Monday, September 28, 2015

A hip-hop musical about Alexander Hamilton? It's no joke

Yeah, that guy
Recently, I have felt guilty that I'm not doing more album reviews. After all, I have been doing a free Apple Music trial that will end in a few days and so I have had access to full albums that I probably wouldn’t otherwise hear until well after their releases. And I have listened to a lot of new albums, including Watkins Family Hour, Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, Carly Rae Jepson’s Emotion, Tomorrow is My Turn by Rhiannon Giddens, and Venus by Joy Williams, to name a few. But I haven’t felt I had anything that needed to be added to the conversation—for example, I didn’t want to jump onto the Ryan Adam’s 1989 bandwagon and I feel like other people reviewed Chvrches’ new album as well as I could.

One thing that did jump out at me this week is Hamilton. If you haven’t heard of it yet, it is a hip-hop musical based on the biography of US founding father Alexander Hamilton (of the $10 bill fame) written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also stars as Hamilton. No, this is not a joke. Although this musical has been in the works for six years, under production and workshop since last February, and on Broadway for about two months, I just started hearing about it last week when the entirety of the cast album was streaming on NPR Music’s First Listen series. It might still be there this week, as the album doesn’t go to stores until October 16. I would suggest at least listening to at least 15–30 minutes to get the idea. The first act, by all accounts, is the better one.

In case you can’t listen to the full thing, you can catch a few samples from this short podcast from NPR about why this hip-hop musical actually works. If you can’t listen to the podcast, you can certainly read about it; there’s no shortage of opinions. Besides the New York Times review, there’s a long, pretty involved New Yorker article from when the musical opened for workshop off-Broadway, or an NPR review for when the musical opened on Broadway. Finally, a short article on why presidential candidates should see the musical, also from the New Yorker.

For my part, I listened to the first half of the musical yesterday, and I can say I was generally taken in. I was impressed at how General Washington (“a modern major general”) translates into hip-hop bravado and the context of war and at the same time it comments on today's politics and invites us to learn more about what happened 240 years ago. If you dig into the music, there’s lots of references to classical hip hop music and musicals. As the NPR podcast suggests, it is not all hip-hop, but a bonafide mix of musical and hip-hop and other styles. But it all works.

Try it out. There’s a good chance your children may be putting it on as their high school play in 5 years.

Monday, September 21, 2015

How you clap at concerts is wrong

From Flickr, under a creative commons license.

One important part of live music is how concert-goers show appreciation for the music they’ve just heard. Strangely, this is different for different types of music and concert venues. Most involve some form of clapping (a form of applause). And much of the time, the way clapping is used just doesn’t make sense. Here’s what I mean:

1. Classical

For some reason, in classical music concerts in America, we give a standing ovation at the end of pretty much every concert. This doesn’t make sense. I am of the school that a standing ovation should mean something special, but also that musicians shouldn’t feel bad when they don’t get one. Also, there should be a middle ground between sitting and standing. European audiences have this solved: if they really like the concert, they will start clapping in sync with each other, which has the added effect of being way more interesting for an audience member than just continuing to clap asynchronously.

These Classical concert standing ovations often last for a long time, too, while the conductor or soloists come out and bow 3–4 times. I think hardly anyone (performers or audience) actually likes this. I think that classical music should take a cue from the theater and have one highly-staged bowing event (where the performers take turns bowing, with the soloists bowing last, and then one final group bow or two), and then they are done. If after this bowing event, the audience really doesn’t want to stop clapping after a few minutes, that’s the time to encore.

Also, at classical music concerts, there is the constant fear that someone will clap in between movements. I’m not sure what to do about that, partially because (believe it or not) during the early 1800s, people often clapped after every movement. In fact, sometimes they clapped hard enough to encore a single movement. Part of me thinks this makes more sense than the current system, but on the other hand, a lot of music in the late 19th and 20th centuries were written without the expectation of clapping between movements.

2. Popular

In most larger-venue popular concerts, we’ve gotten to the point that the audience expects the performers to do about three more songs as an encore. This annoying practice is so widespread that a few years ago I heard a performer say: “We’re getting close to that time in the concert where I leave the stage and then come back on and play a few more songs.” Let’s have encores be real encores.

3. Jazz

I know you are “supposed” to clap to for individual solos, but often we end up covering over the next’s person’s solo or other music. Couldn’t we just wait until the music stops and then clap? Instead, how about some whoops or hollers that don’t interrupt the music as much, but still give the soloist some energy?

No, I don’t have some unified theory of clapping for music appreciation, though generally I think there should be less of it. In fact, the more I think about the act of clapping (banging hands together to show appreciation for some artistic performance) the weirder it gets.

The highest form of showing appreciation, of course? Paying the musicians. Something that is for the most part happening less.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Changing up TV theme songs

Theme songs are important for TV—they signal the start of the show and brand it. The theme song can also channel the emotion of the show, both conveying the show designers’ emotion and releasing the viewers’ stored emotion (if the viewers have formed an emotional attachment to the show). If an American TV show has an opening theme, it is usually the same for all seasons, though in later seasons it may get a rewrite or two. The closing credits are also similar or the same to the opening theme, though not always.

Many recent Japanese Anime, however, operate differently, with a new theme song for every season. Being used to American TV, it was somewhat jarring to get to a second season of a show and hear completely new songs for both the opening and the closing credits. I can see the advantages—one theme song over multiple seasons can get boring, especially if you are watching the shows in a short period of time. Also, new theme songs can shape a different feeling for different seasons, which could be great for a storytelling arc. New materials also lets the show show progression, which is important for TV, where presenting a story over a long time can be a strength.

There are some problems, though. What if the new theme songs just weren’t as good as the first ones? This was certainly the case with Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, a great anime series that I just finished (and would recommend). The first theme songs (with the opening and closing credits) were very good, catchy, and really fit the character of the show. I quickly became attached to these songs, not just because they were well-written, but because I associated them with the new, exciting show. Because they are the first things people associate with a show, the first theme songs are really the most important ones, and when a show chooses to pick a new one, it runs the risk of letting some people down. And I was let down by the second season’s theme songs—not because they were necessarily bad, but because that for me, they didn’t work as well as the first season’s songs.

I can understand why the creators of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood decided to change the themes every season—it allowed them to create new opening and closing animation sequences that matched more closely what was happening in the show that season. It also allowed them to promote other artists’ music, and this practice may be one reason for the still-profitable music industry in Japan.

Once I got used to the idea of new theme songs for each season, I wondered if this idea could be used even better. One could imagine taking this practice to the extreme and having different opening music for every show, but it would be costly and difficult to animate new opening and closes sequences every episode, and you would lose the branding abilities of the music (though the creators of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood did animate new sequences to the same music to great effect on several occasions). So it seems that a song every season can be a good compromise. One strategy the show’s creators employed only once, but could have been used a lot more, is bringing back older themes when the story might call for it. It would be a great way to bring back emotions from earlier in the series, or create needed tension, or foreshadow events. Do you know of any TV shows that have done this?

Since your are probably curious, and even if you aren’t, here is my ranking of the Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood theme songs, with some notes:

  1. 1st season, end credits ("Uso," by Sid) - An expansive melody that starts with an innocent-sounding pentatonic melody, not unlike the simple attitudes of the brothers. As the theme progresses, thought, it adds a driving rhythm. Also, the best credit images, with a completely different animation style. Seriously, I've had this song stuck in my head for a month.
  2. 4th season, end credits ("Shunkan Sentimental" by Scandal) - The initial electric guitar melody tied best into the ends of episodes, add adding an excitement to the end that leaves the viewer believe that the next episode will continue the story in a great way.
  3. 1st season, opening credits  ("Again," by Yui) - Also has a simple beginning with a child-like voice that breaks into richer and more powerful guitar chords. The quick delivery of the lyrics adds interest and urgency.
  4. 2nd season, opening credits ("Hologram" by Nico Touches the Walls) - This is the one piece that was effectively reused in the penultimate episode of the show.
  5. 3th season, opening credits - ("Golden Time Lover," by Sukima Switch) - Second-best constructed animated sequence credits, that had the normal snapshots of the season's animation and characters, but also told a story in itself.
  6. 4th season, opening credits ("Period," by Chemistry)
  7. The other four songs
Would you have picked a different ranking order? Why?

Vocab: pentatonic, rhythm

Monday, September 7, 2015

When is music borrowing against the law? The case against “Stairway to Heaven”

Has the copyright case against “Blurred Lines” opened a floodgate of bands wanting monetary rewards for supposedly borrowed work? Take for example the case of the band Spirit suing Led Zeppelin over “Stairway to Heaven.” Read about it on NPR.

To summarize the NPR article, it takes a lot to prove that one song is stealing from another song. For example, they have to prove that the accused had access to the original song and probably listened to it (this is true in the "Stairway" case). In the end, though, song copyright infringement is really a theoretical question. What are the vital part of a song that makes it unique? Certainly melody, harmony, and rhythm. Yet, while rhythm and melody can be more distinct, many songs have similar harmonies. Also, similar types of melodies (such as arpeggiation) or rhythms are used over and over again. Yet despite the technical nature of the question (and the blurred lines between similar and a copy), it is interesting that expert witnesses or judges often don't make the final decisions, but juries.

But what about fair use? Parts of a copyrighted work can be included in a new work as long as the new work is transformative,
meaning that it adds something new, with a different character, expression, meaning or message, or function. Artists recombine little bits of older material all the time. After listening to Spirit’s “Taurus,” I can only pick out one little guitar lick that is really similar—only part of a phrase. There is a striking similarity, yes, and there is an argument that this phrase has a similar aesthetic function, but the portion is so small and the surrounding music so different that I think there is very strong fair use case here.

My favorite part in the article was the last paragraph by Spirit’s lawyer:

"This lawsuit, it's in large part about having to re-educate the public that there was an individual called Randy California, and he was a phenomenal guitarist," Malofiy says. "And part of this is about re-educating the public [about] this relatively unknown song called 'Taurus.'"
First, why is this lawsuit about the public at all? The public doesn't argue the case, but lawyers, judges, juries, and musical experts. I don't think "juries" and "public" are the same thing. Also, now that I’ve been re-educated about “Taurus,” I’m pretty sure that they don’t have a case and that this lawsuit is a shameless money-grab.

Actually, “Stairway to Heaven” is so much more engaging than “Taurus,” I’m just going to put it right here. Notice that by minute 3, when most pop songs are ending (including “Taurus”), “Stairway" is just getting started—and still leaving you wanting to hear more.

If this does turn into a flood of lawsuits, perhaps the saddest thing is that Marvin Gaye’s estate didn’t sue Thicke and Williams—it was the other way around. Thicke and Williams issued a pre-emptive lawsuit, which already sounds guilty. Gaye’s estate would have probably done nothing by themselves. But we already knew from watching the video that these guys are creeps. At least they inspired one of Weird Al’s best songs. Let’s hope a failed “Stairway” suit will dam the possible flow.

Update 6/23/2016
Reason prevails and the jury clears "Stairway to Heaven" of plagiarism: