100: Centranthus ruber

Proper noun: Centranthus ruber – A taxonomic species within the genus Centranthus — red valerian, a garden plant and native of the Mediterranean region.

TODAY on flaglock: Julian celebrates (QQ) his hundredth post and delivers a mega-rant about … everything.

Exercises as of Late:

I’ve been reworking my arrangement of “A Stroll” (the opening theme to My Neighbor Totoro). I’m excited that bringing out the violin countermelody in the D-major segment worked out so well. I will change the first statement to reflect the winds in the right hand, relegating the rest entirely to the left hand. This avoids making the G-major section a bland rehash, though I’m also eyeing it to see how I can make it a little more charming.

I’ve also been working on some arranging here in Taiwan. Without staff paper, I’ve been forced to go digital; the quality of my engraving has improved substantially:

Above: An unfinished arrangement of “Yume Sekai” (“World of Dreams”) for string quartet

The above was essentially all done in the space of a Saturday’s morning. I’m a little complacent. It is, however, unfinished; worse, it’s rife with errors. To name two: starting from measure 54 the viola is NOT supposed to play all that. I had that confused with a later part of the song. Second error: the name is Haruka Tomatsu (given name, surname).

I’d also like to include a personal apology to the cellist for getting such a ridiculously boring part. You’re standing in for the bass (and partially for the rhythm section), which means you don’t get pretty countermelodies. You will be bored, bored, bored. Heck, even the violist has it better than you.

I’m sure to have made some grievous errors in harmonizing the music somewhere, but I’ve started weeding out the worst offenders. That errant A-flat + G dissonance in the first statement, unfortunately, has not yet been fixed.

I have also drafted a violin arrangement of the love theme from Cinema Paradiso, composed by Andrea Morricone. It’s a simple hybrid of the two versions performed by Itzhak Perlman and Josh Groban (lots of violin work that Perlman did absent in Groban’s version: yet the whole thing is set in Groban’s F minor, as opposed to Perlman’s G minor). It’s just about done; I’m putting it through proofreading.

In keeping with my usual policy I do not plan to score the piano part. Perhaps the chords will suffice, plus an indication of when to play certain melodies. But I’m not inclined to do that much hand-holding.

I briefly considered a quintet arrangement of the ending theme from My Neighbor Totoro but have shelved that. Too many versions of that one floating around for me to join the fray right now. Perhaps later when I get more – lots more – harmony practice.

I haven’t completely abandoned my FJH Variations after all. It was written somewhere that I would eventually return to them – and I have, albeit with massive delays brought on by summer and lack of a good workspace (the fault is my own).

It’s an exciting summer for my music, in both arranging and composing.

I Reaffirm My Love for Rafał Blechacz

I do believe I’ve scrobbled Rafał Blechacz some three thousand times now. At second place on the chart stands Joe Hisaishi with less than half that.

It occurs to me that I really, really do love his interpretation of the Polonaise Op. 53. If I could only save one track from my collection from destruction, I would (only after hesitating slightly) pick that fateful performance from the Chopin Competition XV.

I’m on the edge of my seat just waiting for his new album of the Chopin polonaises. I’m dying out here. After Blechacz himself told me that it would be released in the fall, I’ve never been in such a rush to see summer end.

I’ve written the NIFC (Chopin Society in Warsaw) about the issues I took with the 2005 Competition Chronicle, and received a kind message explaining that the NIFC gave DUX free reign with everything, and so didn’t know anything about my problem. So I again attempted to contact DUX; I’ve just sent the e-mail and have my fingers crossed. I don’t expect much, really, but hopefully none of the “oh wut dunno try the NIFC” BS. I hate circular service.

I have begged a friend to obtain the Japanese release of Blechacz’s playing (from Victor Entertainment) and also have my fingers crossed there. Just today I found a box set of recordings from the 5th International Hamamatsu Piano Competition (in which Blechacz took part and got second place, if memory serves), including a performance of Chopin’s Concerto in E minor op. 11 and (importantly) his Scherzo no. 1 in B minor.

I find this extremely important because it’s an actual recording of Blechacz on Chopin that he hasn’t released elsewhere quite yet (I know that he’ll eventually record the scherzos; I’ve already heard him play numbers three and four, and I’m pretty sure he’s played the second too) and an early account, at that. The E minor concerto, too; the DG recording was wonderful, but I find myself returning time again to the version recorded in 2005.

Someone commented on Preludia that Blechacz’s releases followed a specific pattern: Chopin, not Chopin, Chopin, not Chopin. Monte Carlo aside, I agree with this conjecture. Since the next album is Chopin for sure, we have a lot of speculation to be doing about the album that follows. I place my wager on non-WTC Bach. Rafał has mentioned that he would like to record the WTC eventually, but in recent concerts we see that he hasn’t performed any of it. He’s fulfilled another Bach wish of his own, though – one of the partitas. Perhaps the Italian concerto is up in the wings?

I believe he’s still two years shy of his degree in Philosophy. I sincerely hope it all goes well, and I for one would fight tooth and nail to read any papers he might choose to write. Apparently his thesis is in the works, but I’m not sure how I might come by a copy of it if he doesn’t get it published outside of Poland.

There’s so much to be done: music to listen to, artists to study …


19 June 2013

A spirited coworker from packaging (I think – not R&D, that’s for sure) who probably knows me as the “Ranch Boy” gave me a good grilling today that Miller had a bit of a laugh about.

I happened to relate the story of Dad passing through that tunnel (that runs under a graveyard) at lunchtime, and I managed to misspeak spectacularly: I managed to say “ranch” instead of “cemetery,” which got a pretty good laugh out of everyone. She corrected me fairly quickly and ribbed me about it afterwards (“Where’re you going for the weekend, Julian?” someone asked. “Um, ah, I don’t know yet. Probably not to Taipei though,” I said. “He’d much rather go visit a ranch,” she said. “Sorry, sorry, just kidding.”)

And then today, ordering lunch: “Hey, did you know that you blush really easily?” (I didn’t know that. That’s very new to me.) “Why so shy? Aren’t Americans a bright bunch?” (Well, if I wasn’t blushing before, I probably was now.) “Don’t you eat meat? How about introducing yourself?”

Ordering lunch every day just got a bit more entertaining, I guess. It’s probably the better part of the morning, considering that I spend the whole day sitting silently in a cubicle. Martin comes by every now and then with a word on his lips or a pack of oatmeal in his hand (“Here,” he hands it to me, “for a rainy day when you’re hungry”). I don’t have easy access to hot water in the dorm, but I’m touched anyway. Other than that, aside from Kevin turning around every now and then, I’m all alone.

A Hisaishi Urtext – “Orthodoxy”

Joe Hisaishi isn’t an artist in the strictest puritanical sense – I don’t think many living people still are, so that’s nothing bad or even unusual. As a consequence of his popularity, monetizing his work is incredibly easy – a tweak here or there and we’ve got a new recording. This is in fact exactly what has happened in reality.

Let’s just examine how many different versions of “My Neighbor Totoro” (the ending theme) exist – one, the original with Azumi Inoue that started it all; two, the abridged, weakly arranged version that was performed by the crew for Hisaishi’s film Quartet (mixed in with the theme from Hana-bi and Kids Return if memory serves); three, the novelty arrangement for nine cellos; four, the extension of no. 3 for full orchestra for the concert in the Budokan; five, the slight modification of no. 4 (by extension, no. 3) for the recording with the London Symphony Orchestra (Melodyphony).

Already we have five different versions without even looking very hard. Three, if you’re going to be nit-picky. Then we have the dozens if not hundreds of bootleg arrangements for various types: the guitar solos, the beatbox flutes, the string duos and other ensembles (I have seen an unofficial-sounding quartet version both in violin-violin-viola-cello form and gigantic string orchestra form), and the egregious solo piano arrangements that are too often played and almost always badly played. Some of these are surely sold in the bookstores – I have seen more than one Joe Hisaishi compilation at one music store in Taipei – but I’ll bet that most are still fan-made. I don’t even trust the store-bought ones; I doubt they were reviewed or even brought to Hisaishi’s attention.

This is the norm in this particular branch of music. Ennio Morricone has done similar things to my knowledge, and I’m pretty sure John Williams has too. Whether this tweaking raises questions about orthodoxy is actually quite subjective: most people will not notice or not care. I, however, care very much. It determines what I arrange and often how much effort I put into it.

One example where orthodoxy mattered to me was “The Merry-go-Round of Life” – also known as “Theme from Howl’s Moving Castle.” Most existing (bootleg) arrangements draw upon the small-ensemble arrangement from Freedom Piano Stories, which is structurally identical to the solo piano version from some other album whose name escapes me. I think I may have seen an adventurous version taken from the image album arrangement, which Hisaishi also performed live in concert at least once (if it helps I rather believe he was dressed particularly snazzily for that one). These two branches of the “same piece,” in my mind, are not the “orthodox” ones. I created my own arrangement (shorter than most other existing ones, I think) from the sub-three-minute version that appears in the finished score for Howl’s Moving Castle. It concludes the film, following The Promise of the World attacca in track twenty-six. Hisaishi conducted the same arrangement at the Budokan with the New Japan Philharmonic World Dream Orchestra. (Actually, the Budokan performance differed by a couple of harmonies in the final recapitulation: a huge paragraph in and of itself already, and added maybe half a bar of segue for the pianist at the very beginning for sequencing reasons.)

I consider the film version orthodox because it happened to be … well, the final say on what the theme really ought to look like. In context of the rest of the score, the film version ties everything up nicely in a musically neat and aesthetically pleasing way. I note that the other prevailing arrangement (small ensemble / solo piano) usually takes the form of a theme and (limited) variations, investing substantially less creativity in exchange for a significantly longer playing time. I don’t think the extensions contribute anything to the music; the story that Hisaishi wished to tell was completed in his ingenious output for the film score, full stop. The theme’s final reprise over the end credits was the end. (This topic is actually worth a huge expansion, as I mentioned before, so I will tackle it in greater detail shortly.) If you want theme and variations (a step above the abridged version presented in Freedom Piano Stories and that unnamed album), you will want to hear the film score in its entirety. At any rate, the New Japan Philharmonic really cranks up the waltz for the film score. Its performance for the soundtrack is the most energetic, most exciting account I’ve heard yet. I strive to replicate its brew of fire and pizzazz with my own arrangement.

(Why come up with my own presumably inferior arrangement when Joe Hisaishi decided on one of his own, for which there are definitely fan-made transcriptions of? The above paragraph answers that charge succinctly. Joe Hisaishi is, first and foremost, a very specific sort of composer. He is probably schooled in the art of the piano, too, but he does not usually use the keyboard to its full potential. Since I am not constrained by matters of “style” [I’m sure it does not suit Hisaishi to play like Liberace], I have no such inhibition and can arrange as freely and as wildly as I like. The result, in my opinion, is at least on par with other solo piano arrangements.) (No, I do not want to duplicate Liberace’s style. It was just an example of what Hisaishi was not.)

I follow similar lines of (convoluted and subjective) logic when examining the theme from My Neighbor Totoro. The original version is a charming work, catchy and inspired and very contemporary. (I should add that both the opening and ending theme both begin in one key and end a half-step up. They are also cousins in that the ending takes place in the subdominant of the opening. Interesting.) But it is simultaneously clumsy in that it’s closer to a pop song than a typical romantic score of Hisaishi’s; there’s a throbbing, thudding bass line, relatively slow chord changes, and a great earworm grounded in small melodic inventions. The original is almost solo-able; get a good vocalist (the obvious prerequisite) who happens to be adept with a keyboard and you’re done. Perhaps the simplicity is some symbolism (that I don’t wish to speculate on, not here); whatever it is, Hisaishi has not settled for it in later revisions. For the “Orchestra Stories” re-scoring (celebrating the fifteenth anniversary of the film), he delivers a complete orchestral rendition of the thematic materials he presented in the original film. Obviously, “Orchestra Stories” is not intended to replace the film score, but it supplements it nicely. Rounding off the disk, of course, is the ending theme done proper-like for a full orchestra. This version was arranged to include a choir singing the lyrics for the 2005 concert live at the Budokan, and modified only slightly for the brilliant recording (though without a choir) with the London Symphony Orchestra (Melodyphony). I’m omitting the full changelog here because I could sit here and point all day at the differences between versions; I think I get my point across just the same.

Which one do I consider the “orthodox” version? The winner is the version recorded for Melodyphony with the LSO. Why? Because it’s the version – with modifications here and there – most frequently performed, whether with the Wonder City Orchestra, with the New Japan Philharmonic (World Dream Orchestra gyaahhhh), the LSO, or with nine cellos. There is a specific reason here (playing exactly what Azumi Inoue sang would be extremely repetitive as an instrumental, so it makes sense here) for “complicating” things. As to why I consider the LSO recording the winner, as opposed to declaring a four-or-five-way tie, as with the case of “The Merry-go-Round of Life,” I find that the LSO just … outplays everybody else. There’s a fierce passion in there, but not a feral one – it maintains its wonderfully childlike character (and it’s still one of my favorite songs / pieces) while delivering a brilliant show of orchestral pyrotechnics.

… That, of course, is exactly the reason why I have not yet attempted to arrange a version of the ending theme to My Neighbor Totoro for solo piano: I am almost certain it could never work out. I have tried out a two-piano version but the score has been lost. Never mind, I’ll work on a small-ensemble version eventually.

I could go on, but I won’t.

Nailing Down Tonality in the Works of Joe Hisaishi

Film music of the twenty-first century – a specific breed of program music – has often posed interesting mental exercises. The most common (and least interesting) center around the merits of such music. The typical example is when a crowd of wankers converges on the comments of a YouTube video and proceeds to tear itself apart with grade-school precision. Admittedly, such trivialities aren’t specific to film music, though it’s sometimes painfully apparent when compared alongside a pro-Mozart circlejerk.

As for myself, I find it much more engaging (and lots more productive) to dive directly into musical analysis. The boring theoretical points are sometimes the most tantalizing.

Take, for example, the main theme of Spirited Away, “One Summer’s Day.” Could you provide, with concrete assurance, a key signature for it? It’s a little difficult.

I put forward a suggestion: it hovers partway between F major and C major. I don’t mean that it’s in E double-flat or something; I mean that I can’t distinguish reliably if it should have one flat or no flats. You could either say it’s written in F and has an intimate relation with the dominant, or you could say it’s written in C and spends a lot of time with the subdominant. The two possibilities exist in tandem because both of them get at least one perfect authentic cadence that sounds fairly convincing. There are perfect authentic cadences (lots of them) that end on A minor, the relative key to C major, and to signal the end of two repetitions of the theme, the music lingers on a G dominant seventh, to which the logical resolution is C major. Of course, that goes out the window and the chord resolves itself to F major (seventh).

Much of what gives “One Summer’s Day” its sense of longing is that F major ninth chord, the repeated G sounding over an F major (something something). Either this is very creative prolonged use of the subdominant, or

I retract everything that’s struck out. I suggest that “One Summer’s Day” is written in C major but flirts a lot with the subdominant, F major. The “catchy” bit with repeated notes (E F G G G G G) features a perfect authentic cadence into F major. It doesn’t help my own confusion that the piece opens with something like an F major seventh chord, and that the G dominant seventh resolves at least once to F major (a bizarre move if you think about it – but when Hisaishi executes it, somehow it sounds right).

Now that I think about it, substantially more attention is given to resolving the G dominant seventh and / or dealing with the A minor. These are related to C major (dominant figure and relative minor, respectively) in ways that don’t check out when I try to frame the piece in F major. The opening chords (arpeggiated dissonances) can be explained away as frivolous devices typical of modern music, especially for Hisaishi. Think back to “The Girl Who Fell from the Sky” (Laputa: Castle in the Sky): it opens with an arpeggiated D-flat major seventh chord. C minor seventh, B-flat minor seventh, G dominant seventh – ta-dah! Resolution to C minor. So opening “One Summer’s Day” with an F major seventh, in the grand scheme of things, shouldn’t be qualified as a clue. Nor does spending lots of time with the subdominant say much: that’s a device to create the sense of “longing” that pervades romantic music (and something that’s rather soaked into Hisaishi’s style).

Okay, so we nailed the opening theme to Spirited Away. That wasn’t bad. Let’s try something harder: “The Merry-go-Round of Life.” As I talked about waayyy above, I’ll work with the “orthodox” version of this piece (taken from the end credits of the film).

Before the big key change, winds and brass monkey around a lot on D dominant seventh. After the piano has its say and the oboe has its day, the orchestra begins oom-pa-pa‘ing in G minor. It’s very clearly G minor. Yet the first actual chord that gets spelled out in the melody (D – G – Bb – D –> the final D forms a larger chord, C-G-Bb-D) is a C minor ninth. Hurrah for the subdominant. But I won’t get the wool pulled over my eyes like I did with “One Summer’s Day.” I know better now.

But, frustratingly, before the piano enters again (to herald the middle section), the theme wanders around on the accordion before forming a puzzling authentic cadence: A major to D major. This is a serious resolution to the dominant. The piano figure that signals the middle section is of little help; while it’s clearly in B-flat major (relative major to G minor), that signifies nothing about the surrounding bits. The nice-sounding-key-changes (a very simple cycle of fourths – you see this in every big Hisaishi work, and actually everywhere else besides) tell us nothing useful, either, until we reach the point where the brass and winds monkey around on D dominant seventh. This ends the trio, and we return to a reprise of the main theme, thrown majestically around the string section with winds providing gusty countervoices. Again, though we appear to be operating in one key (now A minor, given the modulation), we end in another (a definite E major – AGAIN with the dominant). The piece spirals to its climax and cuts out with a flourish.

I have done my best to diagram my analysis of the situation: the excerpt is taken from the final reprise up to the bit where things have changed solidly to E major. (By the way, I don’t like Denemo because it doesn’t control margins at all. How sad. But it will do.)

After a three-bar lead in (an indicator that modulation to A minor is imminent, nothing more), the theme asserts itself. While my example here (I typeset it myself rather carelessly) shows that it starts in A minor, this is purely a matter of convention. There is nothing to stop me from simply sticking that F-sharp in the first bar: that would only require the addition of a single accidental in bar ten to lower the last beat to an F-natural. I believe the shift to E minor takes place in the twelfth bar, continuing to the end as such (technically E major way over there, hence the key change in the last measure.)

… I’ve put out a lot of material: the conclusion isn’t ironclad. So I will not deign to push a definitive one until I’ve thought a lot more about it. Perhaps I never will reach an acceptable conclusion. It doesn’t matter particularly much to me, so long as I get all the notes and give them the right nuance.


It goes without saying that if it wasn’t already a masterpiece, then Blechacz will give it the full Cinderella treatment and make it one.

In film work, things get a bit harder. You can’t call anything a masterpiece without the snotty classical audience (guilty) getting all butthurt. For posterity, I note that my use of the word is relative to an artists’ other output. Kind of like how your kids produce nothing but masterpieces.

Fans of Joe Hisaishi typically have a favorite piece, and sometimes a favorite entire film score. More often than not, their only reason is grounded in how “nice” the score sounds – sometimes, it’s based on how much the movie itself resonated with them. I call upon both for justification of my tastes, and add a dash of rigor. I nominate Howl’s Moving Castle for “sheer cheek” (so said Professor Slughorn), Ponyo for delightful innovation and development, and Spirited Away as my all-time, all-around favorite.

By “sheer cheek” I mean the repetition of the “Merry-go-round of Life” theme over and over and over in the score. You hardly notice a thing when you’re watching the film; it’s colored healthily with tempi, instrumentation, and even melodic variations.

These sixteen measures above detail the crux of the score: by changing a note here, a harmony there, even flipping major/minor, Hisaishi crafts a gorgeous and (surprisingly) non-repetitive voice for the film. While this theme is central to the score, other thematic material is introduced and stressed at different points in the film: the military march (briefly), the Witch’s theme, the “Family” theme, and the penultimate piece, “The Boy Who Drank Stars” – also the longest of the twenty-six tracks.

I’d like to draw attention to “The Boy Who Drank Stars,” which tells the story of how Howl and Calcifer came to be in the extended flashback/time-travel sequence.

This wandering, pensive theme is first stated by a solo trumpet, and is heard restated in various forms through the seven-and-a-half minute run. Disappointingly, the best part of this piece is omitted entirely from the film; slices of “The Flower Garden” (bland restatements of “The Merry-go-round of Life”) are substituted instead as the movie winds down to its denouement. This “best part” I refer to is shown below:

I cannot give this extract enough fanfare: the puny graphic does it a great injustice. Study the two lines carefully: the top is written for strings and the bottom for the solo trumpet – the same one that stated the theme in extract no. 1 above. See that the strings state an exceedingly clever variation on the “Merry-go-round of Life” theme in common time (as opposed to 3/4), juxtaposed as counterpoint to the trumpet restating the “Boy Who Drank Stars” theme quite faithfully.

It is for this golden segment and this segment alone that I consider the score for Howl’s Moving Castle to be one of the great peaks of Joe Hisaishi’s composing career. Yes, I was impressed with the flexibility of his variations; yes, I enjoyed the pretty salon-style waltz that identified the castle (along with its non sequitur title). But most of all, I love this amazing part so full of hope and love. If one syncs the end (open-ended fourths) to the point where Calcifer is returned to Howl’s chest, the music tells a slightly different (much far, far more colorful story) than the version present in the movie (which I now consider unorthodox).

To be specific, synced up properly, the beautiful superposition of “The Merry-go-round of Life” into “The Boy Who Drank Stars” plays as Sophie thanks the Witch (no longer “that damn witch,” but “obaa-chan”) for returning Howl’s heart, giving her a kiss. Holy CRAP but the feels.

Briefly I would like to note that my favoritism towards Ponyo arises from track one, “Deep Sea Ranch,” which opens the film. Spirited Away is too thick a topic for me to concatenate to this already monstrous post.

I would love to fanboy on about Yūji Nomi’s glittering knockout score for The Cat Returns (which now stands at the top of my list for “favorite film score of all time”), but it would be disrespectful to just slap it in here and mix it with all the other Hisaishi. To be honest I have misgivings about throwing Blechacz into this megapost, too, but since I don’t have many chances to write about him at all (not good enough with musical analysis), I think it justified that I don’t need to set aside a whole post for him. (Does that make me a bad person? I hope not.)

Oh, heavens, it’s been a very long post. Happy 100 to me.




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