Sunday, March 29, 2015

Into the Woods and the disregard of “Show, Don’t Tell” in musicals

This week, the movie version of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Into the Woods came out on home video. First, I just want to say that I think Disney did a great job of adapting the musical to the screen. Sure, there were some changes, but I think most were justified and worked.

Also, I noticed recently that during Jack’s song “There are Giants in the Sky,” the melody from the Witch’s “Stay With Me” makes an appearance (a song we haven’t heard yet in the musical). But it’s deeper—“Stay With Me” is a song about the witch wanting her adopted daughter to be close to her, and the melody shows up in “Giants in the Sky” at the exact moment that Jack sees his mother at his house. One of the reasons why I like Into the Woods so much is that these little melodic moments happen throughout the musical.

Now that’s out of the way, there was one thing that bothered me as I watched the movie (and this applies to the musical, too): numerous times Sondheim disregards the basic creative writing guideline “Show, Don’t Tell.” In other words, people in Into the Woods are singing exactly what they feel fairly often (“Agony, beyond power of speech,” “And you’re really scared that you’re all alone, and it’s then that you miss all things you’ve known,” “And he made me feel excited, well, excited and scared”), instead of just showing us what they feel by their actions. And this from one of my favorite pieces of art?!?

So, I present three reasons why Sondheim can disregard “Show, Don’t Tell” in Into the Woods and get away with it:

  1. It’s a musical. Characters are allowed to tell what they are feeling through a song in ways that wouldn’t work with dialog. That’s what songs are for: presenting feelings (though it helps to be creative; think of “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid—it’s classical example of creative broadcasting of emotions in first person).
  2. We know these fairy tales, but the versions we know don’t include explorations into the character’s psyche. In other words, we already know the showing part. So we don’t mind the character just telling us, as it’s something extra.
  3. Because the characters in fairy tales (and by extension, Into the Woods) are allegories of real life people and situations, we are already doing the work of mapping what happens in the story (getting eaten by a wolf) to what that might signify in real life (getting abused or raped, etc.). That already takes a lot of brainpower (not to mention processing the music, too), so having characters say something straightforward, like “I really got scared,” makes the task of mapping to real life easier.
Moral of the story: add music (and a little creativity) and maybe “Show, Don’t Tell” isn’t all that sacred.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

St. Patty's day book review: Wayfaring Strangers by Richie and Orr

See title at UNC Press
For St. Patrick’s day this year, I’d like to review the new New York Times bestselling book from Fiona Richie and Doug Orr, Wayfaring Strangers: The Music Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia. Fiona Richie is most famous for her NPR Celtic music show The Thistle and the Shamrock, which I love but is usually in a horrible time slot like 7pm on Saturday. Besides my love of Celtic and old-time music, I had a personal reason for reading this book—I myself have Scots-Irish ancestry tracing back to the Appalachians.

This book traces migration and music from Scotland to Ireland (in the 1600s) to Philadelphia (in the 1700s) to the Appalachian mountains (late-1700s and later), not to mention other migrations from Scotland and Ireland to America. It full of interesting stories and facts: the 18th-century migration of Ulster Scots across the Atlantic, the Scots-Irish American Indian chiefs, the Gaelic-speaking community in North Carolina that was lost when the government build Fort Bragg, the invention of the mountain dulcimer, how African-American fiddle/banjo duos died out because the recording industry would only record white folks playing that instrumentation, and how American "old-time" music became disseminated to the world, just to mention a few.

While the book was enjoyable and informative, I think there are a few editing choices that made the book at times somewhat difficult and detracted from the wonderful musical journey that is the book's focus. I think the front matter, which starts in Roman times and has a large section on Medieval France, could have been pared down quite a bit. Also, the book has too many extra sidebars and excerpts from interviews with famous musicians. While the interviews are usually interesting, many times they do not really illustrate the points made in the main text. I think the authors could have been more selective on these interview excerpts. As for the the sidebars, they also often took away from the narrative, sometimes repeating information already in the text or stating information that easily could have been worked into the narrative. There were a few times where spans of 6 pages had only just sidenotes and interviews, which made it difficult to pick the narrative back up. I also thought the artwork and photos usually had very little to do with the narrative, and I would have liked more useful and illustrative pictures instead of “here’s some nice mountains!” I understand that this book is kind of a hybrid between a coffee table book and an an academic book, but I still think that the pictures should have matched the text better.

A few other small complaints: while the book is full of stories and personal accounts about the migration from Scotland to Ireland and across the ocean, soon after they immigrants arrive in a America, the personal stories dry up and we are left with more general movements mixed with conjectures from more modern figures, some more authoritative than others. Also, at times there was a lack of technical depth, such as repeatedly bringing up the “high, lonesome sound,” but never defining it. Finally, while the included CD is a welcome addition with good recordings, as presenting a book about music with actual music is important, it was strange that many of the artists on the CD were not really discussed in the book, while other important featured artists (like the Carter family) did not have any recordings.

In the end, if you love Irish or Scottish music, but have never heard of the Scots-Irish or thought that all the Irish came over to America after the 1840s' Great Hunger, you should check out this book. Or, if you love old-time music but don't know about roots in the British Isles, you should check out this book. Enjoy!

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Album Review: Punch Brothers, The Phosphorescent Blues

If you recognize the cover, it's because it's a Magritte

Well, it’s been a month since my last post—the first time I’ve missed a week since I began this blog 2.5 years ago. I suppose a couple of weeks in the hospital with an leg infection is as good excuse as any. But I’m back, and I’m going to review the new Punch Brothers’ album, The Phosphorescent Blues.

Despite producing this album with T Bone Burnett, the Punch Brothers were probably not looking to break into the pop charts with their new album. What they did, though, is what they’ve done for their previous albums—take their traditional bluegrass instrumentation and transform that ensemble’s sound into something novel.

So what’s the secret of Punch Brother’s unique sound in this album? While it is hard to boil their varied compositional techniques down to the most vital, I think I can identify three broad strokes: (1) constructing complex textures, usually bit by bit, with multiple instruments playing repetitive but complex parts, and (2) exploring complex harmonies, and (3) taking time for instrumental interludes between voice parts, which in turn allows for more of (1) and (2).

The highlight of the album is the first track, “Familiarity,” despite its 10-minute length; it’s not really one song, but three spliced together. The song never ceases to surprise throughout, as it moves from one musical idea to another while maintaining some semblance continuity. “Forgotten” and “Between 1st and A” also exemplify the above characteristics.

Instead of the acoustic versions of electric songs that were featured on the previous albums, this time Punch Brothers tries something new—they transcribe two early 20th-century piano pieces from Debussy and Scriabin for their ensemble. These two tracks achieve the same result as the acoustic/electric songs, though—they serve as a Punch Brothers’ showcase of imaginative timbre.

There are a few pieces that perhaps aspire to the pop charts: “I Blew It Off,” “Magnet,” and “Little Lights.” Perhaps not coincidentally, these are also the tracks on which T Bone Burnett plays electric guitar. I think these are perhaps the low point of the album. The chorus of “I Blew It Off” is so formulaic that it sticks out like a sore thumb compared to the rest of the tracks, and “Magnet,” despite having a pretty good guiding metaphor, lacks the inventive melodic lines of other songs. Also, the chorus of “Magnet” just begs to go somewhere harmonically, but doesn’t. “Little Lights” doesn’t seem to go anywhere musically or harmonically, either, but tries to make up for it by adding more volume. Despite the addition of a crowd of voices, I think it falls flat—there’s just not enough musical ideas to sustain the track through the build.

Despite the low points, I think the album deserves a spot with the other Punch Brothers albums as a masterpiece. I’m not disappointed with the album as a whole at all. Even the inferior tracks have great moments and ideas. The Punch Brothers are one the best groups pushing the boundaries of popular music, and they continue to push and succeed on The Phosphorescent Blues.

Vocab: harmony, transcribe, acoustic, timbre

Monday, February 9, 2015

All pop songs sound the same...or do they?

I was going to write about Katy Perry’s half-time show, but all that really mattered were the giant puppet tiger and the left and right sharks. The Super Bowl is not about musical subtlety or innovation.

Instead, in honor of the Grammys and the controversy of Sam Smith's "Stay with Me" vs. Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down," I want to bring up this article by Tom Barnes from, which is titled: “Scientists Just Discovered Why All Pop Music Sounds Exactly the Same.” This article is reporting on another scientific article, and as you can imagine the title totally misconstrues what the scientific article really claims.

Let’s start by reading the abstract of the scientific article, “Instrumental Complexity of Music Genres and Why Simplicity Sells,” by Percino, Klimek, and Thurner, which is a little dry, but is the first place to turn for knowing what the scientific article actually claims (emphasis added):

Listening habits are strongly influenced by two opposing aspects, the desire for variety and the demand for uniformity in music. In this work we quantify these two notions in terms of instrumentation and production technologies that are typically involved in crafting popular music. We assign an ‘instrumentational complexity value’ to each music style. Styles of low instrumentational complexity tend to have generic instrumentations that can also be found in many other styles. Styles of high complexity, on the other hand, are characterized by a large variety of instruments that can only be found in a small number of other styles. To model these results we propose a simple stochastic model that explicitly takes the capabilities of artists into account. We find empirical evidence that individual styles show dramatic changes in their instrumentational complexity over the last fifty years. ‘New wave’ or ‘disco’ quickly climbed towards higher complexity in the 70s and fell back to low complexity levels shortly afterwards, whereas styles like ‘folk rock’ remained at constant high instrumentational complexity levels. We show that changes in the instrumentational complexity of a style are related to its number of sales and to the number of artists contributing to that style. As a style attracts a growing number of artists, its instrumentational variety usually increases. At the same time the instrumentational uniformity of a style decreases, i.e. a unique stylistic and increasingly complex expression pattern emerges. In contrast, album sales of a given style typically increase with decreasing instrumentational complexity. This can be interpreted as music becoming increasingly formulaic in terms of instrumentation once commercial or mainstream success sets in.
I think the main thing to note that the only aspect of music the study observed is instrumentation. The study did not look at form, harmony, melody, or even timbre, which can vary widely even with the same instrumentation. The study does not claim “all pop music sounds the same,” it is saying that as a particular genre of music become more popular, and more artists are attracted to the genre, increasing the variety of the genre, but the albums that sell the most copies tend to have similar instrumentation. Although this is somewhat circular logic (best-selling albums in a certain genre tend to have the same instrumentation, and genre is somewhat determined by instrumentation), it’s pretty interesting. But what the article describes has little to do with the actual study.

Here’s another statement from the article that the source material does not support: “Simplicity sells best across all music genres.” First, this pattern was only observed in the better-selling genres. There were some genres, such as folk rock and electronic music, that do not conform to the pattern. Also, an emerging genre does not conform to the pattern. And of course, there are many, many exceptions. One exception actually turns up in the first paragraph of the scientific study: Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, which has very complex instrumentation and sold almost 1 million copies. True, it did not sell the more than 2 million of Justin Timberlakes 20/20 Experience (which was more formulaic in terms of instrumentation), but this was a weird paring for the scientific article to make in the introduction because 1) these albums are not really the same genre and 2) they are still both very well selling. There are many other things I could say about this study, but for the sake of space, I'll stop.

The moral of the story: First, scientific articles are not infallible. And second, please, if you are reporting on a scientific article, actually try to understand and articulate its real content. Even if “Best-Selling Albums in an Established Genre have Similar Instrumentation” doesn’t work as well for clickbait.

Vocab: genre, instrumentation

Monday, February 2, 2015

Concert Review: Zelda Symphony of the Goddesses

I’ve spent the last few weeks writing about video game music, and this post will continue that series. This week, I want to talk about the phenomenon of the video game music symphonic concert.

Here’s how this type of usually concert works: a producer gets the rights to the
video game music, contracts arrangers to make a symphonic version, and then tours by bringing a conductor and production crew to a stationary orchestra. The traveling conductor and the new orchestra rehearse the music for a week and then put on the show, usually with a big video screen for highlighting game play.

This week, I attended one of these concerts. While most of these types of concerts feature music from several video games, the one I attended was themed—all the music was from the Zelda video game franchise. The Zelda games are a logical choice for this type of concert; not only is game and its music well-regarded and memorable, music also plays  a vital role in the game itself, with the game characters usually playing some sort of musical instrument to unlock puzzles or gameplay. This particular concert hailed itself as something even above a normal video game music concert: “Featuring a first in video game concert history, The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses has been arranged and programmed with classical sensibilities in mind, organizing the music of this beloved franchise into a complete, 4 movement symphony…” (

Setting aside the question of what “classical sensibilities” actually are, I think this advertisement demonstrates how these concerts are advertised and perceived: gamers are invited to see their beloved, low-art music turned into “high art.” And I think this expectation was played out in how people came to the concert; while many concert-goers came in cosplay as Link or other characters, or in fan t-shirts, many more people were in formal dress—strange for a casual place like Hawaii.

So, how was it?

The “symphony” itself, which was the centerpiece of the concert, was actually pretty well done. While not really a symphony, it was well orchestrated and was more than just an elaborate version of the video game music with as many recognizable themes stuffed in as possible. The transitions were satisfying and interesting, both recalling the original music at times, while also experimenting some. I think if the entire concert were of that quality, I would have been satisfied with it. However, the reality is that many of the arrangements were poorly done; sometimes not even as complex or satisfying as the original music, despite the trappings of symphonic orchestration. The lack of good writing was very evident in the endings, which mostly just fizzled out; I don’t remember any strong endings, despite some very powerful musical themes. Video game music doesn’t usually have endings, actually; instead the music transitions or fades when it doesn’t simply loop or repeat. Despite this problem, I think the arrangers really could have used some creativity to construct satisfying endings.

My opinion was also shaped by the orchestra; there were many times where the orchestra was not together. While I’m tempted to blame the orchestra for not knowing the music better (and that probably played into it), I couldn’t help notice that the orchestra made less mistakes during the better arrangements, leading me to believe that perhaps the orchestra didn’t play them well because they were badly written. Also, of course, the orchestra only had a few days to rehearse and sightread very unfamiliar music (though orchestras do this all the time).

I couldn’t decide whether I liked the video screen or not; I also heard mixed opinions about this as the show was getting out. It was both immersive and distracting. It certainly made me pay less attention to the orchestra.

What did I learn from the experience?

  • One very positive result of video game concerts is getting young people into the orchestral hall—and they are excited to be there. Getting young people to the symphony is extremely important for the future of orchestras as the average age of orchestra concert attendees gets older and older.
  • It takes a lot of careful wrangling to make video game music work in a concert setting. I would bet that instead of just shoving as many themes in an excerpt as possible, as happened in a few of these arrangements, arrangers would do better to pick fewer themes and arrange them very well, exploring themes and orchestration and maybe trying new and varied settings of the themes. I think if done right, the gamers would understand and enjoy.
  • With the cheapest tickets at around $50, and most between $70-120, I think the concert was too expensive, especially if the main audience is young people. On the other hand, this type of show is very expensive to put on; not only do the producers pay for travel, equipment, and game licensing, they also pay for a whole orchestra (with choir!). Orchestras generally lose money at the box office on every performance and stay afloat only with the help of generous donors. If I were to put on a traveling show like this, I would try make the orchestra smaller. On the other hand, part of the draw is to have a full orchestra!
  • The concert was a commercial for Nintendo as much as anything else, and indeed the company did underwrite the concert, though I don't know how much. I know I wanted to pick up the featured games that I hadn’t played.
  • Video games are about interaction, but there was remarkably little interaction in this performance. I think the concert would have been much better with some sort of audience participation. One of the most memorable things was what the audience members shouted in between pieces—lines from the game that everyone immediately understood. Like rock concerts, people are usually there to see things they are familiar with already; how could these shared experiences be harnessed to give concert-goers a more memorable experience?
  • In other end, though, I have to admit that there were a few goosebump moments where I was glad to be there.
Have any of you been to symphonic video game concerts? What did you think? I'm particularly interested in people who have played in one.

Vocab: symphony, orchestra, theme