Monday, June 22, 2015

Anatomy of a melody: Hrishikesh Hirway's Song Exploder podcast entertainingly breaks down the components of a TV score cue or pop song

I'm so glad Song Exploder will never do an episode about the theme from Enterprise.
Hrishikesh Hirway

The one-and-a-half-year-old podcast Song Exploder has a tantalizing premise for a show about the craft of music. Each episode, produced and edited by musician Hrishikesh (pronounced "rih-shee-kaysh") Hirway, who records under the name The One AM Radio, takes a new or recent piece of music from any genre, whether instrumental or with vocals, and explains each of the components that form the composition. As a sometime hip-hop blogger, the Song Exploder installments about tracks by Open Mike Eagle, Ghostface Killah and RJD2 (whom people outside hip-hop only know as "the Mad Men theme guy," but he's more than just "A Beautiful Mine," old white fogeys) definitely captured my interest, but my favorite Song Exploder episodes would have to be any installment that delves into the making of a film or TV score cue, and they're all worth a listen.

Bob's Burgers presently kicks off with one of the most effective mood-setting themes in animation, a ukulele piece accented with xylophone and Casio keyboard samples of drum fills and some of Gene Belcher's favorite sound FX, in much the same fashion as a beef patty getting accented with outré ingredients or toppings by Bob Belcher (an example of one of these outré ingredients is when Bob attempts to win a burger contest by adding Korean black garlic, and an enemy of his amusingly responds to his intro for the garlic burger recipe with "Don't blame Korea for your stupid burger, Bob"). On Song Exploder, Hirway got Bob's Burgers creator Loren Bouchard to go into detail about how he composed the show's opening theme, which he also revealed is actually a longer composition than what we currently hear on the air.

Bouchard said, "This had to be a story of hardship as it pertains to running a restaurant, but it's supposed to be an optimistic show and a nice slice of life with a lot of happiness in it. The ukulele was perfect, so I knew that I wanted to start with that." In more recent seasons, Bob's Burgers has occasionally flirted with slicing out the opening titles--and sadly, the local business name puns during those titles as well--and cutting straight to the first scene of the story, but fortunately, the theme survives in the form of the presence of Bouchard's uke during those episodes.

Other score music-related installments of Song Exploder have delved into Jeff Beal's House of Cards theme; Brian Reitzell's eerie and complicated sound design for his music on Hannibal, as part of a crossover with Roman Mars' architecture-and-design podcast 99% Invisible; the brief score cue Brian Tyler wrote for the Avengers: Age of Ultron title card; and Jeremy Zuckerman's creation of the very last cue in the final episode of The Legend of Korra ("On a kids' show, showing a lesbian relationship... I kind of wanted the music to reflect that this is a historic moment"), during what has to be Song Exploder's most oddly affecting installment. Zuckerman's masterful Korra cues are a good example of what animator Timothy Reckart once told me about score cues that excel by not overdoing sentimentality: they don't dictate the emotions and instead suggest the depth of those emotions.

For its premiere episode as a new addition to the podcasting network Radiotopia about two weeks ago, Song Exploder chose as a suitably grand first subject the global phenomenon that's spawned everything from billions of YouTube musician covers of its main title theme to really annoying and asinine fan reaction supercuts of narcissistic viewers recording themselves and hamming it up for the camera while they watch beloved characters perish: Game of Thrones. The Ramin Djawadi episode doesn't go into the pressure Djawadi must have been under when he had to replace Stephen Warbeck as the Game of Thrones composer about a few weeks before the premiere of the very first episode. That's a forgotten part of the history of the hit show's music I'd like to hear more about.

But the episode does have Djawadi breaking down each element of his Game of Thrones main title theme (which can be heard during "AFOS Prime" and "Hall H" on AFOS), from the cello to the female choir. The ability to finally get to hear about the origins of this piece of music I've heard trillions of times in many different forms--including the vocal version South Park came up with--is one of the many aural highlights of Song Exploder.

'Wow, I can see Cersei's naked body double from up here,' said the astrolabe.
(Photo source: The Art of VFX)

I wish the miniature model shots of Mister Rogers' neighborhood looked as fucking cool as this.
(Photo source: HitFix) aptly compared each Song Exploder episode to watching somebody take apart a car and put it back together. Hirway's podcast is also the aural equivalent of a chef visiting the table and describing the ingredients of his meal before unveiling it and letting the diners savor it. It's a terrifically edited and very cut-to-the-chase podcast, which explains the 10-to-15-minute length of most episodes. After 15 minutes, any music discussion by anybody--I don't care if you're Sheila E. explaining hi-hat techniques in a Victoria's Secret catalog outfit or in Ava Gardner's femme fatale gown from The Killers--can start to wear thin.

Hirway is clearly aware of the virtues of brevity, hence the thankfully short length of each episode. He speaks only during the podcast's opening, the intro to the score cue or song in its entirety and the podcast's outro. The rest of the time, he gets out of the way, and the musicians behind the track do all the talking. This approach is a nice change of pace from the often tedious navel-gazing of too many podcast hosts, even during some of the comedy podcasts I like. Song Exploder is far from omphaloskeptic. Look it up, fool!

If you prefer your podcasts to be insightful about the creation of art but very succinct--or if you're a film or TV score music fan who's curious about the scoring process but doesn't have time to sit through lengthy discussions of the process, which can be tedious or incomprehensible if you're not versed in music theory--Song Exploder is your jam. Too bad Song Exploder didn't exist when I was a kid. I really wanted to know what was going on inside the head of the genius who wrote "By Mennen!"

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