The Dirty Little Secret of Timbre

I’ve always had a weakness for the music of French composer Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924). It started when I learned a few of his mélodies in my high school voice class and sensed a simpatico relationship between the minimalist music I was just starting to become aware of and these songs’ ceaselessly undulating, almost proto-minimalist piano accompaniments. Later on I discovered that I shared a birthday with him (May 12), which led me to feel a lifelong kinship. So when I saw a three-LP set of his complete orchestral music at my favorite used record shop yesterday, I eagerly snatched it up, and in a rare cave-in to immediate gratification I listened to the set from start to finish last night.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable, if not life-changing listening experience. I was particularly drawn to the relatively late Fantaisie for Piano and Orchestra (1918), whose occasional jagged rhythms reveal that—though often accused of being musically quite conservative—Fauré was well aware of and even somewhat engaged with modern music’s juggernaut. In fact, according to the LP box’s booklet notes, so outré was this composition that the pianist for whom it was written, the legendary Alfred Cortot (1877-1962), rejected it and refused to ever play it again after the premiere. However, reading further on in the notes I came across something that perked me up more than anything I heard coming out of my speakers—it turns out that Fauré orchestrated very little of the music contained on the set, relegating the task to his students, among them the unjustly neglected Charles Koechlin (1867-1950).

Reading this brought another memory from high school back to me full force. The same vocal teacher who had me sing Fauré was hoping I’d grow out of my then passion for Broadway musicals and turn my undivided attention to classical music. One of her arguments for the superiority of classical music was that it is more detail oriented. For example, unlike Broadway composers who hired orchestrators to flesh out arrangements from their piano scores, classical composers did it all themselves since timbre was as important a concern to them as pitch and rhythm. I was crestfallen at the time. Searching through all the Broadway shows I treasured, I discovered that she was right. Virtually all of them had been orchestrated by people other than the composers I had admired so much. Richard Rodgers? Almost all the characteristic sonorities we associate with his musicals were actually the work of Robert Russell Bennett. Stephen Sondheim, who studied with Milton Babbitt no less—the orchestrations for all those revolutionary shows were by Paul Geminiani. (Ed Note: Oops, not true, actually Jonathan Tunick and later Michael Starobin; see comments below.) Even someone who knew the orchestra as well as the globe-trotting maestro Leonard Bernstein handed over the orchestrations of his Broadway musicals to other people. Only the never completely Americanized Kurt Weill refused to let anyone else tinker with any detail of his music.

My teacher’s exposé of the “dirty little secret” of Broadway musicals, however, led me down a completely different path—one that she was even more appalled by. I became obsessed with Karlheinz Stockhausen, who not only orchestrated everything he wrote, but also subjected it to the same level of obsessive control that he applied to pitch and rhythm. He also conducted all his recordings, sometimes engineering them and even writing the jacket notes. In fact, eschewing the intrusion of others into his compositional vision, he often avoided the input of other musicians altogether, creating electronic music in the studios of WDR radio in Cologne. While I still treasure some of Stockhausen’s music, the allure of such absolutism has waned.

As an adult I wonder how important it is to maintain full control of every aspect of your music and moreover, even if such control is actually possible. The greatest joy of composing is being able to share what you’ve done with other people—players, listeners, etc.—and in so doing hopefully bring joy into their lives. Part of that joy is being able to connect with that music, and that connection is largely predicated on being able to have some input into the process. I’ve also grown to realize that despite claims to the contrary, the sanctity of classical music’s timbres is not something that most performers or listeners place on the same level as the accuracy of pitch and rhythm. Otherwise why would so many concert pianists play the music of Johann Sebastian Bach or even Debussy, whose preferred Érard sounds noticeably different from the ubiquitous Steinways in today’s concert halls and recording studios? And in fact, Debussy—like Fauré, Rodgers, Sondheim, et al.—also relegated the orchestration of some of his largest scale works, e.g. Le martyre de Sain

8 thoughts on “The Dirty Little Secret of Timbre

  1. Daniel Wolf

    Your observations on pop music are similar to those in the recent book How the Beatles Destroyed Rock n Roll by Elijah Wald in which Wald traces the shift in focus, for popular music audiences, from the “songs themselves” (heard via sheet music at home, live performances by bands, and then more-or-less anonymous radio singers) to particular performances of pop songs.

    I think that the continued potential for a degree of indeterminancy in performance allowed by the traditional notation-interpretation model (even, or perhaps especially, when apparently thoroughly notated as to orchestration, articulations, dynamics etc.) is one of the major distinctions — one might eve say edges — available to art musics.

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  2. colin holter

    I think that the continued potential for a degree of indeterminancy in performance allowed by the traditional notation-interpretation model (even, or perhaps especially, when apparently thoroughly notated as to orchestration, articulations, dynamics etc.) is one of the major distinctions — one might eve say edges — available to art musics.

    A frickin’ men. I have to read that Wald!

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  3. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

    I studied very briefly with Italian composer Carlo Alessandro Landini a few years back, shortly after he had finished a residency at Columbia studying cognitive psychoacoustics. Turns out, I didn’t have the first clue what cognitive psychoacoustics (CPA) was, and needed Carlo to explain. It’s basically the study of how our brains translate natural reactions to sound into conscious thought. Whew.

    He told me once that because of the high dopamine release caused by music in the brain, certain sounds and sonorities are more immediately “pleasurable,” while others may require more conscious processing to let us get our chemical fix. It turns out that rhythm plays the biggest factor in the release of dopamine, and that there is a window of rhythmic activity (a “sweet spot”) inside of which sounds please us the most. This window moves with age, however, which explains much of the passion young people have for popular music (obivously, this is just one element of that issue).

    If we think of timbre as essentially a set of rhythms interacting, I think we can start to get at some of the tools to make our music as viscerally gripping as possible. Of course, now we have to ask…. do we want to do that?

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  4. Frank J. Oteri

    Thanks Tom for pointing that out. Dumb mistake on my part; it’s a gaffe I knew better than to make, but there’s no accounting for misremembering while quickly scribbling. Actually, oddly, it was the second such mistake in the same paragraph. I initially wrongly attributed the work of Robert Russell Bennett to Richard Rodney Bennett, which a friend luckily caught a few hours after it went live—the curse of similar sounding names.

    You’d think that in the age of instant information retrieval that the internet has given us such basic copyediting mistakes would be a thing of the past, yet ironically they are more rampant than ever before. An interesting article published in the Wall Street Journal earlier this week suggests why that might be. Then again several years ago I wrote an article in which I accidentally mixed up the celebrated Rumi translator Coleman Barks with the late great ethnic cookbook author Copeland Marks, both of whom I greatly admire; it went to print that way and will sadly remain that way forever. At least I was able to right my wrong on these pages…

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  5. mclaren

    Oteri claims: The more I’ve listened the more I’ve come to realize that timbre is more tightly controlled in many genres of popular music than it is in classical music.

    Not clear what you mean by “classical music” here. Varese was less concerned with timbre than the Beatles were? Really? Have you listened to any contemporary computer music? Timbre is less tightly controlled in a piece like Jean Claude Risset’s Songes than in a Spice Girls song? Really?

    Maybe by “classical music” you mean “orchestral music composed between 1820 and 1880,” but in that case your reference to composers like Stockhausen becomes baffling.

    You go on to assert As an adult I wonder how important it is to maintain full control of every aspect of your music and moreover, even if such control is actually possible.

    Haven’t you ever used Csound? SuperCollider? Common Music? Nyquist?

    You aver: While there have undeniably been some amazing contemporary works written for the orchestra, most new music has fared better when scored for smaller configurations which allow for less regimented control of time, space, and personnel.

    Eh?

    The signal advantage of working with smaller ensembles remains the much greater control of time, space and personnel. Contemporary composers like Michael Gordon and Eve Beglarian can write rhythms for small ensembles which are impossible for large orchestras to play, due to the lack of rehearsal time available for the large orchestras and their lack of familiarity with the musical style involved. Gordon has trained his esemble performers to nod their heads in time with an underlying beat even while they play wholly different rhythms, which helps them keep their places when they play broken tuplets. Classically trained symphony performers are completely unable to play such rhythms.

    Likewise, a small ensemble allows for much more precise control of dynamics because it’s much easier for the performers to hear the overall dynamic level. As you know, depending on the placement onstage, symphony musicians may have a great deal of difficulty hearing the overall dynamic level and must typically rely on a conductor for guidance.

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  6. Trevor

    Maybe by “classical music” you mean “orchestral music composed between 1820 and 1880,” but in that case your reference to composers like Stockhausen becomes baffling.

    The framework for the post is Faure, who probably never used Supercollider, and the use of Stockhausen was in the affirmative; he did care a great deal about timbre, which was illustrative of a changing mentality. If you’d like to reclaim the term “classical music” for computer musicians, you’re welcome to it, but I’ve certainly never met any of them who were keen on that label.

    less regimented control of time, space, and personnel.

    I would bet dollars to donuts that Frank was most certainly not referring to the composers being the ones who tightly regiment an orchestra. No one who has spent more than a week in the contemporary music scene thinks that orchestras are flexible.

    Haven’t you ever used Csound? SuperCollider? Common Music? Nyquist?

    I can assure you, after 3 years of working with the man, that computers are not Frank’s forte.

    And while I’m at it…

    Varese was less concerned with timbre than the Beatles were? Really? Have you listened to any contemporary computer music? Timbre is less tightly controlled in a piece like Jean Claude Risset’s Songes than in a Spice Girls song? Really?

    I don’t see how this is an obvious point, even if we ignore the fact that FJO was not talking about people like Varese and Risset. Do you think the Spice Girls producers were sitting around trying to find the perfect harmonic progression instead, or that Sgt. Pepper was revolutionary because of its rhythms? The people making those records may not be thinking about timbre the same way, but they’re definitely obsessing over it, and way more so than the person who writes mf and “like a whispering forest…” next to a violin melody.

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  7. philmusic

    “..Contemporary composers …can write rhythms for small ensembles which are impossible for large orchestras to play, due to “the lack of rehearsal time available” for the large orchestras and their “lack of familiarity” with the musical style involved…. “Classically trained symphony performers are completely unable to play such rhythms.”

    My experience with orchestral players might be different then yours but Mclaren, which is it? Are you saying that orchestral players can’t do it or they could do it if they had the time, or that they have no interest in learning to perform it? Even if what you are implying is so, and its not, this wouldn’t be a problem of the performers but rather a problem of performing institutions and entrepreneurship.

    Three things on orchestration, which I kind of like doing.

    1)on Broadway professional orchestrators are needed for the many issues that swamp a composer leaving them with no time to do anything but make changes in the master score; rehearsals, new songs intros etc.

    2) Many pop recordings do adhere to strict sonic profiles-which of course that can be the producers and engineers job. Some of these sonic profiles rightly have become famous and are widely imitated.

    3) as too blame it on the Beatles, Jazz performers and the”signature song and sound” also operate as un-imatatable authentic sources and long before the Beatles too.

    Phil Fried PhilFried.com, OperaBob.org

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