Brief thoughts on the Hans Zimmer Revealed live concert tour

After watching Hans Zimmer’s Coachella set, I knew immediately I had to go see him live. So, this weekend, I drove 1000+ miles to Las Vegas, NV to see the latest stop on his Hans Zimmer Revealed tour. I wanted to just jot down a few thoughts quickly, with the possibility of a more expanded review later on:

  • Overall, I had an amazing time. The full set list included some of Zimmer’s greatest hits, as well as some deep cuts (e.g. True Romance, Sherlock Holmes). The whole concert was 3 hours long, including a 30-40 minute intermission in the middle and an encore. I felt like I got my money’s worth ($100+).
  • In my opinion, Hans Zimmer has done as much to shape the world of modern cinema as any director or piece of technology. His movie scores have not only left indelible impressions, but they’ve also influenced tons of other artists as well (for good or ill). Seeing him on stage, talking about his music, sharing stories about how some pieces came to be, was a delight. Zimmer himself performs in pretty much every song, sometimes on keyboard, sometimes on guitar/banjo, sometimes on percussion. His talent is monumental.
  • In terms of presentation, you could tell that everything was done according to Zimmer’s specifications. There was a band at the front of the stage, with lead soloists, and then behind them a small chamber orchestra and a choir(!). The light show was really intense and impressive. A gigantic screen behind all the performers showed some visualizations of songs that were being performed (There were no clips from movies though, I assume due to rights reasons). While some of the screen images bordered on cheesy (an issue with the Game of Thrones show as well), I appreciated the overall experience from a visual perspective.
  • My only complaint: The show was extremely loud, which itself is not a problem. However, some of the show was really just a bit too loud. I was really excited to hear Zimmer play the main track from Man of Steel, but when that track got intense, it just sounded like a lot of high-pitched noise. That was too bad, because I absolutely love it at a more manageable volume. A few other tracks suffered similarly from being not super well mixed and oppressive in their volume.
  • The encore was three of Zimmer’s tracks from Inception. On the one hand, they are amazing tracks and were performed exceptionally. On the other hand, damn you Zimmer for teasing me with the possibility of finishing a concert WITHOUT playing those tracks.

I felt like my entire life’s interest in film music, which probably started when I first bought a CD copy of the score for Crimson Tide at Circuit City (yeah), culminated in this concert. As Zimmer strolled through a collection of his greatest hits, I started to grasp precisely how much of my life has been spent listening to his music.

Moreover, I realized often his music is better than the movies they are in. Like when he started playing “Up Is Down,” I remembered, “Oh yeah, I DID listen to that amazing string-led track 50x even though I never saw the third Pirates movie more than once.”

Hans Zimmer is a legend in movie music. If you love film scores as much as me (and maybe even if you love it quite a bit less than me), know that this show is worthy of the work he puts out into the world.

I have shared more detailed thoughts about this concert on Periscope.

Watch Hans Zimmer’s spectacular Coachella performance

Hans Zimmer performed a set at Coachella that blew the roof of the place yesterday(it’s already on Reddit’s front page this morning). Those of us who weren’t there live could watch on Coachella’s live stream.

Unfortunately, Coachella only uploaded a small portion of the 60+ minute performance (seen above). That being said, here’s a list of the full set:

  • Inception – Half Remembered Dream
  • Inception – The Dream is Collapsing
  • Inception – Mombasa
  • Pirates of the Caribbean – One Day
  • Pirates of the Caribbean – Up Is Down
  • Pirates of the Caribbean – He’s a Pirate
  • The Lion King – Circle of Life
  • The Lion King – Under the Stars
  • The Lion King – This Land
  • Gladiator – The Wheat
  • Gladiator – The Battle
  • Gladiator – Elysium
  • Gladiator – Now We Are Free
  • Freedom
  • The Dark Knight – Why So Serious
  • The Dark Knight – Fear Will Find You
  • Aurora
  • Inception – Time

If you want to see Hans Zimmer live, there’s still a chance! Check out the tour dates on his website.

A review of the Game of Thrones Live Concert Experience

I had a chance to see the Game of Thrones live concert experience this weekend at the KeyArena in Seattle. Overall, I found it to be a maddening experience.

On the one hand, I’m a big fan of the HBO original series, I’m obsessed with its music, there were moments of the show that were transcendently amazing, and Ramin Djawadi is one of my idols — a man whose work I’ve admired and listened to for years, and who I was thrilled to see live on stage. On the other hand, it seemed like a show that fundamentally didn’t trust its music to work its magic over the audience, relying on pyrotechnics and fancy staging to keep people’s attention.

Let me confess my biases: I love the conventional orchestral concert experience. Sitting in a big, quiet, dark hall while hearing Beethoven’s Ninth is my idea of a phenomenal time. I also enjoy shows like the Lord of the Rings concert, where a movie is projected on a big screen while the orchestra plays the score. In both of these scenarios, the music is the main event (or in the case of the movie, at least equal in stature to the other main event).

If you attend the Game of Thrones live concert experience looking for a good show, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. But if you expect the music to be the focus, you’ll be in for a rude awakening. The stage is massive and divided into multiple parts. Here’s a photo I took of the concert floor after the show:

The stage for the show is massive and divided into multiple parts. Here’s a photo I took of the concert floor afterwards:

While scenes from Game of Thrones (and/or related graphics) play on the gigantic LED screens, musicians can sometimes wander along the walkway or take positions alongside one of the other “stations” on the floor. Occasionally, fire or smoke would burst forth from the stage, matching what was happening on screen.

Now that you have a good mental image of what the show was like, let’s discuss some of its finer points:

  • We paid $100 each for tickets that had pretty good seats. For an extra $100-150, you could get a “Lannister Table” or a”Stark Table” like the one near the stage in the photo above. While this came with food and the chance to meet Ramin Djawadi, I cannot imagine it was a better concert experience. Those people must’ve always had to crane their necks to see what was happening, plus trying to view the screen would’ve also been a challenge.
  • Virtually every single one of the 20+ tracks that was played was an adaptation of a track from the score, vs. taken directly from score. This was a huge disappointment to me personally, as I’m a bit of a purist when it comes to these things. That being said, all the tracks are recognizable and occasionally rearranged in interesting ways.
  • The show was at its best when it played scenes from Game of Throne uninterrupted and allowed the music to simply accompany them. Tracks like those from “Battle of the Bastards” and “The Light of the Seven” were highlights for me, as you got to see huge portions of those scenes play out in real time on screen while hearing the amazing music that went along with them.
  • Unfortunately, most of the show relied on cheesy montages and graphics to show off the music and keep audience interest. Sometimes, there’d be smoke or fire to grab your attention too. But I’ll say this for the concert: It was never boring.
  • The concert suffered from the same problems that any orchestral show would suffer from when adapted into an arena show: poor acoustics. This was worsened by having some of the musicians stand far apart from each other for some tracks, which occasionally caused them to lose sync.
  • The montages and scenes that they played from Game of Thrones were edited bizarrely. They played scenes of graphic violence like those from “Battle of the Bastards” or “The Red Wedding.” But they would edit out the most graphic kills, or most gory moments. This reduced Game of Thrones from a hard R to a hard PG-13. I’m guessing this was so families could attend, and indeed, many children were in the audience. But if I were a parent of a child who scared easily, I would still avoid this show. I should also point out: The live experience spoiled everything through the most recently aired episode of the show.
  • One final note on the scenes they chose to play on screen: This is a show that features excellent musicians at the top of their game. When they get on that huge stage, many of the soloists have a bunch of swagger and playfulness. You want to cheer for them, as they’re clearly having a great time. Meanwhile, you’re watching a scene where characters are being brutally murdered (Game of Thrones is pretty dark, huh?). It all made for a weird juxtaposition and an unsettling feeling. As someone from the row behind me said at one point, “This is the most depressing concert I’ve ever been to.”

Conclusion

I was grateful to attend this concert. Seeing Ramin Djawadi performing on stage will be one of the most memorable experiences of my life. I think the vast majority of people who enjoy Game of Thrones and who like its music will have a great time. But if you prefer a more standard orchestra concert experience, you will probably be distracted by the concert’s ostentatiousness. If I could sum it up in one word, it’d be this: uneven.

I dive into all these issues in-depth via a Periscope I recorded after the show ended.

Thomas Newman’s ‘Passengers’ soundtrack is beautiful

Sure, Passengers is a pretty morally reprehensible film and basically a feature-length adaptation of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s The Implication.” But one of the best things to come out of it was Thomas Newman’s beautiful, plaintive score (which was actually nominated for an Oscar last year).

The theme from “Spacewalk,” the track above, plays several times in the movie. It appears when Jim takes his first spacewalk outside the cruise ship he’s on and sees the wonder of the ship in the vastness of space. Later, he brings Aurora to show her as well.

When I play it, it reminds me that even in the most hopeless, dire situations, beauty still exists. It just needs to found and appreciated.

Your Moment of Zen: James Vincent McMorrow’s “Higher Love”

I love covers that take a beloved song and present to you aspects of it that you hadn’t otherwise considered. While Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love” is a classic, it’s also bombastic, loud, heavily instrumented, and in your face. Very 1980s.

James Vincent McMorrow’s “Higher Love” is so quiet and pleading — just a piano and a single voice, asking for something beyond what we can see in this world. I listen to this version when I need to center myself. I hope you enjoy it too.

Spotify’s “Cinematic Chill-Out” playlist will give you chills

Over the course of the past year, I’ve gotten addicted to Spotify. I enjoy the fact that it’s cross-platform, and thus integrates into products like my Amazon Echo. But I also love the playlists and Discover Weekly feature, which surface musical choices that I never would’ve thought of.

Today, “Cinematic Chill-Out” popped up on my “Browse” tab and it’s a great playlist full of film scores that are easy on the ears. I already loved a lot of these selections, but there are a bunch that I’d never considered before. You can take a listen to it below.

The stupefying odds

A spectacular data visualization by The Pudding shows how difficult it is for a band to break out and make it big:

The vast majority of bands never do make it. Acts break up, give up or decide they have other things they want to do with their lives.

For every Chance the Rapper there are thousands of rappers that never play a show with more than a couple hundred people. For every Lake Street Dive, there are hundreds of promising bands that break up because they lost on their members.

To see the NYC concert trajectory of different bands, below you can search for any of the 3,000 bands that played a show in 2013, and at least one more show from 2014 to 2016. Perhaps some of them are on their way to making it, and it just hasn’t happened yet.

How a $100,000 Music Video Shoot Went Horribly Wrong

The making of the latest Young Thug music video, “Wyclef Jean,” didn’t go quite as planned. Co-director Ryan Staake was given some pretty specific instructions by Young Thug, but when the artist didn’t show up for the shoot, Staake had to improvise. The result is a hilarious behind-the-scenes look into video-making that includes a mish-mash of different ideas that have no business being edited together.

I can’t say with confidence if any of the shenanigans described in the video are real. But either way, it’s a pretty novel way to roll out a new music video. Watch the final(!) video below:

 

On ‘La La Land’ and Its Treatment of Jazz

I really enjoyed La La Land when I first saw it, but as time has gone on, its shine started to wear off for me. The first thing that bothered me was how it handled its overarching message about succeeding in Hollywood (more thoughts here in our podcast review). The second was how the film handled jazz.

In La La Land, Ryan Gosling’s character, Sebastian, wants to open his own jazz club. He believes jazz in its pure form still has the potential in our society to thrive, unperverted by tapas, salsa, or modern day market demands (nevermind the sales figures).

About halfway through the film, John Legend’s character, Keith, is introduced trying to recruit Seb for his band. Keith has evolved his jazz style to be more palatable to the masses, but in a way that Seb finds objectionable.

When the two play a concert for the first time, the camera cuts multiple times to Emma Stone’s Mia watching Sebastian, her eyes full of disappointment and bemusement. “How could Seb do this?” she seems to be wondering. How could he pervert his “art” like this?

Which is a bit odd if you think about it. It feels like the audience is set up to look down on Keith’s music, and to admire Seb’s tenaciousness. But what actually is wrong with Keith’s stuff anyway? Isn’t changing with the times what all great musicians have done? And why is Ryan Gosling’s character trying to defend the musical form of jazz against John Legend’s character?

I wasn’t the only one who noticed this dynamic. Over at MTV News, Ira Madison III has penned a scathing reaction to the film’s “white savior” narrative on jazz:

The wayward side effect of casting Gosling as this jazz whisperer is that La La Land becomes a Trojan horse white-savior film. Much like Matt Damon with ancient China in The Great Wall or Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, in La La Land, the fate of a minority group depends on the efforts of a well-intentioned white man: Gosling’s character wants to play freestyle jazz instead of the Christmas jingles he’s been hired to perform because, damn it, if the people can’t hear real jazz, then it’s going to cease to exist.

Seve Chambers over at Vulture has more on what La La Land gets wrong about jazz to begin with:

Today’s artists have realized that letting go of these conservative notions is best way to “save jazz.” La La Land presents these arguments in the form of Keith, the fusion artist played by John Legend in the film. Though his words sound reasonable — he asks Sebastian how he’s going to revolutionize jazz by being a traditionalist — Chazelle stacks the deck against him: Keith turns out to use a laughably ’80s sound that’s meant to seem completely disconnected from his jazz roots. For extra measure, he also uses a cheesy stage show complete with dancers — a luxury no modern jazz artist could afford, or would even consider. It’s almost as if, well, the movie wants us to hate new jazz.

This is a vision of fusion jazz that sounds nothing like the contemporary jazz scene. Take Esperanza Spalding, a gifted musician who has brought renewed attention to the genre. One night she might go onstage with a band that mixes rock, R&B. and other influences; on another she might play with veterans Geri Allen and Terri Lyne Carrington in an all-woman trio. The same holds true for Robert Glasper, whose experimental troupe might do a jazz cover of a Nirvana song or pay homage to the late hip-hop producer J Dilla, but who also spends time in a more traditional group, the Robert Glasper Trio. Both Spalding and Glasper are highly regarded within jazz circles, drawing sizable crowds and winning Grammys in the process. Other acts like Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, and Otis Brown III refuse to be fixed on the idea of purity; they’d rather push jazz to evolve. Despite what La La Land might have you think, the genre has already reckoned with and resolved the debate over the sanctity of jazz.

When it comes to La La Land’s vision of jazz, look closer at the real thing before you take it as gospel.

A looping cello cover of “All My Little Words” by The Magnetic Fields

Here is a cover of the song “All My Little Words” by The Magnetic Fields that I put together with skilled local singer Annie Jantzer. We’re in the process of exploring our next collaboration but so far I’m really enjoying the unique sound we have, and love how cello and a female vocalist can transform any number of well known songs.

Check out the video if you have a chance!

My First Cello EP is out!

Photo by elldubphoto.com

After several months of work, my new cello EP is out! It features looping cello covers of pop/movie music, and is available for purchase on iTunes, Google Play, Amazon, and Xbox.

I embarked on this journey for the same reason I decided to make a movie last year: because I wanted to understand the work that went into it these pop cultural artifacts. How are they created? How are they distributed? And can an average person do it? And of course, in both instances, my starting attitude was, “How hard could it be?”

Pretty damn hard, it turns out (both times).

Putting the EP together required several steps that I might not have anticipated. First, I had to raise some money or front my own capital. In this case I did both. I spent a bunch of money on recording and mixing, then launched a successful Kickstarter in order to get compensated for my initial outlay. This process typically cost around $3-4K, but it really depends on who you choose to help you and how much they decide to charge.

After doing the recording and the mixing, I realized there was a whole other step that I’d previously been completely unaware of: mastering. This is obvious to any musician who has recorded before, but for me it was net new knowledge and showed just how inexperienced I truly was.

Mastering has meant a lot of things over the years, but to oversimplify it, these days it involves making the recording louder and more aesthetically appealing across a variety of devices and listening environments. If you are lucky, this process will only cost several hundred dollars for a few songs.

After this, I had to figure out how to distribute the music. There are many awesome self-serve sites such as Bandcamp and Gumroad that allow you to do this relatively easily, and they only take a small cut. But in addition to using these, I also wanted my work to appear on major distribution platforms such iTunes and Amazon.

To make that happen, I had to use a digital distribution company. There are several of them out there that have gained traction over the years — most prominently, CDBaby, Tunecore, and Distrokid. I spent a lot of time poring over the differences between these sites — their strengths, weaknesses, and pricing. Ultimately I elected to go with CD Baby (here’s my album on their site) for the following reasons:

1) Longevity – Once you sign up with one of these sites, your music’s continued presence in online stores depends on the service’s existence. So for instance, if you signed up for Distrokid to get your music onto iTunes, and Distrokid goes out of business next year, your music is gone (as are all the associated links). CD Baby has been in existence for nearly 20 years. They are proven, and likely not going out of business anytime soon. Also: Once you upload an album, you never need to pay another fee again (although you do need to give up 9% of all sales – a pretty substantial number that Distrokid does not charge).
2) Customer service – Sure, it’s not the most advanced or quick customer service in the world, but CD Baby actually has a customer service line where you can call and speak to a real person. For someone like myself who was just starting out in this field, it was helpful to have.
3) Tunecore and Distrokid are sketchy – Tunecore has had issues with musicians putting their music up on YouTube  and I just found Distrokid’s interface to be lacking polish and some really basic features (as an example, you can’t cancel your Distrokid yearly subscription unless you email them). I very well may end up using Distrokid down the line because it is so simple and cheap, but I didn’t want to try it for my maiden voyage.

Ultimately, I’m happy with the EP’s presence out in the world and grateful for the support of all the people who helped make it possible. I hope you enjoy it.

I’m making a cello EP

Since I just can’t seem to get enough of owing people Kickstarter rewards, I’ve decided to launch a new project: a professionally recorded cello EP. Much like my previous large-scale Kickstarter project, I have never attempted a project of this scale before in this particular medium. The good news is that this time, the recordings are almost done. They just cost a sizable chunk of change and it would be amazing if people could contribute to the Kickstarter and “pre-purchase” the EP to help me make up the cost.

You can donate to the project here. Thank you so much to all who have already contributed!
While my Kickstarter goal of $1000 was fulfilled in less than 5 hours, I was originally quite unsure of what the response would be like. Several of my previous Kickstarters have also been successful,  but they’ve all had something to do with stuff people know me by, whether it be film or podcasting. This was my first project where people might not have had any frame of reference for what I was producing. I was grateful that so many took a chance on this one, and I am hopeful I will be able to make something beautiful that will make us all proud.

A few thoughts came to mind on how I could’ve done this run this Kickstarter a little bit better:

Under a certain goal amount, it feels weird to launch a Kickstarter – One of the benefits and downsides of Kickstarter is that if you don’t fulfill your goal, you get none of the money (Kickstarter competitor Indiegogo famously gives you money along the way). Thus, I toyed with putting a goal of something like $300 or $500, to give myself a better chance of reaching the goal. But on a personal level, I felt as though under a certain amount (call it $500?), it doesn’t really make sense to do a Kickstarter. Why not just borrow some money from a friend or something? In addition, Kickstarter projects take a crapton of work. If you’re going to do one, you might as well set your goal higher to make it worth the time that it will take.

Very few people will take your lowest tier – Again, as with previous Kickstarters, my dream was that I would get hundreds of people contributing small amounts of money (i.e. $3 for just the EP) and once again that did not play out. When it comes to Kickstarter, people like to be upsold! They like bonus content, they like the personal connection with creators, and they like knowing that they are getting a set of rewards that are hard or impossible to obtain otherwise.

The emotional and practical barriers to entry for people supporting Kickstarters is pretty high. They need to support your work, they need to be willing to contribute to it, and they need to know that you have a live Kickstarter. Once those barriers have already been surmounted, they are likely going to be willing to contribute a larger amount than the bare minimum. On that note…

You should absolutely have a reward tier between $15-25 – A lot of people gave $5, but I’m fairly certain they would’ve been willing to contribute up to $15-25. That’s a lot of money that I simply left on the table, and while I did eventually add a few $15-25 options, I really should have built this in from the beginning. As in, I literally should have spent as much time as necessary time thinking of how I could produce a ton of $15-level rewards and not launched the Kickstarter until I had come up with something. It’s that important.

The average Kickstarter donation is $25.

O Holy Night – Cello Version


I put together this cello rendition of “O Holy Night” in the hopes of bringing everyone some Christmas cheer. This video is dedicated to my mother, Marilyn, who gave me the gift of music. Can’t wait to see the whole Chen family in Seattle in a few days!

This is my first cello video using pre-recorded loops. I liked how it turned out although the arrangement is very simple – hopefully I’ll be able to play with some more complex rhythms in the future. Find the rest of my looping cello videos at DaveChenMusic.com.

I hope everyone has a happy holiday season this year. To those who’ve read this blog and supported my endeavors, you have my gratitude.

Mr. Brightside – Looping Cello Cover


I recently put together this brief cello cover of The Killers’ “Mr. Brightside” and was pleased to see that it was mentioned at both LaughingSquid and Devour this morning.

Each one of these videos takes a lengthy amount of time to practice for, shoot, and then edit, so it’s always gratifying to see that people are watching these videos and enjoying them. If you’ve ever looked/liked/shared, thanks so much! You’re giving me the motivation to keep going.

You can find all my looping cello videos at DaveChenMusic.com.