Saturday, July 28, 2007

Neural Exhaustion & Industrial Orchestras

Lou Harrison, from an interview with Bruce Duffie:

BD: Do you have absolute pitch?

LH: No. There's no such thing, I regret to tell you. There's habituated or exhausted pitch sense. What they mean is that they've heard those pitches enough so they recognize them. It's actual neural exhaustion. The brain comes up with the idea of, "Well, I've heard that one before," because you hear it enough.

BD: But would your re-tuned pianos drive a person with supposed absolute pitch batty?

LH: No, no, because it's easy to get new habits. And besides, the ratio, the relationships in equal temperament and particular A440 and all of that... Right now, people are hearing radio tapes that are up a quarter of a tone or down a quarter of a tone and so on. And the symphonic world is going up and the movies are going up whereas the Baroque people are going down. They're already listening to all sorts of pitches.

BD: Who's right?

LH: Well, I think that there's no such thing as right or wrong in these instances. What is useful is the general principle that a composer ought to be heard on an instrument that he would have liked in a tuning that he approved. I think that principle's gotten around pretty well now. The Baroque people have done that and, as a result, very few symphony programs anymore begin as they used to when I was growing up with a Bach, a Handel, or Vivaldi, or a Corelli Concerto Grosso. The reason is that big industrial orchestras are really not quite proper for that.

BD: Do you use the term "industrial orchestra" in an admiring sense or a derogatory sense?

LH: I say that it is an industrial orchestra because there's just no doubt of that. In the last century, the woodwinds were all re-bored by engineers for Equal temperament. The bassoon escaped, by the way, and it can play almost anything as a result. It's an archaic instrument. It's a leftover. And the string section, of course, has also undergone changes. The bridges were raised and the fingerboards bent back for more pizazz. Same thing as the pitch rising. And the trombone is a happily archaic instrument, too, so I always write for that because it can play in tune, you see.

BD: So you're very much aware of tuning and temperament and all of this?

LH: Oh mercy, yes. I'm a composer. A musician.


M. Keiser said...

Hey Daniel, This is unrelated, but Im interested in buying a program for composition, and i want to know what you would recommend. Sibelius? I figure you'd know some of the better programs. I've only worked with one in my life and it was years ago, and it wasnt even capable of making triplets much less groupings of 5 or 9 that i'd like to have the ability to make. Also, it was only 4/4 and 3/4 which was ridiculous and changing the key sig. was impossible once established. So i wasnt impressed. Anyway, -could you let me know? thanks a million

Daniel Wolf said...

m. keiser --

I have a post about notation programs here -

Your choice of notation program depends upon price, the balance you want between graphics and sequencing, any particular features you need, and the amount of time you want to spend learning and tweaking your program. Sibelius is much improved; it can certainly handle the rhythms you've described and the out-of-the-box output is good enough for most people. I still prefer Finale for its flexibility and familiarity, especially in terms of input methods, but the differences in capacity between Fin and Sib are now fairly subtle, and in both programs, there's usually a kludge to solve any unusual problems.

That said, I'm still waiting for a GUI and a few more features for Lilypond, the Linux program.

Charles Shere said...

I always hear Virgil Thomson's voice behind Lou's, which is not surprising; Lou must have found quite a bit in Virgil to respect and emulate. They both always sound so sensible, even when they're saying something quite disarmingly revolutionary. How I miss them.