Friday, January 23, 2015

What is Happening to Tone?

I found it virtually impossible to write critiques of live performances and CDs for The New Music Connoisseur, not that I didn't have things to say.  But what I ended up critiquing was too complex to convey within the allotted space:  To sum up the dilemma: I could talk about the music itself, insofar as it is possible to do so without actually having played it myself; I could talk about the performance, a lot easier, since performing is my "thing," or, as happened more and more, I could address awareness of how hard it is to make a living sticking one's neck into the music business and how I did not want to discourage anyone from doing so.

Now emerges another level of concern that is too deep for 300 words or less, and at which I can only hint here.  There is less and less concern with inhabited sound.  It is rare these days to feel so grabbed by a sound that I do not forget it.  More likely I hear sounds that seem to have been filtered through what? Hard to say: through awareness of perfection, perhaps.

At last week's CMA conference I had a conversation in which a coach was describing the dilemma posed by working with a saxophone quartet who were to perform a string quartet:  How to deal with the musical questions raised?  These are compelling questions of the sort that have fascinated me for years.  The next day I heard that saxophone quartet playing what turned out not to have been a string quartet at all, but a piece for viola overdubbed with other viola lines ( faux viola quartet ? ).  There is no way to penetrate sound qualities from such a source.

I know because I was once in a situation where I was expected to take a cello line from a CD and reproduce it on the piano.  I actually could not hear the line unless I put on a headset while at the piano seeking out the "tones."  It turned out the line had been dubbed onto the track; there was no shared resonance with the accompaniment.  This rendered it, according to my definitions, unhearable.

Tone is more than pitch.  Have we lost it?