Tuesday, December 21, 2010

New Commission!

I'm very proud to announce that I'm working on a new commission!  Every once in a while, someone contacts me and asks me to write something special for them.  In this case, that someone is the Charlotte, North Carolina chapter of the MENC (Music Educators' National Conference). They've asked me to write the sight-reading selections for their Spring Contest!

I get quite a few international visitors, so I'll explain: Here in the States, many school orchestras participate in  "contest" in the Spring, where they perform a short program and get criticism from a panel of judges. The judges then award ratings and it's a source of pride (and stress) for many music programs.  Along with prepared selections, orchestras are also judged on their ability to read a short selection of never-before-seen music.  That's where I come in.

The Charlotte MENC has asked me to write a short piece for each of four ability levels. They even provided a list of what keys, meters, rhythms, bowings, articulations, and techniques that each level of orchestra should be able to sight-read.

Obviously, I can't give any specific details here about how my pieces will look or sound, but I can reveal that they're all around 30 measures.  I'm sure judges get bored hearing the same pieces over and over all day long, so I want to make them all as different as possible.


I really can't sell 30-measure pieces for publication, and because they are all written for different ability levels, they won't hang together as a suite.  So the plan is to take each one later, spin them into full-scale pieces and submit them to my publisher.

This is turning out to be a really fun project!  I've already finished the Grade I and II pieces, I'm about halfway done with the Grade III piece, and I hope to finish Grade IV by the end of the year.  Then I'll submit them to my contact in Charlotte and we'll work together to make adjustments and corrections so they comply with the criteria in each grade level.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Online Concert

I thought I'd program a short online concert of some of my more popular selections today. 

Up first is the Cleveland School of Arts Orchestra performing Gauntlet.  They do a lot of tuning and warming up (and it certainly pays off), but if you're interested in getting to the good stuff, skip ahead to the 1:45 mark.


 Nice job! I especially like what they did with the "hard part" (mm. 56 - 80).

Up next is the Shaw Middle School Orchestra performing Zydeco Two-Step:


Excellent!  The keyboard player did a great job.

Our final group is the Traverse City Symphony Strings - a civic orchestra - performing the heck out of Agincourt.


"Out of This World" is certainly an apt description of this group!  They're a small ensemble, but they play with all the ferocity and musicianship of a group three times their size.  I was also blown away by the production of this video - the multiple angles and great editing do the ensemble justice.  Here's my favorite shot:


"Energy" at the end! A well-marked part is a joy for a composer to see. 

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Major/Minor Dilemma (Part 2)

About a year ago, after receiving my annual royalty statement, I posted some musings about my top-selling compositions - specifically, I noticed that a lot of the better-selling pieces are in minor keys. This led me to wonder if maybe I should just focus on minor-key music when writing for student orchestras.

Well, it wasn't long before I received an e-mail from someone who had read the post and had a different theory:

Of the 5 compositions you posted, the top 4, besides being in minor keys, have really "cool" titles.
I know this seems arbitrary, and it is, but I think we underestimate the value of the titles of our art.


He has an interesting point. I'm always trying to pin down what it is about certain music that appeals to people and maybe an evocative title can set expectations. Titles have always been tough for me and I frequently put off titling my pieces until days before sending them off to my publisher for consideration. So I wrote back:

I wonder if you'd be willing to help me put your theory to a test? My three newest pieces this year
are "Quicksilver," "A Hero's Welcome," and "Porcupine Pantomime." All three are in major keys.
If you'll make a prediction of which of the three will be the best seller, I'll check it against the results
when I receive next year's sales report.


The challenge was taken up:

I'm going to guess "A Hero's Welcome" will be the highest selling. This guess is somewhat arbitrary,
but my rationale is as follows: kids will like the title "Quicksilver" and adults will like the "Porcupine
Pantomime." A Hero's Welcome has universal appeal between the age groups. That's my best guess.
Hope they all do well for you, though.


That makes sense to me. So the sales numbers are finally in and the rankings for the newest pieces are
(*drumroll*):

1. Quicksilver
2. Porcupine Pantomime
3. A Hero's Welcome


Obviously, there are a lot more factors at play than tonality and title. First: exposure. Quicksilver was
performed at last year's Midwest Music Conference, which features huge audiences of music-buyers. Second: Tempo.  In my experience, fast music is more popular than slow music and A Hero's Welcome is a lyrical moderate-tempo piece.  Third: Degree of difficulty.  Beginner orchestras are always larger than intermediate and advanced groups, so there's usually a higher demand for beginner-level music. Porcupine Pantomime was the only early-level piece of the three. I suppose the moral of the story is that the appeal of a piece of music doesn't rest on anything as simple as tonality and title. 

So I'll put it to you, reader. I invite you to predict which of this years pieces will be the top sellers:

• Star of Valor:
A medium-to-advanced concert overture with fast, heroic melodies, a little bit of shifting, and a fast tempo.

• Storm Trail: A fast, minor-key, intermediate-level piece in 12/8 time.

• Sneaking Suspicion: An all-pizzicato, minor-key piece for beginners with a moderate tempo.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Royalty Statement 2010 - Part 3

The third part of my royalty statement is a little nebulous.  It involved "licensing" - an umbrella term that involves all income other than print sales.  Most of it is listed as "MakeMusic Print Licensing."  MakeMusic is the company that makes Finale notation software and Smartmusic, which is a great online resource where teachers and students can play along with recordings and print parts.  So whenever someone pays to download one of my pieces online, I get a cut.

Some other pieces registered income from "Misc. 3rd Party Mechanical Licensing" which, I think, means that I get paid when someone records one of my pieces.  A lot of orchestras record their concerts and sell them as fund raisers and, in theory, the directors should let Alfred Publishing know and pay for the copyright.  In reality, only a handfull of honest directors have ever done this.

A third listing reads "Digital (Other Than Print) Licensing." and accounts for the highest single royalty on the licensing report.  I have no idea what that means.  Maybe something to do with video?  I can only guess, but whoever you are, thanks for doing whatever you did with Breeze In the Keys and please do it again.

You'll notice that there are no rankings listed in this post, which leads me to the most nebulous part of this report.  I have no idea how many MakeMusic downloads there were or how many recordings of each piece were sold - just that a certain lump-sum dollar amount is assigned to each title. And no two amounts are the same. I'd suspect that the royalty rate depends on the number of downloads or CD's burned, so it's hard to specify exactly.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Gauntlet Got Sampled

I discovered this clip on YouTube recently.  Some kid used Gauntlet as a sample for his hip-hop beat.  Check it out.


He's selling it online for $25.  I'm sure I get royalties for this... right?

Royalty Statement 2010 - Part 2

In my last post, I mentioned that most of my music sales come from within the US, but a small portion comes from other countries.  I can't be sure which other countries, but this blog has received hits from Canada, Sweden, Slovenia, Argentina, China, and Spain, just to name a few. I've also found my music for sale on German and Japanese online music stores, so that may also give some indication. 

As I understand it, many other countries don't have the same model of music education that is common here in the US and most ensemble playing is done in private after-school groups, so there's far less demand for string orchestra sheet music.

Anyway, here are my top foreign sellers for the past year:

1. Agincourt
2. Gargoyles
3. Gauntlet & Porcupine Pantomime (tie) 
5. Hot Potato

Interesting results!  It seems that my most popular pieces abroad are very close to my most popular pieces in the US.  Porcupine Pantomime and Hot Potato are relatively new, which may account for their higher sales. 

Something else to keep in mind: several pieces on the royalty statement are listed multiple times, because they're sold at different rates in different countries with different currencies and exchange rates.  There are four different listings for foreign sales of Gauntlet because it was sold at four different prices around the world.

There's no record of foreign sales of scores only or parts only, which leads me to believe that either those options aren't available in foreign markets or there's no demand for extra scores and parts.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Royalty Statement 2010 - Part 1

I got my annual royalty statement from Alfred Publishing recently, which outlines how many of each of my pieces they've sold in the past year, and first, let me just say

THANK YOU JAMES CAMERON!

You see, James Cameron decided to name what would become the highest-grossing movie of all time after a piece of music I wrote five years ago (kidding - the fact that we used the same titles was a complete coincidence).  Anyway, it seems a lot of people mistook my music for James Horner's film score. Or they really enjoyed my music on its own considerable merits.

Here are my top five sellers this year (4/1/09 - 3/31/10):

1. Avatar
2. Gauntlet
3. Gargoyles
4. Agincourt
5. Quicksilver

So Avatar comes out of nowhere to become this year's number-one seller.  Gauntlet and Gargoyles are perennial favorites and always seem to make the top five and I'm pleased to see that Agincourt has retained its popularity.  Quicksilver was a new one last year and music often sells well in its first year.  Plus, Quicksilver was performed at the Midwest Conference last December, giving it a huge boost.

Last year's other new pieces were Porcupine Pantomime, which would have come in sixth place, and A Hero's Welcome, which has a place further down in the rankings.

Now, this is just domestic sales of scores and parts. Scores are sold separately, for when orchestras go to contest and the judges need to follow along.  Here are the sales of just the scores:

1. Avatar
2. Gargoyles
3. Gauntlet
4. Crusader
5. Westward Motion

Interesting - perhaps Avatar is becoming a contest staple like Gargoyles and Gauntlet.  Or maybe people just want to see the score to Avatar, thinking that it's the film score.

There are still foreign sales and mechanical fees to report on as well as a certain long-standing bet to settle, but that's for a later post.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Doug Spata at Indian Hill Middle School

Today I did a "Johnny Depp" and paid a surprise visit to the Indian Hill Middle School 7th Grade Orchestra.  I was invited by the director, Candace Putz, who always puts on a great Halloween concert and has programmed Gauntlet and Violet's Tango.  I showed up early to surprise the class and rehearsed both pieces with the orchestra on stage.  Mrs. Putz took this photo for me:


I realize that I don't put many photos of myself on this blog, but that's what I look like.  Sorry to ruin the mystery.

IHMS has a good-sized orchestra with a phalanx of 'cellos, three basses, and a small but enthusiastic viola section.  They play with all the passion required for Gauntlet and all the style necessary for Violet's Tango and I had a great time.  I can't wait to come back and hear them in concert on Thursday night!

I also regaled the orchestra with the story of the time I met Lemony Snickett, the inspiration for Violet's Tango.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Huge Gargoyles Performance

A friend of mine recently let me know about this YouTube video of a combined orchestra performing Gargoyles. Have a look:



This is really cool - I don't think I've ever seen such a huge orchestra performing one of my pieces.  They literally fill the floor of a gym and require four conductors (by my count).  Nuance goes out the window with an ensemble that size, but they make an impressive sound!  Well done, New Berlin Combined Orchestras!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

North Pole Workshop

My third piece officially has a title!  After submitting it as "Workshop Song," my editor suggested I change it to be more overtly Christmas-related.  I suggested "North Pole Workshop" and they're going with it.  So there it is - next year you can look for these three new pieces:

Maharaja
Shadows of Venice
North Pole Workshop

Also, they liked my suggestion of including alternate parts for "Shadows of Venice."  The set will include Violin III parts (doubling the Viola part) and Cello II parts (doubling the Bass). The reason we're doing that is that each part includes at least one solo, so if an orchestra has no basses or weak violas, they can still perform the piece.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Heist Music & Opera

I haven't written here in a while, so I thought I'd give an update on what I'm working on right now.

At present, I'm in the middle of writing a piece for intermediate-to-advanced groups.  I enjoy a good "heist" movie like Oceans Eleven, The Italian Job, and the grandfather of them all, Rififi, so I thought it would be fun to write a faux soundtrack to a heist movie.  Musically telling the story of an elite group sneaking into a building, evading security, cracking the safe, and getting out with the loot has yielded some good things and has given me the opportunity to include some fun special effects.

I have a "main" theme and a "secondary" theme written and now it's just a matter of arranging them to tell the story - building suspense in certain places and depicting the events of the heist.

I'm also at work on my second opera, Heart Mountain.  My plan is to go back and forth between writing a number for the opera and writing a piece for school orchestras.  that way, I'll have enough music to send to my publishers each year while still making steady progress on the opera. At present, I've finished the opera's short intro, two of the twelve arias, and the ensemble-finale.  There will be four singers (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Baritone) and the arias I've finished are for Soprano and Tenor.  I'll write an Alto aria, then one for the Baritone, and another ensemble (perhaps the opening chorus, but I haven't decided for sure).  After that, I'll be one third of the way done.

The opera is coming along slowly, but I have the time and want to make sure I have nothing but spectacular melodies throughout.  in fact, I've worked out a method where I write all the music to a piece first, then write the lyrics to fit the rhythms and melodies.  Writing music to fit the lyrics never worked for me - The melodies tend to fall flat at the expense of staying true to the words.  the new system is working much better.

I'll write more about the lyrical process later.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Saga of the Broken Arm: Update

If you come to this blog to get to know me inside and out, I have a special treat for you today.  As you may have read here, I was in a bike accident and shattered my shoulder back in April. I thought I'd give an update.

The accident and ensuing surgery pretty much knocked me out of commission, but I've been going to physical therapy, building flexibility and strength, and, while I'm still not at 100%, I've come to realize that I may never have a full range of motion in my right arm.  Still, I'm much better and have exceeded the expectations of both my therapist and my surgeon.

Last Thursday, I went for a follow-up with my surgeon who had great things to say. He also took these X-rays.  The engineering is impressive.


What you're looking at is a titanium plate secured to my right humerus with nine screws.  The break is completely healed and looking good.  To answer your questions:

1. No, I can't feel the plate.  It's under so much tissue that one can't feel the edges.  But the night after surgery when the anesthetic wore off?  Boy, I felt that.  Worst pain of my life - worse than the actual accident.

2. I will not set off metal detectors at the airport unless the TSA turns up their sensors to maximum sensitivity.  I've actually been through airport security a few times since the surgery and had no problems.

3. I have an eight-inch scar from my armpit to almost the top of my shoulder.

4. Yes, it still hurts, but it's an ache, rather than a sharp pain. Advil helps a lot. I'm still going to physical therapy to build strength and can now get dressed by myself, drive a car, and change an overhead light bulb.  I still can't sleep in a bed, though (I spend the night in a reclining chair).

But here's the most fascinating thing: on that second X-ray, the doctor showed me that I developed extra bone growth over the break.  It's not unusual for the body to over-correct after an injury and it won't get in my way, but it's pretty cool.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

New Music Selected: [Untitled]

Yes, my third piece this year is untitled as of yet.  The title I originally submitted was "Workshop Song," and it's supposed to evoke happy elves making toys in Santa's workshop with fun percussive sound effects, but my editor asked me to make it more overtly holiday-themed while keeping "workshop" in the title.  I'm happy to comply and have come up with a few alternatives:

Elves in the Workshop

North Pole Workshop

I realize that directors are expected to play Christmas carols at winter concerts, but when programming concerts, I try to focus on neutral "winter" themed songs rather than "Christmas" songs.  I feel weird asking students of non-Christian faiths to play religious Christmas songs.  Growing up, I went to a school with a large Jewish population and during the December concert, the uneasiness was palpable when we sang songs like "Silent Night" and "Away In a Manger."  I had a student once whose religious beliefs prevented him from even playing winter-themed songs like "Frosty The Snowman" and I felt awful that he had to sit out while the rest of the orchestra played.

On the other hand, there is a high demand for good holiday music and I'm excited to see how this new one sells.  It's a charming little polka and, rather than using familiar tunes, it's an original.  As I mentioned, it uses percussive sound effects to imitate the clatter of Santa's workshop.  I may even make some last-minute changes and provide fun alternatives to the triangle and woodblock (I'm thinking of rachet, power drill, and brake drum).

Until then, there's the title to sort out.  Any ideas, interwebs?

Monday, July 26, 2010

New Music Selected: Shadows of Venice

As you might remember from a previous post, I enjoy Baroque music, but prefer the simplicity of the Italians to the ostentatious flourishes of the Germans.  I have a special place in my heart for Vivaldi.  Maybe it's the simplicity of the music, the austere joy he conveyed, or the fact that, like me, he wrote for school-age musicians, providing them with quality material.  When I visited Venice many years ago, I came across the church where he worked and had one of my very first full conversations in Italian.  It went something like this:


[I arrive at the church, right on the Grand Canal and see a woman at the box office window]

Me: Buena sera!  Questo é la chiesa di Vivaldi, si?
Her: [nods]
Me: La sua tomba non é qui?
Her: [shakes her head "no"]
Me: Ma che un concerto da qui questa sera.
Her: [nods]
Me: Hmm. Grazie. [exit]

I thought I did pretty well for a beginner, even if she seemed kind of annoyed with me. 

So anyway, I enjoy Vivaldi and wanted to write a piece in his style.  I'm really not a good mimic of style - everything I write sounds like me - but wanted to use some of Vivaldi's techniques, like his sequences, articulation style and rhythms (I think of Vivaldi's rhythms being very "square." They're angular and require very precise, even playing).  The form that is most frequently associated with Il Prete Roso is the concerto, so I felt this would be a great opportunity for school orchestras.

Written in ritornello form, my piece Shadows Of Venice starts off with the whole orchestra playing a dark main theme.  Then, students get a chance to play solos.  Students from each section get solos and it's very easy to break the solos up into smaller parts, giving more students a chance to stand out.  In fact, there could be as few as five soloists and as many as 24, depending on how the solo parts are broken up.  The MENC guidelines warrant that students should have the opportunity to play solos, and this is the perfect opportunity for them.

Shadows Of Venice is written for late-beginner students (probably the end of their first year) and negotiates three key changes without requiring anything but the first finger pattern and only uses three strings on each instrument.  I'm rather proud of that.  I'm also happy with the title.  The "shadows" can refer to the dark, minor-key style of the piece and could describe a nighttime chase through the city, over the bridges and through tight alleyways. The title could also refer to my modern take on Vivaldi's style: The piece isn't a direct copy, but uses elements of his style, hence "Shadows Of Venice."

You can read the blog post I wrote shortly after finishing the piece.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

New Music Selected: Maharaja

Guess what, Interwebs?  Alfred Publishing selected three of my submissions for their 2011 String Orchestra catalog!  (I'm sure this news will be met with great elation by the approximately zero people who read this blog.)  Never the less, I'm excited about it and I feel compelled to describe each forthcoming piece. I want to give them their own space, so each one will get its own blog post, starting with Maharaja:

The MENC has dictated in its National Standards that young musicians should be exposed to music of international origin, in order to foster an understanding of foreign cultures through their art.  This has not been difficult, because folksong arrangements from Japan, Latin America, Australia, and all over Europe are readily available and quite popular.  The exception: India.  There are no "Indian" songs available to string orchestras.  Traditional Indian music defies simplification and arrangement because it:

1. is a mostly improvisational musical genre.
2. doesn't really have "melodies" in the Western sense
3. utilizes sounds that are nearly impossible to replicate with Western instruments.

It's a challenge, to say the least, but one I was up for.  I decided that the key was not to approach Indian music from a "classical" perspective with all its confusing ragas and improvised noodlings, but instead, to approach it from a pop music perspective.  The "Bollywood" style uses Western tonality, forms, and  instrumentation but with a distinctive South-Asian flair and often the addition of tabla drums and sitars.  It's a fascinating blend of Indian and Western pop styles.  And that would be my starting point.

When writing my new, forthcoming piece, Maharaja, I started as I always do: with meticulous research.  I listened to countless songs and watched videos on YouTube to get an understanding of Bollywood style - its conventions, typical rhythms, melodic style, forms, and use of instrumentation.  The piece is based it on the "Asian" scale with flat third and sixth degrees and sharp fourth degrees.  I made sure to use idiomatic flourishes and syncopations, octave interjections in the violins, and even approximated the sound of tabla drums with slurred pizzicato in the 'cellos and basses.  Bollywood music is typically very rhythmic and, in lieu of using a drum kit, I opted for finger snaps.

Honestly, I submitted Maharaja with little hope of it being selected for publication but, once again, the selection committee surprised me.  I'm very glad they did, not only because I poured a lot of time and love into its creation, but because Indian music has a close plase in my heart.  As a small child my family lived in Sri Lanka, just off the coast of India and my parents lived in India before that. The two countries have somewhat similar cultures and musical traditions. I grew up surrounded by wicker, brass, Sri Lankan and Indian artifacts, and stories of the Para Hara.  My childhood nickname was that of a bell-shaped Buddhist shrine.  Long story short: I've always had an affinity for South Asian culture and I'm thrilled that I can share that interest with orchestra students of the world.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

New Performances: International Edition

The vast majority of my published music is sold in the US, but a small percentage of my total sales comes from international buyers. Not all countries have American-style school music programs, so the demand for student-level string orchestra music is much lower.  Occasionally, though, I hear about performances of my music outside the US.  Here are two I stumbled across recently.

First up, we journey to the mysterious land of kangaroos and Vegemite: Australia.  Here's the Sydney Youth Orchestra performing Lemon Twist:



Wasn't that great?  You can really tell how much those young musicians really enjoyed playing it.  Watching the Violin II's and Violas bopping along to the rhythm makes my heart swell.  That's what it's all about

Up next is the Orquesta de Cuerdas de Grado in Córdoba. That's Córdoba SPAIN, y'all.  I've heard of performances in Australia and Canada, but this is the first time I've heard of a performance of my music in Europe.  I'm a little awed.  They do a great job with Gargoyles:



Professor D. Gabriel A. leads a fantastic orchestra and it looks like he has a well-balanced program there at the Córdoba Professional Conservatory of Music.  Good tempo, great sense of style.

At this point I should remind readers that I'm available as guest conductor, so if anyone in Europe wants to fly me out and pay my expenses to visit their program, please drop me a line.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Too Difficult?

Here's a quandry I thought I'd express to you, interwebs: when it comes to music for student orchestras, how difficult is too difficult?

In the past I've written music with rhythms that makes students' eyes cross.  Despite taking it slow, counting it out, teaching by rote, and being very methodical, I find that these rhythms are completely un-performable. And yet, the same students have no problem singing the exact same rhythms when they appear in pop songs.  It must be something about the written music. Needless to say that I'll either simplify it before submitting it to my publisher or just abandon it altogether.

On the other hand, when I write a purposely challenging piece (like Agincourt in 7/8 time) I hear kids say "Pffft.  That's totally easy.  We could play that in sixth grade."  (Though how well remains to be seen.)

Shifting is challenging, part independence can be challenging, and so can triplets against duplets, fast technical passages, key changes, and good old-fashioned expressive musicianship.  I've thrown all of those things into various pieces and kids blow it off like it's nothing and my publisher rates the difficulty 2.5 out of 4. These are all things that students should be able to do at some point as they advance at their instrument.

Question #1: Where's the line?  Does it depend on the individual player or group? Or am I being lied to when it comes to how challenging to make a piece of music?

Question #2: Are students being pushed too far too soon? Are teachers pushing advanced music and techniques too soon at the expense of fundamentals and basic technique? 

This also brings up the controversy of "teaching to the music," to which I am opposed.  My philosophy is to use music to reinforce the lessons, but many teachers choose the music first and then teach students the techniques they need in order to play it.  In my mind, when you teach to the music it sets up a very specific context for the technique and students find it harder to apply that technique to another piece of music.  Teaching the lesson first and then applying it to a piece ensures that students understand the fundamentals first - the whys and hows - before trying it out.

The reason I ask is because I'm working on a challenging piece that I intend for high school groups.  I'm including all the challenging techniques listed above and if I've done my job right, the orchestra, director, and audience should be completely exhausted by the end of the piece.  But is is too hard?  Am I writing myself out of an audience?  What say you, interwebs?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

New Recordings Available!

Recordings of my three newly-published pieces are now available online!  Just go to alfred-music.com and do a search for my name and you can get recordings of any (or all) of my published music for just $.99 per song.

Click on these links for online samples:


Yes, it's the year of the "S's."  I totally didn't plan it, the selection committee just happened to select three pieces whose titles start with "S."  People would kid me years ago because three of my first four published pieces started with "G."  As I'm sure you know from exhaustively reading all the posts on this blog and committing them to memory, titles are tough for me.  If I were smart, all my titles would only start with letters A through M, so they always appear in the first half of alphabetically-organized lists of titles.

But I digress.

I'm really happy with how the recordings turned out. Some of my pieces are really designed for larger forces than the nine or ten studio musicians assembled to record the Alfred catalog, but the musicianship is of such high quality that I can't complain.

Consider this when listening to Star of Valor: I had a lot of trouble with counterpoint in college. All the rules just confounded me and I'd freeze up when asked to write out a simple chorale. My fugues were musical atrocities.  And here I am years later, juggling simultaneous melodies and lyrical accompaniment parts like it's nothing.  In fact, it was a lot of work to get it right and the studio musicians make it sound easy and natural.

Anyway, follow those links, enjoy the new music, and please buy it if you like it.  Thanks!

Monday, June 21, 2010

1260 North Weatherly Drive

I was fortunate enough to take a trip to Los Angeles, California, recently - my first trip to California - and had a long list of things to see.  The Getty Center? Sure. Universal Studios?  Okay.  Grauman's Chinese Theater? Check.  But do you know what was at the top of the list? The one thing I wanted to see above all else?  This quiet two-bedroom three-bath home on a hill in West Hollywood.


This, Ladies and Gents, is 1260 North Weatherly Drive, once home to Mr. and Mrs. Igor Stravinsky.  That's right - the greatest composer of the 20th century and my favorite composer and chief influence lived and worked right here.  My favorite opera, The Rake's Progress, was written within these walls, as were countless other masterpieces.  This is the headquarters for the mid-century musical avant-garde.  Igor probably entertained W. H. Auden, Toscanini, and Oscar Levant right on that balcony.

The house is off the beaten path, but is throwing distance from the famous Sunset Strip, where bands like Motly Crue and Guns N' Roses were discovered at the Roxy, the Viper Room, and the Rainbow. It's minutes away from the spot where Andy Kauffman first took the stage and where River Phoenix shuffled off his mortal coil.

Of course, it's still someone's house, so I didn't get to spend a lot of time there.  I found the house, got out of the car, snapped two photos through the iron fence, and got out of there.  I didn't see any activity, and I'm not sure the owners even know the importance of their address.  I didn't want to bother anyone.

A few days later, I sought out another important address: 6340 Hollywood Boulevard (between Ivar and Vine).  It's the location of a burger restaurant, but I was more interested in what's just outside.


That's right - he has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  In fact, Igor is the only classical composer to have a star on Hollywood Boulevard.  Suck on that, Beethoven.

I saw other stuff in Los Angeles and had a great time, but these stood out as two major highlights in an exceptional week.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

A New Opera

I'm proud to announce that I've started in earnest on my second opera!  It will be called "Heart Mountain" and, like my first opera, "Mata Hari," it will be an original story based around historical events.

What about the first opera, you ask?  Well, it seems I was a little too ambitious with that one.  It's a big three-act production with lots of roles, a chorus, and a big orchestra in the pit and no opera company wanted to/was able to risk the expense for a brand-new, untested opera.  Their loss.

So I've planned this new opera to be the complete opposite in nearly every way:

Mata Hari: 4 main roles, 6 minor roles, plus a chorus (20 singers total)
Heart Mountain: 4 singers total

Mata Hari: 35 to 40-piece orchestra in the pit
Heart Mountain: Piano, 'Cello, Clarinet, all on stage with the singers

Mata Hari: Three acts, two hours
Heart Mountain: One act, 60 minutes (80 tops)

Mata Hari: Three sets
Heart Mountain: A wall.  Otherwise, no sets.

Mata Hari: Declamatory style, with singing throughout. Basically a sung play.
Heart Mountain: A "number" opera with some talking between songs. The same idea as "The Magic Flute"

My idea is to make it as economical as possible, with only eight to ten people involved: four singers, three musicians, a director, and one or two technical personnel to handle lighting and stage manage.  I'm writing the clarinet part for myself and it's possible that one of the singers or musicians could direct.  Or the director could be a stagehand.  It's something we could bring to schools or to the Cincinnati Fringe Festival in a few years. My hope is that Heart Mountain will open some doors that will lead to Mata Hari getting produced.

So far, I've done a lot of research, created the story, planned everything in an outline, and have written the introduction music and one of the songs.  Instead of polishing the libretto and then adding music like I did with Mata Hari, I'm going to write the music and lyrics together, letting one inform the other as I go.  I've only just begun and I'm a long way from finishing, but the first steps in a very long journey are laid out and I'm on my way!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Violet's... 100 Meter Dash?

I found this video of Violet's Tango on YouTube recently:



JEEZY CREEZY!

Was the building on fire and they had to get through the piece as fast as they could before they evacuated?  Why in the world would you take this piece at breakneck speed?  It's a tango  - it says so in the title, for goodness sake.  A tango is a dance that requires a moderate tempo.  There's no way anyone could dance to this tempo.  Besides, I clearly wrote a tempo marking right there in the music:


Moderato.  As in "moderately."  As in "not fast."  Clear as day in black and white.  I even specified a metronome marking just to be even more clear - 120 beats per minute.  Consider that a speed limit sign.  This conductor was doing the equivalent of 70 in a school zone.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: just because you CAN play the notes fast, doesn't mean that you SHOULD play fast.  When you take music - especially dance music - too fast, you lose all the nuance and emotion, and you waste the opportunity to give the music expression.  Violet's Tango is a character piece with bold contrasts, nuanced harmonies, and a sly, flirtatious style.  All that is thrown out the window when you plow through it like a panicked cheetah.

When you race through a piece like that, you're not only playing it wrong, you're showing disrespect for the music, your audience, and your own growth as a musician.  So I once again beg conductors and orchestras everywhere: please please please please please pay attention to the tempo markings.  I put them there for a reason.

It should sound like this. 

Monday, May 3, 2010

New Submissions

It's that time of year again!  I just got back from the post office where I shipped nine new pieces of music and a CD to Alfred Publishing for consideration in the 2012-2013 String Orchestra catalog.  My fingers will remain crossed for approximately the next three months while I wait to hear back from the selection committee.

This year I sent in nine original pieces, none of which were re-submissions.  Three beginner pieces, three intermediate-level pieces, and three advanced-level pieces and a good mix of styles and keys.  My hope is that by giving them a broad range of music to choose from will increase my chances.  In the past, they've chosen one piece from each ability level and each of a different style and .  Here's what they chose last year, for example:

Sneaking Suspicion: beginner level, minor key, all pizzicato, scherzo style
Storm Trail: intermediate level, minor key, unusual time signature, "Gauntlet-esque" style
Star of Valor: advanced level, major key, part independence, shifting, heroic style

I have a few favorites among this year's submissions, but I'm proud of everything I've done and would be happy just to have something selected.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Saga of the Broken Arm

I haven't written in a while, but I have a good excuse: I was in a serious bike (as in "bicycle") accident and have been mostly out of commission.  I'm much better now, but here's how it went down:

April 5: The weather was nice so I decided to go for a bike ride in the park. My neighborhood links up to a great local park with a hike/bike trail, but I didn't even get that far.  On the little sidewalk that connects to the trail I took the hill too fast and hit my front brake harder than the back brake and tumbled forward.  My right elbow hit the pavement with my full weight.  I was sure that my arm was dislocated.  I managed to get to my phone and call the Parents, who live only a few miles away.  They found me and got me to the hospital, where I was drugged up, gave my medical history to at least four people, and got some x-rays taken.  After about three hours a doctor finally came to talk to me.

"Pieces.  It's just in pieces."

The force of the impact had shattered my humerus (upper arm bone) just below the ball socket.  And it was also dislocated. The muscles, tendons, and surrounding bones were fine, but the one bone was shattered.  Unfortunately, because of the location, they couldn't set it, cast it,  or really do anything but put it in a sling to immobilize it and give me lots of pain meds.

By the way, I've not seen the x-rays to this day, as I have a tendency to get queasy and black out at such things.

April 6: I went to see an orthopedic surgeon, who told me that I would need an operation.  he said it would be a very routine outpatient procedure and I'd be home before noon on the same day.  Unfortunately, he needed to wait for the swelling to go down, which means I'd have to walk around with a broken arm for a week. Upon hearing the news, I nearly passed out. 

April 13: Early morning surgery.  Before taking me in, they gave me four shots in my neck to numb the arm.  It was not pleasant.  The anesthetic really did a number on me and it took all day to wear off.  By 9:00 PM the feeling was returning in my arm and thus began The Most Horrible Night Of My Life.  The pain was relentless and no dose of percoset could stop it.  The pain was so much that the percoset didn't even knock me out like it usually did.  The next few days were better, but then, anything else would be.  To close the incision that runs from my armpit to the top of my shoulder, they used staples.  Literally - metal staples.  Thirteen of them right in my skin. 

April 19: Follow-up appointment with the surgeon.  We took more x-rays and I actually looked at this set.  They had pinned the shattered bone together with a metal plate and nine screws.  It's an impressive piece of engineering. At this point I was doing fine - until they decided to remove my staples.  The nurse got about nine of them out before I started to pass out. 

That same day, I signed up for physical therapy and have already had three sessions.  My therapist gave me a bunch of exercises and I've already seen some improvement.  I can now get dressed by myself, tie my own shoes (all of which are major improvements).  I cannot sleep in a bed, drive a car, put on a t-shirt, or reach above shoulder-height, but it will come.  I may never do yoga or swim freestyle again, but I'm working towards conducting and playing the piano.  It's a slow process, but I'm improving every day.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Rejected

Oh, interwebs.  I'm so dissappointed today. 

Remember back in November when I mailed music to Kjos Music for consideration in their next String Orchestra catalog?  No?  Well, I did.  I'm not upset that you don't remember - it slipped my mind until I got a big package in the mail today. 

Yes, that's right the big package.  Unlike college letters where the big package means you're accepted (full of information packets and meeting times), the big package from a publisher means that they're returning all your stuff and they don't want to publish it.

Yep, I've been rejected.  Which is to say that my six submissions don't "fit into their current catalog."  Some other publishers discourage any further submissions by adding something like "we're not looking for submissions outside of our current stable of composers."  Ouch. 

Anyway, it gets me thinking that it's about time to get my submissions ready for Alfred.  I have a lot of music to choose from and I need to make recordings, write up descriptions, choose which eight or nine to submit/  Lots of work.  No time to feel sad. 

Friday, March 26, 2010

Doug Spata's iPod - 2010, Part 2

Here are five more songs to finish off my playlist:

6. Blame It On the Boogie, The Jacksons.   When Michael Jackson died in September, I was one of the many people who was shocked by the news.  And when the radio was flooded with Michael's songs, I discovered this little gem.  I think it's been overlooked because it's not a Jackson 5 song and it wasn't on a solo album. It was by The Jacksons - an in-between project that didn't get as much recognition.  Still, it's a fun disco tune with a great bass line and fun harmonies.  And you can really hear the joy in Michael's voice as he takes the lead on this one.  He really had fun with this song.


7. Human by The Killers.  I first heard this on the radio and thought I had discovered a new song by The Cure, but was surprised to learn that it was from The Killers, for whom I previously did not care.  That soaring melody got me first but the ambiguous and cryptic lyrics really drew me in.  "Are we human or are we dancer?"  My interpretation is that he's talking about the cathartic moment where an artist transcends the physical and becomes indistinguishable from his or her art as a pure force of creativity.  I've been fortunate to experience that several times and it's the goal for any musician, artist, dancer, poet, or performer.  To witness it as an audience is amazing as well.




8. Every Day I Write the Book by Elvis Costello.  Speaking of really good lyrics, here's Elvis Costello.  He's comparing being in love to writing a book and keeps coming up with clever ways to spin the metaphor further and further.  I like that the music doesn't compete with the lyrics - it's just a cool, simple groove that isn't over-embellished or over-produced.  The music is great and the lyrics are great and they come together to make something really special.



9. It Must Be Love by Madness.  This half of the list is really leaning on the oldies.  Kids, Madness was a ska band from England back in the 80's.  They were a lot of fun and influenced people like Gwen Stefani and Dave Matthews.  This wistful, romantic song is one of their best, with honest, sincere lyrics, a strong backbeat, and a really fun arrangement.  I adore the pizzicato strings (via keyboard) and that fantastic bass line with the triplets just brightens my day.  In fact, all the elements - piano, bass, drums, horns, xylophone, keyboards - are such wonderful elements independently that it gives the whole song a loose, improvisational feel while still holding together as a whole.  Just like two people in love - separate but one, independent but working together.



10. Speakers Funk by Giant Panda. These guys made my list last year and I had to include them again.  They have a great flow, a strong focus on the music, and they keep the old-school style alive.  And it's a song about music - about the joy of finding a great new song and listening to it in your car at high volume.  And really, that's a great summary of this list.  I hope you've found some of that joy for yourself!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Doug Spata's iPod - 2010

 Last year around this time I posted an iPod playlist and the response was overwhelming - I got TWO comments.  From people I didn't even know!  Makes me feel like the next Julie Powell.  I've expanded my iPod contents, so I thought it was time to do it again.  And to make things even more appealing, I'm going to include video links.

1. We Are Golden by MIKA.  Last year I discussed MIKA's song "Lollipop" and hoped that his next album would be just as good.  Well, interwebs, I had nothing to fear.  His second album may be even better, with even stronger melodies, more acrobatic falsetto, and bolder arrangements.  The album opener is a call to arms for eager, ambitious youth everywhere.  This song makes my heart jump.


2. Single Ladies by Beyoncé.  I am fascinated by this song.  The vocals are okay and the video is pretty good, but what amazes me every time I hear this one is that it uses polytonality.  There are two different key signatures going on at the same time - specifically, she's singing in E Major and the music (the synth bassline) is in E Minor.  This is a level of harmonic complexity unheard of in pop music and is usually found in the work of avant-garde modern composers like Philip Glass.  In fact, it's a technique that my favorite composer, Igor Stravinsky, used in The Rite of Spring.  Lots of rock musicians hover around the fringe of music and consider themselves cutting-edge innovators, but here's mainstream Beyoncé putting them all to shame.  Amazing.


Bonus Video!  Here's a great duo called Pomplamoose doing their own version of Single Ladies with more traditional harmonies:


3. Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger by Daft Punk.  Yet another fantastic dance tune with a lot of musical innovation to offer.  First: the hockett.  THE HOCKETT!!  Oh, interwebs, the use of hockett in this song makes me grin uncontrollably.  They present the first melody (on beats 1 and 3), then they present the second melody (on beats 2 and 4) then they combine them to make a whole new melody.  I loves me some good hockett and anyone who has played my music knows my infatuation with combined melodies.  Especially in Wait your Turn, A Hero's Welcome, and the accompaniment parts on Las Mariposas Exoticas.  The second innovative thing about this song: after the hockett section, it takes on the form of a theme and variations.  The traditional verse-chorus-verse form of most pop songs is thrown out the window in favor of a form favored by the likes of Brahms and Mozart.  Brilliant.  Have a listen:



4. Yeh Ishq Hai from the movie Jab We Met.  I came across this song while I was doing research for a new composition and used it as a reference point for Bollywood style.  The music is absolutely enchanting.  I love hearing the tabla drums and other Indian instruments, but the style is just right for my Western ears.  I've never seen the movie and I have no earthly idea what she's singing about, but I've seen the word "Ishq" show up in so many Bollywood song titles that I can only assume it means "love." It just proves that a good melody can communicate in any language.


5. Little Secrets by Passion Pit.  Not a lot of innovation here - it's just a really catchy song with a great beat, fantastic melodies, a killer synth part, and (like We Are Golden) a wonderful use of childrens' choir.  And y'know what?  That's perfectly okay.  Music doesn't have to be innovative to be great and this song is simply a whole lot of fun on its own terms.  Also: I heard the song before seeing the video and had an entirely different image in my head of how the band would look.  The song took me by surprise and then the band surprised me again.  Enjoy!



That's five songs - enough for now.  I'll think about another five for a different post.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Facebook Link

If you've been to this blog before you'll notice something different today, right there on the right side of your screen.  It's a link to my Facebook page!  And that microscopic guy leaning up against the Oscar Mayer Wiener Mobile is me.  I've been on Facebook for about a year now and recently discovered that I can create a link over there from this blog.

So if you'd like to be my Facebook friend (that's right - friend.  None of this impersonal "fan" stuff) click over and send a request.  Just be sure to let me know that you got there from here so i know that you're not spam.

And, hey, while you're out exploring the Interwebs, maybe check out my regular website too.  It gives a lot of information, answers some FAQ's and has links to MP3 downloads and YouTube videos.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

New Videos

Well, Oscar Season is over and I can re-focus this blog on music.  Before I tell you about some of the thing I've been up to in the past six weeks, here are some new videos.

First up is a performance of Mambo Incognito in Plano, Texas:


Now, I've seen and have participated in plenty of concerts in school gyms.  It's just a fact of school scheduling and resources and, to be honest, the acoustics are often more flattering than in auditoriums.  I have not, however, seen an audience in the bleachers and the orchestras filling the floor.  Look at all those orchestra students!  Looks like those teachers are doing something right.  The performance is really good too.  Great job, kids!

Up next is Gauntlet, performed at Hanahan High school for an unnamed All-County concert.


Excellent tempo.  As I've written before, one of the biggest problems I hear with Gauntlet is the tempo.  It requires a fast tempo, but faster is not better.  Take note - this is how it should be done.  I don't know who the conductor is here, but she got it just right.  Also, great style on the middle section.  Way to go!

Next is a performance of Elementals as a quintet performed by the Naomi Hasan violin studio in Madison, WI.



Orchestras and classes come in all sizes, so it's not uncommon to hear the same piece played by a band of sixty or a chamber ensemble.  Admittedly, some pieces work better than others when reduced down and I think Elementals is one of them (though a bass added to the mix wouldn't have hurt).  This appears to be a group of adult students and I think that, for the most part, they did a fine job.  I don't mean to sound disparaging, but the 'cello was off.  I'll give him the benefit of the doubt - maybe his pegs got knocked out of tune before going on stage or he was sight reading (I've done some sight reading in performances before).

Finally, let's hear Las Mariposas Exoticas, performed by the Lanier Middle School Philharmonia:



Fantastic.  The orchestra did such a great job here and I'd like to point out the excellent use of the harp.  There's no harp part in the original version and the part they came up with was very tasteful. I love the harp and wish I could write more for them, but harps in school ensembles are rare and it's not cost-effective to write for them most of the time.  And in my experience, harpists can't stand playing piano parts - they're such idiomatically different instruments that it's hard to play one on the other.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Oscar Post-Mortem

The dust has settled and the score is Doug: 14, Oscar: 5  That's 74% - my best score in a long time and markedly better than last year's 61%.  It's also even with Entertainment Weekly's score.  Here's how it turned out.  My correct picks are bold.

Best Picture: The Hurt Locker
Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
Best Actor: Jeff Bridges
Best Actress: Sandra Bullock
Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz
Best Supporting Actress: Mo'Nique
Best Original Screenplay: The Hurt Locker
Best Adapted Screenplay: Precious
Best Cinematography: Avatar
Best Film Editing: The Hurt Locker
Best Art Direction: Avatar
Best Costumes: The Young Victoria
Best Makeup: Star Trek
Best Visual Effects: Avatar
Best Sound Effects Editing: The Hurt Locker
Best Sound Mixing: The Hurt Locker
Best Score: Up
Best Song: "The Weary Kind" from Crazy Heart
Best Animated Feature: Up

The Sound categories could have gone either to Avatar or The Hurt Locker and I just picked wrong.  Also, I underestimated the effect of 3D technology in the Cinematography category.  As for the Screenplays, I just underestimated The Hurt Locker and Precious.  On the plus side, I correctly picked Best Picture, Director, and all the acting awards for the first time ever.  I've finally figured out how to choose a Best Song, and I had the Artistic awards under control.

In all, only nine movies won Oscars (not counting short films and documentaries): The Hurt Locker: 6; Avatar: 3; Precious, Crazy Heart, and Up: 2 each; The Blind Side, Inglourious Basterds, Star Trek, and The Young Victoria: 1 each.

I thought it was a great show and that the hosts did a fantastic job and it only ran over by about five minutes.  Not that there weren't problems. I'm not sure why a giant set piece made of lampshades kept appearing.  I could have done without the clips explaining why short films matter and what goes into sound mixing and they spent way too long recapping the Governor's Banquet.  Also, did we have to introduce all the Actor and Actress nominees one by one AND have co-workers eulogize them AND then list them again before handing over the trophy?  Way overkill.  Tom Hanks had the right idea when he presented Best Picture - we've had little features about each nominee throughout the night, just open the envelope and get on with it. 

But what everyone is talking about is the pop-locking street dancing to mostly percussion-less orchestral Best Score nominees.  The dancing was good and the music was nice to hear, but the two together were surreal and incongruous. It wasn't as egregious as the Debbie Allen-choreographed tap dance routine to music from Holocaust and war bovies back at the '98 awards, though. Also, what was with that loud woman who Kanye West-ed one of the Short Film winners?

The biggest surprise of the night: Fisher Stevens won an Oscar!  The ubiquitous '80's actor produced the Best Documentary Feature. You may remember him from Short Circuit and Short Circuit 2, Reversal of Fortune, or from his TV appearances on Medium, Lost, Numb3rs, and Ugly Betty.

I'll let other, more qualified bloggers dissect the fashions in detail, but my favorites were Meryl Streep in classy white, Penelope Cruz in deep red, and Sandra Bullock in a shiny gown that seemed to change colors, depending on where she was standing.  The only thing wrong there was her lipstick.  My least favorites were Sara Jessica Parker's shapeless shower curtain, Diane Krueger's fluffy panda dress, and JLo's gown, which actually wouldn't have been too bad if the had eliminated the huge ruffles running up her left side. As for the men, it's nice to see a return to classic bow ties after years of straight ties on the red carpet.

I thought the presenters did a great job - especially Tina Fey and Colin Ferrell with their "actors vs. writers" argument.  The same could not be said for Cameron Diaz and Steve Carrel's flat banter.  There weren't any amazing acceptance speeches this year.  At least not on the level of Halle Berry or Tom Hanks.  I think everyone expected a lot from Mo'Nique and she kept it short and subdued.  Jeff Bridges rambled a bit but it was really heartfelt and sincere, acknowledging his father as a chief influence on his life and career.  Christoph Waltz has received a lot of awards this year and in each acceptance speech he shows a great facility for spinning long metaphors.  This one was astronomy-themed.

Overall, it was a great night and I really enjoyed the whole Oscar season.  I'm not sure if anyone read any of my posts or if they just disappeared into the interwebs, but they were fun to write.  I'll go back to writing about music here, so if you have been reading, please stick around.  And, of course, I'll be discussing the 83rd Oscars in January 2011.  Thanks, all!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Doug's Big Oscar Quiz - Part 5 Answers

21. "It's even, but it ain't settled. Let's settle it."

c. Paul Newman in The Color Of Money

22. "If it were true that children emulate their teachers, we'd have a lot more nuns running around."
a. Sean Penn in Milk

23. "The last time we talked, Mr. Dodd, you reduced me to tears. I promise you, it won't happen again. "
a. Grace Kelly in The Country Girl

24. "It's a mountain. The hardest piece you could Everest play. "
b. Geoffrey Rush in Shine

25. "My sister and I had an act that couldn't flop. My sister and I were headed straight for the top. My sister and I earned a thou a week at least, but my sister is now unfortunately deceased."
c. Catherine Zeta-Jones in Chicago

Friday, March 5, 2010

Final Oscar Picks

The Oscars are this Sunday evening on your local ABC station!  If you're like me, you'll tune in to the red carpet coverage well ahead of time (E! usually starts up around noon).

Before I get to my list of final Oscar predictions, I have some great news!  Entertainment Weekly came out with their own predictions recently and, except for one category, we both picked all the same winners.  Even The Young Victoria for Best Costumes, which surprised me!  For Original Screenplay they picked The Hurt Locker (on the basis that it's the favorite for Best Picture and the Best Picture usually takes a screenplay award) but I picked Inglourious Basterds because... I thought it was a better screenplay.

EW has a great Oscar prognosticator and they traditionally have a better record than I do (except in 2004 when I rocked it out and blew away their score *fist pump*). I figure it's because I'm either too stubborn to reconsider my picks or I veer from my initial instincts at the last minute.  But because they pick every category and I opt out of the Documentary and Short Film categories, EW has more to lose than I do.

Here's my final list of Oscar predictions:

Best Picture: The Hurt Locker
Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
Best Actor: Jeff Bridges
Best Actress: Sandra Bullock
Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz
Best Supporting Actress: Mo'Nique
Best Original Screenplay: Inglourious Basterds
Best Adapted Screenplay: Up In the Air
Best Cinematography: The Hurt Locker
Best Film Editing: The Hurt Locker
Best Art Direction: Avatar
Best Costumes: The Young Victoria
Best Makeup: Star Trek
Best Visual Effects: Avatar
Best Sound Effects Editing: Avatar
Best Sound Mixing: Avatar
Best Score: Up
Best Song: "The Weary Kind" from Crazy Heart
Best Animated Feature: Up

You'll notice that I'm predicting a pretty even distribution of hardware this year, with four Oscars each to Avatar and The Hurt Locker, two each to Up, Inglourious Basterds, and Crazy Heart, and one each to five other films.  Except for Visual Effects and maybe Supporting Actress, I don't think there's any category that has a solid lock this year and I'm most apprehensive about my picks in the Score, Costumes, and Screenplay categories.  I'm predicting the first ever female Best Director, the third-ever African American Best Supporting Actress (after Hattie McDaniel and Whoopi Goldberg), and the fourth-ever Austrian to win an Oscar for acting (Paul Muni, Louise Rainer, and Maximillian Schell were the other three). Also, if The Hurt Locker wins the big prize, it will be the lowest-grossing Best Picture in Oscar history.

Enjoy the show!  Happy Oscar Night, everyone!

Best Picture

By now you know that this year, the Academy is trying something new (or rather, something very very old) and named ten Best Picture nominees.  The idea was that by opening up the category, there would be more room for popular movies (rather than the usual serious arty fare) which would lead to more general interest, which would lead to higher ratings for the Oscar broadcast.

Well, we got ten nominees and at least the first part worked.  Popular movies were, in fact nominated alongside the serious critics' favorites.  Has that led to heightened interest in this year's awards? Not that I can see.  Will it lead to higher ratings? Maybe. Probably not.

Anyway, the nominees are Avatar, The Hurt Locker, The Blind Side, District 9, An Education, Inglourious Basterds, Precious, A Serious Man, Up, and Up In the Air.

If there were only the usual five nominees this year, I really don't think that The Blind Side, District 9, UpInglourious Basterds, or A Serious Man would have made the cut.  The rest are just the kind of thing the Academy likes - one populist pick, a dark horse, a quiet foreign production, and a couple of strong, serious contenders.  Normally, there's no room for feel-good fluff, allegoric sci-fi, cartoons, or talky, hard-to-categorize ensemble action spy films.  Of course, with this year's weird new voting rules, it really could go to anyone.

Realistically, though, there are two serious contenders: Avatar and The Hurt Locker.  Both are big action movies with puzzling titles, but I think voters will gravitate toward The Hurt Locker because it has more genuine soul and pathos.  Avatar's electronic blue monkey-cat puppets might be visually dazzling, but no motion-capture performance can ever compare to real-life acting in actual locations.  Many hearts will be broken, but I think The Hurt Locker will take the top prize.

In case you're curious: If it were entirely up to me, the Best Picture nominees would be The Hurt Locker, Up, Star Trek, District 9, and Inglourious Basterds.  I also found Paranormal Activity extremely effective.  And I'd give Inglourious Basterds the trophy.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

A Serious Man

The film A Serious Man is about a man who is serious.  Very serious.  Oh, so serious all the time.  And he wears glasses.  And stands on a roof.


Okay, I didn't see A Serious Man, but I have an excellent excuse: I hate the Coen Brothers' movies.


What?  You can't hate the Coen brothers!

Oh, but I do.  And it's not like I haven't tried really hard to like them.  I've seen 10 of their 13 movies and have disliked every single one of them.  I kept going in thinking "maybe this is the one I'll like" and I kept coming out disappointed.  I don't find their comedies funny and  I don't find their dramas compelling  Their characters are always greedy, idiot losers or cloyingly naive half-wits whom I wouldn't want to spend time with in real life and certainly don't want to root for in a movie. 

But you HAVE to like the Coen brothers!

I don't HAVE to do anything.  Just because their movies are considered "classics" and critics fall all over themselves to praise everything they do doesn't mean I'm obligated to like them.  I know it's blasphemous to say that I dislike everything they've ever done, because movie-lovers everywhere are SUPPOSED to love these movies without question, but I'm tired of being told what I'm SUPPOSED to like.  Enough, I say.  I'm done with the Coen brothers - they've failed me for the last time.  And this is a big deal, because I've seen every Best Picture nominee of the past 15 years.

But this one is different!

That's what they said about No Country For Old Men, Fargo, The Lady Killers... no, it's just going to be pathetic, greedy loser characters who do contrived, idiotic things in a "quirky" way and spout overwrought colloquial dialogue while being filmed at odd angles.  Done.

They won Best Director and Picture for No Country.  Doesn't that mean that they're good?

It means that people have convinced themselves that the Emperors are wearing clothes.  David Lynch has never won Best Director or Best Picture and his are some of the most fascinating, personal, and compelling films ever.  Seeing them makes me want to see whatever he does next.  Alfred Hitchcock is considered one of the greatest directors ever and he never won.  Same goes for Stanley Kubrick.  Martin Scorsese waited his whole life to win Best Director and finally won for re-making a Hong Kong action flick.  So no, a Best Director trophy doesn't mean that they're geniuses.


The Coen brothers make really smart movies.  Maybe you're just  not on their level.

EXCUSE me?  Them's fight'n words.  And I'll argue that point to the ground.  I don't consider The Big Lebowski or Raising Arizona particularly "cerebral" and I found O Brother, Where Art Thou to be a dull and uninformed adaptation of The Odyssey.  No, I don't find any of their movies "smart" except in the sense that all their characters are so stupid as to make many viewers seem like MENSA candidates by comparison. A lot of this has to do with the "look" of their films, filled with weird camera moves and unusual compositions that make their stupid stories seem "artsy."  That's the work of their Director of Photography, Roger Deakins.  I have no beef with Deakins, other than the fact that he enables the brothers and covers for their insipid scripts.

So there it is.  I refuse to waste any more time and money on Coen brothers movies.   With only two nominations this year, A Serious Man is the least likely of the Best Picture nominees to win and I feel extremely confident that I'm not missing anything.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Best Animated Feature

I normally don't make official picks for the short films and documentaries unless there's a big standout in one of the categories.  This year, I'm determined not to fall into that trap and I expect my overall score to be the better for it.

EDITED TO ADD: The animated short A Matter of Loaf and Death is the fourth Wallace & Grommit short from Aardman and director Nick Park and is strongly favored to win.  I'm still not picking this category.

I'm also not going to make an official pick for Best Foreign Language film.  The first time I heard of any of this year's films was when they were announced on nomination day.  I don't even think most of them have been released in the US yet.

I will, however, make an official pick for Best Animated Feature.  The nominees are Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Princess and the Frog, The Secret of Kells, and Up.  I really enjoyed Coraline, but it may be too dark for a win.  The producers of The Secret of Kells have made a point of not advertising it and without publicity, you just can't expect an Oscar.  Princess and Mr. Fox got some attention outside this category for their music, but Up leads with an additional four nominations, including Best Picture and Original Screenplay.  It's the clear front-runner and is poised to extend Pixar's unprecedented Oscar record.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Best Director

The nominees for Best Director are James Cameron (Avatar), Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds), Lee Daniels (Precious), and Jason Reitman (Up In the Air).  As I mentioned a few weeks ago, we have the fourth woman and the second African-American Best Director nominees and the first ever divorced couple (Cameron and Bigelow) up for Best Director.  That may be a first in any category, but I'm too lazy to research it.

Here's my take: Up In the Air and Inglourious Basterds were great, stylish films and are the unmistakably unique products of their directors, but their strength lies more in their screenplays.  Daniels is the least-experienced director, though he shows a creative narrative skill.  Really, though, it's going to come down to Cameron and Bigelow.  On one side is a big technical production involving an army of actors, computer animators, and computer power and on the other is a relatively smaller, though more intense, action film that cuts to the core of a handful of characters.  Let's face a fact here: Avatar is not Titanic.  It may be the new highest-grossing movie ever, but I don't think Avatar has the same deep cultural impact and fervent support as Cameron's previous Oscar juggernaut.  It's sure to take a handful of technical awards, but I believe that the Academy will make some history and recognize The Hurt Locker for its direction.  Bigelow has already won nearly every critics' award and the all-important Directors' Guild award, making her the favorite for the Best Director Oscar.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Doug's Big Oscar Quiz - Part 5

Match the actors with the quotes from their Oscar-winning roles

21. "It's even, but it ain't settled. Let's settle it."
     a. Denzel Washington
     b. Rod Steiger
     c. Paul Newman
     d. Tommy Lee Jones

22. "If it were true that children emulate their teachers, we'd have a lot more nuns running around."
     a. Sean Penn
     b. Dustin Hoffman
     c. Paul Scofield
     d. Jack Lemon

23. "The last time we talked, Mr. Dodd, you reduced me to tears. I promise you, it won't happen again. "
     a. Grace Kelly
     b. Ingrid Bergman
     c. Joan Crawford
     d. Vivien Leigh

24. "It's a mountain. The hardest piece you could Everest play. "
     a. Burt Lancaster
     b. Geoffrey Rush
     c. Adrian Brody
     d. Jim Broadbent

25. "My sister and I had an act that couldn't flop. My sister and I were headed straight for the top. My sister and I earned a thou a week at least, but my sister is now unfortunately deceased."
     a. Mary Steenburgen
     b. Ginger Rogers
     c. Catherine Zeta-Jones
     d. Claudette Colbert

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Doug's Big Oscar Quiz - Part 4 Answers

16. Hanna Schmitz
     e. Kate Winslet in The Reader

17. Anne Napolitano
     c. Mercedes Rhuel in The Fisher King

18. Sophie Zawistowski
     a. Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice

19. Elliot Garfield
     d. Richard Dreyfus in The Goodbye Girl

20. Ben Sanderson
     b. Nicholas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas

Friday, February 26, 2010

District 9 & Avatar

The best science fiction turns a funhouse mirror back on the viewer, distorting and augmenting reality and revealing truths.  Aliens, robots, and outer-space settings become metaphors for our life, society, and humanity and, by showing us what we're not, show us who we are.

The metaphors are all too bitter in District 9, when an alien spacecraft docks over Johannesburg, South Africa.  The lobster-like refugees are taken in, but little effort is made to understand their language, culture, and needs.  Instead, the government is more concerned with appropriating alien weapon technology.  Corralled into a filthy ghetto in squalid conditions, these aliens lash out with violence and the humans wonder why.  Enter Wikus Van Der Merwe, a government bureaucrat tasked with evicting the "prawns" to a new and even worse slum.  During the search of a tenement shack, he encounters an alien substance that starts to transform him into one of the creatures that he so despises and, forming an uneasy partnership with one of the aliens, he works to return back to normal.  As Wikus's transformation and his time with the aliens progresses, he gains an understanding and empathy for their plight.

Anyone who knows anything about South Africa knows what this film is really about. 

Avatar has pretty much the same plot.  On the distant planet of Pandora, paraplegic Marine Jake Sully finds new life when, through the miracle of technology, he is able to "become" the member of a local alien race known as the Na'Vi.  While Jake makes contact with the natives and learns their ways, his corporate and military bosses are more concerned with mining opportunities under the Na'Vi settlement.  Unlike Wikus, Jake prefers his lithe alien body and, after gaining a mystical understanding of the Na'Vi ways (and a romantic understanding of his tutor) he finds himself in a war against the humans.

So in Avatar, the U.S. Military brings an unprovoked attack on a nation (of aliens) in order to gain lucrative drilling rights.  Hmmm... what could they be saying here?  Conversely, roles are turned on their heads when the destruction of a large tower-like structure serves as a call-to-arms for the Na'Vi. On top of that, we discover (with Jake) that all life on Pandora is literally connected in a web of consciousness and that destroying any part of the planet is bad for all living things.  Director James Cameron has never been big on subtlety.  The screenplay may be as artful as a cudgel to the head, but at least Cameron recognizes that science fiction can provide an entertaining platform for his allegorical ideas.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Screenplay Awards

Best Score was a tough pick, but this one might be even more difficult.

The nominees for Best Adapted Screenplay are District 9, An Education, In The Loop, Precious, and Up In the Air.  Normally, we look for Best Picture nominees, because Picture, Director, and Screenplay often go to the same film, but four of these five (all but In The Loop) are Best Picture contenders.  Being a dark allegorical science fiction film, I don't think District 9 has a strong chance.  The best contender, in my opinion, is Up In The Air, for its emphasis on character, great dialogue, and sweet-and-sour tone.  An Education might upset, and there's a chance that Precious could rally support, but I think Up In the Air is just the sort of movie that wins here.

For Original Screenplay, we have The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, The Messenger, A Serious Man, and Up.  Here we have three Best Picture nominees in the mix.  The Hurt Locker is a great action film but is very episodic and The Messenger and A Serious Man are more subdued.  My first instinct tells me that Up is the standout in this category.  It has the most original screenplay in at least a decade with each bizarre and unlikely story element building up to a genuinely moving end.  Up is, however an animated film, which historically fare poorly in the writing categories.  That said, I'm going to pick  Inglourious Basterds for the win.  It has a brilliant screenplay boiling over with Tarantino's unique style of dialogue, but because most of it is in French, German, and Italian with English subtitles, audiences are compelled to pay more attention to the words and appreciate the language and subtlety of the script.