Interaction (for Bass Cl and Violin) – II. Pitch Recollection and Aural Memory

In his first chapter, on color recollection and visual memory, Albers argues that auditory memory is much stronger than visual memory.  This initially seems to make sense, but I think the reverse is actually more likely to be true. We are continually seeing and choosing and combining colours in our day-to-day lives, from choosing our clothing for the day, to any number of other situations such as purchasing a car or even selecting a drink.

In London, tube lines are delineated by their colour as well as name, and if you live in London, you probably know which Tube line I’m referring to right now. Furthermore, whether you are an artist or not, you have seen beautiful deep-blue skies and recognised them as that colour.

This is not true of music.  People can often remember simple relationships (intervals) between pitches – e.g. I imagine everyone reading this could immediately sing ‘Happy Birthday’ without making (m)any intervallic mistakes, but only trained musicians can name pitches they hear with any accuracy, and most trained musicians would still have to think to articulate the intervals they are singing.  (I accept that one large caveat to this are those people with absolute pitch, which I don’t think has a parallel in the colour world. If anyone knows of one, please do speak up!)

Albers laments that there are only about thirty colour names in daily use.  The situation is similar in music, with seven note names, commonly adjusted with a sharp, flat, or natural yielding twenty-one common names to speak about the infinite divisions and combinations of pitch that occur within the audible aural spectrum.  (There are, of course, further symbols/names such as ‘quarter sharp’ and ‘three-quarter flat’, but these are about as common as cerulean.)

If one says ‘Middle C’ and there are 50 people listening, it seems likely that most of them will have an intellectual idea/understanding of what is being talked about, but that very few of them will actually have an aural sound in their head.  This is what most people will be thinking of, C4 on the piano:

It would be easy to say that this C has changed colour when it moves to a different register of the piano (this happens at integer multiples of the original frequency so, for example, C5 occurs as 523.25Hz, C6 at 1046.50Hz, and so on), but even when we confine our discussion to this C, we can imagine many different “tints” and “shades” of that pitch depending upon the instrument that plays it.

Just as new colours are created by adding or subtracting other colours, the wide range of timbre in these four examples comes from the presence, absence, and relative strength of frequencies other than 261.63Hz that are also present in the sound. We can use a frequency analyser to show us this visually. In these examples, created using the freeware programme spear, the darker a line is, the louder/stronger it is in the sound we are hearing.  We’ll just look at the first 4 octaves of the sounds here, but the frequencies do continue well over 15kHz.

Bass Harmonic
A common word to describe harmonics (such as the one in the bass guitar example) is the word ‘pure’.  Looking at the frequency analysis of the Bass, we can see that this is an accurate description of the sound, because there are only three frequencies (the fundamental, the first harmonic, and the first sub-harmonic) being activated, and the fundamental is decidedly stronger than the other two frequencies.

Piano Middle C
Compare this to the more complex sound of the piano, where the first, second, and third harmonic are all obviously active (and the subharmonic has disappeared).  Though they are still softer than the fundamental pitch, they are also in a more even relationship here than we saw/heard in the bass example.  Characteristically, there are a large number of frequencies present in the ‘attack’ at the beginning of the sound, which fade quickly.

Flute Middle C
To my ear, the flute makes a much darker sound than the piano on this pitch.  Looking at the analysis, we can see that something of this is in how strong, relative to the fundamental, the harmonics are.  We can see the vibrato moving across all the harmonics (the darker then lighter pattern) and, in particular, the first harmonic is just as strong (and stronger in points) than the fundamental itself. Notice, also, the complex breath sound at the beginning of the sound.


So what?
Albers’ suggests exploring colour interaction by using a variety of coloured cards arranged in various ways against each other.  A similar exploration of how a pitch interacts with other pitches is made difficult because it takes a great deal of effort to establish a pitch in the ear of a listener.  My first sketch for Lorenzo involved starting on the ‘central pitch’ and then descending away from it into the depth of the bass clarinet register.  (The sketch is transposing)

It’s immediately obvious, in light of this discussion that there isn’t even remotely enough time spent establishing the first pitch in this sketch.  Moreover, there are deeper questions to be answered in light of the question of the actual colour of a single note.  The bass clarinetist can employ multiple fingerings to play the same pitch (this is what the numbers mean above the notes in the first bar) – with each one yielding a slightly different colour.

Some questions I’m currently asking from this, as I rewrite the opening and look to plan the piece are:

      • Is it just a ‘pitch’ that the piece is centred around, or a specific ‘pitch colour’?
      • How much time do I need to spend establishing a ‘central pitch and colour’ such that the audience will relate the rest of the material they hear to that pitch and colour?
      • How particular do I need to be about the timbre (‘colour’) of that pitch, and does it need to be something more obvious than one bass clarinet note among many?
      • Is there a more elegant way to try and emphasize this pitch and colour than (what is really a cliché for this type of composition now) simply hammering away at it at the beginning of the piece and bringing it back either numerous times or at key structural points?
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