Careful Tech 106: Keeping your Spotify recommendations pure

movies music

Priming your ears

John Williams’ Force Awakens soundtrack dropped on Spotify last night. I’m listening to it as I type—even though I haven’t yet seen the movie.

Does hearing the soundtrack count as a spoiler? It depends who you ask. For me, the music, disconnected from imagery and dialogue, gives away little about a movie’s plot. Yes, track titles can be dangerous, but composers have grown more cautious since the “Qui-Gon’s Funeral” debacle of Episode I.

So, no, soundtracks typically won’t spoil movies.[1] In fact, pre-hearing the score enhances the initial viewing experience. After all, it’s hard to appreciate instrumental music the first time through. Unfamiliarity holds you at arm’s length from the drama. Your subconscious brain whirs away, dissecting the new music instead of enjoying it.

With “primed ears”, you more easily link leitmotifs to character beats. Melodies hook your heart in a way they can’t the first time around. You hear the tension rising; you can feel the plot revelations as they land.

So… what’s my verdict on the Force Awakens soundtrack? It was fun to hear Williams rearrange the classic trilogy’s themes. But, if I’m honest, none of the new music really captured my imagination.

I blame my virgin ears. The next time I hear these melodies—in a darkened theater, popcorn at hand—I’ll be ready to really listen.

  1. A caveat here: you can be too familiar with a soundtrack. I know many John Williams scores (e.g. Raiders of the Lost Ark) by heart—measure by measure, modulation by modulation. I could tell you the exact moment when the hero’s theme gives way to the villain’s sinister melody. That knowledge would spoil a movie (if you hadn’t already seen it).  ↩
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‘The hero of a generation’

Michael Giacchino composed the soundtracks for Up, Jurassic World, and Star Trek, among many others. Here, he writes about his admiration for John Williams, who has written the most recognizable movie music of the past forty years:

I was 10 years old in 1977 when I ran down the steps on Christmas morning to find the double album LP of Star Wars waiting for me. ….

On the verge of another Christmas, 38 years after that first Star Wars album debuted, I am privileged to still call John [Williams] a friend, and I couldn’t be happier to see my other friend, J.J. Abrams, get the opportunity to work with not just my hero — but the hero of a generation of filmmakers and composers.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that John Williams scored my youth. As a twelve-year-old, I nearly wore out the cassette albums for Jurassic Park and The Last Crusade. (Yes, I was a weird kid.) Even now, his scores comprise the core of my music library. Rarely does a day go by in which I don’t queue up a Williams track while I work.

On the list the Hollywood composers not named “Williams,” Michael Giacchino ranks high for me. He shares his mentor’s remarkable knack for inventing memorable melodies. But while I love his scores (LOST and Star Trek are particular favorites), I’m more impressed by the way he unabashedly adores his industry’s elder statesman. Giacchino seems to appreciate the extent to which Williams redefined an entire genre.

As the Star Wars composer approaches his eight-fourth birthday, I’m painfully conscious of the fact that he won’t be around forever. There’ll be a day after which we’ll never hear a new Williams theme.

For now, though, I’m grateful that John Williams continues his work unabated and undiminished. I’m nearly as excited to hear his Force Awakens score as I am to see the movie itself.

EDIT: Variety recently interviewed John Williams about his forthcoming ‘Force Awakens’ soundtrack.

Life music Uncategorized

The best work soundtrack? Soundtracks.

Turns out, Snow White knew her stuff:

Great music makes even the dreariest work more bearable. For manual labor, anything catchy can do the trick. But what about knowledge work? Lyrics make it impossible to concentrate on word-heavy tasks like triaging email or writing documentation. That rules out pop music—whether new or oldie—during the workday.

Classical is an obvious alternative. But my brain prefers catchy, simple melodies; it rebels against dense, unfamiliar art music. Baroque pieces entangle the lead line in fugal counterpoint. Modern avant garde pieces eschew melody altogether. Early romantic music—Beethoven or Schumann, say—fits the bill, but if you don’t know the composition already, it’s hard to appreciate.

Fortunately, there’s another option; movie soundtracks are the perfect work accompaniment. Unlike pop, soundtracks don’t hijack your attention with lyrics. And unlike classical, soundtracks rarely deviate from straightforward arrangements. Each track boasts simple orchestrations that build to a suitably inspirational climax. That’s exactly what I need to keep plodding along.

Alas, many soundtracks are so simple that they grow stale after a few listens. If classical music rewards careful attention, soundtracks punish repetition. Braveheart’s theme loses its thrill when it’s left on repeat. I need variety, which my meager music library can’t provide.

Streaming services help. After all, Spotify and Pandora offer a vast catalog of film scores. Unfortunately, these services don’t make it easy to consume soundtracks. Their recommendation engines, geared to deliver top 40 hits, surface the same orchestral albums again and again. Don’t get me wrong; I love John Williams, but I can only take the Star Wars soundtrack so many times. Another issue with streaming radio? They don’t always play the “real” rendition. Too often, a gross, synthesized adaptation replaces the lush original.

Hopefully, Spotify will make their service more friendly to soundtrack fans. For example, excise the fake imitations, especially when the original is already included in your catalog. Another request? Implement a “new music mode”—in which anything I’ve ever heard before gets skipped, automatically. That would keep my soundtrack playlist fresh and inspirational—and keep me dutifully plugging away until Friday at 5 PM.

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Garfunkel goes rogue.

Will I do another tour with Paul? Well, that’s quite do-able. When we get together, with his guitar, it’s a delight to both of our ears. A little bubble comes over us and it seems effortless. We blend. So, as far as this half is concerned, I would say, ‘Why not, while we’re still alive?’ But I’ve been in that same place for decades. This is where I was in 1971. How can you walk away from this lucky place on top of the world, Paul? What’s going on with you, you idiot? How could you let that go, jerk?

Art Garfunkel, speaking to Nigel Farndale of The Telegraph.

Simon & Garfunkel is the break-up that keeps on breaking, forty-five years later. The duo first parted ways in 1970, but they’ve fallen out repeatedly over the decades. Again and again, the pair split to pursue solo projects. Garfunkel labors in Simon’s shadow for a while, until his partner deigns to share the spotlight again.

The real problem for Garfunkel, of course, was also his smartest move: he hitched his cart to one of America’s most talented songwriters. That was a boon to their 60s partnership, but Simon inevitably outgrew their folk-duo schtick. He established a fruitful solo career, then produced Graceland, arguably the best album of the 1980s.

Apart from Simon, meanwhile, Garfunkel had little to offer besides his airy tenor. The quotation above, recorded earlier this month, smacks of envy and insecurity.

On the other hand… maybe that underestimates Garfunkel’s savvy. Is it possible that he intentionally exaggerated his antipathy towards his former partner? As Paul Simon once admitted, “To a degree, [our hostility] is a setup. When groups break up people always assume they break up in bitterness. So we play on the comic possibilities.”

Is there any chance that Garfunkel hoped that the press would print “Paul Simon is an idiot” headlines (as they have)? That this is some elaborate scheme to drum up attention for yet another long-awaited reunion? The two haven’t performed together since 2010, when vocal paresis sidelined Garfunkel indefinitely. Maybe this is the precursor to one “last” set of tour dates, now that he’s recovered. A little rancor, followed by one last chummy reconciliation, would sell more tickets.

Occam’s Razor suggests that Artie’s just bitter. And he’s definitely waxed ungrateful before. Consider his Rolling Stone interview back in 2014:

It takes two to tango. I don’t want to be the blushing bride waiting for Paul Simon to walk down the aisle. … I know that audiences all over the world like Simon and Garfunkel. I’m with them. But I don’t think Paul Simon’s with them. … It’s an ingrown, deep friendship. Yes, there is deep love in there. But there’s also shit.

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A cappella covers are awful.

I hate a cappella music.

Well, that’s overstating it. I hate a cappella covers of band-driven songs.[1]

So… a cappella groups: stop ruining our favorite songs. Stick to music written for your genre.

  1. For what it’s worth, I’ve sung in several a cappella groups (some decent, some terrible). I’ve never met an a cappella arrangement that did the original justice.  ↩

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Bugler’s Nightmare

It’s high drama in concert band form. Brutish, martial timpani pound out a perfect fourth. A reckless cymbal crashes. Chimes toll out the measures. And then, with almost dizzying pomp, the brass enters and exults.

No, it’s not the official Olympics theme music; some lame hymn claims that title. But (at least in the American imagination) “Bugler’s Dream” is the Olympic soundtrack. That’s all the more impressive when you consider that Léo Arnaud didn’t compose the piece ‘til 1958. And “Dream” didn’t show up in an Olympics broadcast until ten years after that. Think of it: seventy-odd years without “Bugler’s Dream”! One wonders how the tournament survived those dark decades, its listless, “Dream”-less athletes too depressed to compete.

So maybe I should be grateful that NBC included the piece at all in their February broadcasts. After all, they haven’t always played “Bugler’s Dream” for the Winter Olympics; too often, it was reserved exclusively for the Summer Games. But, no, they used it, ad nauseum—or at least a rearrangement of the piece by John Williams (of Star Wars fame). Yes, we got “Bugler’s Dream.”

But we didn’t get all of it. Here’s the opening page from the classic score:


That last line is the timpani part; the pic’s resolution is low, but you should be able to count two measures of timpani intro before the brass bombasts. Now, here’s the opening montage from NBC’s nightly Olympics broadcasts for comparison:

Great, right? The clip starts late, but NBC clearly includes both measures of timpani.

Unfortunately (and here’s the key point), this was rare during NBC’s 2010 Olympics coverage. More often than not, when NBC played Arnaud’s “Dream,” they cut out a whole measure of the timpanic intro. We were given just five notes to prepare for the brass blast-off. In other words, NBC forced me to revel too early. I need both measures to gird my loins for the full orchestra’s triumphant entry. The solo timpani, simple and spare, provides the contrast that makes the trumpet smack-down so breathtaking in the first place! Chop out a full measure, and you’re left with a dull dramatic hiccup.  Why would NBC do this? Why short-circuit their own spectacle?

Why else? Making room for commercials, baby. More often than not, “Bugler’s Dream” served as the soundtrack for a tightly-edited roll of corporate sponsors. With their broadcast costs spiraling out of control, NBC sacrificed sports showmanship for sports sponsorship. No time for drama! No time for the majesty of sport! We have a Visa logo to display! We have a Samsung slogan to spout! We have a semi-sacrosanct Olympic symbol to desecrate!

UPDATE: Here’s what I’m talking about. Listen for the single measure of timpani going into the commercial break.