Sunday, August 06, 2006

Playing Favorites

Consider the orchestra as an assemblage of musicians from different guilds. Strings came from the quiet, indoor music, woodwinds from outdoor bands. The horn came into the orchestra from the hunt, the trumpet from the court and military, the trombone from the sacred Posaunen Chor. Although the instruments have now been playing together for a good long time, their individual orgins have not been erased, and these identities even continue to be associated with their "home" tonalities. The trumpet's D was as regal and celebratory a key for Handel and Mozart, as for Stravinsky or Britten, and Eb/Bb remain the favored keys for Waldmusik. C is always white-key bland, and sharp keys are generally considered to be "bright" while flat keys are "mellow".

These identities were not usually a function of absolute pitch height, which has gone up and down by wide margins over the years (in modern orchestras the tendency these days is to go up -- A 442, 443, or 445, while early music and pop music bands tend to go downward (a lot of early music and heavy metal can be heard around A 415 (a half-step below A 440)). But these key identities were often reflected in well temperaments, in which keys with fewer sharps or flats were smoother and sharp and flat keys were tempered differently.

With the establishment of twelve-tone equal temperament, the invention of mechanisms to maintain that tuning, and at least a century of repertoire in which transposition without change in real interval sizes was freely available, pitch and key identities ought to have lost much of their distinctiveness. But that's just not the case; these identities still carry substantial weight in musical thinking. Josef Straus's fine book on late Stravinsky is persuasive that particular pitches carried extra-musical significance for the composer. Arguably, these identities can be found in work from Britten to Nono, and from Stockhausen to Feldman or Reich.

In part these associations are a technical artifact (fingering a key with more sharps or flats will usually be more difficult than one with fewer sharp or flats), in part a psychological artifact (reading a score will be more difficult if there is more black matter on the page). Sometimes they are acoustical artifacts -- the c#'' on the old San Francisco Broadwood in my parent's living room had a character and a resonance that I will never forget. That c#'', on that piano, in that room, can be found again'n'again in the deep memory of many of my pieces. I suspect that most of my colleagues have their own repertoires of favorite notes or sounds gathered similarly from memory, artifact, association; not having them would be like jetisoning a part of yourself.

1 comment:

Graham English said...