Monday, April 17, 2017

Program Notes: Motets and Cantatas of Bach, Brahms, and Mendelssohn

Once again, I have written some short program notes for an Oahu Choral Society concert and I'm posting the notes here. Enjoy, and if happen to live on Oahu, please come to the concert this Saturday, April 22nd, 2017 at 7:30pm at St. Andrew's Cathedral in Honolulu.
 
Graphic design by Katherine Fisher; art by Felix Mendelssohn
 
The definition of “motet” varies widely according to time and place. While the term was originally used in medieval times to describe a piece in which one part sang different words and rhythms than the other three, the genre evolved over centuries, changing form and transitioning from sacred to secular and back to sacred. By the time of Johann Sebastian Bach, motets differed by country (France, Italy, and Germany had their own traditions) and even by Christian denomination within countries. For Bach, the motet was the smaller, less operatic, dying antecedent of the cantata, the genre that occupied a large portion of his output. Like his cantatas, Bach’s motets were self-contained musical sermons featuring both known chorales and biblical quotations, but they were usually written for special occasions outside of regular church services.* Written in this tradition, Jesu, meine Freunde (Jesus, My Joy) alternates between re-harmonized chorale verses and New Testament texts that comment on the preceding chorale texts. Bach sets up an overarching parallel musical structure for the eleven movements in the work, with the form AbCdEfEdCbA (the bold, uppercase letters represent the six chorale verses, which also have parallel harmonizations). F, the center section, is an expansive fugue with its own short chorale postlude.
 
For Johannes Brahms, calling a work a “motet” mainly set it apart as a Protestant religious
text and was meant to draw a line in listeners’ minds back to Bach’s motets. Zwei Motetten (Two Motets), Opus 29, represents a deliberate attempt to write using Baroque techniques. In the second motet of Opus 29, “Schaffe in mir, Gott, ein rein Herz” (“Create a pure heart within me, O God”), Brahms gave himself very strict compositional restrictions—for instance, in the first section, the top soprano part is exactly the same as the bottom bass part, only twice as fast, and the third section features two outside parts singing a strict canon but offset by one measure and a whole step—but each is so masterfully conceived that this is hard to hear even when the audience knows. The second and fourth sections are more traditional fugues, with Romantic twists.
 
Bach’s cantata Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen (I Will Gladly Carry the Cross) was also a sermon for Sunday service, written for solo baritone and a small ensemble. The text uses sailing imagery to talk about the trials of life and the joy of uniting with Christ in death, probably inspired by the final chorale verse, taken from Johann Franck’s “Du, o schönes Weltgebäude” (1653). Felix Mendelssohn was a key player in the Bach revival of the early nineteenth century, and perhaps Brahms would not have revered Bach so much without Mendelssohn’s promotional efforts. Like Brahms later, Mendelssohn copied aspects of Bach’s music in his compositions, as evidenced by his chorale cantatas, which take as their starting place known chorales: one voice sings the chorale tune, while the other three voices and the string quartet create quick, contrapuntal textures around (and before and after) the slow-moving chorale. Curiously, though called a cantata, this form resembles the original, medieval motet perhaps more than Bach’s motet. In “Jesu, meine Freude” (“Jesus, My Joy”), the chorale is sung in the soprano part; in Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten (Whoever Lets Only the Dear God Reign), Mendelssohn expands the formula with simple chorale presentations at the beginning and end of the work and a larger second movement featuring florid counterpoint set around the chorale tune, this time in the bass. Mendelssohn also adds a short soprano aria before the final chorale.

*Christoph Wolff, “Motet: III. Baroque: 3. Germany,” Grove Music Online, Oxford University
Press, accessed April 9, 2017.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

What happens when you post a parody video on YouTube? Copyright, that’s what

When fake lyrics are better than real lyrics


More than six months ago, I posted a YouTube video that had been at least two years in the making. Around 2014, a misheard a phrase in Taio Cruz’s pop hit “Dynamite.” “Gotta let go” changed to “Galileo” (a leap I was not the first person to make), which eventually grew into “Ganymede,” a parody song about the four largest moons of the planet Jupiter. The new parody lyric was memorable while being educational, and also had the advantage of actually rhyming. After I put the lyric to paper, I realized that I wanted to share with a wider audience, but the lyric sat while I tried to find someone else to perform the music and make a video. Last summer, 2016, I realized a music video wasn’t going to happen unless I made it myself, so I bit the bullet, taught myself GarageBand and iMovie, and made it. Here’s the final product:



This treatment is not a cover, but a parody—instead of putting my own spin on someone else’s artistic vision, this parody derives humor from the music being recognizable. Because of this, I put a lot of effort trying to recreate the sounds of "Dynamite" with the tools that came prepackaged in GarageBand (though I transposed it down a minor third to fit my voice), with mixed results.

Wait, is that legal?


Something interesting happened less that 48 hours after I had privately posted the video on YouTube—YouTube’s music algorithm identified the song as “Dynamite acapella cover” and additionally, EMI music claimed the song as their property and then optioned it for monetization (meaning they put a commercial in front of it). I was impressed that the algorithm was correct in identifying the song title, even if the version was wrong, but is EMI correct in claiming ownership of the music?

Recorded music actually has two copyrights—one for the underlying musical composition (usually controlled by the publishers) and one for the actual recording (usually controlled by the producers); that is why when someone records a cover, they still need to get copyright permission from the songwriters. In my case, it is the publishers (EMI) that asserted their rights over the underlying composition of “Dynamite” on the basis that it's cover version.

But parodies are a special case: in order to make their comic point, they need to borrow music, otherwise the joke doesn’t make sense. Courts have protected parodies under copyright Fair Use, which is a legal doctrine in copyright law that allows use of copyrighted material in a limited way, usually with a transformational intent. Fair Use is how we can quote other copyrighted works without asking permission or getting sued all the time; or how the news can show video clips; or we can xerox parts of a book—the point is we are not using the copyrighted material to steal financial or other gain from someone else, but critiquing it, putting into another context, or changing it into something else.


Fair Use is complicated, but to boil it down, parody is protected because it conveys a transformational message that can only be accomplished by using a fairly large portion of the original material. This 2012 article from Library Journal (also a good introduction to some of the problems of posting a parody video) raises another important point—defining something as parody can be tenuous. Parody has to make fun of the material itself, instead of just being satire (which is not protected). Does one need to ask for permission to write a parody, though, like Weird Al does? The answer is no; asking permission is not a legal requirement for Fair Use. Also, if people could sue you just because you made fun of them, it would be curbing free speech.

A new approach


Since 2012, publishing companies have realized that putting down take-down notices on YouTube videos is unsustainable, bad PR, and might even squelch free advertising. Instead, they’ve just decided to monetize these videos, which is what happened with my music video "Ganymede." The YouTube algorithm, though, analyzes music, not lyrics, so it will automatically flag anything that sounds like the original, regardless of if it a parody or not. This is a big problem with the system. There is a mechanism to dispute the copyright claim, but most people don’t have the time or money for the legal battle which may ensue or just don't understand copyright law (and can you blame them?) The result is that these companies make money off of someone’s else work.

I believe “Ganymede” is a parody and should be protected under Fair Use, but on the other hand, I’m not interested in making money. Six months after posting, the video still only has less than 200 views, so it doesn’t look like I’ll be getting any viral YouTube fame. I'm not planning on disputing the claim at the moment.

But the video was fun to make and I learned a lot about making music—and copyright.

What do you think? Should I dispute EMI’s copyright claim?

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Album Review: Sting, 57th and 9th


Click to view on Amazon


Regular readers are probably wondering: “Didn’t a new Sting album come out a few months ago? How come SSF hasn’t reviewed it?” Well, those people are right; it has taken me a while to get around to writing up a review for Sting’s latest album 57th and 9th, which came out in November 2016. The truth is, despite this being the first rock album from Sting in more than a decade, it didn’t make much of splash. For example, it didn’t make anyone’s end-of-the-year list. I think there’s probably a good reason for the snub—the album was somewhat thrown together quickly (which was unwisely billed as a strength), and the lack of polish in the production and songwriting was evident in sometime unoriginal or staid music.

57th and 9th should not be dismissed outright, however; while perhaps not writing at the same level of Ten Summoner’s Tales (probably his best solo album), in 57th and 9th, Sting is for the most part not just sitting on his laurels by producing bad copies of his earlier music. Each new song gives us listeners something to grapple with, either musically or thematically.

“Petrol Head” is the best song on the album; not only is it the song with the most energy (in two senses), but it doesn’t seem like it was hastily written or built. It has a catchy little melody, a nice tight little contrasting bridge section, and is chalk-full of religious and mythic imagery and reference. It also is probably both the most humorous and nuanced song on the album—both celebrating and poking fun of the macho road warrior of the American highway. I’m flummoxed why this song wasn’t picked as the lead single (maybe someone thought the references came too densely?). One of Sting’s songwriting strengths especially apparent in this song is that the chorus is not some monolithic block that comes back the same every time—when a chorus returns, he will often change up the words or even add phrases to the melody for emotion and musical impact.

I wouldn’t be surprised if “Heading South on the Great North Road” (the second best song on the album) was a reject song from The Last Ship—at least it comes from the same spiritual place of Newcastle and a trail of migration for better opportunity. The title conveys a great image—dripping with failed dreams, disappointment and heartache, and a golden age lost. It succeeds in the folk song genre where “Pretty Young Soldier” (discussed below) fails, with enough verses for an emotional journey.

For the topical challenges, “One Fine Day” takes on climate change, a topic sadly in need of more good songs, and while this song could be catchier, I’m sure it will be a regular at Greenpeace gatherings and other similar events. “Inshallah” is a solid song; a sympathetic lullaby telling the story of refugees who at great risk boat to Europe for a better life, and the Oscar-nominated “The Empty Chair” is from a film about a journalist who was captured, held captive, and then killed by ISIS.

Other songs don’t quite live up to these; “I Can’t Stop Thinking about You,” the lead single, is a solid song with some surprises in the form and some twists in the verse lyrics, though the chorus is somewhat unimaginative. “Pretty Young Soldier” is Sting’s take on a cross-dressing folk song from 18th-century England—but the song isn’t quite long enough for this genre, and the chorus tries to moralize the cross-dressing in some strange way. “50,000” is probably the weakest song, and I could understand if critics stopped listening to album after hearing this, the second album track. It is more navel-gazing than I think Sting’s audience is ready for. Also, I have the same complaint with this song as I did with the last Taylor Swift album—a string of the same repeated notes does not make a good melody. He doesn’t even try to spice up the note with a catchy rhythm.

 
I got to see Sting in a live show a week before the album came out, and while he was mostly playing his greatest hits (he did play two from the new album), he doesn’t like to keep things the same. He changed things up, tries new things, and keeps the audience thinking. 57th and 9th, though somewhat flawed, still does that, too. It was not disappointing to have a little more original new music, and I would recommend it to those who have liked Sting in the past. There’s even a song in a mixed meter! (“If You Can’t Love Me,” in 7).


What did you think of the album?

Monday, January 16, 2017

Top album from 2016—Kero Kero Bonito: Bonito Generation

Check out the album here
One thing I’ve noticed reviewing many 2016 best of the year lists is that beyond a few stand-outs (Beyonce’s Lemonade and Solange’s A Seat at the Table) and a few that get frequently mentioned (Rihanna, Chance the Rapper, Frank Ocean) there is very little consensus about what last year’s top albums were. Frequently, every top 10 list had a few albums that did not show up on any other list.

With this post, I will review one of my top albums of 2016 that I didn’t see on anyone’s list: Kero Kero Bonito’s sophomore album, Bonito Generation.

Kero Kero Bonito is a British band with lead singer Sarah Midori Perry and two producers Gus Lobban, and Jamie Bulled. Sarah is half-Japanese and sings and raps in both Japanese and English. The music, while influenced by J-Pop and British dance music, is really a thing unto itself.

While Kero Kero Bonito’s first album (Intro Bonito) was more about setting up beats, textures, and the hybrid Japanese/English delivery than songwriting, Bonito Generation makes a big leap forward into great, unpredictably-structured songs with memorable hooks and melodies. Further, the production is imaginative, varied, and keeps you guessing.

While the tone of the vocals may have a lot in common with a kids' album, many of the songs are actually for adults in an era where many young adults feel they are still trying to figure out life (“adulting”). I can understand that someone might find the vocal delivery annoying, but combined with the subject matter explored, for me it is endearing. Bonito Generation sets itself apart from 95% of pop music in having zero songs focus on romantic love—instead, the album presents a manual about how to go through life, all through unpretentious, catchy songs. There are songs about not wanting to get out of bed (“Waking Up”), moving away from home to the big town (“Big City”), hearing a great song on the radio (“Heard a Song”), trying to get a job (“Try Me”), taking breaks (“Break”), (over-)taking pictures (“Pictures”), and about keeping in touch with your parents (“Hey Parents”), among others. 

The best track is “Trampoline,” which takes a lowly kids' plaything and turns it into a metaphor for life’s ups and downs—and how you should not get stuck on the ups or the downs—all while just being the catchiest song of the year.



“Lapslap,” while not my favorite track, is probably the most experimental and fresh song on the album and continues to grow on me.


While the so-so rapping and English lyrics could have use a bit more effort—especially with the (lack of) rhyming—most of the time the non-sappy, straightforward delivery works well with the music and subject matter. While I recognize this type of hybrid British/J-Pop/kids-music-for-adults is not for everyone, it is exactly up my alley. I’d recommend checking Bonito Generation out.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Program notes: Tidings of Comfort and Joy

Once again, I have written some short program notes for an Oahu Choral Society concert, this time our Christmas concert, and I'm posting the notes here. Enjoy, and if happen to live on Oahu, please come to the concert this Saturday, December 10th at 7:30pm at St. Andrew's Cathedral in Honolulu.

Graphic designed by Katherine Fisher
 
What is the spirit of Christmas? At its center, it is a light in the darkness, finding hope where there seemed none, finding comfort and joy amid pain and sorrow. Is there a more natural reaction to finding a glimmer of joy and comfort than to shout and sing? Tonight we sing you good news, tidings of comfort and joy.
 

Tidings of Comfort

  • “O Nata Lux,” by Morten Lauridsen, is a beautiful sonic landscape depicting Christ as the source of light.
  • In “Lux Aurumque,” Eric Whitacre paints a peaceful, reflective nativity scene.
  • Arvo Pärt’s “Magnificat” is a spare version of the ubiquitous Latin text. Listen to the choir’s harmonies as they oscillate among stacked sonorities like a huge bell—what Pärt scholars call “tintinnabuli.”
  • Herbert Howells’s “Here Is the Little Door” is another nativity portrait, this time with the wise men, that paints the Christ-child against the bittersweet backdrop of war and death.
  • “Ave Maria (Angelus Domini),” by one-hit wonder Franz Biebl, depicts the hope-filled annunciation of Christ’s birth to Mary, with the choir playing the part of angels comforting and praising Mary.

Tidings of Joy

  • “African Noel” is an ebullient, joyous group sing inspired by African choral traditions.
  • “Christmas Day” is Gustav Holst’s atypical medley of four carols, all telling men on earth to rejoice at the birth of their Savior: “Good Christian Men, Rejoice,” “God Rest You, Merry Gentlemen,” “Come Ye Lofty, Come Ye Lowly,” and “The First Nowell.” Listen as Holst stacks carols on top of each other.
  • John Gardner’s setting of “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day,” a traditional English text, boils over with joy; and what better signals human joy along with singing than dance? However, we’re not sure exactly how anyone could dance to the changing rhythm of this music—there is a lot of musical complexity crammed into just over two minutes, and by the time you feel you are getting a handle on the rhythm, the carol is over.
  • “The Twelve Days of Christmas” tells a story of joyous gift-giving taken a little too far. Listen for how John Rutter’s arrangement keeps the numerous repetitions interesting.
  • We end the concert with Handel’s Hallelujah chorus, one of the most recognized expressions of praise and joy in the world.
 
We hope our singing tonight will provide you with comfort and joy and healing and hope during this holiday season.