Saturday, October 08, 2005


The representation of natural and man-made sounds in music deserves a substantial piece of scholarship. I imagine a book tracing this from Aristophanic choruses of frogs, birds and wasps and through ornithological madrigalia, orchestral storms, machine music, and on to the more elementary naturalism afforded by modern technologies. Representative music seems to me to be most compositionally problematic in achieving the right balance between musical coherence and naturalism. I can well imagine that this was one of the problems that led Ligeti to give up on his operatic setting of The Tempest (he wanted to make an orchestral storm in the overture) and I've heard tell that John Adam has turned to acoustical absence to represent an even that, portrayed naturally, would certain be overwhelmingly present. That paradoxical assertion of presence through absence is a smart move, methinks, and one with a long tradition in the fantastic, virtuosic, repertoire of the chinese qin (or ch'in). Qin music is barely audible to anyone but the player, yet savors vivid dynamic contours within that small range and a huge variety of playing techniques to create both gestural and timbral diversity and often quite explicit imitations of natural sounds. The limited absolute volume of the qin, which forces the listener into more intense audition, is -- again paradoxically -- the source of the qin's astonishing musical presence.

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