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.

history TV Uncategorized

Spoiling The Civil War for my wife

Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary boasts a beautiful, nineteenth-century-inspired soundtrack. One particular piece, “Ashokan Farewell,” serves as the miniseries’ de facto theme song. It’s gorgeous: a plaintive string band ballad with a a heartbreaking melody.

I’ve spoiled this song for my wife.

Every time we hear “Ashokan”, I provide an impromptu voiceover, modeled on many we hear in The Civil War. Typically, I pretend to be a lonely soldier, writing home to his sweetheart on the eve of battle. You know; a letter so sickly sweet it makes you gag? Something like this:

My dearest Clementine,

It has been now three score weeks since I have seen your lovely face. And now, on the brink of this terrible battle, I cannot help but wonder whether I have looked upon it for the last time in this life.

Now, do not mistake me, my dearest friend. I do not fear battle, nor do I fear death. Indeed, what is there to fear, but this one thing: that you will mourn me all your days and go to the grave a childless widow? Nothing fills me with more dread. Should I fall tomorrow, then, Clementine, you must spare me this awful sorrow. You must promise to love another, bear him many children, and live a full and happy life.

Know that I have loved you, do love you dearly, and will love you, for all time, Jebediah Jackson, Fifth Maine Infantry division

(Imagine me reading this with some awful, unidentifiable nineteenth-century accent.) My wife rolls her eyes. But I think, secretly, deep down, she eats it up.

music sports TV Uncategorized

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.