Thursday, January 04, 2007

Mumma on Orchestral Seating, the Aerophone, and More

The composer Gordon Mumma, writes in response to some of the recents posts here, amplifying and extending the discussion with his usual enthusiasm. Many thanks to Gordon for permission to quote him at length.

The Viennese New Year's Concert footage was a reminder of the musical value of the traditional orchestral seating arrangement:

"Of the most important aspects is the separation of the first
and second violin sections on opposite sides of the conductor,
and the placement of the low strings near the center ('celli
next to the first violins, doublebasses at the rear away from
the 'celli). The horns are also appropriately in front of the
trumpets -- the horn-bells face backwards, and placing
them against the typical back wall of a stage is disruptive of
their playing and sound control.

This platform obsession of mine is long supported by hearing
in live-concerts the Brahms and Mahler symphonies with the
Vienna seating arrangements. The current USA seating
arrangement jams the 'celli and bases to the right of the conductor,
and puts the two violin sections next to each other on the left
of the conductor, resulting in acoustical mud for the string sections.
I mention "live concerts" above because recordings don't reproduce
the characteristics of natural acoustical space. Further, most
recordings in the past half century have been "manipulated" by
"engineers" to change the sound for non-musical reasons,
thus distorting the glorious realities of live instrumental performance.
By "non-musical reasons" I include the process of dynamic-range
"compression" to accommodate the now common listening space --
the automobile radio-sound on noisy highways .

Mahler's superb contrapuntal work (particularly between the first
and second violins) completely disappears in the "treble to the left
and bass to the right of the conductor" arrangement. The "thickness"
of Brahms's orchestration isn't so thick with the basic Mahler and
Brahms platform still used by the Vienna Philharmonic. This
arrangement is still done sometimes by the Amsterdam
Concertgebouw Orchestra, in their superb performance hall.
If you dig up pre-1950s films of the NBC (and other USA) symphony
orchestras, you'll find the "Mahler" platform often still in use then.
I extend my pushing about this platform arrangement going back in
history through Wagner's MEISTERSINGER OVERTURE to such as
the fugal-finale of Mozart's JUPITER SYMPHONY.

By the way, in the USA the "treble to left and bass to right" platform
seating is usually not determined by the conductors or performers,
but by the stage-hand unions, who insist on placement uniformity
for chairs, music stands, etc. But this non-flexable tradition from the
past half century has been taken up even in non-union situations
(e.g. Universities) as though "that's the way it's always been".
Some big-city orchestras have to pay extra money to the stage
unions to arrange the proper platform for such as Stravinsky's
SYMPHONY O F PSALMS, and of course they still have to pay the
string-section players who don't perform in the work.

A final seating-platform detail: many classic string quartets sound
better -- more clarity -- when the current arrangement is abandoned
from that of the 18th and 19th century. Beethoven's late-quartet
counterpoint is astonishing with the 1st and 2nd violins seated
opposite each other. "

Gordon brings a bit more to the item on Samuel's Wind Machine and circular breathing:

"Then about your Aerophone. The circular breathing
technique for wind instruments (both brass and woodwind)
are nowadays being taken rather seriously. And there is
some obscure history back into at least the 19th century in
the "Western art music" traditions. Looking beyond that "western"
cultural limitation, into the more inclusive world-music traditions,
the circular-breathing traditions are many centuries old. The
didgeridoo (from Austrialia) is perhaps the best known example,
but there are many others. The following link is a place to start:

A wonderful example is the sustained solo high trumpet note
near the end of the Mahler 10th SYMPHONY Adagio, where
it comes through the celebrated 12-tone chord. It's possible
for a second trumpet to "overlap" without being heard, if both
players really work well together. Many decades ago I heard
a Dimitri Mitropolous rehearsal in which the 1st trumpet player
did it alone, playing quietly but with the trumpet bell lifted
to project efficiently into the concert hall. Mitropolous was
impressed and asked the trumpeter if he did it with circular
breathing. The reply, was no, that had large lungs, but he
could circular breathe it if Mitropolous preferred it.

The late 19th century (and into the 20th) has many extreme
experiments with mechanical wind-devices. Besides the
Aeorphone, you may know of the Auxetophone (Victor
manufactured a special model) that made very large acoustical
amplification of recorded sounds. "

And finally, a note on the state of cultural broadcasting in the States:

"In closing, I mention re the current Vienna Philharmonic New
Year's concert, the "condensed" "readers digest" versions of
television and radio things now common in the USA. Not just
in the news (e.g. BBC America is very different than BBC World),
but most of the cultural stuff is trimmed way down.

Canada still does radio and television broadcasts that have
entire works, as used to be the situation in the USA until
the time of 1950s and Cold-War cloud. The politics of "editing"
(e.g. censorship) still flourish, and a recent example was the
BBC World one-hour documentary last year of the "9/11" history.
The first half hour was about the 1973 Sept. 11 CIA overthrow of
the democratically elected president of Chile (Salvador Allende)
and the second half was about the 2001 NYC trade-center occasion.
The PBS telecast of the documentary in the United States was
only 30 minutes: the first half was completely removed. "


Elaine Fine said...

We string players often call the separation of the first and second violins "wrong seating." It might be interesting for the audience or for some conductors, but violists like to have close visual contact with the second violin section, which is nearly impossible when they are seated to the left. I don't mind when the violas and the cellos switch places, because I can still have visual contact I need to have with my inner voice partners in the second violins.

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