Archive for the ‘music’ Category

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Film review: “Interstellar”

November 19, 2014

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke

This quote applies, of course, to any number of science fiction films over the last fifty years. But I’ve seen so many reactions on the interweebs to this movie that seemed to be so wrong headed that I wonder if maybe there are several different versions of the movie out there, and I happened to see the one that actually used an extrapolation of science.

Physicist Kip Thorne and producer Lynda Obst started out, much like Kubrick and Clarke, to make a real science fiction movie that was based on fact, or at least logical extrapolations of what we know right now. After a bit, they attracted Steve Spielberg, who in turn suggested Jonathan Nolan to work with them on a screenplay. Ultimately Spielberg had to leave the project, and eventually Nolan got the script to his director brother Christopher Nolan. After some legal wrangling between Paramount and Warner Brothers, the film finally got started. Thorne had many discussions with the Nolans, the effects team, and cast members as the film progressed. For many members of the audience, it probably would not have been necessary to go this far – audiences today will suspend their disbelief for a lot of nonsensical pseudo-science. But the fact they did makes it that much richer for me, and hopefully for a lot of other folks as well. Thorne even wrote a book elaborating on the process, called The Science of Interstellar. I recommend it; not only does it give a good overview of the science used as a basis for the movie, but it also demonstrates how much hard work goes on behind the scenes in a film, sometimes for decades before the film comes out.

Let me say at the outset that I enjoyed the film a great deal. It’s long, at over 2 hours and 45 minutes, and early on it seems a little slow. However, I think that’s just the way I perceive it after all the cgi-laden action/adventure films that have come out over the past decade. This movie doesn’t start with a bang and then just keeps running along. It takes the time to build the relationships in Coop’s (Matthew McConaughey) family for us. However, it seems to take a much shorter time for Coop to be sold on the idea of what probably will be a one-way trip through the wormhole. But then, Michael Caine can be very persuasive, of course!

If you want a recap of the plot, you can always go here. Rather than that, I’d like to reflect on the main theme of the movie, which is, to me, “we can save ourselves with a little bit of time travel, just not the time travel you think.”

Nobody physically goes back in time. (In fact, Thorne is one of scientists best known for explaining why we won’t be able to do that.) However, that doesn’t mean that information can’t be sent back, in one way or another. All you need is a civilization sufficiently advanced to give a father a way to send some information to his daughter – if the father is in the right place, and if the daughter is the right daughter.

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD! I’ve read that some folks who have seen the movie took the bit of speculation about the nature of love as being a tangible, physical force that transcends time and space – presented by Anne Hathaway’s character – and ran with it. Sorry, y’all; you weren’t paying attention later on. It is made abundantly clear that the lines in the dust in Murph’s room were created by artificially-created gravity waves. No “Power of Love” here. I can understand some of the confusion, though: gravity is just as difficult to perceive, and no more easily controlled, at least by us. But not by the post-humans. (That’s what I call ’em. For a long time we are sort of led to believe they are some kind of super-beings just doing us a favor so we don’t die off. Coop makes the mental leap that they are our descendants, greatly evolved.) We never see them, and we only really see one effect of their presence. The “time lattice” Coop uses to communicate with Murph is apparently constructed by the post-humans only for that purpose, so he can give her the information she needs for a breakthrough that allows humanity to finally leave Earth, and apparently just in time.

In a way, this is the “transparent aluminum” storyline: In Star Trek IV, Scotty needs “transparent aluminum” to construct a tank for the whales. He gives the formula to a 20th century chemist/engineer so that he can create what Scotty needs. When asked by Dr. McCoy if this was messing with the timeline, Mr. Scott replies, “How do you know he didn’t invent the thing?”

I suppose transparent aluminum isn’t as big a thing in the 24th century as radio is for us. (Although if asked, most people would identify the inventor of radio as Marconi, if they had any idea at all. Grrr. Tesla, folks, Tesla. Look it up.) Still, Scotty wasn’t worried by bootstrapping materials science and creating the classic causality loop.

To make sure that humanity doesn’t die out by being stranded on Earth, the post-humans leave messages for Murph that subtly suggest to Coop that his trip through the wormhole might not be the sheer folly it seems. Therefore, he goes, lots of crazy stuff happens, and he in desperation makes the dive through the black hole’s event horizon. There they have set up the commo lattice – referred to in the film as a tesseract – for him to use to provide signals to Murph at various times of her life, including those that influenced him in deciding to go in the first place. He also can send the data the older version of Murph needs to make the breakthrough in mastering gravity so that we can get off this rock. He does this by manipulating the second hand on a watch through gravitational effects, sending a lot of data collected from inside the event horizon. It seems to take him only a short time to do this, but as we know, time inside a black hole’s event horizon is different from outside it.

So at the end of it all, no aliens – but something that started out as humanity has to help get its ancestors off the planet, or they won’t exist, and they placed the wormhole in orbit around Saturn just for that purpose. Seems like a long shot, but if they had the history of what had happened at that time, all they had to do is make sure the history had a little help to play out correctly.

Those of you who are believers in the “Many Universes” hypothesis probably won’t buy into this as much. In another universe, no wormhole; in yet another, no Coop to save them, etc. If that interpretation could be brought into the plot, the tesseract would have shown Murph in her room in many, many more versions of the situations that first and last provided communication with her. But the film stays firmly rooted in a traditional causality.

It’s not a new idea, but it certainly is played out in a refreshing fashion. I was happy to see a plot that took that much of the audience’s attention to follow in a big mainstream movie.

There are the nitpicks. First, Coop’s training sucks. They pretty much throw him into the ship with three other people, and away they go. That is necessary so that he can be the space cowboy he needs to be, flying the Ranger by hand at several key points in the movie.

Questions have been raised about the Ranger. Why did it need a big chemical-powered, multistage booster to get off Earth, yet takes off and lands under its own power on several other planets, including one with a surface gravity of 1.3 G? I have a possible answer, though it isn’t covered in the movie: antimatter.

The ships are a combination of tech we have now (Rangers are covered with shuttle-like protective tiles, for example) and very high tech (robots with advanced AI.) We know that making antimatter, at least the way we know we can do it right now, is very slow, requires very large equipment, and is very power-hungry. Maybe the Ranger could have taken off on its own, but say it uses 25% of its available fuel to do so. No more fuel after that. Let’s save some by using a sort of pseudo Saturn V that we had laying around. We may have fueled it with the last antimatter we could produce.

The Ranger has little room for fuel stores, so fuel has to be something very energetic, like antimatter, but it can’t take up a lot of space. Maybe a couple of tanks of reaction mass to interact with the antimatter can be squeezed in. Hydrogen is the best choice if the antimatter is really anti hydrogen, but it isn’t very dense so the tanks have to be insulated like crazy and be larger than LOX or H2O tanks would be.

The other nitpick is tidal effects. On the first planet the explorers are confronted with a tidal wave 4000 feet tall. The planet is too close to the black hole – close enough that time slows down a lot, and tidal effects on the ocean are enormous. The same tidal effects should affect everything on the planet, so it eventually will be torn apart. That to me means it isn’t a good candidate for a new home for mankind.

Also, apparently the light from the black hole (huh?) is bright enough to provide light bright as day – at least, a cloudy day in Iceland. Where is that light coming from, really? You would need it to grow crops. None of these planets sounds particularly pleasant or survivable in the long term!

My major gripe about the film is the score. Hans Zimmer was apparently asked by Christopher Nolan to do something unique. He’s done that if unique means boring, loud and simplistic. Sometimes it was so loud it covered important dialog. The score lent more of a feeling of slowness to the movie as it slogged along, repeating the same phrases over and over again. Did Zimmer listen to too much Philip Glass? I would have thought a score like Alan Silvestri’s for The Abyss would have been appropriate, instead. I think this movie would have been a complete knockout, Oscar-worthy, if the score wasn’t so annoying and boring.

Nolan likes using IMAX cameras, he likes using real film over digital recording, and he likes using practical EFX over CGI when possible. All are great, but remember, far more viewings of this movie will be on TV screens than in the theater. Until we all have our 85 inch 4K HDTVs that extra quality won’t be noticed…but a bad score will be.

In summary, I was pleasantly surprised. It’s not the landmark film some people have said it is, but it’s very good, and I highly recommend it to you.

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Where I’ve been.

June 10, 2014

Mostly here, sitting in front of the computer, or outside, cleaning out the garage – a major project. It’s marching band arranging season, and my clients, like the springtime, are a little late in blooming this year, so I’m still writing. I should be finished pretty soon.

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Wayne Markworth on marching band show planning

April 21, 2014

My friend Wayne Markworth, retired band director from Centerville HS (OH) and a member of the BOA Hall of Fame, recently updated his web site, Shadow Lake Music. He also has an attached blog and on it he talks about marching band show planning. If you are engaged in such a process right now, you will certainly want to check it out. His book, The Dynamic Marching Band, is also excellent, and I recommend it to you very highly.

Oh, and some guy I know wrote this book on marching band arranging you might want to take a look at, as well. Even if you don’t arrange, there is a lot there about show planning and what to tell your arranger. If you buy stock charts for your show, you may want to review the book anyway so that you can choose wisely.

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Don’t be that guy.

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My arranging book is now available!

March 4, 2014

Arranging book 2.2.14 cover

I know, I’ve been teasing it for months, but it really is out now! It’s available as a pdf ebook from Marketing Vision Partners for $ 30. I invite you to go take a look! Here’s the Table of Contents page:

Arranging book TOC

While I don’t think anything I put in the book is exactly controversial, I have included quite a bit of material that is based on my years of writing, judging, and working as a band director. One of my goals of the book was to help young band directors not make some of the mistakes I made, or that I have seen others make…hence the “Band Director’s Guide” part of the title. You don’t need to be a working band director to find value in the book, but if you are a marching band director, you will – even if you never plan to arrange a piece of music yourself.

There is an accompanying web page on my publishing site for owners of the book. I hope to expand the materials on this page in the near future so that it can be a resource for those interested in the art and practice of arranging for the marching band.

It took me about three years to write this, off and on, and I think now it has information you will find useful. I hope you enjoy the book!

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Few posts over the next few weeks

February 28, 2013

Sorry, campers, I know you hang onto my every word. Family medical issues will keep me away most of the time until about May 1. I know you can hang on that long without my observations!

I really recommend that you check out Jerry Pournelle, at www.jerrypournelle.com. I think he’s the original blogger, and his commentary and that of his readers covers science, science fiction, politics, music, health care, education…a very wide range of topics. He is a very wise man and a kickass hard science fiction writer. In fact, he and Larry Niven owned most of the hard science fiction real estate for about 20 years, and both are still writing, together and separately!

See you around the intertubes. Keep your heads down.

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Avengers – Ensemble!

February 1, 2013

Avengers ENsembleToo good to not post…Thanks to Ren for passing it on. Are those cats or something in the cello section? And…HULK PLAY BASS!

 

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For all my Chicago-area friends…the return of the Rob Parton Big Band!

July 29, 2012

 

My friend Rob Parton, who fronted the best big band in Chicago for years and years, moved to Columbus, Ohio, last year. He teaches at Capital University now. His move meant the Rob Parton Big Band no longer performed regularly. In fact, the last time I was there was when my high school band performed with them at FitzGerald’s last year, and the amazing tenor saxophonist  Mark Colby ran the band because Rob couldn’t get back from Columbus for the gig.

I just found out that Rob will get the band back together on August 8 at FitzGerald’s in Berwyn. If you are in the Chicago area, you should come out and hear them. The band is made up of some of the absolute best jazz players in Chicago – in fact, some of the best in the country! And check out their recordings!

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Re “Smash,” Chinese imported spaceships, and Lunar Dragons

June 18, 2012

Comments on a bunch of topics, since I haven’t had time to weigh in and I’m sure you all are concerned about that…

I didn’t continue reviewing/commenting on “Smash” because I found I had nothing to say that I already hadn’t. The crisis of the ending of the show – that is,  in the musical, “Bombshell” – was resolved in the very last scene of the last episode of the season. (Or, almost the last scene, but this downward Ivy spiral has been done many times before, and better.)

Actually, the whole problem the characters had with finding a suitable ending for the show is more the kind of thing I had hoped to see. I hope real-life Broadway composers (most of whom do not arrange their own music for the stage) don’t have to get a closing number done at the very last moment, orchestrate it, and get it to the pit before the finale! Some of that you could almost do with Finale or Sibelius, but the musicians and conductor wouldn’t like it. Nor would the star, who is trying to tie the whole show up in a bow and needs to be very expressive.

Anyway, suspend your belief and go with it. The number works pretty well, I think, for finding a way to deal with the fact that Marilyn dies at the end. The show seems to demand a “down” ending, but an uplifting message for the audience seems to be a satisfying conclusion to me.

Also, the scene in the church was delightful.

Enough of “Smash.” Charles Bolden, NASA Administrator, did a victory lap at SpaceX in Hawthorne last week. I hope he told them, “Hey, you guys have work because we are spineless weasels and can’t work with Congress.” Because, of course, it’s the truth.

If NASA doesn’t like Dragon Rider, or Orion, or Liberty aka Orion composite-materials version, I suppose we could make a deal with the Chinese. They seem to be launching people successfully. And we buy all kinds of other stuff from China, so no worries, right? Probably doesn’t even take a lot of extra import paperwork. Ship it in a container labeled, “Apple iPhone 5,” or something. Of course, the operating manual will be in industrial-strength Chinglish.

And could you launch a Chinese Shenhzou on a Delta rocket? The Delta IV is supposed to be able to handle payloads of 8600 to 22,000 kg. The Chinese vehicle is listed as weighing 7,840 kg, so it should be possible to get it into orbit on a Delta, or without question on an Atlas.  (Dirty little secret – the Falcon 9 could launch it as well!)

I got to thinking today that Elon Musk says he wants to go to Mars.According to the video SpaceX ran last year, the Dragon Rider escape engines are powerful enough to land on Mars and apparently they think it would be able to take off again. That means landing one on the Moon should be easy, right? And the cargo version has shown its maneuverability already so maybe they could land one of those on the moon for extra supplies, then a manned mission could be a land nearby. If that one Dragon couldn’t handle enough fuel for the liftoff again and the burn to get out of Lunar orbit, imitate Apollo by sending two and only bringing one back, the one that had remained in Lunar orbit while the crew are down exploring. I would think the trunk could be modified into an equivalent of the Apollo service module, or the extended second stage of the Falcon Heavy might be able to do the translunar injection like the S-IVB, then only send three or four crew instead of the seven that is supposed to be the max capacity for Dragon Rider. Lighter vehicle, fewer consumables, most propellant, easier to get out of Lunar orbit.

You know what? They could do this by 2019, the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11.

I can dream.

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”Smash” episode 6 – ”Chemistry”

March 14, 2012

Karen wows 'em at the Bar Mitzvah...

I’ll leave the recap to others, as usual. Here are the thoughts I had on this episode, though. What? Of course I have thoughts!

I’m increasingly unhappy with the Michael/Julia relationship. I don’t see it as authentic, or romantic, or even as something that helps create tension in the plot threads. I just find it…uncomfortable.

According to this show, there is no professional behavior to be found on Broadway: directors sleep with performers, lyricists sleep with performers, the producer is out in some bar with a bunch of kids – see how much respect you get after doing that in reveal life – the composer has his own personal agenda in promoting one performer over another, the “star” just automatically assumes she has enough power to get another performer fired. I could go on. Is there anyone in this bunch in whom an investor should trust? Especially with a couple of million dollars?

The Karen character is beginning to annoy some people in the blogs I happened to read yesterday. The doe-eyed innocent bit is wearing thin with some folks, I think. TV and movie audiences aren’t very patient nowadays. Watch a film or television program from thirty or forty years ago and see how slowly it is paced compared with today, even that action shows. We are used to a sort of ”plot shorthand” from years and years of watching TV and movie plots compressed into anything from forty minutes to two hours.

This collectively-understood shorthand translates into a kind of suspension of disbelief of its own. In a situation comedy we don’t expect characters to change or grow. That’s why ”The Simpsons” has been so successful for so many years. The characters never have to age. As far as we know, it’s still the same year it was when the show started.

In dramas, though, we expect some development of the characters. I like to credit this to J. Michael Straczynski and his groundbreaking story arc concept, Babylon 5. It wasn’t the first show to us an arc – heck, ”The Fugitive” had a sort of one decades before – but the show was sold to the fledgling PTEN network with that intention: 5 years, no more. The story would be told in 5 years. To hell with the generally-understood plan back then that seven years of episodes were needed for successful syndication. (Of course, DVD and Blu-Ray season boxed sets, as well as secondary sources like Netflix, have changed that playing field a great deal in the last decade.)

”Smash” was intended, from what I have read, to become a multi-season show by creating a new musical each season. It won’t take five years to get ”Marilyn” to the stage. However, this interview with creator Theresa Rebeck says otherwise. Also from what I’ve read, this season is 12-15 episodes. I expect the show will be on the stage for the out-of-town tryouts at the end of this season. I may be wrong about that, of course.

So…we expect some development in our cast members. Last week’s episode showed Karen being a bit sneaky and seductive and non-Midwest good girl to get information for Dev at a dinner. This week she’s so babe-in-the-woods that she can’t even figure out that she should ask someone what to do before going out to sing at a bar mitzvah for the first time. I don’t buy the bit that she’s just too preoccupied, waiting to hear if Ivy has lost her star gig. Which is she – street-smart or not?

On the upside, ”History Is Made At Night” may be the best tune in the show so far. It has a great melody, great harmonies, and great lyrics. The arrangement is skillfully done as well. (Get it on iTunes so you can hear the whole thing without the distraction of the action in the show and the dopey looks between Julia and Michael.) I really hope there will be enough of a book put together so that, at the end of the season, there could really be a ”Marilyn” show.

I love Katherine McPhee’s voice, I really do – but I must say that Megan Hilty, as a singer, is doing a damn fine job sounding the way I think Marilyn should sound. Maybe Katherine can do it just as well – I expect we’ll find out, eventually!

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“Smash” – Episode 5

March 6, 2012

Episode 5, “Let’s Be Bad,” sets up some personal conflicts and expands on some already set up and developing. However, I don’t want to get into the soap-opera aspects of the show: I would rather discuss a little something that irritates me. Since I like so very, very much about this show, the annoyances loom larger than they would probably seem otherwise.

Here’s the thing: Character Derek Wills, the show’s director, has repeatedly shown himself to be an obnoxious and egotistical, yet talented, artist. Tom, the composer, calls him “a horrible human being.” His talents are supposed to be so unbelievably great that people tend to cut him a lot of slack in both his professional and personal relationships. Okay, I’ve known some artistic types like that. Most of the time they weren’t nearly as talented as they thought themselves to be.

Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that Derek really is that good. Does that excuse the fact that he is having an affair with (or, to be more accurate, just sleeping with) the show’s star – and he has been since before she was selected for the role of Marilyn? Is this common practice in the world of today’s Broadway shows? I hope not. Perhaps it’s just a plot device, like in any other show, designed to increase the conflict between the characters.

Okay, I’ll concede that it might just be dramatic license. But his behavior in rehearsal – a professional environment – is another thing altogether. Lots of shows about musicians, actors and other entertainers have featured the stereotypical obnoxious, demanding boss: sometimes it’s done for drama, sometimes for comedic effect.

One of my pet peeves in the “Law and Order” franchises is their treatment of artists of all types. (They also consistently hate rich people – all rich people. But that’s for another day.) Temperamental, overbearing painters, orchestra conductors, architects,even novelists have usually been portrayed pretty much one-dimensional. Even murderers generally got treated better!

But I digress. In this episode, Derek not only embarrasses Ivy in front of the ensemble – repeatedly – he even forces Karen to demonstrate how he wants Ivy to sing a passage, in what I thought to be a very uncomfortable scene. (At least it was uncomfortable for me.) This is made worse by the fact that he asks her to sing “Happy Birthday, Mister President,” which Karen had sung for him the night he tried to seduce her. He even says, “I’ve heard you do it, go ahead,” or words to that effect, implying to everyone in the room that something personal had taken place between them in the past. Why does he not think this would undermine the ensemble’s respect for him?

The writers make sure we know that there are union-mandated breaks in rehearsals by creating a character who is basically just  there for that purpose. Do they really expect us to believe that Actors’ Equity is concerned about the timing of rehearsal breaks but not about harassment – in particular, pretty obvious sexual harassment?

I’ve worked with many, many musicians, students and adults, amateur and professional. It doesn’t matter what group you work with. All artists deserve to be treated with respect. Derek’s behavior would get him fired in most of the situations I’ve been in, no matter how talented he might be.

This is why I couldn’t write tv drama. I couldn’t force my own suspension of disbelief enough to set up the dramatic tension in this way. I’ll keep watching, not expecting it to be real life. The musical performances are just too much fun for me to abandon the show now. In fact, I haven’t heard a musical number in the show yet that I haven’t thoroughly enjoyed. But…I can hope for a little reality thrown in, though, can’t I?

Maybe not. I realize that since this a “musical about the making of a musical,” there’s not much more chance that the plot line will be realistic than that the intercuts from the rehearsals to full performances of the musical numbers really happen that way…