Saturday, May 17, 2008
Last Wednesday, I was treated to an evening of music for solo string instruments, two rarities: a baroque baryton (or viola paradon) and an 'ûd kâmil-i buzurg, the scholar's lute of the later Timurid empire, played, respectively, by Roswitha Bruggaier and Danyel Franke. In advance, Franke warned us of the low amplitude of the music, noting that the small hall (perhaps 40 people in the room) was already too large, and that, in fact, the instruments were both intended to be played for an audience of one, the player him- or herself, suggesting a certain violation of intimacy in bringing the music, an improvised Taqsim, a baroque partita by Krause, (both in an historically-informed performance style) and two new solo works by Franke, to a public even as small as ours.
I think, though, that Danyel Franke's warning and intimated violation of privacy were unneccessary. While both instruments were, in terms of modern concert instruments, extremely soft, each was perfectly audible, even in a room, with glass walls facing an unquiet street, and bodied enough by live, breathing and shifting human beings, that should have hardly been appropriate to musical intimacy. But it worked just fine. After initial adjustments in bodies, ears, and attentions, every nuance of sound was simply present. It was not even a question of competing with the street or random body noises, as the sounds unfolding in musical time made by the musicians on those particular instruments were so special, so unlike anything else about us in the casual rhythms of everyday, that talk of competition would be an irrelevancy.
I happen to be a great advocate of electronic sound amplification, but only when it is used as an appropriate technology. Such is our general disregard for the qualities of particular sounds that we too often assume that a sound has got to be assisted by amplified and loudspeakers in order to be heard. In the worst cases, amplification is chosen specifically so that listeners will be forced to hear something and to hear it in one specific way (in other words, a choice is made that others will have no choice). As bad as this practice may be in developed countries, it has been my experience that amplification is especially abused in the developing world, where its use is at once an emblem of modernity and wealth, but also clearly a tool for public control. The costs to the musical experience are, in my opinion, often far too high, as nuance and detail gets lost to the mix, artifacts of electro-acoustic transmission, and the social competition for a position in front of a microphone.
At one of my universities, we had fairly regular concert visits by Q'in players. The q'in, the Chinese "scholar's lute" is an instrument of even less absolute volume than either of the instruments played Wednesday evening. Inevitably, each guest musician would insist upon amplification, on the premise that their instrument could not otherwise be heard, and the faculty member responsible for the PA system would politely go through the routines of setting up mic, amp, and speakers and holding brief a sound check with the player. But during the concert -- and I observed this at least four times -- said Professor would simply turn the sound system off. And no one -- the player included -- ever complained. They was, in fact, nothing to complain about, as every sound was perfectly perceptible, even when scarcely audible, as the q'in had an acoustical presence that was both so attractive and so distinctive that it was inescapable and even, in some moments, reached a near-deafening intensity.
I think sometimes that in composing, and especially in orchestration, it might be useful to get away from a focus on balancing elements and focus instead on the assertion of the individual presences of musical sounds, whether from voices or instruments. In principle, it should be possible to have, let's say, a trombone (the standard orchestral instrument with the highest possible decibel output) playing at the same time as a lute and be able to perceive both, provided the composition projects the individual characteristics of each instrument. (The late Henry Brant -- following the model of Charles Ives -- smartly used spatial separation of instrumental and vocal forces to achieve a polyphony of forces often unperturbed by unequal amplitudes).
These ideas about presence are scarcely my own; they are in debt to Gordon Mumma, Alvin Lucier, Hauke Harder, and the artist Robert Irwin.