Author: Elena Christensen

Music On Trial, March 7: Fresh composer beats out film vets for Oscar win

The 86th Academy Awards were held on Sunday, March 2 and, as always, were filled with laughter and tears. Noteworthy moments included Jennifer Lawrence’s second Oscar-worthy fall, John Travolta’s butchering of Idina Menzel’s name, Benedict Cumberbatch’s U2 photobomb and Leonardo DiCaprio’s trek home Oscar-less… again.

The night also included some fantastic music, including performances by the nomninees for Best Original Song, an award that went to “Let It Go” from “Frozen,” written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez and sung in a noteworthy performance by Idina Menzel. “Let It Go” beat out “Happy” from “Despicable Me 2,” “The Moon Song” from “Her” and “Ordinary Love” from “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.”

My favorite category, however, was the award for best original film score. Before I begin discussing the nominees, I must confess that I have not seen any of the films in question. That said, I have listened to the soundtracks on the Internet and read as many articles as I could get my hands on about the composers and their scores. And the nominees are…

“The Book Thief”

Composed by John Williams

No stranger to the Oscars, John Williams has been nominated 49 times for his original scores, songs and adaptations. Williams won five Best Original Score awards for his work on “Schindler’s List,” “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial,” “Star Wars,” “Jaws” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” Williams also composed the scores for the first three Harry Potter movies, all four Indiana Jones films and “Lincoln.”

“Her”

Composed by William Butler and Owen Pallett

Both Butler and Pallett are members of the band Arcade Fire, making the “Her” soundtrack a poignant example of a trend in which pop and rock musicians are entering the film score industry. While “Her” is their first collaborative full-length score, the band is not unfamiliar with making music for film. The group recorded “Abraham’s Daughter” to play over the credits in “The Hunger Games,” and band members Win Butler and Régine Chassagne also played a part in writing the Capitol’s anthem, “The Horn of Plenty,” in the film’s sequel “Catching Fire.”

Philomena”

Composed by Alexandre Desplat

While Alexandre Desplat has not yet taken home an Oscar, he has been nominated in five of the last six ceremonies. His work on “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “The King’s Speech,” “Argo” and now “Philomena” has earned him exceptional praise from his peers. Desplat also composed scores for the final two Harry Potter films, “Moonrise Kingdom” a quirky yet entertaining score that I highly recommend and dozens of French films.

“Saving Mr. Banks”

Composed by Thomas Newman

Nominee for 12 Academy Awards and winner of none, Thomas Newman is the most nominated composer never to have actually taken home an Oscar – think of him as the Leonardo DiCaprio of composers. Despite his failure to actually win any awards, Newman’s name and music are quite well-known. He has composed scores for “Shawshank Redemption,” “American Beauty,” “Finding Nemo,” “Wall-E” and – my personal favorite – “Skyfall.” For those of you familiar with the music of these films, you know that means that Newman has a very broad range of ability. That said, his scores do all have one very important thing in common: passion.

… and the winner: “Gravity”

Composed by Steven Price

Relatively new to the composing game, Steven Price has made quite an early impression. As of now, Price only has three complete film scores out – for “Attack the Block,” “The World’s End” and “Gravity” – with plans to work on “Fury” and “Ant-Man” over the next two years. However, after this Oscar win he will no doubt be a highly-sought-after composer, drawing on experience he gained working as a programmer, arranger, performer and music editor on many prestigious scores including The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and “Batman Begins.”

At the Oscar concert on Feb. 27, Price noted that his score for “Gravity” is driven by Sandra Bullock’s character’s heartbeat.

The moral of the story, gleaned from these five composers’ stories, is four-fold: Awards are not one and done you could win 49, perhaps; there are no hard lines in the music industry only blurred ones; if you don’t succeed, try, try again and again and again and again and again…; and finally, you don’t have to be a seasoned composer to win an Oscar.

christeg@stolaf.edu

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Talented Pharrell Williams deserves a tip of the hat

Winter is a busy time for the entertainment industry. With new movies and albums coming out left and right and awards season kicking off, there is a lot to look at, listen to and write about. Since we left you in December, Miley kicked off her shiny new Bangerz tour, Pete Seeger passed away, J-Biebs caused all kinds of mischief and 115 million people tuned into the Super Bowl halftime performance featuring Bruno Mars and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I imagine you saw most of that, but have you seen the hat Pharrell Williams wore to the Grammys? It caused quite a stir.

Not a stranger to controversy, Williams wears a lot of “hats” in his professional career. A producer, performer and composer, 40-year-old Williams contributes to the music industry in numerous ways, and people are taking notice. With four new miniature gramophones to add to his collection bringing his total number of Grammy awards to seven, as well as a single approaching number one on the Billboard Hot 100, Williams’s name is becoming more and more difficult to ignore in the music business.

Williams’s skyrocketing career caught the public’s eye last summer when his contributions to Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” helped land the titles the number one and two spots respectively on the Billboard Hot 100, making him the first musician since the Black Eyed Peas in 2009 to do so. Since then, his single “Happy” has jumped quickly up the list to number two, competing with Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse,” which has held the title of most popular song in the U.S. for three weeks and counting.

This is not the first time Williams has gained national attention, though his first experience with publicity came as a result of his role in the The Neptunes a production company. His connections with artists such as Kelis, Britney Spears, Nelly, Jay-Z and Daft Punk gave him and Neptunes production partner Chad Hugo the opportunity to produce hits that include Spears’s “I’m A Slave 4 U” and Nelly’s “Hot in Herre.” The duo won their first two Grammys in 2004, one of which was for Producer of the Year, an award Williams won again this year for his solo work.

Today Williams is not only a well-known producer but also a rising artist himself. While Williams has been performing for nearly 15 years, his name and voice have only recently become part of the mainstream media. However, in 2006, Williams released a studio Hip-Hop/Rap album called “In My Mind,” which reached number three on the Billboard 200. If you remember listening to this album, congratulations – you may be a hipster!

Perhaps one of Williams’s most unusual endeavors is that of composer for 2012’s Academy Awards, both “Despicable Me” movies and the upcoming “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.” If you keep up with this column, you know all about the transition of popular artists into film scores if not, take a look back – it’s a trend you will want to be on the lookout for.

So what else is Pharrell Williams up to today? The short answer given my limited space on this page is: a lot. At home, Williams is likely busy enjoying the honeymoon phase of his recent marriage to Helen Lasichanh, the mother of his five-year-old son Rocket Man. At work, he is as busy as ever. Williams just finished his 24-hour music video for “Happy,” the first of its kind, which can be found at 24hoursofhappy.com. His next steps include performing at the Oscars on March 2, where he is nominated for “Best Original Song,” and producing his second studio album, to be released sometime this year. If you just cannot wait that long, Major Lazer will release an EP on Feb. 25 that features Williams on a song called “Aerosol Can.”

So what does this have to do with his hat? To be honest, not much. But the hat is just one more example of Williams’s newfound and ever-growing fame. It even has its own Twitter account: @Pharrellhat. Not only that, but my Twitter search for “pharrell hat” has generated 45 new results since I started writing this article – and I’m just in the “Top” field. That isn’t even close to all of them. So hats off, everyone except you Pharrell, your hat is fabulous, and let us give a nod to one of the fastest-growing musical artists of our time.

christeg@stolaf.edu

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Music on Trial: “Mood” music may influence us more than we realize

In my last installment of Music on Trial, I revealed my undying love for film scores. What I failed to share was the reason why, so here it is: Movie music has more emotion than any other genre except country, perhaps, but that’s not my style, and I love to feel the music I listen to deep down inside. Cheesy, I know.

Or maybe it’s not. Listening to music for emotional reasons is something we all do. Some people listen to “We Can’t Stop” because it pumps them up and makes them happy, while others don’t because Miley Cyrus makes them angry. The idea that music can have an impact on mood is not new. The cool thing is that it is far more than just an idea – there are studies that show the effects music can have on mood. There are therapists who work primarily with music, and there are websites that can help you find music that suits your mood, or the mood you’d like to be in.

In “The Effect of Music-Induced Mood on Aggressive Affect, Cognition, and Behavior,” a 2012 study done at the University of Potsdam, Barbara Krahé and Steffen Bienek exposed subjects to pleasant classical, abrasive hardcore and techno and no music and then evaluated their responses to aggressive situations. Those exposed to classical music reported more positive moods and exhibited less aggressive behavior than those who listened to hardcore and techno. The report also cited a number of other studies with similar findings. While these findings are in a very controlled environment, they suggest an intriguing connection between music and mood.

This method of influencing emotion is something playlist and radio-lovers use every day. The practice of using music to guide feelings is not just for the untrained, casual listener, though: Music intervention is a widely practiced form of therapy, serving not only emotional needs but also cognitive, social and physical needs. Music therapy is not limited to listening, either. Some music therapies involve creating, singing and dancing to music.

At the 1997 Grammy Awards, Michael Greene, the CEO and president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, said, “When we look at the body of evidence that the arts contribute to our society, it’s absolutely astounding. Music therapists are breaking down the walls of silence and affliction of autism, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.” Music therapy has been accomplishing these amazing things for many years now and will likely continue to do so.

Many of us are not looking to cure medical afflictions, but that does not mean that using music to impact mood is any less practical in our lives. According to the American Music Therapy Association website, healthy individuals can create music to relieve stress, listen to music to relax and use music to support physical exercise. In addition, taking time to learn about music and practice musical skills can help improve both communication skills and physical coordination.

You may already have playlist upon playlist of your favorite tunes, but if you would like to find new music that caters to your moods and activities, there are dozens of websites designed for just that purpose. I’m not just talking about Pandora, which is great but can be too specific and repetitive at times. Other websites, such as moodstream.gettyimages.com, stereomood.com, 8tracks.com and musicovery.com, allow you to search for what you are feeling in music form, beyond just artists and genres.

Stereomood and 8tracks are playlist-based, giving you paragraph descriptions and tags that help you decide whether or not a playlist fits your mood. Moodstream and Musicovery are more customizable to your precise mood. They have sliders and graphs allowing you to select the energy and tone you would like to hear as well as how contemporary the songs should be.

So the next time you feel like listening to sleepy, digital, party, driving, chill or any other ‘mood’ of music, try out some new music that accommodates what is inside and let it take your head and heart where you want to be.

christeg@stolaf.edu

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Music on Trial: A world where rock and soundtrack collide

When you think of movie music, you probably first think of big, emotional soundtracks. You think of monumental and memorable movies like “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “The Lion King” and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. If you are interested in film scores, you even think of the names behind them: John Williams “Star Wars” and “Harry Potter”, Hans Zimmer “Inception” and “The Dark Knight” trilogy and Danny Elfman “Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Spider-Man”.

I am obsessed with film music. Anyone who knows me is familiar with my hundred-plus-song “Best of Film Soundtracks” playlist and has seen me lose myself in it multiple times a day. Most of the songs on that list are from sweeping, orchestral soundtracks, written and directed by the composers listed above and others like them. But the future of soundtracks may be changing, and that “most” may become “some” or even just “a few.”

With a 52% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, “Tron: Legacy” may not be the most successful or timely, given the 28-year gap film sequel ever produced. The soundtrack, on the other hand, received more positive reviews and even won the award for “Best Original Score for a Fantasy/Science Fiction/Horror Film” from the International Film Music Critics Association. On their list of the 50 coolest movie soundtracks, ShortList said of the album, “It might not have been full of dance floor slayers, but it certainly displayed a wondrous versatility to [Daft Punk]. One that should see them score soundtracks for years to come.” Yep, if you didn’t know, “Tron: Legacy” was scored by the famous electronic duo, Daft Punk, and as far as I’m concerned, they did a spectacular job – at least enough to earn a few spots on my prized list of movie music favorites.

This trend of pop and rock artists scoring movies is not entirely new think Cat Stevens for “Harold and Maude”, but it is picking up. Just last week, Pharrell Williams and a conglomeration of rockers were commissioned to help Hans Zimmer compose and produce the soundtrack for “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” – a significant deviation from the soundtrack for the first movie, scored alone by James Horner “Titanic” and “Avatar”.

For those thinking “Blurred Lines” and cringing, allow me put your mind at ease. While much of Pharrell Williams’ music is more along the lines of pop and hip-hop, he has been steadily and successfully easing into the cinematic music world in his work on “Despicable Me” and the 84th Academy Awards, both collaborations with Hans Zimmer.

And therein lies my point: musicians from pop, rock, dance, hip-hop and other genres are making substantial contributions to the world of film music, and there is a chance that this is the start of a new trend in composing.

Other examples of mainstream musicians going film-ward include:

-“The Social Network”: scored by Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor.

-“Requiem for a Dream”: Composer Clint Mansell was previously the guitarist, composer and lead singer for an alt-rock band in the 80s and 90s.

-“The Royal Tenenbaums”: scored by Mark Mothersbaugh, who co-founded the cult-classic New Wave group Devo.

-“The Princess Bride”: Mark Knopfler, the lead guitarist and singer of Dire Straights, wrote the score for this cult-classic.

Is there evidence that the trend will persist and flourish? Well, it isn’t as though it hasn’t been happening for some time, but with technology making production much easier and film music gaining so much attention, chances are that more and more popular music artists will consider making the leap to “scoring” over “writing.” At the very least, I believe we can expect to see a few more musicians dabbling in musical fields that are outside of their usual expertise.

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Music on Trial: relive these classics from middle school

There are many things I’ve forgotten about my public school years. I don’t remember all the presidents of the United States. I don’t remember all the fights I had with my friends, and I don’t remember all the lines from my first solo in choir.

What I do remember, for better or for worse, is most of what was playing on the radio at the time. I can’t imagine I’m alone in defining much of my teenage years by popular music of the time. Since the majority of us hit middle school or junior high around the same time, here are some of Billboard’s memory-inducing Hot 100 number one hits from 2003-2009.

“Yeah!” by Usher feat. Lil Jon & Ludacris

#1 for 12 weeks starting in February 2004

This song birthed the genre “crunk&B,” coined by producer and writer Lil Jon. Usher sure knows how to bring in the ladies, and I’m sure we came running when this song was inevitably played at our junior high dances.

“Candy Shop” by 50 Cent feat. Olivia

#1 for nine weeks starting in January 2005

And so hardcore grinding was born. “I attempted to be as sexual as possible, from a male perspective, without being vulgar or obscene,” 50 Cent said of the song, and I daresay he succeeded. Apparently, sex was on the brain worldwide, as this song topped the charts in a half-dozen countries.

“Hollaback Girl” by Gwen Stefani

#1 for four weeks starting in May 2005

Not only was this song catchy, but it also taught students everywhere how to spell “bananas.” Those who were radio listeners may remember the 38 occurrences of cut swear words in the clean version. It takes a lot of dedication to write the same swear word into a three and a half minute song 38 times.

“SexyBack” by Justin Timberlake

#1 for seven weeks starting in Sept. 2006

This song put Justin Timberlake on the map for good. It was his first Billboard Hot #1 without the ‘N Sync boys, and it also earned him Best Dance Recording at the 2007 Grammy Awards and Male Artist of the Year at the People’s Choice Awards.

“Crank That Soulja Boy” by Soulja Boy Tell’em

#1 for seven weeks starting in Sept. 2007

It’s almost impossible to swing both arms to one side without someone breaking into “YOU!” This song was the first ever to sell three million digital copies, now up to five million six years later. Impressive, but to put it into perspective, “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke sold over five million copies in its first six months alone.

“I Gotta Feeling” by the Black Eyed Peas

#1 for 14 weeks starting in July 2009

Currently holding the title of best-selling digital single ever, this song is, for many of our generation, a classic. It’s what we blast at parties, when we work out and pretty much any other time. This song took the #1 spot on the Hot 100 from BEP’s “Boom Boom Pow.”

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