Pretty Music: Jason Robert Brown

A few songs this time: Stars and the Moon, I’d Give It All For You, and The Next Ten Minutes, all by Jason Robert Brown.  Mr. Brown (avid blogger and Tweeter) is one of my favorite composers.  At Dartmouth in 2004, we produced his two-person show, The Last Five Years (LFY), and I believe the musical group there (the Harlequins) performed Songs For A New World (SFANW) the year after I graduated.

Random note: Mr. Brown’s mother was my 11th grade English teacher.

Writing as a pianist-performer, there are a few things I really like about Brown’s music.  First, despite the unexpected time signatures and visible complexities, his music feels very intuitive. I find that the less thought and the more feel put into playing his stuff, the better it comes out sounding. The moment I start over-thinking the syncopation, for example, I screw up for sure.

I’ve spent a lot of time considering Brown’s music over the years, and I’ve coined the term ‘JRB Rhythm’ in reference to a rhythmic structure that Brown uses over and over again in both SFANW and LFY. Written in 4-4 time, this structure places in one clef, typically the bass, emphasis on the first beat, the ‘and’ of the second beat and the fourth beat; and in the other clef, emphasis on the first beat, the fourth sixteenth of the first beat, the ‘and’ of the second beat, the second sixteenth of the third beat, and the fourth beat (got that?). This structure (for all I know, there may be a proper name for it) is seen in SFANW’s “The New World,” “I’m Not Afraid of Anything,” “She Cries,” I’d Give It All For You,” “The Flagmaker,” and “Hear My Song,” and is seen in LFY’s “See I’m Smiling,” “A Miracle Would Happen,” “If I Didn’t Believe in You,” and “Goodbye Until Tomorrow.” Often this rhythm employs the exact same melodic structures from song to song across shows. For the most obvious of examples, examine the B section of “I’d Give It All For You” (written in AABA’ format) and the B section of “If I Didn’t Believe In You” (written in some sort of extended AABA’ format). We can see this in Parade as well with “All The Wasted Time.”

Second, Brown’s stuff is damn fun to play.  You don’t just play through his syncopations, but really internalize them. I tend to play his stuff really, really loud as a result, despite complaints from my neighbors. There are tons of not-easy virtuosic riffs seen throughout. I believe I read on Brown’s blog that these riffs are carefully constructed, and sometimes even he has trouble playing them, such as in LFY‘s “Moving Too Fast” (I can’t find the post now – off-topic, Brown often writes some really interesting musical analyses on his blog, and I highly recommend following it if you’re at all interested in his music).

Third, Brown’s instrumental parts tell a story all their own, with twists, turns, jabs, witicisms, setting, direction, and all sorts of interesting asides; the instrumentals stand on their own. Even without a singer, the piano parts are involved and dynamic enough to keep me engaged.