A Deeply Personal Mix Tape

Amidst this insane pandemic, my friends and I have decided to do a lot of things: come together online for games more, start reading more books and talking about them…and one of those things was to start sharing more Mix Tapes of music between us. So I thought hey, why not make a blog post instead! More interactive and 21st century that way.

I thought it would be a fun to list only those scores or tracks that had a huge emotional or trajectory-altering impact on my life, coupled with a story about where I was at the time – and I mean that both physically and emotionally. These are only those glorious sound waves that moved me to tears, that truly understood me, that shook me to my core and left me replaying for hours and hours just to see if there was more ecstasy or truth I could squeeze out of those mysterious bars. Here you will find Classical, Indie Rock, Pop, Film Scores, Tone Poems, Hip Hop…a veritable parade of genres. So stick around for a wild ride through the ether of music history and the space time continuum!

1. John Williams – Theme from JAWS

At the tender age of four, I found myself conducting to the stereo whenever this theme crept its way through the speakers, inching ever closer to some poor victim’s doom. I was never frightened, though…I was transfixed and couldn’t get enough. This was the birth of my love affair with the orchestra (I admit…it took about ten years of being around symphonic rehearsals to truly acquire the taste of classical music, but Film Scores immediately spoke to me and are often the gateway drug). This music is so brilliant that a mere four year old who had only just begun the art of walking and talking could instantly understand it was about some menacing force drawing nearer and nearer.

This is also a testament to the oft quoted truth “complexity does not necessarily mean quality.” For the most part, it’s just two damn notes, repeated over and over again. But that’s what this shark is: a force of nature, indefatigable, ever-moving and very single-minded.

And no, no way in hell am I posting footage of my toddler self conducting. But I will post this magnificent theme, which was incidentally John Williams’ first Academy Award win.

2. Ottorino Respighi – Roman Festivals

I was around rehearsals most of my young life – often taking them for granted, sadly – until one day, the Arapahoe Philharmonic, under the baton of my now late father, needed an extra percussionist and enlisted me. I was a senior in Middle School at the time I believe, and from then on I was hooked, because this was on the program.

What a spectacle. Such drama! The first movement depicts the Gladiatorial games in the Roman Colosseum, accompanied by fanfares. Then comes the mournful plainchant of the Christians being sent to the slaughter, juxtaposed by the brass’ snarls representing the fearsome animals they are pitted against. I still remember the adrenaline surge this piece gave me when I was on stage performing in my first concert. There is simply nothing else like being a part of a team of 60ish musicians onstage making enormous, dramatic sound.

I simply must include the final movement as well, because it is such a whirlwind. It’s basically a drunken rager, filled to the brim with Italian folk song and dance, unbridled revelry and even a wasted Trombone solo. It’s impossible not to have a good time playing this piece. Just look at some of these kids toward the end, and the shit eating grins on their faces. That was me once, long ago.

2:24 is the Drunken Trombone Solo for Inquiring Minds

3. Sigur Rós – Starálfur

Okay I admit it, I wouldn’t love this song quite as much without the scene it goes along with, but…it still gets me every damn time. It is so universally heartbreaking and heartwarming, this moment of cinema, and it wouldn’t be the same without this gorgeous song. I saw this when I was actually pretty young and it got me even then, but this little moment only got more poignant for me as I got older. “I wonder if it remembers me.”

But it also has the added emotional layer of having experienced this moment with dear friends I had recently reconnected with.

4. Mahler Symphony No. 2

THIS is the big mama. From the first note of this symphony that I heard, I was enraptured. I have played in live performances of it both in semi-professional orchestras and even in groups made overwhelmingly of pros! And every time, it gets my heart pumping. I can’t adequately describe to you the experience. I never feel more alive than when I am playing Mahler 2 (and a few select other pieces, almost anything Respighi for example), especially during the concert. It is a world of sound and emotion.

Highlight: 11:07, insane percussion buildup from nothing to ferocious

The biggest irony is that I am in no way religious (music is my religion), and this symphony and especially finale is about resurrection. I didn’t know that initially because the lyrics are all in German. I was just utterly swept away by the music. And honestly, even if the general message of overcoming hardship and finding something better didn’t resonate with me on some level, It’s still just a musical masterpiece and reminds me what humanity is capable of producing.

If you’re not down to listen to the whole finale, I recommend starting at 12:15. Here is the great Gustavo Dudamel, who I actually saw once in LA at a movie theatre…not saying hello and thank you for your music is one of the great regrets of my life. Ah, well. At least I got to see him conduct the LA Phil live for Mahler 5 and Rite of Spring (on separate occasions of course).

Highlight: 12:15 to the end is one of the best finales of any Symphony.

5. Bear McCreary – Battlestar Galactica

My music education was not born of a conservatory but playing in ensembles (most of whom were amateur or semi-professional only) throughout my life and my own self-directed study. That’s why when this score came along it blew me away. Completely contrary to the space opera aesthetic introduced by the likes of John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith and Stanley Kubrick’s very classical score, this was…literally everything else. You can find every style imaginable here: Western Militarism (but only to a degree), Blues, Indian Classical, Middle-Eastern scales and instruments aplenty, Chinese Erhu, Choir, Literal Operettas, Boy Soprano Solos, Japanese Taiko Ensemble…the list goes on and on. At a certain point I was watching no longer for the story but to see just what kind of smorgasbord of styles Bear McCreary was going to bring to the table next.

Here are a couple examples. The first is a stunning boy soprano solo with Armenian Duduk and synth…just a glorious, religioso palate that transports me right back into the whole weird mythos of this show. The first moment I heard this cue was the moment I knew I had found something special, and it still gives me chills. The second is Indian Sitar fused with Rock, because that’s fucking cool and unexpected. The Third is totally eastern instruments in an action cue, namely Shamisen, Taiko Ensemble and what I think is a Dizi…just kind of insane that you find all these instruments on an American TV show. And finally, the fourth is a pretty spoileriffic culmination of a major storyline that took years to build up to and was pretty emotional entirely due to the use of choir and orchestra, both an extreme rarity on this show.

Yes, all of these are from the same show. And I take a massive deep dive of this score here.

6. Austin Wintory – The Banner Saga

This, along with Battlestar, was the reason why I decided to go into music. This score was another one that was so striking in its choice of style – as well as its compositional prowess. It’s just Wind Ensemble, no strings of any kind except a lonely solo fiddle. And it’s so regal and proud, yet so…broken and vulnerable. And just terribly lonely. All of the action cues are strained and dissonant and painful but just ludicrously epic, mirroring the plight of the characters pushed to their breaking points while the world ends around them.

Here’s an example of a ridiculously epic action cue, fit for a AAA game but in a mere indie title:

The third installment is particularly special to me because it was my first opportunity, after Austin learned of my love of this score, to arrange for the Colorado Symphony (thanks to the man himself). It was such a thrill to have a chart I worked on come to life through professional musicians in my home town! I have arranged for them many times since, but this was the first time. You never forget your first. 😛

7. Saul Williams – Fearless

I haven’t had much of a dating life…just little bits and pieces here and there. Mostly because I am obsessed with trying to make this ridiculous career sustainable, which is seemingly a losing battle. This song…is my diary of an angsty 5-year lesson in moving on. The inhibition, the pride, the obsession, “she had nothing but time on her hands,”…every last word of this is so spot on. It really helped. I especially love how Saul just kinda gives up on singing and starts screaming for the final chorus. Perfection.

8. Bach Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor

This is literally the piece my father died to. That’s right – he went out in style, doing the thing he loved: conducting. This was one of the few times I was in the audience rather than the orchestra itself, and I remember it vividly. He collapsed mid-performance.

And you’ll all recognize this piece as the famous organ one, oft used for grim and strange tales. I think he would have liked the irony. He certainly loved the Stokowski transcriptions. However, I’m posting the original for organ because…well, because Organ.

9. Ottorino Respighi – The Pines of Rome

I was able to somehow conduct his orchestra for his memorial service. Respighi was also on the first program I played as a percussionist ever, and also under dad, and the Respighi obsession that spawned became a source of bonding for my father and I over the course of our relationship. I saw this as a fitting way to honor him, because I sure as shit couldn’t find the words.

But the piece itself is magnificent. The third movement is a gorgeous interlude, filled with delicate woodiwnd solos and even live bird song recorded and set to play during the performance.

The fourth movement is the barnstormer, starting out quiet but with little echoes of various regiments of Roman Soldiers getting closer and closer to their rendezvous: the magnificent Appian Way, the highway into Rome. By the time you get to the climax, it’s such a massive sound, coming at you from literally all directions (the piece calls for offstage brass to signify other regiments coming from other directions) that it is simply overwhelming. Nobody could sit there in the middle of all that and be unmoved.

The only way I was able to pull this off was to listen to those movements obsessively for weeks. It was the only way I managed to hear this glorious music, inextricably linked with the spirit of my father, without breaking down.

I don’t hold that last chord long enough. Dammit.

10. Saul Williams and Coldcut – Mr. Nichols

I was still struggling with the grieving process of my father when I found this, and I only found it because my non-musician friends introduced me to Saul Williams years earlier, who is one of the greatest poets and rap artists of our time. Thank god they did this.

I would break into tears every time I listened to this, ironically not having anything to do specifically with dad. It was more about how he lived his life, and how I was living mine, and how that death sort of slapped me in the face a bit and asked me “hey, dumbass, is this really what you want to be doing with it? Is this how he lived it? Is this where your heart is? Or are you just playing out what society thinks you should do, stifling yourself and slowly dying day by day?” This song was such an eerie microcosm for my own existential crisis that I found it incredibly powerful, even moreso than his other tracks (which is saying a lot).

This was one of the things that made me decide to quit my software job of 3 years and apply to USC’s Scoring for Motion Picutures and Television program, a decision that has forever altered the trajectory of my life for better and worse. I learned that I made the cut of 20 students selected internationally on the last day of work. You only pull this kinda shit when you’re in your early 20s.

11. Austin Wintory – Abzu

Flash forward about a couple years, and you’ll find my life has radically changed. I’m in Los Angeles, busting my ass with 12, 14, 16, even 24 hour days, sleeping at the studios and copyist offices. At first it was absolutely thrilling to stay up all night all the time, but over time it started to take its toll. But hearing this marked the moment when I realized that, in spite of how hard my path as a composer (or even just a copyist!) had become, I was helping to create things that were beautiful.

Turns out the copyist office I worked for regularly got work from Austin, which was quite the coincidence! This was well before I arranged his Banner Saga stuff, and he not only remembered our chance meeting at a Boulder Symphony concert (impressive on its own) but is to this day, somehow, still willing to mentor me, give me opportunities and call me his friend. It’s mind-boggling to me, because the man is so far above my compositional abilities and has so many other people he has to interact with on a daily basis to take away from his music time…the fact that he takes the time to be my mentor and friend is so heartwarming and is a testament to his character and wonderful spirit.

This score is, quite simply, art. It’s just amazing. I feel privileged to have been a part of it, even in a very, very small way.

Incidentally, this track was also something I played for my grandfather while he was spending his final days hospitalized. He loved voices raised in song a capella.

3:10…this is what a higher plane of existence sounds like

12. Vienna Teng – Goodnight, New York

Fast forward another year. I’ve had a nervous breakdown. I can no longer cope with the realities of this lifestyle. The lack of sleep, constant stress of deadlines and inability to pay bills has left me a gibbering mess. I have burned through my life savings as a Software Engineer, my 401k, and my bank account is now telling me it’s time to move back home to Denver with my tail between my legs and contemplate the depth of my failure. Needless to say, I was massively depressed by the time I got home and dealt with the loss of a potential career like I would have a loved one: five stages of grief and all.

But before I went through all that, I found this song, which I played at least a few dozen times on the long drive back to Denver from Los Angeles. It’s as though the universe wanted me to know that it was OK. It wasn’t the end of the world. This song so thoroughly understood me, I think because so many of us creatives have a moment in our lives where we fail, hard, and it seems like the end, but really we’re just finding our own way. And that way isn’t the same as our idols sometimes. This made it seem a bit more like a victory march than a dirge. Because hey…how many people can say they followed their dreams, no matter how briefly or how ill-advised?

1:30: Somewhere my lifeline still hums and sings in the mess of all I’ve thrown away…

13. Kay Flay – Dreamers

While Goodnight New York was a perfect accompaniment to my retreat, this song helped me cope with the depression that followed, when I was forced to Uber and scrape together an income without even being in the city I wanted to be in and with no money at all backing me up anymore. Ironically, it was one of those passengers who introduced me to this song.

Things have gotten better for me since, but it was absolutely brutal there for a while, and I’m still to this very day not nearly as close to where I want to be as I was when I first graduated USC, working at a copyist office for AAA Video Game and Movie sessions. But this song…this song helped me to see (not just intellectualize, but truly internalize) that you know what? Maybe that’s OK. Maybe it’ll happen again someday if you’re patient both with yourself and with your circumstances. How utterly liberating.

“The only thing to fear is never being scared…”

14. Bright Eyes – At the Bottom of Everything

That depression actually led to a couple of suicidal nights for me. Because that’s what happens when you realize you’ve built your entire identity on a thing you aren’t ready for yet at the expense of actually having a life and it all comes crashing down. You feel like you can’t recover, and so might as well end it now. This song is something I came back to one of those nights, and it helped me not only revel in being alive but also to seek out more fun and stop squandering my youth. Carpe Diem, folks. We’re all worm food eventually.

15. Dennis McCarthy – The Visitor

I am a huge fan of Star Trek in general, but this episode of Deep Space Nine makes me cry uncontrollably every time, to this day. Part of that is of course the source material, about a beautiful father-son relationship. But part of it is the most gorgeous score I’ve ever heard on television. I wish I could write a letter to this late composer thanking him for such a beautiful gift of catharsis every time I need to stop dwelling on the absence of my father.

But really, just watch this scene and you’ll understand why I turn into a blubbering mess every time. They don’t make Star Trek like this anymore.

16. Darren Korb – Bastion

I played this game solely as a result of hearing the OST by itself, which is an honor few games have. I remember it vividly, it was the same year the game came out. My buddies and I were all huddled around a game table playing Magic: The Gathering, and one of them says “hey this game OST is good lemme put it on speaker.” By the time we got to the stunning duet below, we had stopped playing just to listen to this divinity. And I even remember thinking “I’d love to arrange some of these tracks for like a chamber ensemble someday. That’d be really neat.”

Fast forward TEN YEARS to almost present day, and I get an email form Austin saying “hey my buddy Darren needs some of his songs arranged for the Supergiant Retrospective at PAX this year. Would you care to do the arranging for the chamber ensemble?”

Holy shit. “My buddy Darren.” You’re life is so awesome, Austin.

But really, yeah.

It was one of the greatest honors of my life to arrange these songs for professional musicians, and to be paid like a professional myself, all the while learning more about orchestration and arranging from a giant like Austin (and working with Darren himself, a genius on the same level just with a different style!). And it was so career-affirming to be trusted with something like this, especially after my failures in LA. The high I got from listening to the PAX concert recordings sustains me even through today.

That harpist is fire.

Anyway, that’s my list. I’m sure there’s more I’m leaving out, but this covers quite a lot of the music that really made a difference in my life. So there’s my inner soul laid bare. Be gentle with it, dear readers.

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