thoughts on music, design and literature

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Issues In Recording Orchestral Strings

One of the decisions that I've been struggling with in the past week is what size string section to use at Abbey Road. My two main options are:

A) 16 1st violins, 14 2nd violins, 12 violas, 10 cellos, 8 basses
B) 14 1st violins, 12 2nd violins, 10 violas, 8 cellos, 6 basses

The only difference between the two is that the A size has an extra 2 players per section, or in other words, is 60 players instead of 50.

The tradeoff is that you get a larger, fuller sound when you add those extra 10 players--however, you also lose a little bit of definition and nimbleness. The larger string section definitely will sound fuller, and lends itself well to bombastic held out chords (Lord Of The Rings was recorded with that lineup)--however, when you get into faster, intricate passages, of which there are a few in my album, you lose a bit of the clarity of the attacks.

There's a secondary consideration; Abbey Road is a rectangularly shaped studio, and when you have a 60 piece string orchestra, it becomes too wide to fit in a portrait-style configuration, and you have to reorient 90 degrees and lay out your orchestra landscape-style. When that happens, because the back wall is a lot closer, you lose a little bit of fullness to the sound. (When you situate an orchestra portrait-style, you have a lot of empty, reverberant space behind you that allows the sound to fill out before coming back at the microphones.)

So, 60 strings would give me thicker string sound, less articulation, less fullness from the natural acoustics of Abbey Road.

And 50 strings would give me slightly less thick string sound, more articulation, and more fullness from the natural acoustics.

Dilemmas, dilemmas.


Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Reinventing The Japanese Kokeshi Doll

I was never one to play with dolls, but these little things have been coming up a lot, recently, so I figured it was worth blogging about.

Kokeshi dolls are simple, wooden dolls that date back to 1830s Japan. They were carved out of a single piece of wood, given an elongated shape with exaggerated head and no arms or legs, and painted with various faces and outfits.
Well, gamers out there will notice some similarities between the Kokeshi and the Mii avatars that one creates for the Nintendo Wii. That's because it was revealed by legendary game designer Shigeru Miyamoto (Mario, Zelda, etc.) at last year's Game Developers Conference that the Kokeshi were indeed the inspiration for these customized avatars. Here's the Mii of yours truly.

Coming up this weekend, however, is a very cool modern reinvention of this cultural tradition. Subtext, a gallery in San Diego, has invited 75 contemporary artists to reinterpret the Kokeshi doll. Among them are some of my favorites: there's Audrey Kawasaki, whom I've mentioned before in this blog. There's also Brandi Milne, a similarly art-nouveau-inspired illustrator and artist, whose captivating style blends a lot of the Asian fantasy elements that I love, with a touch of the 70s psychedelia I grew up with (definitely worth checking her out). And there's also Julie West, whom I hadn't heard of until I found out about this show, but whose works evoke in me a sort of cartoon-nostalgia that I can't quite place--I look forward to learning more about her.

Alas, if I lived in San Diego (and if I weren't under so much pressure to finish my album these days!) I would be there in a heartbeat.

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Saturday, October 27, 2007

John Kurlander Creates The First Ever Hidden Track

This past week I've been having a lot of conversations with John Kurlander, three-time Grammy-winning audio engineer (for his work on The Lord Of The Rings trilogy), former head classical engineer at EMI, and soon-to-be recording engineer on Calling All Dawns. :)
Since I'll be recording the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at Abbey Road in a month and a half, John was the ideal choice to do the recording. Not only was he head engineer at Abbey Road for a good part of his 40 year career, but he's also recorded the Royal Phil many, many times--in fact, one project that he helped produce, an embarassing 70s classical-meets-disco album called 'Hooked On Classics,' brought the RPO back from impending financial crisis by selling 11 million copies. That's right. 11 MILLION COPIES.
He's got some great stories, since he's worked with everyone imaginable...but his best story comes from the very beginning of his career, when he was second engineer on none other than the original Beatles album 'Abbey Road.' Beatlemaniacs out there already know that the last track on 'Abbey Road,' a little :30 second number called 'Her Majesty,' is the first ever example of a hidden track. Indeed, it comes 14 seconds after the end of the side two medley that starts with 'You Never Give Me Your Money' and ends with 'The End'.

Well, originally 'Her Majesty' was wedged right in the middle of the medley; between 'Mean Mr. Mustard' and 'Polythene Pam.' But one night Paul comes in and listens to a rough mix of the whole medley, and decides that he doesn't like 'Her Majesty.' He tells John to toss it out--but according to EMI policy, John is instructed to save instead of tossing it, he snips it out, and tapes 14 seconds of blank leader after the end of the medley, and sticks it on the end with a note saying that it's a rejected track, and to ignore it.

However, someone didn't get the memo, and the whole medley--blank leader with rejected song and all--got sent over to EMI. Everyone over there got so used to hearing this little :30 second tag at the end of the medley, that they just decided to keep it there--14 seconds of silence and everything. When the album got printed, the initial pressing neglected to include 'Her Majesty' on the back--and so, the first ever hidden track was born.

And if you listen closely to track, you'll notice that it starts and ends rather oddly....that's because the crude edit done by John (those days you literally spliced the tape with a razor) included the last chord of 'Mean Mr. Mustard' at the very beginning of the song, and the last chord was removed, as it fell underneath the first chord of 'Polythene Pam.'

Good story, right?

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

Ray And Charles Eames: Powers Of Ten

My favorite furniture designers by far are Ray and Charles Eames. Back in the 50s, in addition to revolutionizing the use of molded plywood in furniture, they made a few eye-popping films high-concept films, including this classic, Powers Of Ten. Go ahead--be a high-school science geek all over again.

The score was written by none other than Elmer Bernstein (no relation to Leonard).

In other news, the pressure's on here for my album! I'm meeting with my conductor in a few weeks: Maestro Lucas Richman, director of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, former pupil of Leonard Bernstein and former teacher of none other than yours truly. I have to have the scores for the recording session ready by then. Yikes!


Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Mika Nakashima: Love Addict

I absolutely love this song. It's from a Japanese pop singer named Mika Nakashima--her music runs the stylistic gamut, from dance/club hits to retro 70's-tinged ballads. My personal favorite, though, is the song 'Love Addict.' It's a great jazz number with a rocking hemiola section at 2:21 (that's music-speak for when you have a three-against-two rhythm).

The instrumental at the end is great--trumpet and tenor sax twisting and turning in octaves, with high violins soaring above. Matter of fact, I absolutely love this chart on the whole; great counterpoint, great string writing...whoever did this is brilliant.

(Jazz purists might say that they've heard better charts....and I wouldn't necessarily disagree. I'll be blogging about a genius-friend of mine, Billy Childs, later on...)

I still say, though, that in the context of a bubble-gum J-Pop singer doing a crossover, this track absolutely sizzles.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

I've Been Covered!

You know you've made it when the crazy novelty covers of your music start popping up!

Check out this version of Baba Yetu, created by a podcaster named Matt LaGoy , who comes with the tagline "Progressive Banjo For The Postmodern World."

I absolutely LOVE it. It's so wacky, and zany, and madcap....yet works so well. Every eight bars he launches into a new groove; ska, funk, samba...he's all over the place. I totally approve.

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Saturday, October 20, 2007

Video Games Live, Nokia Theatre LA Live

Last night was another Video Games Live show--this time at the brand new 7000+ seat arena in downtown LA, the Nokia Theatre. My Civilization IV music was performed once more, and I was finally able to attend again. (Many recent and near future performances are in faraway cities: Rio De Janeiro, Buffalo, Sao Paulo, and London....and I REALLY wish I could attend the London concert, as it's being played at the Royal Festival Hall with members of the Philharmonia orchestra.)

After the concert we did our usual bit of signing autographs for several hours. In this picture I'm sitting between Will Littlejohn (Guitar Hero) and Steven Harwood (Brothers In Arms). I always really enjoy these Meet-And-Greets--it's nice to talk to young music fans, and often their parents as well. (Rather amusingly, my music seems to be quite popular among the mothers that get dragged to these concerts by their kids.)

(Oh, and seeing this picture makes me realize that it's time for a haircut.)


Name That Tune

I'm still exhausted from my Galapagos vacation, so today's going to be a bit of an odd post.....but I just came across a YouTube video of some hockey fights that was cut to some music that I LOVE....and I have no idea what it is.

Can anyone identify this? Is it music from Rocky?

I love 70's style rock arrangements.....with the high strings and brass playing counterpoint. Totally dig that.

PS: By the way, I'm a huge hockey fan, in case any of you are wondering how I came across this.


Wednesday, October 3, 2007

"Haikus Are Easy...."

Recently spotted on a t-shirt:

Haikus are easy
But sometimes they don't make sense

I find this brilliantly, brilliantly funny. And I thought I'd mention it as an intro to a topic that I've been researching recently: haiku.

We all know haiku to be these efficient little poems with a rigid structure of three lines in 5, 7, and 5 syllables. And we all intuitively understand the form to be a reflection of the greater Japanese aesthetic: simple, clean, and unassuming.

But the beauty of the haiku is that it manages to convey great power in just a few choice words (and often even greater power in the silences between those words--i.e. 'ma,' the Japanese concept of space and interval.) And one thing that Westerners may not understand is that for the most part, traditional haiku are all based on seasons. In fact, haikus often have a kigo, or a 'season-word,' that immediately signifies what the season is. For example, Hattori Ransetsu's famous haiku:

ume ichirin
ichirin hodo no

The translation is:

one plum blossom
brings us just one more
step to the warmth

In this case, the kigo is the word 'ume,' which means 'plum blossom.' Like with the much-celebrated cherry blossom ('sakura'), the sight of a plum blossom on a tree was one of the first signifiers of the coming of spring. And so an informed reader would instantly know what season Mr. Hattori was writing about.

Japanese poetry is full of these seasonal words. A sampling:

tsuki (moon): autumn, because of the long nights
hototogisu (cuckoo): summer, when the cuckoo is most often spotted
yuki (snow): winter, for obvious reasons

It's actually quite a wonderful convey that much meaning with such modest means. Really admirable.

This will be my last post for a couple weeks....I'll be exploring the Galapagos Islands, taking a little break and doing a little world-exploring. It's good for gaining perspective on life.