Friday 28 January 2011

Pop meets the Classics

Alex Ross’s recommendations of great examples where Pop meets the Classics (December 2010 post), triggered the editors of 200% to search for more pop songs that cross the border into Classical Music.

Here’s 200%’s playlist – 15 pop songs, in alphabetic order.

1. ABC - All of My Heart - Orchestration by Anne Dudley
Dudley composed all the string arrangements of ABC’s album ‘The Lexicon of Love’. Her string arrangements for ‘All of My Heart’ are Dudley’s finest hour on the album. For two minutes, at the end of the song, the strings command full attention as you hear epic, flowing, grandiose, romantic music reminiscent of Powell & Pressburger and Douglas Sirk movies, ending in an Hallmark moment that slowly flickers like a night candle.
As one of the founding members of Art of Noise Dudley composed a few instrumental tracks, for example, ‘Debut’ and ‘Promenade I & II’, which focus entirely on the strings and demonstrate her melodic sensibility.

2. Björk - Joga - Orchestrated by Eumir Deodato
Taken from the 1997 ‘Homogenic’ album and led by a string arrangement that carries you into a tune that builds up until it reaches an emotional, and experimental, explosion. The album is a seamless fusion of ‘chilly’ strings (courtesy of the Icelandic String Octet), stuttering, abstract beats, and unique touches that include accordion and glass harmonica: ‘Homogenic’ alternates between dark, uncompromising songs. ‘Joga’ contains a nostalgic string theme arranged by Björk and orchestrated by Deodato (of – amongst others – Kool & the Gang fame) that matches the nostalgia for Björk’s home country expressed in this tune.

3. David Bowie - Space Oddity - Arranged by Paul Buckmaster
A year after the release of Stanley Kubrick’s film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, the single was released – produced by Gus Dudgeon, who later became renowned as the producer of several Elton John albums, with arrangements done by Paul Buckmaster, who trained as a cellist. The song, about the launch of ‘Major Tom’, a fictional astronaut, coincided with the Apollo 11 moon landing, which was played at the BBC’s coverage of the landing, and became Bowie’s first hit in the UK.
Buckmaster’s arrangements contribute to the narrative of the song: first, the orchestra accentuates the tension of the launch moment; then, later similar to The Beatles ‘A Day in the Life’, the orchestra is used as a medium to convey chaos, which is used in ‘Space Oddity’ to express the space disaster that is happening to Bowie’s astronaut. At the end of the song the orchestra slowly fades away illustrating the image of a space ship vanishing anonymously in the universe.

4. John Cale - Paris 1919 - Arranged by John Cale
The title track to John Cale's 1973 album, ‘Paris 1919’, is a four minute masterpiece carried by a dynamic piano and strings  arrangement – a wondrous backdrop for the lyrics that combine the best of Cale's own eccentricity and introspection with lines such as “She'd open up the door and vaguely carry us away” combining perfectly with the playful “You're a ghost” chorus. Musically, it is a step away from his Velvets past as this is an album on which all songs are written and arranged by Cale, performed by the U.C.L.A. Orchestra with J. Druckman as the Orchestral manager.
‘Pitchfork Media’ notes on the bonus tracks of the album: “The album's title track appears in two additional versions – a ‘string mix’ that features only Cale and a small chamber ensemble, and a ‘piano mix’ that includes a beautiful, overtly Brian Wilson-inspired vocal bridge.”

5. Lloyd Cole and the Commotions - Rattlesnakes - String arrangements by Anne Dudley
The strings on the entire album are ‘sort of’ out of tune. ‘Rattlesnakes’ is a college rock masterpiece of smart, ironic lyrics and sympathetic folk-rock-based melodies. Who needs strings on records like these? The trick, though, is that it works, and adds meaning to the lyrics, especially where the strings accentuate them. Listen to the arrangement from 1:27 minutes onward. The words “She reads …” are sung on layers of sentimental orchestration. The title track, for example, is based on a key image from Joan Didion's stark Hollywood novel ‘Play It as It Lays’, and its chorus compares the song's heroine to Eva Marie Saint's character in the film ‘On the Waterfront’.

6. Bryan Ferry - Smoke Gets In Your Eyes - Strings arranged by Ann Odell
The original version of ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ was a show tune of the 1933 operetta ‘Roberta’, written by Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach. Mr Ferry’s cover of the song appeared on his solo album ‘Another Time, Another Place’, a title that can be taken as reference to the period for which he has a penchant; the highly stylish Hollywood glamour of the 1930s.
Mr Ferry’s version of ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ is a sophisticated and nostalgic ode to the period where the strings bring back melancholic memories of a sweet and romantic affair of the past.
Odell also composed the placid string arrangements of Japan’s ‘The Other Side of Life’.

7. Marvin Gaye - I Heard It Through The Grapevine - String section of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gordon Staples
Norman Whitfield produced four versions of the song, including versions by Smokey Robinson & The Miracles and Gladys Knight & the Pips. The drama of the lyrics, which are about a man who hears through gossip that his relationship is beginning to break up, is expressed in Gaye’s version to the best effect by the strings that are moody and soulful, but also reminiscent of Bernard Hermann’s Hitchcock film scores with unnerving, unpredictable suspense and doom. The lament in Gaye’s voice – Whitfield challenged the singer to sing the lyrics in a higher key than that to which he was used to do – made this version of the song the biggest Motown hit single at the time. Starting from 1963, the string section of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the concert master Gordon Staples, provided the strings for the all Motown records throughout the 1960s.

8. Elton John - Madman Across the Water - Arranged and conducted by Paul Buckmaster
Paul Buckmaster is also renowned for the orchestral arrangements of several Elton John albums. The original version of the song (included on ‘Tumbleweed Connection’) with Mick Ronson on guitar didn’t feature any strings. In Buckmaster’s version, after 2.30 minutes, the strings erupt with spiky, aggressive and determined movements, reminiscent of the rage that can be found in some of Beethoven’s symphonies. In 1986, a dramatic, and compelling, live-version of the song was recorded with The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

9. The Knife - Tomorrow, In A Year - Olof Dreijer and Karin Dreijer Andersson
'Tomorrow, In A Year' is the title track off a concept album about Charles Darwin and evolution. The Knife led the project but collaborated with a variety of musicians on the compositions. The dense and complex record divided critics' opinion; it received a rare 10/10 review in ‘Drowned In Sound’ and was hailed as one of their top releases of 2010, while the more commercial ‘Q’ Magazine gave it a 4/10, labelling it unlistenable. This track, built on a tribal drum pattern, blends haunting operatic vocals with electronica, creating rich and multi-layered hypnotic rhythms.

10. Massive Attack - Unfinished Sympathy - Arranged and conducted by Wil Malone
Malone’s string arrangements created a lot of subcutaneous tensions in the song. Throughout the song, there is an ominous feeling where it creeps under the skin, but there is also a Mahleresque melancholy. The strings gradually become higher and higher in tone, building up to the climax akin to Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’ – a piece that had a formative impact on Malone when he first heard it as an eleven year old.

11. Radiohead - Pyramid Song - Thom Yorke & Jonny Greenwood
Radiohead have the enviable knack of being able to tread the fine line between creating high art whilst still sounding melodic and accessible, which is aptly demonstrated by this piano-and-strings led track with its unusual timing. Amidst sparse piano chords, and swelling string arrangements, Thom Yorke muses over being accompanied by black eyed angels in rivers – referencing Dante's imaginary journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. The strings rise gently and then sway to and fro, and are then joined by trippy melodies played by Jonny Greenwood on an Ondes Martenot – an unusual Theremin-like device. The resulting effect produces a dreamy, yet gently hypnotic journey, drawing the listener into one of Radiohead’s finest moments.
12. The Rolling Stones - She's a Rainbow - John Paul Jones

'She's a Rainbow', featured on The Rolling Stones's ‘Their Satanic Majesties Request’ from 1967, is a bold statement of confidence: it captures The Stones parading their musical swagger at the crest of the scene of the period. Never before, or since, did The Stones take so many chances in the studio, possibly following the psychedelic lead of The Beatles’ ‘Sgt. Peppers' released earlier in the same year. John Paul Jones (a session musician before joining Led Zeppelin) arranges the strings in a skittish and playful way that boldly complements Nicky Hopkins impeccable music-box arpeggios piano playing. The composition reverberates with joy, and captures the sentiment of the forthcoming, and ultimately doomed, “Summer of Love” perfectly.

13. The Temptations - Papa Was A Rollin' Stone - Norman Whitfield
‘Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone' was composed by Norman Whitfield, with lyrics by Barrett Strong – a formidable team responsible for an array of Motown hits. Eight versions of the track were released, lasting between 3 minutes 45 seconds to over 15 minutes. The lavish orchestration borrows from Ravel and Tchaikovsky and sits perfectly on the most unrelenting of bass lines. The tune is a pillar of cultural significance in African-American and pop music culture.

14. The Verve - Bitter Sweet Symphony - Arranged and conducted by Wil Malone
The simple and memorable string riff possesses anthem-like glory. The strings have a pulsating effect in the video, which is an homage to the video ‘Unfinished Sympathy'.

15 Scott Walker - It's Raining Today - Accompaniment directed by Wally Stott
The album contains ten originals by the artist and three covers. The album is criticized because it's too difficult to penetrate Walker’s insights through Wally Stott’s string-drenched production. It shrouds the lyrics in a fog that's often too syrupy (according to critics). The song opens with a sparse string arrangement, or is it a hissing noise accompanying a guitar stroke, that builds up dramatically towards the second part, where the glacial grace explodes and becomes a romantic reverie of descent. It’s a majestic opener to a melodramatic album that closes with Jacques Brel’s ‘Ne me quitte pas’.

This Playlist has been compiled by Marcel Harlaar, Louis Warner and Thierry Somers.
Picture: ABC 'All of My Heart' (single)
If you have a suggestion for a song to add to our Playlist “Pop meets the Classics”, including the reason why, please let us know.

Upcoming post: interviews with the string arrangers Wil Malone (Massive Attack “Unfinished Sympathy”, The Verve “Bittersweet Symphony”) and Anne Dudley (ABC “All of My Heart, Lloyd Cole and the Commotions “Rattlesnakes”) who will explain how the string arrangements of these songs originated.

Friday 14 January 2011

Simon Garfield

The sentence you’re reading now is set in the typeface ‘Georgia’ (Bold Italic) – a typeface that was especially designed to be readable at small sizes on a computer screen. The sentence you’re reading now is set in ‘Verdana’ (Bold Italic), which was also designed to be readable at small sizes on a computer screen.

In his book ‘Just My Type’ the author Simon Garfield has written a light-hearted, educational (but page turning), engaging book on typefaces that is filled with amusing and, in some instances, bizarre anecdotes about the people who designed these, or the purpose as to why they were designed.

In the Q&A with ‘200%’, Garfield discusses the ‘playful’ typography used within his book, the ‘disease’ Typomania and the top 10 modern typefaces that are currently his ’type’…

200%: Was there a particular experience that triggered you to write a book about typefaces or was it purely on the basis of Duncan Clark’s original idea?
Simon Garfield: I’ve been interested in type since I pored over album covers in my excitable youth – Bowie, T Rex, The Faces. They were as important as the image of the artist, clearly saying something about what lay inside. And after that, as most writers would attest, there’s great fascination in how using a different font can change the emotion and intensity of what you’re writing. So when Duncan Clark had the idea, and my editor Mark Ellingham mentioned it to me, it took me about three seconds to realize what a good idea it was.

200%: In the chapter “What is it about the Swiss” you write about the New Yorker Cyrus Highsmith who tried to “spend a day without Helvetica”. This was quite challenging as the typeface is ubiquitously present in our lives. Whenever Highsmith saw something spelled out in Helvetica he averted his eyes. He wouldn’t take any Helvetica-signed Transport or buy any Helvetica branded products.
After you had written this book, when you walk in the street, do you look at signs of shop windows and try to identify the typeface?
Simon Garfield: Sadly, yes. It’s a disease called Typomania – wherever I go, I see lettering and signs and advertising in a new way, looking behind the message, at the clothing of what’s being said. I might not enjoy a film so much if I can’t recognise the font of the opening credits. So I loved “The Social Network”: Futura – that was easy.

200%: Your background is not design journalism or critiquing, which may be the reason that your book on typefaces and fonts is very light-hearted, amusing and engaging, whereas most books on typefaces are very serious, even earnest. Do you consider it turned out to be advantageous that you don’t have such a background and could approach the subject more as an outsider?
Simon Garfield: Definitely. The world of type designs and typography, like any important and creative world, is full of little debates and spats and wars, sometimes based on elitism, most often based on heartfelt passion. So it helped that I came to it all afresh. This also enabled me to pick out what I thought would be the most interesting stories for the general reader – freed up rather than hampered by what had gone before. 

200%: The typography of your book is quite playful. The text is set in a variety of typeface, including Sabon, Univers. When a typeface is mentioned it is printed in the actual typeface, i.e. when you discuss Helvetica it is printed in Helvetica. Could you tell me how the ideas of the typography of your book came about?
Simon Garfield: There was always this question from the beginning: how do we present the book in the most appealing way? One initial thought was to have a different typeface for every chapter, connected with the main face under discussion, but obviously display faces like Albertus and Cooper Black would be almost illegible at text sizes. So the designer James Alexander played around with a few options, and we settled on Sabon as the main text, Univers for the diversions about particular designers, and then we had a one-off use for all the type names we were describing. Not a cheap or easy exercise – we used more than 200 – but I think it works.   

200%: You have interviewed a lot of typeface designers and written about their work. Having heard the anecdotes, the purpose of the typeface design, and the creative process, what do you consider is the most remarkable achievement produced by a type designer?
Simon Garfield: That would be the achievement of producing anything original at all, and having the patience and inspiration to do so. How can one possibly create a new M or A that hasn’t been made in the proceeding 560 years?

200%: What do you think is one of the funniest anecdotes about a typeface you have heard?
Simon Garfield: It’s more poignant than funny, but I do love the story in the book about Doves, and the desire to drown it in the Thames so that no one else could use or abuse it. The type is still in there somewhere, if you’re feeling adventurous.
And I do like the story, not in the hardback, but certainly destined for the paperback, in which the all-round family entertainer Michael Ball introduced a listener’s email request on his Radio 2 show by saying, ‘And this one’s from Helvetica Bold – what a lovely name!’

200%: Our choice of typeface can send a signal about a person’s character. According to the Pentagram online questionnaire called “What type are you?” your type, is a typeface called Archer Hairline.
Your name on the cover of your book 'Just My Type' is set in the typeface Gill Sans, which is said to convey Britishness, scarcity, proper, reservedly proud, no fuss and practical. What typeface do you think portrays your character: Archer Hairline, Gill Sans or one of the typefaces of your other books Bookman, Sabon, Akzidenz Grotesk, Bembo?
Simon Garfield: Ah, that would depend on my mood at the time. I think we chose Gill Sans as a sane contrast to the other mad choices on the jacket. If my head is full of music, then I’ll go for something dramatic and flowery; if I’m being sincere I’ll have Helvetica. I think the fonts on my other books have fairly well represented what lies inside. On my gravestone I’d settle for Albertus.

200%: On the inside of the book jacket you say you have a current soft spot for the typefaces Mrs Eaves and HT Gelateria. Could you give a top 10 of your favourite typefaces, and the reasons for their selection?
Simon Garfield: Oh well, here goes. I need to tell you that these are my current modern fonts (i.e. it’s pointless putting them up against Baskerville etc) and that the list tends to change every hour or so:

1. Vitesse
This is a modern slab serif, with prominent feet grounding it to the page. It’s quite a traditional look, but the design company Hoefler & Frere-Jones have given it some nice quirks, not least on the upper-case K and G. I especially like the wafer thin version.

2. Progress Two
This reminds me of shapes one might make from pastry cutters. Just as you think you know what’s coming, an irregular cut-off stops you short. The upper-case B is a D with an elbow in its stomach. Slightly queasy, never boring.

3. HT Gelateria
The name says it all, a typeface that sells you ice cream. A thick, gooey script font – I wish I had handwriting like that.

4. Candy Script
Just outrageously beautiful and painterly. The o and w are my favourites. Put this on a bag of homemade cookies and you’ve got a sale.

5. Albertus
The oldest type in this list, and always a reliable standby. Designed by Berthold Wolpe in the 1930s, it features on Faber book jackets and street names in the City of London. I love it for its human carved qualities, and because it decorates the signs on Hampstead Heath, my local walking spot.

6. Jimbo
Made by the great Jim Parkinson, who also designed the current Rolling Stone magazine logo/masthead. It’s a modern fat face poking fun and bursting with energy.

7. Lavigne Display
Ultra-fashionable and decadent, this serif is inspired by calligraphy and the flapper age, a high-contrast style with surprising thick and thin strokes. The brilliantine lick of the ear of the g is straight from Gosford Park.

8. Ogaki
Almost easier to draw than describe, this is a heavy display face with traces of Matisse. Distinguished by its fine dissecting lines, it’s one of the boldest new faces of the century.

9. Blur
Neville Brody’s vision of type in the beerlight, or type viewed through glass. Or perhaps it’s a typewriter ribbon that should have been changed a fortnight ago. A modern classic.

10. Dionisio
Only one way to describe this, and it’s the font fan’s favourite word: elegant. Not quite Bodoni, but an indulgent contemporary equivalent. The a looks noble, the F like a train shunt. The only choice for today’s discerning wedding invitations.

Interview written and conducted by Thierry Somers, with contribution by Marie Drysdale.
Picture (above): Jonathan Barnbrook's limited-edition print to celebrate the launch of 'Just My Type'.

The second issue of 200% features an interview with the designers of Gotham, Retina and Hoefler Text, Tobias Frere-Jones and Jonathan Hoefler, “Everything you always wanted to know about typefaces, but were afraid to ask”.