Monday, December 19, 2011

Two Years Wasted

Oh, Internets.  Let my tell you a sad story of sadness.

As I've mentioned a few times on this blog, I've been working on a new opera. It's been two years of slow, meticulous work, coming up with over an hour of music and all the lyrics.  I'm really proud of what I've done and I think it might be one of the better things I've ever written.  The whole piece is 98% done - I just need to work out a few of the musical transitions between scenes and that will take about a week.

And then I heard just this morning that someone has written a musical with the exact same setting, themes, and a very similar plot that's going to be produced next year, with strong hopes of a Broadway run.

And I just died a little.

So I'm weighing my options. Part of me wants to put in that last week of work, like an exhausted and broken marathon runner getting carried over the finish line to achieve a sense of closure.  I'd then print it out, put it in a binder, and it would sit on a shelf next to my first opera, unproduced forever.  Another part of me just wants to burn it all and scream to the sky as loud as I can.  I've considered making drastic revisions to my piece, but I don't know where I'd start. The music is very specific to the setting and would be difficult to adapt.

The fact is, that the two pieces are going to be very different, but even though each was created without the knowledge of the other, comparisons will be made and I will likely lose any battle of opinions. 

Woe is me, Internets.  Weep for the weary artist.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Sales Statement 2011 (Part 1)

I got my annual sales statement from Alfred Publishing recently! When I first started getting these, they were listings of how many copies each piece of published music was sold that year and, while that's the same basic principle for current statements, there are major changes from those early days. Now, each piece of music is available in multiple forms: Score and parts, score alone, parts alone, digital parts downloaded through SmartMusic, digital score downloaded through SmartMusic, print licensing, mechanical licensing, and photocopy licensing.  Then all of those are divided into domestic sales (inside the U.S.) and foreign sales (everywhere else), meaning that each of my published works has a potential for 16 revenue streams.

To be honest, though, each of those revenue streams accounts for very little on its own. My foreign sales are a fraction of a fraction of my domestic sales and only one honest director paid Alfred after making photocopies like he's supposed to do. But those few dollars here and there accumulate and, added to sales of scores and parts (which make up the bulk of the sales), they added up to a significant increase in overall sales from last year.  So if you bought something of mine this year, thank you!

Now comes the fun part: discovering which were my best sellers of the year.  Here are my top five best selling folios of scores and parts (domestic sales):

1. Avatar
2. Gauntlet & Sneaking Suspicion (tie)
3. Gargoyles
4. Las Mariposas Exoticas
5. Agincourt

Avatar was last year's number-one seller as well and I credited that to people mistaking my piece for the soundtrack to James Cameron's 2009 movie. I suppose this either means that people haven't caught on yet or they really like my piece.  Gauntlet and Gargoyles always seem to make the top five and Sneaking Suspicion did well, mostly because it's brand new.  Star of Valor and Storm Trail were also new and had respectable numbers, but didn't crack the top five. Agincourt stays strong, but this year's surprise is the resurgence of Mariposas. It's an older piece that usually stays in the middle of the pack, but has rallied for some reason this year.

Overall, it was a good year! I'll have more information and top five lists in a later post.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A Breeze in the Keys Video

Check out this video of the string orchestra of l'Escola Municipal de Música de Calvià.  They open their show with"A Breeze In the Keys".


I'm not used to hearing it that fast, but for this piece a slightly faster tempo works. It also helps that they have spectacular musicianship and are able to make the piece sound effortless.  So where exactly is l'Escola Municipal de Música de Calvià?  Well, it's here:


In the western Mediterranean off the Spanish mainland.

BAM! INTERNATIONALLY FAMOUS COMPOSER!

I forgot most of my Spanish when I learned Italian, but gracias a Profesor László Füllöp!

 

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Maharaja Video

It looks like my new piece "Maharaja" is really taking off! I've already found a few concert videos on YouTube and I think this one is the best. It's just a little too fast, but the intonation and rhythms are flawless and check out the bass player's fancy German bow grip! I also like that the Violin II player is really getting into the groove of those finger snaps at 1:40.

Anyway, please to enjoy the Encore Strings of East Lansing, Michigan in their Fall 2011 concert:



 

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Doug Spata Program Notes

There's a new thing on the bar to the right!

I have a lot of people ask me for specific information about my music, so I've started a new page on this blog for program notes. The idea is that the new page will serve as a database for each of my published pieces, with a brief program note, information on keys, publication dates (since that's apparently a hot search item for some of my music), and links so you can listen, download, and buy each piece from the Alfred Publishing Web sites.

It's only just started and I have a long way to go, but check back occasionally for additional titles!

 

Monday, October 24, 2011

North Pole Workshop Tutorials

Dr. Patrick Murphy, orchestra director at Tecumseh Junior High and Jefferson High School in Laffayette, Indiana has set up a wonderful YouTube channel for his students and, having stumbled across it recently, I feel compelled to share.  In his videos, Dr. Murphy demonstrates and guides students through the music part by part, so they can practice along with him at home. It's a brilliant use of the technology and I'm honored that he took time to make videos for my own North Pole Workshop.

First Violin

Second Violin

Viola

'Cello

Bass

Way to go, Doc!  I really hope that your students, their parents, and the school administration appreciate all the hard work and creativity that went into this project!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Proofing

Three of the publishing schedule's landmarks wend by in quick succession recently. About a week ago, I got my copies of this year's new music, a few days ago I got my contract addendum from Alfred Publishing, and yesterday I got the proofs for next year's music.

When I get proofs, they send the score that I submitted, marked up in red pen with all sorts of corrections and editions and then I check that against the engravings of the score and parts to make sure there are no errors. When I say "marked up in red pen" it sounds bad, like they're correcting my homework or re-writing my music, but it's not like that at all. My editors like to be a lot more specific with bowings than I am, adding upbow, downbow, and lift marks. They like to be very precise about placing dynamics and articulations and they don't share my enthusiasm for double bar lines.  But I'm all for being as specific as possible, so their changes are good ones. The only corrections I found were two wrong notes in the Viola part of Beale Street Strut.

Funny story about getting my copies of this year's finished music: I usually have about three pieces published each year and they send me two copies of each in a small box. This year I found a giant, heavy box on my doorstep. I opened it up and discovered someone had mixed up their Douglas E's - I had received the shipment intended for Alfred/Belwin composer Douglas E. Wagner. I checked the shipping label and, sure enough: his name, my address. I contacted Alfred and we sorted it out. No word if Mr. Wagner got my music by accident.

Friday, August 19, 2011

YouTube Concert

I thought I'd assemble a little YouTube concert from some recent videos of my music. Up first is the Crews Middle School 7th Grade orchestra playing Lemon Twist:


Nice job!  Very precise playing, a good laid-back tempo, and I like those sharp uniforms! Up next is the String Orchestra of the Community Music School at Webster University in St. Louis playing A Postcard From Tuscany.


A good sense of style on this one and it's good to see young players take their time with a more lyrical piece.  Next is the Monarch 7th and 8th Grade Orchestra, appropriately playing Las Mariposas Exoticas:


This is one of those pieces with interlocking parts, where the whole orchestra works as one and I think they did a pretty good job of keeping it together.  They also did a nice job giving the piece the "lightness" it requires.  Let's finish with a classic.  Here's the Wilson Middle School Orchestra playing Gauntlet:


Nicely done!  Bravi to all the orchestras!

Monday, July 18, 2011

New Music Selected: Samba Del Sol

My third piece selected for the 2012 - 2013 Alfred String Orchestra catalog is Samba Del Sol, an appropriately sunny tune for beginners. It's all in pizzicato and all on the D string, making is super-easy and it features optional percussion parts and back-and-forth melodies, making it super-fun. 

Not much else to say about this one, other than to mention that it's the latest of many Latin-themed pieces I've had published. The others include "Las Mariposas Exoticas," "Violet's Tango," and "Mambo Incognito."  I'd bet a good concert could be put together with just my Latin numbers.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

New Music Selected: Harrowland

The second of my pieces that Alfred Publishing selected for their 2012-2013 catalog is Harrowland.  It's a fast, minor-key piece for beginners in the same "sturm und drang" style as Gauntlet, Avatar, Agincourt, and Elementals. And those are some of my best-sellers.

As always, I write string orchestra music as instructive etudes, so directors can reinforce important skills with their concert music.  With wide leaps between notes, Harrowland is designed to give young musicians practice with string crossings.

This one was actually a re-submission. About two weeks after I finished Harrowland, I brought it along with me when I was invited to guest-conduct at the 2007 String Day concert in Philadelphia, where the piece was premiered.  Each year, string students of Bucks County, PA volunteer a Saturday to sightread a few selections in the morning, rehearse them for a few hours, and put on a show that same evening.  I was asked to conduct the advanced group, made of middle school students and a few ringers. We opened with Gauntlet, played a few other pieces, and closed with the world premiere of Harrowland (which, at the time, was called "Voyage of the Queen Anne's Revenge").  It was a great time and an exciting day of music-making! We had a great turnout of participants and it's great to see a school district where students are given opportunities to shine.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

New Music Selected: Beale Street Strut

I recently heard from my editor and I'm thrilled to announce that Alfred Publishing will release three of my new pieces in their 2012-2013 String Orchestra catalog!  They're ahead of schedule this year, as I usually hear from them in late July or early August. 

The first new piece to look forward to is Beale Street Strut, a major-key, intermediate-level piece.  For those of you outside the United States (which, I understand to my delight, is a growing number), Beale Street is a stretch of road in the city of Memphis, Tennessee, famous for having a lot of jazz and blues clubs and it is considered the epicenter of Southern jazz. 

As you might expect, the piece has a jazzy style and features some "blue" notes. Specifically, F-F# and C-C# chromatics.  The basses and 'cellos get to play some classic bass lines as well as some broad-shouldered melodies. As usual, there's lots for the violas to do as well.

I think this is one that students will be humming in the hallways of their schools and that audiences will remember after the curtain goes down.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Doug' New Opera

I keep mentioning that I'm working on a new opera, but I never get a chance to mention any specifics. To catch you up: I wrote my first opera, showed it around, and nobody had the interest or resources to produce my little epic. I was just too ambitious and, even though I consider it to be one of the best things I've ever written, it will probably never be heard.  Such is life.

So for my second opera, I decided to make everything as different as possible. It will be short (75 to 90 minutes, no intermission), it will be economical (four singers, an orchestra of three), and it will be portable (no set). My goal is college productions, the Cincy Fringe Festival, and/or a tour of local schools.

My manner of writing this opera is also completely different. For opera #1, I wrote a play and set it to music. It's a continuous score with recurring motifs in the tradition of Debussy.  Opera #2 is a number opera – a series of individual songs connected by talking and melodrama, more like "The Magic Flute." "Postcards From Morocco" is a big structural influence as well, since it features the characters singing a series of songs to the audience.  So instead of working out all the text first, I'm taking it one song at a time.  Here's my process:

1. After doing all my research, I figured out what needs to be said and who needs to say it. Then I wrote out a paragraph or two in their voice, outlining what I want each character to say and what I want each song to accomplish.

2. Next, I'll write a piece of music that captures the emotion of what the character is saying.

3. Finally, I'll rephrase the paragraph into verse to fit the rhythms of the music.  Often, I'll need to adjust the music a little to fit the words. It's a tailoring process.

So there's a lot of back-and forth. I've also been careful with the tone of each piece, making sure that it leads into the next piece without an abrupt jump in style.  After years of composing, I've come to realize that my best energy comes at the beginning of a project. So I've decided to write this opera backwards. I wrote the introduction music first and then the finale and have been working my way backwards, song by song, with very little skipping.

I'm about two-thirds done and I have three arias and two choruses to complete. Then I can focus on the book (the talking parts), adjust the lyrics and music, and finish by writing the underscores that connect many of the songs.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Fan Mail

One of the best perks of being a published composer is getting fan mail. I absolutely love getting feedback from people who have played, conducted, or heard something I wrote.  (Funny story: A friend of mine, who is an orchestra teacher, tells me that kids get confused when he says they can contact me because they think all composers are dead.)  My e-mail address is readily available with only a little online searching, so I get most of my fan mail online but, occasionally, someone asks for my mailing address and writes out a letter. Some orchestra teachers have even made it an end-of-the year cross-curriculum assignment to write to the composer of a piece they enjoyed playing that year.

Such was the case when I recently received a packet of letters recently.  An orchestra in the Chicago area played Westward Motion and seven of the students wrote to tell me about it in some of the most charming hand-written letters.  In my favorite of the bunch, a young violist writes:

Thanks for being a composer! I love music and I hope you write another piece.

Do you hear that?  That's the sound of my heart breaking.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

New Submission Time

I'm a little late in posting this, but about two weeks ago I sent off a packet of new music to my editor at Alfred Publishing.  It's always a challenging process, but here's what leads up to my trip to the post office:

1. Write a ton of music. I write about ten pieces of music each year for student string orchestras. On top of that, I've been working on a new opera and some other minor projects, but my main focus is on string orchestra music. The goal is to produce a wide variety of music in different styles and at different ability levels, to give the selection committee as much choice as possible and to hopefully get more music selected.

2. Get organized. In mid-April I took all my newest scores and laid them out on my office floor, organized by grade level and tonality into nine categories. Sort of like this:

Major Key/Beginner          Minor Key/Beginner          Novelty/Beginner
Major Key/Intermediate     Minor Key/Intermediate     Novelty/Intermediate
Major Key/Advanced         Minor Key/Advanced        Novelty/Advanced

Usually, I have more than one piece in each category. This year I had two or sometimes three new pieces ready to fill each specific need.

3. Make some decisions. I selected what I thought was the best piece in each category and removed the others from the piles, leaving nine pieces. Then I looked again.  This left me with two major-key pieces in a similar style and two Latin dances and two pieces that featured the same bowing technique.  So I switched some things out and played around with the lineup. Again, the goal is to balance the portfolio as much as possible, to give the selection committee nine completely different and highly attractive options. 

4. Look to the past. Finally, I decided which were the least-outstanding of the remaining pieces and replaced them with music from my back catalog – pieces that I'd previously submitted that weren't selected, but about which I still feel strongly.  I tried to find two of those, but in order to maintain a good balance, I only entered one re-submission this year.

5. Pack it up. I decided on what order to present the final nine pieces, wrote out descriptions of each in a letter to my editor, burned a CD of Finale recordings, packed it all up, and mailed the letter, CD, and scores. 

Now I wait. The selection committee meets sometime in June and I usually hear from them by late July, around my birthday.  It's always a tense time, knowing that I've done my best and put a lot of work into the submissions, but realizing that there are a lot of factors that go into their final decision.  I'm sure the folks at Alfred go through the same process, but with hundreds of submitted scores from dozens of composers, whereas I started the process with only about 20 pieces.

Until then, I can look forward to the roll-out of last year's selections. They're already available for sale at jwpepper.com and the recordings should be released soon!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Saga of the Broken Arm: One Year Later

Today is one year since the bike accident where I shattered my right shoulder, so I thought it would be a good time to give another update on my condition.

Things are going well!  I finished physical therapy back in October. Actually, that's not true. My insurance stopped paying for physical therapy in September and I kept paying on my own through October, then I continued my exercises at the local rec center, which is way cheaper.  So I never technically "graduated" from physical therapy, but I haven't stopped my exercises. I take time to stretch it out twice a day and when I go to the rec center to run, I also use their weights and machines for my shoulder.

I can now reach over my head, behind my back, and lift over ten pounds without a problem. I can pick up my three-year-old and nearly-one-year-old nieces, lug a bag of groceries, and sleep in a bed (though a pillow propping up my right arm still helps). The right arm still isn't as good as the left, but I'd guess that I now have 95% mobility.

After the accident, I went from regular activity and exercise to zero movement so, as you can imagine, I gained quite a bit of weight. As my mobility has improved and the pain has died down, I've been able to get back to a regular exercise routine and lose the weight again.

I was off Percoset pretty quickly and moved over to plain Advil, but by Thanksgiving, I didn't need that anymore either.  I can drive a car, get dressed, run, and do yoga (I'm back to twice a week).  I haven't tried swimming yet, but I have conducted a few concerts in the past year and, though I was exhausted and achy by the end, they all went well.

One thing I haven't tried and probably won't again: get back on a bike.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Doug Spata's iPod - 2011

I thought I'd keep up the tradition and make another playlist of what I've been listening to recently.  If you've read my other playlist posts, you'll remember that I use my iPod mostly when I'm running, so I tend not to have songs with slow tempos or songs that change tempos.

I used to set it to shuffle and take my bike out to the park, but I haven't done that since my accident. I'm still recovering, but I've decided to stay closer to the ground at slower speeds and take up running instead of biking.  Anyhoo, here's what I've been listening to:

1. Tell 'Em, Sleigh Bells.
My new favorite band. It's just two people making all that noise and their album is a brief, searing, 32 minutes of awesome. I like a lot of their songs, but this one is my favorite.  In fact, I appropriated their use of a power drill as a musical instrument in one of my new pieces, to be published and recorded by Alfred Publishing in the Fall.

 

2. Boy, Ra Ra Riot.
I love the propulsive bassline and the 'cello/violin duet in this one. That might be a viola, though – it's hard to tell.  This video was made at the 2010 Bumbershoot Arts Festival in Seattle. I've been to Bumbershoot twice and highly recommend it. Just get in a line and be surprised at what you see.


3. Oh No, Marina and the Diamonds
If you like Florence + The Machine you'll likely enjoy Marina and the Diamonds. Marina looks like a former Disney pop star but her lyrics are sharp as razors and her voice has a surprising urgency.  I was torn between including this song and the frank, confessional "I Am Not a Robot," but "Oh No" has video. But it's not a great video. I don't think the comic book style and Marina's glossy look match up well at all with the tough, introspective lyrics.


4. I Don't Mind It, Screaming Females
An aptly-named band!  Lead singer Marissa Paternoster has a great voice and it blends well with her distorted guitar riffs and the fantastic thumping bassline in this song. This is a great song to run to.

 

5. Crash Years, The New Pornographers
Yet another strong female singer, this time backed by a more elaborate, colorful ensemble.  And a great whistling interlude.  I also enjoy this video, which is an homage to the opening of the 1964 French film "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg."

 

6. When the Child Awakes, Mount Righteous
This large group consists of a tuba, marching percussion, and one guitar. And everyone sings.  All their songs sound like campfire sing-alongs and have wonderful melodies. I love the earnest enthusiasm that goes into their music.  And that little “whooooooop!” after each chorus.


7. Seperate, The Thermals
A great bass line, cutting guitar, and hand claps.  What more could you ask for?  Oh yeah – lacerating lyrics in one of the best angry breakup songs of the year. “Separate we are finally whole.”  Ouch!  It stings!


8. Rocket, Goldfrapp
Guilty pleasure time. I tried hard to hate this song, but it’s so ridiculously catchy that I just gave in. This song could have come straight off an Olivia Newton-John album from 1981.  Just enjoy those soft synths and let the awesome wash over you.


9. Heads Will Roll, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs
This song has a great attitude and swagger. And a weird video. The werewolf in red shoes dancing on a light-up floor is an obvious reference to Thriller-era Michael Jackson, and then it gets gruesome.  The video actually reminds me of one I posted last year for Passion Pit's "Little Secrets."


10. Answer To Yourself, The Soft Pack
This song is like a self-help book set to music, giving empowering advice to a great tune and roaring guitars. It's nice to be reassured every once in a while.



Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Oscars 2010: Post-Mortem

Another Oscar Night has come and gone and the final score this year is Doug: 10, Oscar: 9.  I knew I couldn't beat last year's score and I'm just happy to get over 50%.  Here's how it turned out - I emboldened the categories that I picked correctly:


Best Picture: The King's Speech
Best Director: Tom Hooper, The King's Speech
Best Actor: Colin Firth, The King's Speech
Best Actress: Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Best Supporting Actor: Christian Bale, The Fighter
Best Supporting Actress: Melissa Leo, The Fighter
Best Original Screenplay: the King's Speech
Best Adapted Screenplay: The Social Network
Best Animated Feature: Toy Story 3
Best Cinematography: Inception
Best Editing: The Social Network
Best Score: The Social Network
Best Song: Toy Story 3
Best Art Direction: Alice In Wonderland
Best Costumes: Alice In Wonderland
Best Makeup: The Wolfman
Best Visual Effects: Inception
Best Sound: Inception
Best Sound Effects Editing: Inception

I thought the show was okay. Anne Hathaway was great and kept it fun and relatable, but James Franco was a little wooden.  I suspect that he does better when he's not reading his lines from a teleprompter.


Things that were good about the show:
1. Lots of surprises. Tom Hooper winning Best Director? Alice In Wonderland taking more than anyone expected? Randy Newman gets Best Song? These are the things that keep Oscar Night interesting.

2. The sets were nice.

3. With a few exceptions, they kept things moving. Kirk Douglas and Billy Crystal were allowed to indulge themselves way too much and each brought the show to a screeching halt, but otherwise, things were very smooth.

4. They finally took my advice and didn't mic the audience during the "In Memoriam" segment!  There's nothing more tacky than the applause-o-meter popularity contest we usually get.

5. People looked good. There were no "what was she wearing" moments, but then again, those often make things interesting too.


Things that were bad about the show:
1. If this was supposed to be the "young and hip" Oscars, you wouldn't know it.  Young audiences don't want to hear about movies that are over 10 years old. They don't care about Oscar history. They don't want to learn about the first Oscar broadcast in 1953. And they don't want to look at the presenters and ask "Who?"

2. The writing was awful. Even by award show standards.  The intros, forced banter, and witticisms were uniformly strained, stale, and flat.

3. No great acceptance speeches. Colin Firth was sweet, Tom Hooper had a nice story to tell, and Randy Newman was kind of funny, but no one had a standout speech.

4. My advice is that if you're going to have two co-hosts, they should be as different as possible.  I'd like to see Steve Martin's jaded, sarcastic persona paired with Anne Hathaway's  earnest "Golly, I can't believe I'm here" energy.  That would make an interesting dynamic.

So: not my best year, but definitely not my worst.  I enjoyed writing these posts and I'll go back to writing about music now, but come back next February and we'll do it all again for the 84th Academy Awards.  Thanks for reading!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Oscar Picks: The Final List

Oscar Night is tomorrow!  If you're like me, you'll clear your schedule and start watching the red carpet coverage at about noon. The show starts at 8:00pm on ABC.  I'm expecting a young, modern show and it's my hope that enigmatic Documentary Feature nominee Banksy contributes to the sets.

Below, you'll find my final picks for the 2010 Academy Awards. I've made a few changes from my initial picks. Melissa Leo has been campaigning hard for Best Supporting Actress and has racked up several awards, but after seeing the movies, I'm sticking to my initial pick of Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit.  She really had a lead role - bigger than Jeff Bridges - and I think she'll walk away with the Oscar.

I previously picked Alice In Wonderland for Costumes and Art Direction, but, looking over my predictions, I only picked The King's Speech for two, including Best Picture, and that makes me nervous.  No Best Picture since Rebecca has earned so few. I suspect that the artistic merits of The King's Speech will be its best shot at a higher total, so I'm changing my picks. 

Otherwise, things are pretty much the same. I'm predicting four wins for Inception and The King's Speech and two each for True Grit and The Social Network. Seven other movies will each take one.  Sorry, Winter's Bone - you were one of my favorite movies of the year, but you're destined to be the only Best Picture nominee to go home empty-handed.  I'm confident in my picks for the acting awards - especially Supporting Actor - but those artistic and technical categories always have a way of biting me. I'm most worried about Cinematography, Costumes, and Art Direction.

Best Picture: The King's Speech
Best Director: David Fincher, The Social Network
Best Actor: Colin Firth, The King's Speech
Best Actress: Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Best Supporting Actor: Christian Bale, The Fighter
Best Supporting Actress: Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit
Best Original Screenplay: The Kids Are All Right
Best Adapted Screenplay: The Social Network
Best Animated Feature: Toy Story 3
Best Cinematography: True Grit
Best Editing: 127 Hours
Best Score: Inception
Best Song: "Coming Home" Country Strong
Best Art Direction: The King's Speech
Best Costumes: The King's Speech
Best Makeup: The Wolfman
Best Visual Effects: Inception
Best Sound: Inception
Best Sound Effects Editing: Inception

Friday, February 25, 2011

Best Picture

I rather like the ten-nominee system of the past few years.  It's allowed some interesting films to get recognition when they normally wouldn't.  So here are the ten Best Picture nominees and my assessment of their Best Picture changes:

1. Toy Story 3: A solid film, but animation is still struggling to gain equal acceptance with live-action films.  Its a shoo-in for Best Animated Feature, which will be the extent of its wins.

2. Winter's Bone: One of my favorites of the year.  Fantastic acting, a real, gritty sense of danger, and an excellent surprise.  It doesn't stand a chance.

3. 127 Hours: In short, it's too gruesome to win Best Picture.

4. Inception: Popular, yes, but it's dense as granite and it's sci-fi, which traditionally cleans up in the technical categories and gets overshadowed in the Best Picture race.

5. Black Swan: Too crazy to win.

6. The Kids Are All Right: It's a talky, character-driven family drama with a bitter touch of comedy.  All bode well, but it's missing the epic quality of some of its contenders. Just like Little Miss Sunshine and Juno, it's more attractive as a Screenplay winner than as a Best Picture.

7. The Fighter: This one is really an acting showcase. Melissa Leo has a strong shot at Supporting Actress and there's no way Christian Bale can lose Best Supporting Actor, but the movie as a whole is all over the place.

8. True Grit: A real contender.  As I wrote in an earlier post, it's the least-awful Coen Brothers movie.  It's a big story in a big setting with big characters, but perhaps the actors are getting more attention than the film itself.

9.  The Social Network: It has up-to-the-minute relevance and tells a compelling story, but I feel that its screenplay is the real star, rather than the actors or directing.  Also, from a visual standpoint, it's not much to look at.

10. The King's Speech: It's a period historical drama tempered with appropriate levity, it deals with epic events on an intimate scale, and it's filled with notable performances. And the costumes and sets are top-notch.  The King's Speech fulfills every criteria for a Best Picture and, unless voters decide to get all modern and edgy this year, I think it will win Best Picture.

The Fighter & The Social Network

In The Fighter, Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) is an aspiring boxer with a close-knit family - his mother (nominee Melissa Leo) is a pushy, posessive manager and his half-brother Dicky (nominee Christian Bale) is his trainer.  Dicky's crack addiction is an open secret and its effects ripple out to create trouble for Micky's family and career.  All the negative influences in his life hold Micky back from his true potential, but when he cuts them loose and starts winning, his victories are hollow and, until a balance is found, he is kept from being a true champion.

In The Social Network, Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg (nominee Jesse Eisenberg) invents Facebook and brings his friends on board for the ride.  As the project grows and expands, reaching the boundaries of his grasp, he befriends Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), a controversial figure in internet history for his own groundbreaking invention, Napster. Sean takes Mark under his wing, instilling his cutthroat instincts and paranoia in the young programmer. Sean introduces Mark to a life of excess while insinuating himself into the company and insulating Mark from the friends who first helped him succeed.  As Facebook grows stronger, the friendships fall apart, making all the victories hollow.  What was intended as a way for people to be more connected on a personal level eventually became a wedge between friends and partners.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Best Director

This year's Best Director nominees are Darren Arnofsky (Black Swan), David O. Russell (The Fighter), Tom Hooper (The King's Speech), David Fincher (The Social Network), and the Coen Brothers (True Grit).

The King's Speech might be the front runner for Best Picture, but its director is the youngest and most inexperienced of the five nominees. Though he did some interesting things with lenses, the other four nominees are better-known for their unique artistic visions and visual styles. I think that Russell, the Coens, and especially Arnofsky are considered oddball outsiders who make weird, outside-the-margins movies. Fincher, on the other hand, makes tasteful commercial hits, has never won before, has one previous nomination, has earned Hollywood credibility with films that are considered "modern classics," and his movie has a notable lack of psychotic ballerinas who grow feathers onstage.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Best Animated Feature

Frequent readers of this blog know that I don't pick short films or documentaries because a.) I don't see them and can't make judgements and b.) they tend to ruin my average. 

I would, however, like to pick the Animated Feature category.  The nominees are How To Train Your Dragon, The Illusionist, and Toy Story 3.  With its Best Picture and Screenplay nominations, Toy Story 3 is the obvious choice.

This might be the clearest sure thing in this year's Oscars.

Friday, February 18, 2011

True Grit and Winter's Bone

You may recall that I swore off Coen Brothers movies last year but, unfortunately, True Grit is a juggernaut at this year's Oscars, so I felt compelled to see it.  But I still refused pay for it myself.  That said, I found it to be the least-annoying movie they've ever made.  Probably because their over-written, cloyingly stylized dialogue doesn't sound nearly as grating coming from 19th-Century frontierspeople.  There are Coen-esque annoyances throughout, though.  Mainly the courtroom scene and the dentist. 

End of disclaimer. moving on:

True Grit follows 13-year-old Mattie Ross (nominee Hailee Steinfeld) as she seeks revenge for her father's murder. Mattie hires gruff U.S. Marshall "Rooster" Cogburn (nominee Jeff Bridges) to track and kill Tom Cheney (Josh Brolin).  Constantly underestimated and condescended, Mattie pushes hard to get what she wants, negotiating and bargaining her way through the towns and wilderness with a focused ferocity.  As a child and a female in the Old West, she gets no respect but, in her father's absence, Mattie is now the man of her household and she takes charge of what needs to be done.

In Winter's Bone, Ree (nominee Jennifer Lawrence) is a modern teen in rural Arkansas. Her criminal father has left her to care for an invalid mother and two much younger siblings and, it turns out, jumped bail. Unless Ree can find him and turn him in, she and her family will loose their home.  So Ree searches and asks around, encountering a series of dangerous people who don't want her father found.  But Ree doesn't care if he's alive or dead, what he did, or who is responsible for his disappearance.  She may be looked down on for being a child and a girl, but her stoic, single-minded focus keeps her going until she finds the truth and can save her home. She is the man of the house and, despite warnings and beatings, puts herself in harm's way to provide for her family.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Screenplay Awards

The Best Adapted Screenplay nominees are 127 Hours, The Social Network, Toy Story 3, True Grit, and Winter's Bone

Can someone explain to me how Toy Story 3 is an adapted screenplay?

But really, the standout is Aaron Sorkin's script for The Social Network.  It's really the best part of that film and it's the aspect that people are talking about most. The plot zips along like a thriller, it has up-to-the-minute relevance, and the dialogue pops like fireworks.  True Grit might upset here, but the logical choice is the Facebook movie.

The Best Original Screenplay nominees are Another Year, The Fighter, Inception, The Kids Are All Right, and The King's Speech

Inception might be the most discussed and hashed-over screenplay of the year, but Oscar voters tend to favor compelling, small-scale, character-driven films, so I'm going with The Kids Are All Right. It probably won't win in any other category, but it's best shot is for its screenplay.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Best Actor

This year's Best Actor nominees are Javier Bardem (Biutiful), Jeff Bridges (True Grit), Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network), Colin Firth (The King's Speech), and James Franco (127 Hours).

I think it's pretty cool that for the first time ever, an Oscar host is also up for an award - and one as big as Lead Actor.  It's also cool that Jeff Bridges could be the third person in Oscar history to win back-to-back Best Actor trophies. 

In the end, though, I think Colin Firth will take home the prize. His character deals with a debilitating physical impediment in an inspirational period film - pure Oscar bait.  Bardem's film is gaining momentum but it's extra-super depressing. Firth's real competition comes from Bridges, who eliminates all vestiges of "The Dude" in his gruff performance as Rooster Cogburn.

Friday, February 11, 2011

127 Hours and The King's Speech

In 127 Hours, Aaron Ralston (James Franco) is the cocksure mountain climber who gets pinned in a narrow Utah canyon and famously ends up cutting off his own arm to free himself.  Though he realizes soon after the accident that he'll probably lose the arm, Aaron takes five agonizing days to actually take the initiative and do what has to be done.  In that time, he ponders his life and the mistakes that led him to that point. He meditates, in his dehydrated state, on his attitudes, his relationships, and his life. The movie makes it clear that without having the time to reflect in the face of death, he would never had achieved the epiphany of self-awareness that led him to free himself.  "That rock was waiting for me my whole life," he says, "The minute I was born, every breath that I've taken, every action has been leading me to this crack on the outer surface."

In the King's Speech, the future King George VI (Colin Firth) fights a debilitating stutter and seeks help from Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an Australian speech therapist with unusual methods.  While Lionel can help "Bertie" with a few tricks and exercises, it's not until the future king opens up about his anxieties and troubled past that lasting progress can begin. After Bertie reluctantly takes on the role of king - a responsibility he never thought he'd have and one that he has dreaded his whole life - England is thrust into a war with Germany and the country finds itself in need of a leader with a strong voice.  Though it is by no means easy, it is clear that he never would have been able to do it at all without help from Lionel and the self awareness that came from his epiphany.

In each film, our main character must face the past that led him to a defining moment. Though their stakes and situations are very different, they must both muster their courage to endure the unthinkable.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Music Awards

Hooray music awards!  This year's nominees for Best Score are How To Train Your Dragon, Inception, The King's Speech, 127 Hours, and The Social Network

I love Alexandre Desplat's music, but I'm surprised at his nomination for The King's Speech, where most of the big musical moments were provided by Mozart and Beethoven.  Also, it's kind of cool that Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor was nominated as co-composer for The Social Network.  Curious but, I though, fruitless.  The award will go to Hans Zimmer for Inception.  If you listen closely, his score actually illustrates the multiple-dream-level idea of the movie with different musical lines moving at different rates, the longest of which belts "Ma Vie En Rose," (a crucial plot point) in long foghorn blasts. Brilliant.

The Best Song nominees are "Coming Home" (Country Strong), "I See the Light" (Tangled), "If I Rise" (127 Hours), and "We Belong Together" (Toy Story 3).  I've learned from experience that songs that are integral to the plot are the ones that win and songs that just play over the credits do not.  That means that "Coming Home" is the likely winner. It's sung in the movie by the characters and directly relates to the action.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Best Actress

Here's an exciting race!  The nominees are Annette Benning (The Kids Are All Right), Nicole Kidman (Rabbit Hole), Jennifer Lawrence (Winter's Bone), Natalie Portman (Black Swan), and Michele Williams (Blue Valentine).

First, let me say that if it were up to me, Jennifer Lawrence would get the award. She gave what was easily the best female leading performance of the year. Maybe the best lead performance period.  But sadly, it's not up to me.

No, this race is really between Benning and Portman.  Voters have a choice: they can finally give the Oscar to a Hollywood legend or they can give it to the young actress who suffered for her role.  Both won Golden Globes and are clearly the front-runners, but it comes down to one factor – Portman wants it more.

On talk shows and interviews she never fails to mention her rigorous ballet training and diet for the role. During the nomination voting she announced that she's pregnant and has been showing up to events in baby bump-accenting gowns. She also announced that she is engaged to her Black Swan Choreographer. And if that wasn't enough to keep people talking about her, she took a page from Julia Robert's winning playbook and released a light comedy movie to run during Oscar season.

Remember in 2000 when Julia Roberts was up for Erin Brockovich, a serious dramatic role? During Oscar season she released The Mexican, a light relationship comedy, to remind voters that she has range as an actress.  This also had the benefit of letting her campaign for the Oscar without looking like she was campaigning  – she would go on talk shows and do interviews ostensibly to promote the new movie, but the conversation would always turn to her nomination.  Very clever.  But the plan can backfire – let's not forget Eddie Murphy. He got a nomination for Dreamgirls and then released Norbit, effectively ruining his shot at the Oscar.

So, while Annette Benning floats her way graciously through another awards season, Natalie Portman is focused with steely, laser-like precision on that Oscar. Let's just hope she doesn't fall victim to the "Best Actress curse."

Friday, February 4, 2011

Inception and Black Swan

In Inception, an elite team of thieves that infiltrate peoples' minds to steal information is gathered for an unusual mission - they are hired not to take information, but to leave an idea behind. To do so, they wire themselves and their mark into a computer that allows them to walk through carefully constructed dreams... and dreams within dreams... and dreams within those dreams.  All this dream-hopping is dangerous for our thieves because it's easy to lose track of what's real and get lost forever.  This hazard is all to real for the team leader, Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose wife killed herself, thinking she was in a dream and hoping to wake up.  But was she right?  Lines are blurred and reality is in question throughout, as the story unfolds.  What and who is real?  Who can be trusted?  Where is the way out?

In Black Swan, Nina (Natale Portman) is a young, driven ballet dancer who scores not one, but two roles of a lifetime in a new production of Swan Lake - she will play the sad, graceful White Swan as well as the sinister Black Swan.  She is naturally delicate and embodies the White Swan perfectly, but she is pressured by her castmates, her director, and herself, to find her darker Black Swan side. As she pushes her body and mind to the limit, Nina gets lost in the roles, becoming paranoid and delusional, always questioning the people around her and her own sanity.  Who wants her to fail and why? Who and what is real?  Throughout the film, we see a fragile woman break in two with the darkest of consequences.

Both films take you into the mind of its lead characters and show that reality is only as tangible as our perceptions.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Artistic Awards

Let's start with Best Cinematography. The nominees are Black Swan, Inception, The King's Speech, The Social Network, and True Grit.  I hated the camerawork in Black SwanThe Social Network slid into this category by virtue of its Best Picture nomination - it was nothing special.  The lighting and compositions in The King's Speech were fantastic and Inception had the steely look characteristic of all Christopher Nolan films, but my pick goes to True Grit.  First, because it had a wonderful dusty, raw, and... well... gritty look while still being gorgeous to look at. Second, because it's the great Roger Deakins, who has never won despite a gazillion nominations. 

Best Art Direction nominees are Alice In Wonderland, Harry Potter 7a, Inception, The King's Speech, and True Grit.  Most of these films' looks are based on reality - including the one that takes place mostly in a dream - so Alice In Wonderland has a distinctive edge. Everything had to be created from a whimsical imagination. No props could be bought - it all had to come from scratch, so the degree of difficulty is raised.

The Best Costumes category features Alice In Wonderland, I Am Love, The King's Speech, The Tempest, and True Grit.  First, let me note how unusual it is to have a movie with a contemporary setting in this category. I Am Love doesn't stand a chance. No, in this category more is more and the more elaborate the costumes are, the better.  That's why I'm picking Alice In Wonderland - its costumes are so outrageous that it stands out among the other nominees. Also, it varies widely from realistic Victorian looks to the crazy Wonderland apparel.  Also also, it's the great Coleen Atwood who is amazing.

This year's Best Makeup nominees are Barney's Version (a Canadian comedy starring Paul Giamatti), The Way Back (about Russian prison camp escapees), and The Wolfman (the Benicio Del toro monster-movie dud from last winter).  What a weak category.  The Academy really couldn't come up with better Makeup nominees?  The winner here is clear – The Wolfman will get it. 

Interesting note: the makeup for The Wolfman was done by the legendary Rick Baker who, you may recall, won the first-ever Academy Award for Best Makeup for another werewolf movie – An American Werewolf In London.  He was also one of the three people to beat Titanic back in '97.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Best Supporting Actor

The Best Supporting Actor race this year features Christian Bale (The Fighter), John Hawkes (Winter's Bone), Jeremy Renner (The Town), Mark Ruffalo (The Kids Are All Right), and Geoffrey Rush (The King's Speech). 

Hawkes is the surprise nominee this year and he was really really good in Winter's Bone.  But I think that this race will be between the two hotheaded working-class Boston Irish characters – Renner and Bale.  I was all set to pick Renner, who was great in The Town, but now I'm leaning toward Bale.  Both really internalized their roles with a strong intensity.  Both were convincing as dangerous loose cannons in the protagonist's life. But Bale did it with a convincing accent, which puts him over the top.  Just don't expect him to get a lot of votes from the Academy's Cinematography wing.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Kids Are All Right & Toy Story 3

In The Kids Are All Right, a laid-back suburban California household is cast into disarray when the two teenage kids, Joni and Laser, decide to contact their sperm-donor father, Paul (Supporting Actor nominee Mark Ruffalo).  His appearance throws everyone's relationship into sharp relief, bringing up difficult issues in everyone's life and redefining their expectations of each other.  After the unexpected phone call, Paul wrestles with his feelings about family and commitment. After meeting Paul, Joni and Laser have to come to terms with how to define their relationships – and how far they want him in their lives. Once they find out what their kids have done the parents, Nic and Jules (Nominee Annette Benning and Julianne Moore) question their parenting and their marriage while trying to define a place for newcomer Paul and establish boundaries within their family.

Oh, didn't I mention that the parents are both women?  No?  Probably because the movie doesn't make a big deal about it either.

Those boundaries are pushed and frictions arise as Paul becomes more and more involved in the kids' lives, infiltrating the family, much to the dismay of the protective Nic.

In Toy Story 3, the familiar residents of Andy's toy chest find their lives in disarray when they're donated to a local daycare center. Things seem great at first, but the situation soon turns sinister when they uncover the machinations of the center's leader, Lotso. The move to this new environment forces the toys to question their roles and their purpose in life. Is their loyalty to Andy or to the dozens of kids at the center who lack the emotional connection that they're used to?  The toys struggle to find a place at the daycare while maintaining the boundaries and roles of their old life.

In their own ways, both films deal with change and how difficult and important it is for people to adjust their perceptions and their relationships. Nic in Kids and Jesse in Toy Story 3 find trouble by remaining rigid, refusing to give up their old status quo. Conversely, the kids in Kids and several of the toys in Toy Story 3 (including Barbie, Rex, and Ham) are more flexible, accepting with the change in their lives, but not without disappointment and heartache.  Each movie shows us that the answer is somewhere in between - it's important to accept change, but not at the expense of your self and your family.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Technical Awards

This year's nominees for Best Editing are Black Swan, The Fighter, The King's Speech, 127 Hours, and The Social Network.  (How is Inception not on that list?)  As always, voters in this category have a choice between awarding solid storytelling or flashy, stylized editing.  The one that stands out to me is 127 Hours, where the editor had to depict James Franco's character's mindset from multiple sources and build to a frenetic climax.  In fact, discussion of the movie focuses as much on the editing as Franco's performance and those shocking three minutes near the end.

Best Sound Editing is about sound effects and there are five great nominees: Inception, Toy Story 3, Tron: Legacy, True Grit, and UnstoppableUnstoppable probably has the most sound effects and Tron: Legacy probably has the most exotic, but I'm going to give my pick to Inception.  Voters always want to give awards to high-quality prestige pictures, but categories like this are dominated by action films.  Giving it to Inception solves both problems.

Best Sound Mixing takes all the sound aspects of a movie into consideration - how the dialogue, effects, music, and foley all work together.  The nominees are Inception, The King's Speech, Salt, The Social Network, and True Grit.  One of my chief complaints about The Social Network was its sound mix, so I'm inclined to count it out.  Again, Inception seems the likely choice. It was a highly technical production with a lot of sound aspects, but it was still a cerebral prestige film.  I think voters will feel good about giving them the win here.

The Best Visual Effects nominees are Alice In Wonderland, Harry Potter 7a, Hereafter, Inception, and Iron Man 2.   Once again, a prestige picture has the edge and Inception will likely be the victor. Its main competition is Hereafter (also a prestige film, but lacking Academy support) and Alice In Wonderland (which was created mostly in computers).  In the end, though, I think that Alice will clean up in the Artistic categories and that Inception will rock the Technical awards.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Best Supporting Actress

Welcome to Oscar Season 2011!  With cool young hosts, popular movies getting lots of nominations, and some difficult races, it looks to be a great show this year.  To be honest, I don't expect to do as well with my picks as last year, but I'll certainly have fun trying and I hope you'll have fun reading my posts.  Let's  jump right in with Best Supporting Actress:

This years Supporting Actress race features Amy Adams and Melissa Leo (The Fighter), Helena Bonham Carter (The King's Speech), Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit), and Jacki Weaver (Animal Kingdom).  All are strong performances, but as the least-high profile nominee, I suspect that Jacki Weaver will have a tough time in this race.  Bonham Carter was good, but her competition all had bolder performances and more aggressive characters.  Leo and Adams are in the same movie and their votes will likely get split, but there's a chance that voters will get behind Melissa Leo. 

More likely is a win for young Hailee Steinfeld. She is, technically, the female lead in True Grit and gives a bold, focused performance, holding her own against some heavyweight Hollywood veterans.  Her movie has been popular and well-reviewed, but her age is a serious factor - the Academy doesn't give awards to kids lightly.  The best thing she can do, now that she's been nominated, is to campaign like crazy. She needs to go on talk shows and show everyone that she isn't at all like her character and prove that she's an actress in whom the Academy can invest its votes. If she doesn't do that, Melissa Leo, an actress who already has Academy respect, will have the edge.

I'm picking Steinfeld, but we'll see how the campaigning pans out.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Recording of Gauntlet

If that headline doesn't rack up the hits, I don't know what will.

If you're looking for a professional recording of Gauntlet, go here.

One of the great things about having a blog with Blogger is that they provide their users with statistics of how many views their blogs receive, where the hits are coming from, what sites are referring the viewers, and what phrases people typed into search engines to get there.  And it can all be sorted by day, week, month, and all-time, to track trends.

The reason I started this post with the link to a recording of Gauntlet is because that's the number-one search engine query that leads them to my blog.  I get searches like this all the time:

Gauntlet recording
Gauntlet download free
Gauntlet Spata MP3

Sorry, but you won't find a free MP3 of Gauntlet online. Not that I make a ton of money from downloads – I really don't – but the best recording is the one from Alfred Publishing and, while you can listen for free, it costs $.99 USD to download.  That's just the way it is. 

There's also inordinate number of searches for "Gauntlet violin parts free."  Guess what?  You're not going to get free sheet music. You'll have to buy it like a responsible, law-abiding citizen.

I also get hits for information about myself and my music. Searches like this:

Doug Spata composer
Avatar Doug Spata music
Star of Valor orchestra

... and they're either led to this blog or to my website, which has all sorts of information.

Here's a weird one. After my trip to Los Angeles last summer, I wrote about my visit pilgrimage to Igor Stravinsky's house and to his star on the Walk of Fame. I titled the post "1260 North Weatherly Drive" and, consequently, I get tons of hits from people looking up that address.  One of the search results for my name in Google looks like this:

I think people click on it thinking that that's my address. Let me be clear – that's not my address.  I sincerely hope that the current residents of Igor's house aren't getting mail addressed  to me.

Another oddity: After I posted X-ray images of my broken shoulder last spring, I've had a lot of hits from people searching for "actual TSA scanner images."  Weird.

Blogger also tells me where, geographically, the hits are coming from. Most of them are from the United States and Canada, as expected, but I've been surprised by hits from Jordan, Australia, China, Argentina, Brazil, and the UK, among many other places. I can only assume that people from those countries either: a.) stumbled onto my blog by complete accident or b.) have heard of my music and sought me out on purpose.  I know it's the former but it's good for my ego to believe the latter.

So no matter how you got here, thanks for reading and I hope you come back.  As per my tradition, I'll be blogging about the Academy Awards all next month, so stay tuned for some good oscar speculation and movie-related posts!




Tuesday, January 4, 2011

New Commission! (Update)

I had a great couple of holidays and used my time to work on that commission for the Charlotte MENC orchestra contest that I mentioned a few weeks ago.

I've now finished first drafts on all four pieces and have sent them in to my contact in Charlotte. I do have a few concerns that some aspects may be too difficult (or perhaps too easy) for each grade level, so I'm looking forward to the feedback.

It's sight reading music, so I can't divulge any specifics about what keys, meters, and styles I used, but they're each around 30 measures and clock in at about one minute (at tempo).  I'm really happy with how they turned out and I think that they'll be even better when I spin them into full-length pieces later.