Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Transformers Theme: What Makes it Great?

One of the greatest kids' TV shows of all-time, Transformers fueled the imaginations of a generation. Warring sentient alien robots, capable of transforming themselves into vehicles, bring their fight to earth. But, aside from that 1980's oh-so-cool premise, what was it that caught the attention of its viewers? I would argue it was the opening theme song (credited to Johnny Douglas).

Lasting a short 35 seconds, the opening title sequence is full of action, musically speaking. A guitar solo, accompanied by drum and bass as well as an pulsing orchestral line, introduces those unforgettable lyrics, accented by horns and flutes:

[1] Transformers,
More than meets the eye.
Autobots wage their battle
To destroy the evil forces of -
The Decepticons.
[2] (the) Transformers,
Robots in disguise.
[3] Transformers,
More than meets the eye.
[4] Transformers.

Wow, what a daunting text to set. Even in such a short stanza there are a few words which a composer would be tearing his/her hair out over (How does one sing 'Decepticon'?). In a clever scheme, Douglas repeats the motif of the first statement (marked above by a [1]) three more times ([2]-[4]), but balances its rather hollow harmonic structure with a sequence full of syncopation. It's not something you would expect to hear in a cartoon theme song - it's a bit too sophisticated.


The funny thing is that it sounds awfully baroque if you were to take the syncopation away. Harmonically speaking, the sequence is a Quintfall, or a sequence of a descending fifth (I've been told by a jazz player that it might be referred to as a 'circle of fifths sequence'). Each segment entails the drop of a fifth in the bass line followed by a rise of a fourth. You can see from the image in the video below that the harmony is descending.

Furthermore, if one of the horns weren't doubling a simplified vocal line, there'd have been the chance to make the 7-6 (that is a 7 chord above the written bass to a 6 chord above the written bass) sequence into a 7-7. Listen to what that would sound like in the video below (there's a typo in the figuration on the video below, it should read 7-7-7, etc. not 7-9-7, etc.).

Finally, here's the sequence in a more baroque idiom (the typo is still there, sorry about that).

Essentially, the centerpiece of the theme to Transformers has its roots in baroque music. 

Who would have thought it? 

1. For the purposes of this article I transcribed the sequence in a piano reduction in cut time. It is very possible that the original theme was conceived in 4/4 time but I haven't seen the score.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Trunk-Maker in the Upper Gallery

My final recital at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis will take place on May 27th. As we're about eight weeks away from it, I'm required to submit a number of documents to the secretaries including some detailed program notes. My program is based around John Ernest Galliard, known best today for his bassoon sonatas. He was, however, an important figure in London's musical circles and his writings (or what we believe to be his writings) give us a great deal of information on the first years of opera in London.

The interior of the Queen's Theatre in the
Haymarket. This was probably not the
theatre described in The Spectator, but
you get a good idea of what the inside of an
 18th century playhouse would look like.
 Engraving by Claude-RenĂ©-Gabriel
 Poulleau from G.-P.-M. Dumont’s
‘Parallèle de plans de plus belles
 salles de spectacles d’Italie et de
France’ (Paris, 1764).
During my research, I came across an hilarious letter in The Spectator, a daily publication founded by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele which was in circulation in 1711 and 1712. I've copied the entire story below, which has been republished by Project Gutenberg.

If concert halls today had their own "Trunk-Maker", it might make for a much more interesting experience!

No. 235
Thursday, November 29, 1711

There is nothing which lies more within the Province of a Spectator than publick Shows and Diversions; and as among these there are none which can pretend to vie with those elegant Entertainments that are exhibited in our Theatres, I think it particularly incumbent on me to take Notice of every thing that is remarkable in such numerous and refined Assemblies.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Reappropriating J.E. Galliard's Music 1, A Short Biography

Every bassoonist has played a sonata by John Ernest Galliard at least once in their career. Many have been exposed to the International Edition of his bassoon sonatas of 1733, and they are commonly heard at a beginner bassoon recital. Though I encourage the use of this material as a teaching aid, I am disappointed to find that few see these works as appropriate artistic material for a mature performer. If seen through the lens of a modern bassoonist, the Galliard sonatas are easy pieces, if a bit quirky. If one were to contextualize them, however, they would see that they were a product of an important theatrical composer in early 18th Century London. In the next posts on the subject, let us reappropriate the Galliard sonatas.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

A Brief Overview of the Bassoon

Two videos have recently been put up by bassoonist Eryn Oft, highlighting the recent masterclass Keith Collins gave for the bassoonists at Jacksonville State University. If you read this blog, you will likely be familiar with the material Keith covers, but I find his explanations to be, both in style and content, a very good introduction for those bassoonists who know relatively little about the instrument's history. In fact, Keith was the first baroque bassoonist I ever met. For two weeks I took masterclasses with him at TBSI in 2009.

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