Timbre

After Anne Mei’s performance of the Allegro from Stamitz’s Viola Concerto in D the other day I texted my BFF, “AM rocked her recital.”  (As for using BFF, if I’m going to blog and text, I can write BFF at my age, too.)

When Anne Mei started learning this piece, I could hear her struggle to find the “music” in it, particularly playing without an accompaniment.  On Saturday you could tell that she was hearing the music as she played.  She was listening to the music in that infinitesimal moment as she started to play each note, chord or phrase. As Philip Glass says, “The performer hears first, and then he plays what he hears. I make it sound as if there’s a period of time that elapses. In fact it may be almost no time. But it’s not quite simultaneous because if it reverses itself—if you start playing and then hearing—you run into serious interpretive problems with the music. I can tell you that from experience.”

That moment between imagining and acting in performance is just one of the many openings that go into making music.  Like life, music moves with open-close-open.

For many years as Anne Mei was learning to play the violin, she would ignore the rests that the composer had written into the music. Her goal was just to play the notes. Now that she’s learning to listen for the music, she’s learning to count how long each rest should be.  Those rests may be moments of silence or moments when others play, but the audience can hear them and feel the impact they make in experiencing the music.

Other moments of open-close-open go into making music.  Paradoxically, if we want to become more aware of these moments, we have to stop looking for each opening and pay attention to other dimensions of the music, particularly the timbre.  Some of the students in the recital played violin, some the viola.  All were accompanied by the piano.  Each instrument has its own timbre.  As Daniel Levitin says, “Timbre results from the overtones, the other tones that arise along with the main tone when an object is used to create the vibrations of the main tone.  Objects, voices, have distinct patterns of overtones.”

At first it would seem that by definition overtones fill in all the openings.  But as we look into the dimensions of timbre, we can see open-close-open still at work. These dimensions are:

  • Attack.  The “very first part of a musical instrument sound … the sound of the initial hit, strum, bowing, or blowing that causes the instrument to make sound.  … the impact itself has a rather noisy quality that is not especially musical—more like the sound of a hammer hitting a piece of wood, say, than like a hammer hitting a bell ….” (Levitin)  For those who synthesize music on a computer, attack means how long it takes for a note to get to its maximum level.
  • Decay is the time it takes for the note to go from its maximum level to its steady state or sustain level.
  • Sustain or steady state follows the attack and “is a more stable phase in which the musical tone takes on the orderly pattern of overtone frequencies as the metal or wood (or other material) that the instrument is made out of starts to resonate.” (Levitin)  Sustain can also be described as the sound level at which the note is held after Attack and Decay.
  • Release or  Flux.  “how the sound changes after it has started playing” or how long it takes for the note to fall from the steady state to silence.

Overtones may play over each other to make the timbre of music, but they do start and stop, open and close.  Without that opening and closing, there would not be the pattern of sounds that makes the difference between music and noise.

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