Sunday, 7 July 2013

Is Somebody Singing?

Is Somebody Singing?


Author's Note: In light of the resuscitation of this blog, I have made significant edits to correct unusual lack of spacing that appeared when it was first published, and that initial efforts to amend had somehow failed to accomplish. (July 18 2015)

I have recently become enamoured with a project undertaken this past winter by CBC Music, the Coalition for Music Education, and the Canadian Space Agency: a song, sponsored/commissioned by these groups, crafted and performed by the Canadian pop-rock band Barenaked Ladies and (now-retired) Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield. (1)

The treat for nerds, such as myself, is that this song, I.S.S. (Is Somebody Singing?), was recorded while Hadfield was serving a tour of duty on the International Space Station, making it the first piece of music consisting of a collaboration of people on Earth and in space simultaneously.

(Parenthetically, I would be remiss in failing to note the play on words in the abbreviated form of the song's title, matching the abbreviation for the space station itself. To boot, Hadfield himself was the first person to record both a piece of music in space, Jewel in the Night, and a music video, a revised version of David Bowie's Space Oddity, making him unique in the annals of performing musicians.)

But beyond the nerd appeal, I enjoy Is Somebody Singing as a song, that is to say, in my estimation it is a very good song in and of itself. Let's have a watch & listen and then break things down a bit.


Is Somebody Singing?



Structure


I.S.S. has a tripartite structure at several scales: at the largest scale, it is divided into three parts. Each of these parts is, in turn, divided into three smaller parts. Interestingly, most of these smaller parts, which we can represent as sections of lyrics, are themselves divided into two groupings of text comprised of three stanzas per grouping. Although at this smaller scale the tripartite structure does not hold universally, we can say generally that I.S.S. has a pyramidal-like structure.

Representing the larger structures in a semi-algebraic notation (which is common enough in theoretical analysis of music), I would write it as:
I (A1B1C1) | II (A2B2C2) | III (D*B3C3)
where the Roman numerals stand for larger sections of the song, the "A" sections are verses, "B" sections are transitions from verse to chorus, "C" sections are choruses, and "D*" is the bridge.

To make this structure clear, we can break the lyrics down into sections and stanzas, relating each lyrical group to the algebraically-described sections noted above.

Section I
A1: On rocket fuel and wires Turn the key and light the fire We're leaving Earth today
This rocket's burning bright We'll soon be out of sight And orbiting in space


B1: Pushed back in my seat Look out my window There goes home
That ball of shiny blue Houses everybody anybody ever knew


C1: So sing your song, I'm listening Out where stars are glistening I can hear your voices bouncing off the moon
If you could see our nation From the International Space Station You'd know why I wanna get back soon
(2)

Section II A2: Eighteen thousand miles an hour Fueled by science and solar power The oceans racing past
At half a thousand tons Ninety minutes moon to sun A bullet can't go half this fast


B2: Floating from my seat Look out my window There goes home
That brilliant ball of blue Is where I'm from and also where I'm going to


C2: So sing your song, I'm listening Out where stars are glistening I can hear your voices bouncing off the moon
If you could see our nation From the International Space Station You'd know why I wanna get back soon


Section III D*: All black and white just fades to grey Where the sun rises sixteen times a day
You can't make out borders from up here Just a spinning ball within a tiny atmosphere


B3: Pushed back in my seat Look out my window Here comes home
What once was fuelled by fear Now has fifteen nations orbiting together here


C3: So sing your song, I'm listening Out where stars are glistening I can hear your voices bouncing off the moon
If you could see our nation From the International Space Station You'd know why I wanna get back soon
(x5)

I won't say that tripartite or pyramid-like structures, such as encountered in this song, are unique in the annals of pop music (songs such as Golden Earring's Radar Love or Joni Mitchell's Both Sides, Now share similar structural elements), although it appears to me that it is less common than a bipartite or quadripartite structure. Where a tripartite structure shines is that it concisely repeats the musical material in such a way as to effectively "stick" it in the mind of the listener (3) while still allowing for development and elaboration to prevent the repetition from being tiresome (such as the inclusion of the bridge in section III of I.S.S.).

Of course, in a song featuring sung lyrics, the lyrics do much of the heavy lifting to determine the song's artistic merit, as we shall now see.

Lyrics


There are three ways to analyse the lyrics in a song:
  1. We can examine the way the lyrics support or subvert the structure of the song.
  2. We can examine the themes and narratives the lyrics explore or open up for consideration.
  3. We can examine the lyrics from a purely aesthetic perspective, insofar as this can be done without reference to the first two aspects.

Lyrics as Structure The lyrics serve to support the structure of the song, not so much in terms of upholding the way the song is structured (although, as noted above, the lyrics can be segmented to reflect the song's larger tripartite structure, giving rise to the pyramid shape I allude to), but rather in terms of how verse/chorus structures work in folk songs and popular music.

In I.S.S.:
  • Each "A" section (and the "D*" bridge replacing what would be the final "A" section) has very different lyrics, which move the song's narrative along, in keeping with the nature of verses.
  • Each "B" section, in keeping with its place as a transition between verse and chorus/refrain, has shared elements with subtle differences.
  • Each "C" section is identical, in keeping with the nature of choruses or refrains, with the only difference being the repetition of the final stanza at the close of the song.

I should like to highlight the transitional "B" sections as an example of how well done they are in fulfilling structural requirements of repetition and elaboration:
Pushed back in my seat Look out my window There goes home
That ball of shiny blue Houses everybody anybody ever knew
...
Floating from my seat Look out my window There goes home
That brilliant ball of blue Is where I'm from and also where I'm going to
...
Pushed back in my seat Look out my window Here comes home
What once was fuelled by fear Now has fifteen nations orbiting together here

Narratives & Themes
Humans like stories and narratives. One common narrative is the narrative of the journey, where the protagonist leaves his or her home, travels to some far-off place, and returns.

As we can see, this journey narrative turns up in I.S.S., with the subject of the song singing about leaving Earth, spending time in orbit, and then returning. The first verse and the transitional sections highlight this narrative, very well in my estimation, with the evocative imagery in the transitional sections (immediately above), or such turns of phrase as:
On rocket fuel and wires Turn the key and light the fire

Other themes highlighted in the lyrics are:

The spirit of international cooperation in contemporary work in space, and especially on board the International Space Station. A variant of this theme is a sense of how national parochialism makes less sense to a space-bound observer:
That ball of shiny blue Houses everybody anybody ever knew ... You can't make out borders from up here Just a spinning ball within a tiny atmosphere ... What once was fuelled by fear Now has fifteen nations orbiting together here

A certain degree of wonder at the achievement that putting and keeping people in space entails:
Eighteen thousand miles an hour Fueled by science and solar power The oceans racing past At half a thousand tons Ninety minutes moon to sun A bullet can't go half this fast

Related to the journey narrative, the longing to return home:
If you could see our nation From the International Space Station You'd know why I wanna get back soon

And, finally, perhaps as a nice "meta" theme, the communication, via music, between Earth-bound singers and the space-bound traveler:
So sing your song, I'm listening Out where stars are glistening I can hear your voices bouncing off the moon

Lyrical Aesthetics
I think the lyrics have been highlighted sufficiently to showcase their aesthetic appeal. I would like to highlight what I feel are the strongest and weakest passages of text, which happen to be coincident in the song:
Eighteen thousand miles an hour Fueled by science and solar power The oceans racing past
At half a thousand tons Ninety minutes moon to sun A bullet can't go half this fast

(The text "Fueled by science and solar power" is in my opinion the strongest passage in the text, while the three stanzas from "At half a thousand tons [...] can't go half this fast" comprises the weakest passage.)

One final point about the lyrics I should like to make is that, while commissioned by Canadian organizations to support Canadian educational projects (enhancing both science and music education), written and recorded (and to my knowledge mostly performed) by Canadians, the "our nation" is prima facie meant to be Canada (reinforced by the use of the song at both the mid-day and evening shows on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Canada Day). However, since it is never stated, it can surely apply to any of the countries participating in the International Space Station project.

Instrumentation


While the instrumentation is fairly standard for a pop-rock song, and in particular for the Barenaked Ladies - vocal(s), (acoustic) guitar, double bass (in lieu of electric bass guitar), keyboard, and drums/percussion (4) - I would like to draw attention to the two strongest elements of the instrumentation:

Adding a Choir
I.S.S. would, I dare say, have been a perfectly fine song without a choir. However, the choral instrumentation adds real value to the song: that is, as fine as it would have been, the song would nevertheless be worse off without the choir. Treating the choir as "just another instrument", which is increasingly common in orchestral writing (for both concert and film/television/video game media) and pop-rock music alike, ensures that the inclusion of choir is not overbearing, and the sparing use of the choir prevents the choral part from becoming stale or tiresome.

The choir is primarily used to provide added punch to the chorus/refrain sections, although it does provide key interjections during the transitional sections and the bridge. Overall, the use of the choir is very well done. (5)

The Keyboard
The other stand-out piece of instrumentation is the setting of the keyboard part(s).

On one hand, the keyboard plays sustained synth tones (and/or chords) which allude to the endlessness of space. (It is, as far as I have seen, conventional and even appropriate to use synthesized instrumentation to accompany science fiction video and space-oriented music - certainly these are fields of art where synth music, despite my distaste for it generally, can often be superior to conventional instruments.) On the other, it states and elaborates on a motive, using conventional piano sound, which also contributes to the "space" feeling (of which more later).

The keyboard writing is, in my estimation, one of the finest points of the instrumentation.

Music

No review of a song can go without at least some sort of discussion of the actual music. Of course, much that must be said about the music has already been discussed, in terms of its construction (via structure and instrumentation) and in terms of the lyrics. With respect to the music itself, I have the following to say:

The melodic lines are, in keeping with a principal objective of popular music, catchy, memorable, and easily-digested - all the better to hook the listener. Peter Jackson, the director of The Lord of the Rings films, discusses in an interview segment in the DVD extras on one of the extended versions of the films (The Two Towers if memory serves) how he likes the music in his films to be "hummable". Certainly the melodies of Is Somebody Singing fit the bill.

As described above, the keyboard part introduces and elaborates upon a motive that recurs often, even popping up, either in its base form or in variations, in the guitar part(s). This motive, despite its simplicity (it is chord tones 5-1-2-3 of the initial minor key of the piece), also manages to convey a sense of the emptiness of space. The motive, and its many variants and mutations, form the core of the instrumental music in the "A" and "B" sections of the song.

Finally, while the harmonic progressions are more-or-less standard for popular music, the ornamentation, transitional chords, and the like relieve the ear and mind. For reference, the harmonic progression is as follows (where chords in parentheses are transitional in nature):
  • "A" sections are in the initial minor key. (Progression i-VII-iv-v-(v/2)-i)
  • "B" sections switch to the dominant mode of the relative major key, befitting their purpose of setting up the refrains. (Progression V-ii-vi-(V)-IV / V-ii-IV-(vi)-V)
  • "C" sections are in the relative major key.(Progression I-V-(V)-vi-V-IV)
  • The bridge is in the parallel major of the initial minor key. (Progression I-(I)-IV - as such IV of the bridge is the same chord as V of the relative major)

Concluding Remarks


As we have now seen, while the structure and harmonic progression of Is Somebody Singing? are fairly conventional, being neither exceptional nor especially innovative, they are well-used and well crafted. In addition, the music is well-constructed, the lyrics are compelling and innovative, the instrumentation is imaginative, and the themes outlined by the lyrics are surprisingly deep for a song that is just plain good fun.

The bottom line: I.S.S. is a treat to listen to. I hope you enjoyed it. I know I did.


Notes


(1) The recording includes the Wexford Gleeks, a choir from the Wexford Performing Arts school in Scarborough, Ontario. Unlike the Barenaked Ladies (and especially frontman Ed Robertson) and Chris Hadfield, however, I do not see them as an essential part of the live studio recording: that is to say, while some choir or another was essential to the recording, any choir of similar calibre would do, not just the Gleeks (although I am sure they are a very fine choir).

(2) Other transcriptions of the lyrics write the slang in correct English ("... I want to get back soon"), however as it seems to me that the slang form is what Robertson and Hadfield actually sing, it is more accurate to write it that way.

(3) I have often read and/or heard that repeating a message three times is required to adequately convey information to a listener or audience. ("Three shall be the number thou shalt count...")

(4) Interestingly, the addition of Hadfield as a joint lead vocalist for Is Somebody Singing? hearkens back to the era when Steven Page was a member of the band.

(5) As a follow-up to footnote (1) above, the Canada Day performances of I.S.S. included the Ottawa Regional Youth Choir and what has come to be known as a 'virtual choir' (in which singers submit video recordings of themselves performing a part in a piece in order to be aggregated into a large-scale choir). Presumably, other groups have provided the choral accompaniment on other occasions.

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