively sounds terrifying with an alto saxophone solo at the beginning.  Again, de Meij expresses more the quality of the character and his personality rather than specific scenes that take place within the book.  Just listening to this, if you knew nothing else about Gollum, you'd know he's not exactly the sort of person (or thing) you'd want to hang around.

Journey in the Dark captures the tension and anxiety of the ring-bearing party's entrance into the Mines of Moria and the madness of the orc attack following which we hear a brief statement of the Gandalf theme right before things wind down a bit, probably demonstrating some of de Meij's most vivid storytelling through music as we hear Gandalf's famous stare down with the balrog.

In the final movement we again visit not specifically a place, but a archetype of the Tolkien world, the Hobbits.  Introduced by the Gandalf theme, which is befitting as through the books and the movies we're often given to view the Hobbits through the lens of Gandalf, it then transitions to a folksy, upbeat tune that sounds very, well...Hobbity.

My only gripe with this movements is that this movement then goes into what essentially amounts to a slow, "pomp and circumstance"-esque rehashing of the same Hobbit theme. It's very well done, but after almost 40 minutes of music, it's a bit stale.  Like writing, composing tends to have a problem with overstating the obvious and in my humble opinion, this restatement of the main Hobbit theme drags on for a bit too long without saying anything too terribly new.  Perhaps de Meij was pre-editorializing the insanely long ending as described by Peter Jackson.

Despite this, I still really love this work.  de Meij captures a Romantic style and love of a good melody and blends it quite well with more modern compositional techniques for band today.  Not that I don't think Howard Shore did a fine job with the score for the Peter Jackson movies, but I certainly wouldn't have been disappointed had they approached de Meij for the job himself.

Interestingly, he was actually discouraged from writing the work as it was to be his first major work and at that time (in the mid-1980's) there wasn't much wind band music longer than 30 minutes.  This work you will notice clocks in around 45 and despite the protestations of his contemporaries in the early days, de Meij's Symphony No. 1 was the catalyst that launched him into contention with some of the finest composers of this era, gave him the ability to found his own publishing company, Amstel Music, which currently publishes several Nordic composers to this day.  de Meij is a much sought-after conductor and frequently can be found in performances all over the world.

If you've only got a few moments, I'd recommend at least listening to Gandalf.  However, if you're a die-hard Tolkien fan it might be worth it to settle in for the full 45 minute epic.

See you next Friday.




George Gershwin: An American in Paris

According to Wikipedia, audio compact discs have been commercially available to consumers since 1982. Tragically, my family did not acquire this amazing technology until well into the 90's. Growing up in the era I did was a very interesting time in terms of music technology.  The primary means of sharing music with consumers was either through the newly christened "Music Television" or for those of us without cable (before it was cool to "cut the cord") it was in fact the humble cassette tape.

Know how I know you're old? You still think Comic Sans is a pretty neat font.
Now the cassette tape afforded a unique opportunity to easily and quickly record music directly from the live broadcast of radio stations.  This was illegal, but rarely raised a fuss as the challenge of waiting for the radio to play your favorite song and then have everything ready to capture it was often a difficult endeavor requiring no shortage of luck and patience.  The advent of the CD meant that higher quality music was readily available, but it wasn't as easy to capture songs in the same manner, so it until the internet (and the illegal music downloading game) kicked in people largely remained true to the magnetic storage medium.

Prior to the mp3 and the various codec progeny that ensued, music either had to be shared physically from person to person or you had to actually purchase an album.  Buying the album meant paying for all the songs on the disc or cassette even if you only really wanted to hear one or two tracks.  This is a problem that was alleviated by the "a la carte" methodology introduced by the iTunes store and other music providers as well as the aforementioned illicit music peer-to-peer sharing networks that cropped up like weeds.

As a general rule, I do not advocate the act of illicitly sharing music.  I don't really care if you do or not, but I made the decision a while back that if I really wanted a particular recording badly enough, I'd just buy the damn thing since it's now easier than ever.  The other bit of progress in this realm (and one that has made this site the tepid success that it is no less) is YouTube and it's ever-growing collection of music and recordings of art music as well as pretty much everything else you can imagine before the content scrubbers banish it to copyright hell.  In all the history of LF.com there has only been two times when I've stumped YouTube and had to send you elsewhere in search of music to listen to on a Friday.

Don't worry.  We've got it covered today.

George Gershwin (1898-1937) was an American composer who lived inside and between two worlds. In the early 20th century, Jazz had begun establishing its place in the center of American popular music.  Living in New York, Gershwin had begun performing as a "song plugger" which is essentially what predated those listening stations in the music store.

And next time I'll tell you how Grandpa was banned for life from Sbarro's!
You see, prior to the internet mucking everything up, people actually had to leave their homes to go find music that they liked to listen to.  The mall actually was a place to go and buy such music and not just an indoor walking track for septuagenarians.  Prior to the existence of malls and the like, there still existed music stores, but without adequate (read: affordable) recording equipment, it was particularly difficult to generate interest in new music.  Enter the song plugger.

Gershwin would get paid to sit in a music store and be a human jukebox, playing new music as requested by paying customers in an area of New York known as Tin Pan Alley.  Much of this music was written in the ragtime and early jazz style, as aligned with the popular music of the age. Gershwin, who had enjoyed classical training up to that point imbibed the newer styles and as he would later begin to compose and arrange for Broadway music and musicians it would be a large part of who he was as a composer.  You see, Gershwin never settled fully into the jazz scene however and tried on numerous occasions to learn more of and possibly even transition into the Western art music scene.  He petitioned both Maurice Ravel and Arnold Schoenberg to take him up as a student, but both declined citing the same reason, as Ravel said it, ""Why become a second-rate Ravel when you're already a first-rate Gershwin?"  Proving his point, Ravel's later music can be considered to have absorbed influence from Gershwin's marriage of art music and jazz.

In 1928 Gershwin traveled to Paris, France to absorb the music culture and to study under Nadia Boulanger, a French conductor and composer who Gershwin had been recommended to by Ravel. After listening to 10 minutes of Gershwin's music, she rejected him on the premise that she would have nothing to teach him, but Gershwin would remain undiscouraged as a big part of his relocation to Paris was to find inspiration for a symphonic piece to follow his very successful Rhapsody in BlueAn American in Paris is a symphonic poem that describes the experiences of an American encountering the city for the first time.  It actually employs several car horns, Gershwin himself brought a few taxi cab horns back with him for the American premier (which if you pay attention later you will see the most intense car horn player on the planet).

Following the premier performance in Carnegie Hall the audience response was very positive. However, a few critics held the opinion that the work was a bit too "light" to hold its own within a program consisting of Wagner and Franck, but Gershwin shrugged it off saying, "It's not a Beethoven Symphony, you know...  It's not intended to draw tears. If it pleases symphony audiences as a light, jolly piece, a series of impressions musically expressed, it succeeds."

Gershwin would die from a brain tumor in 1937, vastly cutting short what was expected to have been an increasingly successful career.  He had completed an opera, Porgy and Bess in 1935, which while not initially a commercial success, has become synonymous with the American musical theatre tradition and established itself firmly as a transitional piece between opera and the burgeoning musical theatre scene of its time.

I first heard George Gershwin in the mid-90's after my parents had finally acquired a CD player.  I recall being very excited, thinking that this would be a vehicle for listening to some amazing music and how disheartened was I when my dad came home with a Reader's Digest collection of Glenn Miller tunes, a Pure Prairie League album, and an album of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris.  I actually don't remember what I would have preferred to listen to at the time. It might have been during my short stint as a fan of country music.

Those were dark times indeed.
Anyway, being more excited about the new technology to play with than the disappointment of getting exposed to music that would eventually expand my tastes into what they are today, I would play these CD's for hours on end.  At first fascinated that music could come out of a disc of plastic and aluminum, but eventually coming to realize that my limited musical palate was so blatantly ignorant of what the world have to offer that I vowed to continue to explore and discover as much as I could.  

Gershwin, as much as he wanted to be the American counterpart to the Debussy's and Ravel's of France, had created an entirely new genre of which he was the sole inhabitant and would perpetually grapple for his music to be considered "important" in the eyes of the classical music oligarchy.  Despite this and ironically enough, it was he who launched what I presume will be my lifelong love for Western art music as I began to listen to more and more composers and sought out more varied composers and artists to supplement what has become a voracious appetite for the musically creative.  However, I will always hold a special place in my heart for this piece.  As I sit and listen again to our American friend bounce around a busy Parisian street I can't help but feel that this poem could in fact be representative of any stranger in a strange land.  

And speaking of strangers, an interesting facet of this piece, as well as Gershwin's other works too, is the use of non-standard instruments in the orchestral setting.  For this work today, you will hear what amounts to a dance band sitting in the middle of a bunch of strings, extra woodwinds and a tuba player.  This iconic sound would lend itself to the film scores to follow, generations following Gershwin's untimely demise.  

So while Gershwin may not have ever fully realized his dream of becoming a "2nd-rate Ravel", he triumphed in being a "1st-rate Gershwin".

And that, my friends, is something special.

See you next Friday.