Sunday, 31 January 2016

Harmony, Sound Colour and Beyond

We have been working on Bax symphonies and trying to solve many puzzles this impressive collection of musical material presented. 1st symphony opens with an announcement.  The dark diminished 7th Eb chord is played by the low register dark woodwind accompanied by tremolo gong – crescendo pp to p. This is stabbed by two harps ff playing the same chord arpeggiated over two octaves. This is dramatic enough. But the announcement continues with the same chord and entirely different timbre of strings, bass-oboe and flutes to present a ferocious rhythmic figure leading to yet another statement of the chord with a different timbre. All this drama packed into a few bars is achieved by the repetition of the same chord using different timbre. This hard to forget opening statement is not really harmonically very interesting. After all it is only one chord. Rhythmically it is Taaaa Tram, tah  ta ta ta taaah. Not earth-shaking either. So what makes this opening phrase memorable? One may suggest that is meticulous orchestration and in this case the orchestration is excellent, unfortunately the answer is not that straight forward. In fact, the question posed is not the right question; I think it is just as important to ask: Did we miss something? Is there another musical property we should include into our considerations when we are dealing with music produced by a group of dissimilar instruments rather than a single type? The answer to this is yes, there is another property that is rarely mentioned or considered.

In his book "Sound Colour", Wayne Slawson described what he called sound colour which is not the same as timbre. The timbre is defined by "All ways that two sounds of the same pitch, loudness, and apparent duration may differ". Timbre is a flexible definition that may or may not include vague descriptor such as tone quality; but when all said and done timbre is a measurable quality which can be fully defined using physical parameters and measured or codified by the properties of the sound wave spectrum. On the other hand, according to Slawson's definition, "sound colour is a property or attribute of auditory sensation; it is not an acoustic property. Similarly visual colour is a perceptual attribute, not a property of light." (1)

Without going into the technical details of the sound colour theory or using its principles, it is easy to see that the mixture of timbres in the opening phrase of Bax's first Symphony provide the colours of the sound painting. I am sure these colours will be perceived differently by each listener. Even if a general agreement can be achieved with respect to the implied general meaning of the phrase, the emotional details, filtered by the experiences of each listener will differ. That is not the significant point. The distinction between orchestration and use of sound colour is similar to mixing of paints (orchestration) and using the mixed paint in ways that will enable the composer to convey his/her ideas in creative ways. To demonstrate this is possible. In an old composition, I used only two instruments that were capable of producing different pitches (Timpani and orchestral tubular bells) and each instrument was limited to 3 pitches, (Timpani; A, F, D and bells E, G, B) the rest of the instruments were percussion instruments without defined pitch. The choice of beaters and the attack was left to the eight (8) players who played bass, snare and taiko drums, cymbals, Large and medium gongs, and eight orchestral stationary tom-toms. Clearly, harmony and tone centres of this composition are undefined. But listening to it, one senses an undefinable (of course) but palpably perceivable harmonic progression. The rhythms are not regular, or march like and often enough they are not very interesting, and the mesmerising quality of some dance rhythms are not there. Yet, in combination with other colours the piece provides a coherent picture and a friend very familiar with open hearth steel mills remarked how well it captured the work atmosphere in any one of those old fashioned mills.

While I have a number of percussion rich pieces, this is the closest to a pure undefined pitch composition I know of.  Probably, there are other and better pieces in the literature that would fit the only colour requirement, and I would have preferred to use a piece written by someone else instead of my piece.

This is also a brief note on the potential opportunity for discovering new colours through combination of percussion instruments. It requires experimentation and that requires assistance from a friend or colleague. It is another tool in the composer's tool-kit. However, the use entails availability of a music store with a friendly proprietor who would let you and one or more friends try out combinations of percussion instruments. There might be a few such locations that would be willing to help you out but it requires considerable luck to find one. The music director or the percussion tutor of a local school orchestra or marching band as well as the percussionists from a local symphony orchestra might be willing to make suggestions and help you.

A possible but less satisfactory solution is the use of computer generated or sampled percussion instruments. It is definitely a less inconvenient possibility but the sounds are generally not as rich as the acoustic instruments, I have not found one that will accommodate different beaters –  if there is one, most likely it is a very pricey venture.

In addition to percussion instruments a great deal of sounds can be generated using a digital synthesis technique. This also opens up possibilities for experimentation and discovery of different colours. Those who would like to carry out experiments to discover new colours would be well advised to plan the experiment carefully, record the trials and assess the quality of combinations for your artistic needs. With so many variables associated with percussion (such as beaters, the contact point from centre towards the rim, etc. will have a significant effect on the combination of sounds produced).

"Sounds of an  Old Steel Mill" can be found in Soundcloud through the link:

The score can be Downloaded from IMSLP – Its number is #408862, If you wish to print it, please note that it is on a B4 paper and must be shrunk to fit A4 or 8 ½ x 11 paper

(1) Wayne Slawson "Sound Color " University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London (1985) pp(18 – 21)

The Ken Hannaford reworking of "Sounds of an  Old Steel Mill" using sampled metal sounds can be heard at: