Today is July 31st, which means it is that annual date in which everybody from my generation (and many from those generations younger and older as well) celebrate the birthday of J.K. Rowling and her magical wizard-boy creation, the untouchable Boy-Who-Lived, Harry Potter. It’s been over a decade since the first words of Rowling’s incredible seven-book were published, and since then Harry Potter has grown into a worldwide phenomenon that has had a lasting impact on children’s literature and has become one of the most popular book series of all time – and rightfully so.
I was at just the right age to appreciate the magical innocence of those early Harry Potter books when I was younger. As I grew up, so did the maturity of the books. After books 1, 2, and 3, the much more adult-themed books 4 and 5 were released, and it was clear that Rowling had made a similar leap in artistic achievement as fellow Brit J.R.R. Tolkien had made decades prior when he followed his children’s fantasy The Hobbit into the much more serious Lord of the Rings trilogy. Books 6 and 7 hit just before and just after I graduated from high school, and it’s fair to say that the books will remain an essential part in reflections on my childhood and young-adulthood, and hopefully remain an essential in literary circles world wide.
The Harry Potter phenomenon isn’t just books, though. It has spawned one of the most popular movie franchises of all time, as well as video games for every console. There are also bands that have popped up in the name of the chosen one, the original wizard rockers being Harry and the Potters. Every Potter fanboy will find familiarity in the titles of Paul and Joe’s songs under the moniker Harry and the Potters, with content spanning nearly every book over their three-album career. They are a remarkably concise rock band who write catchy melodies, even if the tribute factor adds so much kitsch value that it’s difficult to take them seriously as artists. But they probably don’t want to change the world like Rowling and Harry Potter did – they just want to add a whole new level to one of the most immersive cultures of intense fanaticism since Star Wars and Star Trek. Geek out to their songs at the band’s website.
The movies have been scored by many of the most famous composers of film in the industry – including film composer God John Williams, whose melodies rang straight into our hearts from the very first film, capturing the magical fantasy of escapism that Hogwarts sparked in the hearts of thousands. These aren’t scores to scoff at, either – they are complex, beautiful, and full of Wagnerian leitmotifs, as the best of Williams’ work always does. From the gently haunting melody of the original theme to the soaring song of Fawkes the Phoenix to Shakespeare-inspired children’s choirs, the music of the scores is not to be ignored as examples of great film compositions. Other composers have also loaned their works to the films, including William Ross, Patrick Doyle, Nicholas Hooper, and Alexandre Desplat. The penultimate film is set to be released in November, with the final installment arriving next summer. Expect record crowds and huge box-office numbers, as well as great sales for the soundtracks.
Perhaps there is nothing more appropriate to examine than the actual power of music as explained by the greatest wizard of Rowling’s world, Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore:
“Ah, music,” he said, wiping his eyes. “A magic far beyond all we do here [at Hogwarts]!”
Last night, I had the wonderful pleasure of witnessing a concert of Beethoven’s music at the famous Hollywood Bowl, performed by the immensely talented Los Angeles philharmonic orchestra with explosive conductor Gustavo Dudamel. The orchestra performed one of Beethoven’s lesser known piano concertos, Concerto No. 3, with one of the most talented piano players I have ever had the privilege of seeing. But the real magic happened in the second half of the evening, when the orchestra performed Beethoven’s flawless Third Symphony, perhaps better known as the Eroica.
Beethoven certainly needs no introduction. Arguably the most important composer of all time, Beethoven had as big an affect on culture during and after his lifetime as anybody ever has in the Western canon, and for good reason. While he lacked Mozart’s capacity to create powerful and transcendent melodies, Beethoven more than made up for it with his compositional prowess. While I am by no means a Beethoven expert or an expert at the in depth analysis required to prove Beethoven’s exceptional skills, all anybody really needs to appreciate Beethoven is fresh ears and an interest in music.
Beethoven composed the Eroica as he was beginning to lose his hearing and in the throws of a personal crisis when he was torn over the actions of somebody he once believed to have been a hero, the infamous Napoleon Bonaparte. The title Eroica actually refers to this idealism, as it translates not to eroticism like many have wrongly guessed in the past, but to ‘heroic.’ The piece lends its name to the beginning of Beethoven’s middle period, referred to by historians as his “heroic” period. It is also my favorite Beethoven composition and arguably the finest piece of music ever composed.
The Eroica has been analyzed to death and written about in more books than could fill a library. The hermeneutical approach focuses on the growth of the main theme, invoking a bildungs roman narrative structure that many find appealing to this day. After all, the rags-to-riches sort of story of overcoming hardship seems to be informed by the music itself. As crashing chords seem violent in nature, the music often feels like it is on the verge of utter collapse, and Beethoven’s little-theme-that-could must struggle for survival, ending up on the other side as a strong, successful individual who has overcome extraordinary circumstances.
Not just this, but the harmonic language that Beethoven uses is also immense. To explain it simply, Classical period music was often limited in its harmonic language, but Beethoven extended the techniques of his predecessors Hadyn and Mozart, exploring new key areas that were distant from the tonic key (the ‘home’ key), in this case E-flat major. Don’t let this technical language scare you away from classical music – it’s hardly necessary for appreciation of this magnificent work, which marked the beginning of the end for the Classical Era while signaling the beginning of the Romantic period, from which a large majority of modern day concert repertoire is drawn from. Written and premiered in 1803, the piece has withstood the test of time (two hundred and seven years counts as standing the test of time, doesn’t it?) and managed to change the history of music forever, and there was no turning back.
It’s an incredible piece of music, and worth every minute you can invest in it. If you’re new to Beethoven’s music, might I suggest starting here, with one of Beethoven’s most famous symphonies, one of the most important pieces of music ever written in the Western classical repertoire. It’s an absolute triumph, one of the greatest artistic achievements of mankind. Don’t miss it.
This is not a fun album. On paper, it sounds like a failure waiting to happen: Swedish electronic duo The Knife were commissioned by Hotel Pro Forma to write an opera and libretto about Charles Darwin. The result, however, is a staggering piece of art. Simply put, Tomorrow, In A Year is concept album about evolution. And you can hear that on first listen; none of these songs cannot stand on their own as songs. But together, as a unified whole, we have something so incredibly sublime that even the Romantics would have been proud.
Beginning with “Intro,” you’ll probably check your headphones or the volume knob when the eternal blackness of silence gives birth to a few disparate and disjunct blips, pops, and musical beeps. Representing the primordial soup and the dawn of time, “Intro” sets up the listener for an experience like none that I have ever experienced before. The next song is appropriately titled “Epochs,” and the disjointed and seeming unorganized sounds will make you wonder if this album can even be called music, let alone if it counts as an opera. The music on the album starts becoming more and more organized and complex over the two sprawling discs, going through its own natural selection to determine how sounds will become organized into living, breathing, naturally human forms. “Variation of Birds” begins with a literal electronic representation of bird songs, as Darwin himself studied countless species of birds to formulate his landmark scientific theories.
By the end of the album, we have the propulsive back beat of electro-jam “The Height of Summer” and the complex vocal hocketing and percussion of “Colouring of Pigeons,” the only song to feature vocals by Fever Ray on the whole record. Drawing its texts from Darwin’s field notes and personal journals, the album seeps with the pain and agony that was central to Darwin’s own life, as he struggled not only to create a mechanism that would explain the observations he would make but as he sacrificed his own personal life in the pursuit of answers to some of the biggest questions we can ask as humans. Tomorrow, In A Year evolves over time in multiple ways. The album takes over an hour and a half to go from the opening bars of silence to the closing lament of “Annie’s Box.”
The album also evolves the more you listen to it: this is the rare album that truly rewards its listener upon repeated listens. Musical details stand out that were once overlooked, textures shift and change over time, and the barriers between noise and music, between pop and art, become broken down. This album succeeds on an incredible number of levels, acting as both a fitting tribute to one of the most important men in the history of science and working as a piece of art, a piece of music that one can draw meaning and emotion from while also being taught something we didn’t already know. The themes are coherent, and the musical form fits into a cohesive and easily understood evolutionary narrative in order to conform to those themes. This is the sound of sound fighting with itself, struggling to survive. From the inky primordial soup of “Intro” to the complex electronic beats, tonality, and melodic hooks that arrive near the end, the album attempts to render evolution through a musical narrative. You can’t blame them if they didn’t make Silent Shout pt. 2.
Closing the album on a somber final note, leaving me feeling complete and yet empty all in the same moment, a mezzo-soprano sings “How is Charles? I haven’t heard from him for a long, long time. A thousand years seem to pass so quickly.” At once, I understand my existence is insignificant, and the fact that I even exist is staggeringly incomprehensible.
So, the internet is abuzz with news about Kanye West’s impromptu a cappella performance of songs from his upcoming fifth album at Facebook headquarters, videos of which are circulating the internet about as fast as news can spread. One thing is certain from these low-quality videos: Ye’s signature flow, humor, and heart are all here. He’s fired up and inspired. And when Kanye West is inspired, he’s damn near unstoppable. “Chain Heavy” is gonna be a beast of a song without a doubt, and “Mama’s Boyfriend” is an angry self-portrait documenting Kanye’s own upbringing with his mother, with a sobering final couplet that will give you shivers. Listen below.
And yes, I do plan on stalking Kanye’s twitter all day in hopes of hearing news about the new album, with a tentative and rumored release date of September 14. And, thankfully, the album will no longer be titled Good Ass Job.
Write my vote down for Universe City.
New wave isn’t a particularly fashionable genre. The punk kids disapprove because it took the balls away from their precious rock and roll angst, mainstream pop disapproves because it seems too kitsch (Devo, anybody?), and the indie kids don’t appreciate it because it’s so immediate and easy to like. Despite this disapproval and glares, New Wave dominated a good corner of the market in the 80s, and for good reason, though it is still overlooked quite a bit even when studying pop retrospectives.
Blondie remain one of New Waves most endearing bands and have contributed some of the genres most appealing and memorable songs. In the face of a male-dominated critical eyes and an equally misogynistic outlook on the commercial potential of women-fronted rock bands, Debbie Harry managed to transform her sexuality into something that kept both boys and girls interested in her. Hell, where does everybody think Madonna got her sexual androgyny? Of course, New Wave had its hand deeply entrenched in the LGBT subcultural cookie jar itself, borrowing plenty of musical elements from disco as well as projecting a successful commercial image that was palatable for everybody, despite gender orientations.
A classic Blondie song that has stood the test of time is “Heart of Glass” off the essential Blondie album Parallel Lines. The song’s indellible hooks are everywhere and firmly entrenched in the book of pop, cementing “Heart of Glass” as one of the best scorned-love songs of all time. Who could forget that opening confession, “Once I had a love, and it was a gas / Soon turned out had a heart of glass,” with all of its ambiguities and lack of detail as Debbie Harry felt like she was baring her soul to you. Borrowing from the disco songbook, the song repeats its own chorus and hooks ad nauseam for nearly 6 minutes, even lending itself to a closing remix titled “Once I Had A Love (The Disco Song).”
It’s Blondie’s best song, and one of pop’s finest moments. It practically became a model by which many women in pop would project themselves, and its affects can still be felt today. “Heart of Glass” paved the way for Madonna, who paved the way for our very own Lady Gaga, as well as paving the way for female fronted rock bands like The Pretenders, who helped to influence equally No Doubt and Paramore. Anybody who has felt love turn into a pain-in-the-ass and likes pop music can find something to appreciate in this song, and it has left an indelible and impressive legacy.
Listen: Blondie – “Heart Of Glass”
With last week’s heat wave finally past us, the Los Angeles area is feeling rejuvenated and ready to attack to the last week of July. Getting out of the house and going to Los Angeles’ various destinations seems almost a necessity, whether you go lay out on the beaches or hit up sushi at Santa Monica’s 3rd Street Promenade, or go crate-digging for musical gems at Amoeba. Whatever your final destinations may be, the summer is at our fingertips and the weather is gorgeous.
The sunny 60s-style pop of Belle and Sebastian seems particularly well suited to soundtracking these excursions, and I’ve found myself returning to the band’s rich output in recent days, especially their seminal 1996 sophomore album If You’re Feeling Sinister. That album’s centerpiece and one of the highlights is the incessantly catchy “Like Dylan in the Movies.” A simple, bouncy bass-line anchors the track, backed by the elegant orchestration of piano and bright guitar, which both end the song with simple, joyous instrumental solos that highlight the textural colors both provide to such a simple song. The chorus is awash in strings that provide perfect harmonies, filling out the chords with extra flavor, complimenting Stuart Murdoch’s restrained folk-singer warble. It’s the soundtrack to a fun summer day in the city with your closest friends…why aren’t you out with them listening to this right now? Go.
In the early hours of the morning, somebody quietly dropped a bombshell that would awaken the collective musical consciousness of almost everybody who cares seriously about indie music. That bombshell was The Suburbs, the highly anticipated third album by Canadian band Arcade Fire.
I’ll admit, I told a handful of people that I had a sneaking suspicion The Suburbs was going to be one of the big let-downs of 2010, one of those albums that completely fell flat or compromised so-called ‘authenticity’ (really just a word used to describe how much we think the band was trying to make songs that would move units rather than our emotions). Upon listening to The Suburbs, I have no idea why I would have ever doubted the band in the first place. I am happy to say I was wrong, and I will eat my words. To Win and Regine: I will never, ever doubt you again. I am once again a believer.
The Suburbs is an album brimming with tension and distress, complimented by rich orchestrations and swelling choruses that are packed with emotion. Singing in his most heart-wrenching style, Win Butler manages to channel the nervous anxiety of life in America better than almost everybody. His only peers that can truly claim to be his equals are The National. There is a big difference, however, between the lyrical and emotional content of The National and Arcade Fire, and the two band’s latest releases really cement them in place. With Alligator, Boxer, and High Violet, Matt Berninger and The National manage to evoke a sense of suffering and loneliness in the American city. With Funeral, Neon Bible, and The Suburbs, Arcade Fire create a sense of worriment and restlessness that stems from our own mortality, our fears, and our day-to-day lives amongst the quiet suburbs.
Perhaps the most pleasant thing about The Suburbs is how well it all flows together as a whole and feels like an album that is meant to be heard in its entirety. Owen Pallett’s string arrangements are probably the best he’s ever put together for the band, and lend a sense of experimentation to the band’s signature sound which revolutionized indie rock back in 2004. In a day when too many artists look for a few killer singles to anchor their albums, The Arcade Fire are constructing sonic monuments one piece at a time, insisting that they have something important to say and asking you to listen carefully. Not a moment is wasted. Simply put, Arcade Fire are the band that the Kings of Leon wish they were: a critically adored, popular band whose music is universally appreciated for artistic brilliance rather than criticized as shallow attempts to reach the back seats of the stadium. Arcade Fire’s emotional reach will extend past those seats and into the stratosphere, but not before burrowing their way into your heart and asking you to examine your soul – assuming it hasn’t been relegated to the oblivion of The Sprawl, where “everything’s connected but nothing ever touches.”
The band’s biggest strength has always been their intuition. They know when to scale things back and strip them down, as on the supremely touching and gorgeous closing track “The Suburbs (continued).” They also know when to let it all hang out and go for broke, laying the pedal to the floor, as they do with propulsive tunes like “Half Light II (No Celebration)” or the raw, rollicking punk-rocker “Month of May.” They also know how to completely sweep the rug out from under you and leave you in a disoriented sense of bliss, as they do halfway through the album with centerpiece “Suburban War,” which begins as an emotionally poignant ode about the escape provided by the road, turns into a song about friends you’ve been separated from and “never saw again,” before a slight pause that fakes you into letting your guard down as the song turns a corner and propels itself double-time down the highway, driving itself towards an aimless destination that is anywhere but where you’ve been. It’s their “Born To Run,” and maybe the best song they’ve ever written.
Whether The Suburbs is better than Neon Bible or Funeral will take far more time to determine. All I can tell you with level-headed fairness is that you’ll not be disappointed by The Suburbs, as Arcade Fire have created their third classic in a row and one of the finest records of a very strong year.
Listen: Arcade Fire – “Suburban War”
It’s the movie everybody’s dreaming about: Inception, the newest mind-fuck of a film by the brilliant mind of Christopher Nolan, featuring an all-star cast including Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Paige, and Marion Cotillard, is the talk of the summer box office.
I probably don’t need to tell you why Inception is the best movie of this year so far, and I’m certainly not going to get into any talk of understanding the ‘truth’ of the ambiguous ending as that would be missing the point of the film entirely. But, I do want to think about the role and function of music in the film itself, as it leads to some interesting discussions.
Firstly, there is the soundtrack by well-known German composer Hans Zimmer, whose score for the film is his best in years. The score heightens tension through the use of crashing chords, explosive dissonance, and basically every film-score trick in the book. The best song, however, is “Time,” the restrained number that closes out the final minutes of the film, with gorgeous chords and sustained notes that actually make time feel as if it has slowed down in these final moments (evidence used by some to suggest that the final moments are in fact still a dream). Swelling strings pull at our hearts as DiCaprio’s character has finally managed to let go of his burdens and in so doing is able to live out moments he had dreamed of, returning to his children and a life in America.
The recurring motif of clanging, dissonant chords played by horns that are instantly recognizable is actually a musical trick meant to mimic a slowed-down version of the powerful horns that dominant the instrumentation of the song “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” by Edith Piaf. This song holds huge significance to this movie, as Nolan had written it into the script before Zimmer had ever been brought aboard to score the film. Interestingly, this song is used as a type of diagetic music (music which the characters in the film can hear) whose sounds are used to create the nondiagetic music that the audience hears (music that the audience can hear, but the characters cannot, like the score to a film). This is a clever trick that cements the song’s importance to understanding the meaning of the film.
Another important thing to note is that music for the characters adds dramatic tension for them, as it becomes a ticking countdown towards the ‘kick,’ the moment in which they awake from their dreams. Perhaps it is only an interesting coincidence and a great bit of trivia that the song was actually sung by Marion Cotillard in her Oscar-winning role as Edith Piaf in the 2007 movie La Vie En Rose.But it is certainly not a coincidence that Christopher Nolan chose this song to be in his script; the title actually translates to “No, I Have No Regrets.” If you’ve seen the film, your head is probably spinning with the significance of this line, as the movie repeatedly finds Leonardo DiCaprio being reminded of his fear that he will “become an old man, filled with regrets.”
Listen to “Time” and “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” below (and brace for the kick):
Listen: Hans Zimmer – “Time”
It’s not often that something in Rolling Stone magazine gets my attention anymore, but their profile on M.I.A. in their newest issue caught my eye. Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam has been the talk of town for the last couple months leading up to the release of her newest album, the divisive /\/\ /\ Y /\. Her artiest and most aggressive album to date, /\/\ /\ Y /\ is more likely to start an argument than any talk of Arulpragasam’s politics can – and that’s really saying something.
M.I.A. uses politics in her art just like Madonna would use sex or The Hold Steady would use religion, so while she may be controversial as a person, nothing seems to have become more controversial than the content of her newest album itself. Critical reviews of the album have ranged more drastically on this album than any other in 2010. A quick glance over the aggregated scores on Metacritic reveals that she has received equal amounts of praise and critique, with seven reviews scoring the album above an 80 and an equal number of reviews scoring the album below a 60, with a smattering of scores in between. Reading the opposing reviews, you’d think that
In fact, M.I.A. seems to be a whole collection of contradictions. Following the success of “Paper Planes” in the summer of 2008, M.I.A. is now a bona-fide pop-star, but her newest album might as well be the anti-pop album of the year. Fans and critics alike have called songs like “Teqkilla” ‘irritating’ and ‘unlistenable.’ Yet others hear the infectious hooks buried within the jumbled mess of sounds, noting just how much that noise actually makes the song more intense and full of nervous energy than any sugary traditional pop production could have ever done. She claims to not know anything about politics, but demands that she be allowed to voice her opinion on it nonetheless – I suppose that makes it our fault for taking her too seriously. She’s both a singer and a rapper, but does neither conventionally. Her beats are a mix of electronic blips and raw, tribal percussion. Her instrumentation varies between electronic and acoustic, sometimes in the same song. No wonder she’s causing such a stir. Who exactly is M.I.A. and what the hell are we to make of her music? Myself, I’ve loved her from the first time I’ve heard her, and you can count me in the camp that thinks her newest album is another great one.
At the end of her profile in Rolling Stone, Arulpragasam notes that the one place she would live if she could live anywhere would be outer space. Say whatever you want about her, but you can’t say she doesn’t have ambitious dreams.
Listen: M.I.A. – “Teqkilla”
Late night drives require a very, very specific type of music. You’ll be intently focused on the sounds that you’ll surround yourself in, and while you don’t want to be bored, you don’t want to be overly stimulated either, because that can be exhausting. The hardest part of choosing music for late night drives is finding music that evokes that singular feeling of sublimity, the feeling you get while standing atop a cliff edge overlooking the sea, the waves crashing with explosive force below you. You want your existence to kick you in the gut and hit you in the face, but you want it to feel more like a personal revelation that came from within rather than an unprovoked attack from some outside force.
That feeling perfectly describes Infra, the newest album of compositions by Max Richter. Richter’s music most comfortably can be called neo-classical in nature, but it’s equal parts ambient, electro-acoustic, and contains shades of post-rock stylings. It’s very particular and needs intent listening to be appreciated in full, as the music is subtle and seems to invite deeper thinking about the nature of art in this, the second decade of the 21st century.
This is especially interesting considering that this wholly post-modern composition is influenced by one of the most important modernist works of art from the 20th century: T.S. Eliot’s 434-line poem The Wasteland. Richter’s interpretation of the poem in musical form is full of broad strokes that reveal striking details underneath. In the way that much of Eliot’s poem focuses on choosing words for how they sound rather than simply for what they mean, Infra focuses on the timbre of sounds and what they can evoke rather than harmonic variation or melodically memorable material. One of the central features of The Wasteland is the interpretation that the poem is delivered in different voices, but there remains one central consciousness underlying everything. Like The Wasteland, Infra‘s important musical features seem to happen in different “voices,” like the piano or violin or in the sound of radio static; as a collective whole, all of these features create one musical feeling, one emotional state, one thought.
Infra is a piece that swells, ebbing and flowing throughout, taking its time to get anywhere and yet never giving that feeling of strained movement. The melodies, chord progressions, and instrumentation feel natural. That the sounds of radio-static and other droning, slow-as-molasses noises feel natural is notable. Our post-modernist subjectivity would have us remember just where these sombre sounds are all coming from and to never forget their existence. Just listen to your computer right now – hear that slow buzzing beneath everything else? Ever notice the whirr of the engine as your driving and listening to music? All ambient noise is notable if you tune in. Those sounds are a part of Infra, and even when listening to Infra the mind’s natural response is to cancel it out and ignore them, instead focusing on the sounds that are more familiar as being “musical” in a more traditional sense.
Maybe that’s the entire point of Infra. Richter is mixing ambient noise with all the rich detail of orchestral composition. But when the sounds of the orchestra start to sound like ambient music, what’s the fundamental difference between that and white noise? Think about the title of the piece for a moment: Infra. Infra-what? It implies that the music held within is below something else, in the same vein that infra-red light is below our visible spectrum. Maybe Richter wanted to get us to think about the sounds below the music, the infra-musical noise that is powerfully evocative of day-to-day life in the 21st century. Perhaps it has something to do with the relationship to the original inspiration, The Wasteland, and finding some sort of meaning behind that text. Perhaps Richter intended for this music to be the background noise to a reading (aloud or silently) of The Wasteland.
Whatever the meaning of the music of Infra, one thing is certain: this is special music that works on multiple levels, not only evoking powerful emotions through subtlety and crescendo but also asking powerful questions about the very nature of the relationship between music and sound, the very nature of art itself.
Listen: Max Richter – “Infra 2”