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Posts Tagged ‘soundtrack’
24 Feb

Week 198: Serenade from “The Snowman” by Erich Korngold

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I made a snowman when I was about 11 years old that I was very proud of. My pride stemmed primarily from the fact that I had built it alone. No help from dad or older brother. This was all me.

It was a sight to behold: carrot nose, arms made of freakishly bent tree limbs, three semi-spherical body sections, flecked with bits of grass and dirt from the earth underneath the snow. Okay, it was mostly hideous, but I was 11, so I was pretty pleased with myself.

If I had known that Austrian composer Erich Korngold had written an entire ballet at age 11, I might have been forced to revise my pride level somewhat. His ballet was called “The Snowman”, and upon its opening, he was a child prodigy who seemed destined for greatness.

Korngold is mostly remembered now as a pioneer in film scores. His 1938 soundtrack to The Adventures of Robin Hood won an Academy Award, and he cranked out many more during his time in Hollywood. However, it seems like he got tired of film scores. He stopped writing them in 1946, and returned to composing the romantic style of music he had worked on before leaving Austria.

Unfortunately, by the late 1940s that style was no longer popular, and in the years following his death in 1957, critics tended to greet Korngold’s work with a bit of a shrug, which I think is pretty sad. Rewind to 1910, when composers like Strauss and Mahler were praising the 12-year-old as the next big thing, and his ballet The Snowman was being performed for the Austrian Emperor…it doesn’t seem fair that his career should be looked upon as if it were one of my pathetically deformed snowmen.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The tempo is flexible, which gives the music a sense of motion. You can see how his style was so perfectly suited to the newly emerging medium of film.

2. The way the violin climbs and shivers, beginning at 1:40.

3. The final seconds, with the violin way up high, and the piano way down low, like opposite ends of a snowman.

Recommended listening activity:

Digging through a box of things you made as a kid, and picking out something to put on the fridge.

17 Jun

Week 162: “The Death Of Ase” by Edvard Grieg

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Most of the time, procrastination is a bad thing. But I’d like to suggest that it’s not always a bad thing, and that sometimes it might actually be a good thing.

It all depends on how you procrastinate.

If you adopt the “YouTube rabbit hole” method, you’re doing it wrong. You’ll end up eating Wheat Thins at 3:48am, wondering how you became so interested in cat videos.

But if you procrastinate by doing something that is extremely different from your normal routine, completely unrelated to the task you’re trying to avoid, the results might surprise you. If you go to the library and grab a book at random, or go see a movie that you are absolutely sure you will hate, or eat at that place around the corner that you always pass but never enter…one simple decision to do something out of your ordinary might lead to something good.

The Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen is a good example of this. After a few years of reasonable but not earth-shattering success, he decided to do something different. He broke out of his normal routine. By moving to Italy.

During his self-imposed exile from his homeland, he wrote the two plays that would launch him to worldwide fame; Brand and Peer Gynt. So while I’m not trying to imply that Ibsen was a procrastinator, he certainly knew how use a change in routine to spark his creativity. So perhaps he was an effective procrastinator.

Appropriately, the play Peer Gynt features a main character legendary for his procrastination. It also features a legendary soundtrack by Ibsen’s countryman Edvard Grieg. The soundtrack is filled with songs that even non-classical fans are familiar with (like this one and this one), but my favourite is “The Death Of Ase”.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The slow, climbing chords that open the piece.

2. The same pattern one minute later, but a fifth higher.

3. The same pattern in reverse, creeping downwards chromatically about three minutes in. I don’t know if Grieg meant these sequences to represent Ase’s last breath, or an ascent to heaven, but they’re chill-inducers.

Recommended listening activity:

Something else.

18 Mar

Week 149: “Sandrevan Lullaby/Lifestyles” by Rodriguez

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The story of Sixto Rodriguez is the most incredible, unlikely, and moving rock & roll fairy tale of all time. You’ve probably already heard it, but in case you don’t, here’s the bullet point version:

  • Working-class guy from Detroit writes some songs in the early 70s.
  • Gets signed to a label, releases two records.
  • They sell terribly. Record label folds in 1975. Career over.
  • Years pass. His two records become incredibly popular in South Africa.
  • He has no idea, because someone else is collecting his royalties.
  • His songs become anthems for the anti-apartheid movement in the 80s and 90s.
  • He becomes a legend in South Africa, literally more popular than Elvis. He has no idea.
  • They assume he’s dead; rumours circulate he killed himself years earlier.
  • After the fall of apartheid, a few devoted fans aim to search him out.
  • They find him, still working manual labour in Detroit.
  • He goes to South Africa and plays in front of thousands of delirious fans who thought he had been dead for decades.

To hear this story told more eloquently than can be done in bullet points, I highly recommend the 2012 Academy Award-winning documentary “Searching For Sugar Man”, which finally earned Rodriguez a bit of recognition in his homeland.

The best part is that it’s not just a nice story; Rodriguez is a really good songwriter. His political protest folk ballads are as good as any that were popular in the late 60s and early 70s. Perhaps better.

This song, a two-in-one type of song that showcases both the instrumental and vocal sides of Rodriguez, is probably my favourite, and serves as a good introduction for those who aren’t familiar with his music.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The opening guitar. They use this little lick several times in the movie. Pure plinky sunshiney goodness.

2. The string section. It really helps the song blossom in the chorus. The ascending scale at 3:31 really reminds me of the “oh no, not me” part at 0:46 of “The Man Who Sold The World”.

3. Rodriguez himself. He’s incredibly Zen for a guy who writes protest songs, and I feel like it comes across in his voice. Unsurprisingly, his recent fame hasn’t changed him. He lives in the same Detroit apartment he’s always lived in. Money from his recent tours goes mostly to his daughters. And although he was cheated out of years of royalties, he never instigated any lawsuits. When asked on CNN if he felt hatred towards those who had gotten rich off him, he said, “hatred is too strong an emotion to waste on people you don’t like.”

Recommended listening activity:

Letting go of a helium-filled balloon and watching it float away.

29 Oct

Week 129: “Over the Rainbow” by Judy Garland

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The desire to be somewhere else (or someone else) has never been more perfectly captured than it is in this song.

And I’m not just talking about the lyrics. Consider the fact that just about everyone involved in it changed their name. The lyrics are by Yip Harburg (born Isadore Hochberg). The music is by Harold Arlen (born Hyman Arluck). And of course, it is sung by the iconic Judy Garland, who may not have become so iconic if she had stuck with her original name, Frances Ethel Gumm. Doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Place the song in its context within “The Wizard of Oz”, and you get an all-out anthem for anyone who’s yearning to escape. You can’t help but sympathize with Dorothy, and share her desire to skip town, even if you know that it’s physically impossible to go “over” a rainbow, nature’s finest and most fleeting optical illusion.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. For a short song, it’s got a long intro. But it sets the scene nicely; you can imagine Dorothy sighing as she looks towards the horizon and gets ready to sing.

2. You can hear the happy little bluebirds singing at 2.10.

3. Garland sings it simply. No big diva flourishes; at 17, she may have not had the voice for it. But apparently, in all the years that followed its initial success, she never decorated the song when singing it live, preferring to stay true to the character of Dorothy and its moment within the film.

Recommended listening activity:

Making a wish list.

01 Oct

Week 125: “Symphony #5, Third Movement” by Dmitry Shostakovich

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I would love to tell you that I discovered this piece because I was researching Shostakovich’s life. I would love to say that I was curious about the rumour that some of his music, composed during Stalin’s reign of terror, contained secretly coded anti-government sentiment. Or that I knew that many of Shostakovich’s friends and relatives were imprisoned and killed in the years before he wrote his fifth symphony, and I was wondering if it contained any anti-Stalin messages, so I studied it intensely for months in a University library.

Unfortunately, the real story of how I found out about this piece is far less intellectual: I was browsing a cardboard box filled with records at a garage sale. I saw the soundtrack to a sci-fi movie I’d never heard of and thought it looked cool, so I bought it for $1.50.

The movie, it turned out, was “Rollerball”. I watched it, and it’s awesome in the way that only 1970s sci-fi can be awesome. In the future, apparently, everyone will be dressed entirely in brown and orange, and computers will be small enough to fit in a single room. But at least we’ll listen to good music; Andre Previn did some great arrangements of classical pieces for the soundtrack, including this one. The movie, along with its soundtrack, was released in 1975. (Funnily enough, the year after Shostakovich died.)

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The strings are amazing. They soar and pulse and roll and sing and fade.

2. From the midst of all the soaring and pulsing, the harp and flutes poke their heads out at 3:32.

3. It’s unpredictable, but still melodic. A lot of 20th-century composers tried to veer away from the conventional patterns of earlier music. I like that Shostakovich’s music does that without being too atonal.

Recommended listening activity:

Watching figure skating with the volume on mute.

30 Jul

Week 116: “You Only Live Twice” by Nancy Sinatra

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This time last year, I recommended clearing your schedule and watching all the James Bond movies. If you still haven’t gotten around to doing that, I’m a bit mad at you, but it’s okay. Instead of re-stating the benefits of making your way through those 22 bits of movie magic, I’ll just ask you to listen to this fun little song by Nancy Sinatra.

This track was the theme for the fifth Bond installment, in which 007 finds himself womanizing, shooting bad guys, and delivering snappy one-liners in Japan. After recording a demo of this song featuring vocalist Julie Rodgers, Nancy Sinatra was brought in to record the final version. Sinatra, already famous for singing “These Boots Were Made For Walking” and for having the last name Sinatra, was evidently a bit nervous about recording the song; she needed 25 takes to finish a song that requires about 2 minutes of singing.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The opening violin line. It’s positively gigantic, emerging from the song’s first few seconds and attacking your ears like a fire-eagle bearing down on a mouse. If you’re a Robbie Williams fan, you probably recognize the melody. (If you’re not a Robbie Williams fan, don’t worry; you’re not missing much.)

2. There’s a hint of east-Asian influence. Composer John Barry found Japanese music “elegant”, and wanted his soundtrack to echo that elegance. This was the mid-1960s, so the probability of musical stereotyping was high, but thankfully, Barry kept his parallel fifths to a minimum (you can hear some at 0:20) and managed to create a song that was a tribute to, rather than a caricature of, Japanese music.

3. Nancy Sinatra’s voice. It’s not as powerful as your typical 20th-century singer’s voice would be, and that may be the reason she was so nervous to record it. But I like her tentative approach to the song, whether she meant it to sound that way or not. It’s endearing. She’s not belting it out like Shirley Bassey on “Goldfinger”, but singing as if she’s holding back just a little bit. A reluctant diva.

Recommended listening activity:

Purchasing an item of clothing that is way more glamorous than what you usually go for.

01 Aug

Week 64: “We Have All the Time in the World” by Louis Armstrong

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If you’re looking for something to do with your next 22 evenings, I highly recommend watching the James Bond films. In chronological order, if possible. Apart from being a history of the last fifty years of filmmaking, the series is full of great music, including this great and unexpectedly beautiful song by Louis Armstrong.

The movie it comes from, 1969’s “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”, is a bit unexpected itself, in that it ends with Bond doing something you’d never think he would do: getting married. After leaving the ceremony, he stops on the side of the road with his new wife to enjoy a scenic view (spoiler alert!) when the bad guys drive by and spray the car with bullets, killing his bride but leaving Bond unscathed. He gets in the car and cradles her body as the music starts, saying, “it’s alright, she’s just resting. There’s no rush…we have all the time in the world.” A tear wells up in Bond’s eye, and the movie ends. Wow.

For a movie franchise that usually relies on gratuitous womanizing and lame one-liners, it’s an incredibly touching moment. Couple that with the fact that this was the last piece of music Armstrong recorded as his health faded away, and the song becomes a poignant statement about the brevity of love and the inevitability of death.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. Louis’ voice. One of the most recognizable voices in history. I always thought he sounded a bit like a muppet with a sore throat. Not a formula for success in the singing world, but it works. What I love best about his voice is that it always sounds like he’s smiling while he sings.

2. The mini-guitar solo after each time Louis sings “nothing more, nothing less, only love”. If this was done on an electric guitar, it would be a real face-melter. But as it is, it’s much more relaxed.

3. The trumpet solo. It’s restrained, it sounds like grocery store music, and it’s not Armstrong (he was too sick to play it). But that’s okay. It just helps ensure that Armstrong’s voice is the highlight.

Recommended listening activity:

Holding hands with someone by linking pinkies.

20 Jun

Week 58: “The Unanswered Question” by Charles Ives

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Since June is graduation time, I’d like to nominate this song for valedictorian of the 20th century. I know the 20th century graduated a while ago, but things like this are easier to think about with the benefit of a decade’s hindsight.

The piece is simple enough: a string section plays a soft, slow sequence of chords. A trumpet “asks a question” in a completely unrelated key. A flute quartet “answers the question”. The trumpet repeats the same question several times, and each time, the flutes’ answer becomes more and more jumbled and frantic. Finally, they give up, and the trumpet’s question is left unanswered. The strings, meanwhile, seem completely unconcerned, and resolve in a nice little cadence.

So what makes “The Unanswered Question” the best musical representative of its century? Well, first of all, it’s very different from most music that came before it. Composed in 1906, many of its modern elements foreshadowed what was to come in 20th century music. In fact, it was so ahead of its time that it wasn’t publicly performed until 1946. Despite taking a while to catch on, it was still relevant enough at the end of the century to be included on the movie soundtrack for the pre-millennial classic “Run Lola Run” in 1998.

And if you’ll allow me to get philosophical for a second, I think that the 20th century was a jumble of contradictions, a collage of the best and worst of human kind: progress vs. world war vs. civil rights vs. environmental destruction vs. technological innovation. With a bit of creative listening, I think you can hear those contradictions summed up perfectly in this piece.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. Loud vs. Quiet

2. Calm vs. Frantic

3. Harmony vs. Dissonance

Recommended listening activity:

Sitting in the quietest part of the biggest library you can find.

06 Jun

Week 56: “The Dream” by Garage A Trois

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Usually, bands that rely on a clever name to grab your attention have little talent to back it up. But the intriguingly-named “Garage A Trois” have a lot to offer aside from hilarious nomenclature.

I discovered this band because I knew of their drummer, Stanton Moore. He is one of the funkiest men on the planet, and he has a separate trio that I’d already heard about; this album in particular is highly recommended for those who like superawesome drumming. While searching for other projects he was involved in, I found Garage A Trois, and this song, which (funnily enough) has no drums in it at all.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. It fades in. Very few songs fade in. It makes it feel like the song is creeping up on you, like sleep tends to do.

2. The marimba. Its rapidly repeating arpeggios remind me a bit of the piano part in last week’s song, and it has the same hypnotic result.

3. The sax. It floats in and out of the song as if it’s unaware that other instruments are playing.

Recommended listening activity:

Falling asleep in a place you wouldn’t usually sleep.

21 Feb

Week 41: “Stand By Me” by Ben E. King

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A lot of recent entries on this list have been hidden gems by lesser-known bands, so this week we’re going with a classic.

“Stand By Me” was written by King with help from Mike Stoller, who also wrote “Hound Dog”, “Love Potion #9”, and “Jailhouse Rock”, among many others. Apparently, King wrote this one for The Drifters, but they passed on the song, so he recorded it himself in 1961. Nothing against The Drifters, of course, but that particular decision was not what you’d call a good business move.

Interestingly enough, this tune was a top-ten hit twice; first in the early 60s after it was released, and again twenty years later when it appeared on the soundtrack for the film of the same name. Twenty years after that, it was back, this time as the main sample in the decidedly inferior “Beautiful Girls” by auto-tuned quasi-reggae singer Sean Kingston.

So if history is anything to go by, it’ll be back in the top ten sometime around 2027. Until then, let’s enjoy it in all its 1961 glory.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The bassline. How can a song be so groovy and so beautiful at the same time? When you hear the first few bars, it’s hard to decide whether you should start dancing or making out. Throw in the triangle hit on every fourth beat, and that catchy little “ffft!” noise, and the song’s a success before King has sung a single note.

2. The back-up vocals. I didn’t notice them until recently. Ben E. King’s voice is powerful and awesome in this song, but when the softly humming choir starts up just after the first minute, it’s the perfect contrast.

3. The string eruption at 1:54. Okay, it’s a bit melodramatic, and makes the song sound a bit supermarket-ish. But with King belting it out for most of the song, one of the instruments had to step up and belt back at him. I like to imagine the lead violinist standing up at this point, putting his violin behind his head like he’s Jimi Hendrix, and just going to town.

Recommended listening activity:

Bringing someone breakfast in bed.