Monday, December 14, 2009

People have ongoing arguments about what it means to play or sing in tune. While I cannot pretend to have anything definitive to say on the subject, I do have some practiced insights that might be helpful in case you find yourself wondering whether someone or something is in tune.

Yesterday I heard a chorus of well-intentioned, earnest amateurs sing all the right notes in a lovely program mixing old and new music--just the kind of program I most enjoy. They were in tune with some rehearsal piano that, though not present in the room, nonetheless was keeping them from tuning to one another. In other words, they were not actively responding to the sounds of their fellow singers.

Just now I heard a clip on MySpace of a new jazz group, The Spokes, comprised of three composers playing clarinet, soprano sax and trombone. This remarkable combo, clearly aware of what they are doing, attempts the impossible: The two high instruments flit around in dizzying chromatic runs, sometimes perfectly in tune, sometimes ever-so-slightly not, but always in relation to one another. It is like an image that is deliberately both in and out of focus. It is a beautiful example of music-making that keeps the definition of in-tune a participation between composer, player and listener.