Yesterday, I had the pleasure (and absolute luxury) of working through a sketch of Interaction at LSO St. Luke’s with David Worswick (violin) and Lorenzo Iosco (bass clarinet).
Imagine in front of us 3 pots containing water, from left to right:
Warm Lukewarm Cold
Albers points out that, depending on the order in which the hands are dipped into the pots, the water will appear to be different temperatures. (e.g. if we dip our left hand in the warm pot, our right hand in the cold pot, and then place our hands together in the middle pot we will simultaneously feel cold on our left hand and warm on our right).
This simple and elegant idea transfers beautifully into music.
Here is the opening of the work as played at the workshop yesterday. As the piece opens, the F sounds as a relatively low pitch on the violin:
In my opinion, upon hearing the opening, this is too varied for the start of the piece where I am trying to establish a central pitch and colour. However, a high degree of clarity has certainly been achieved in the opening bars as it is a single pitch presented in a number of ways. While this might not refer perfectly to an exact colour, it has a strong parallel in the idea of a hue. This ‘F’ is a sort of central colour that takes on shades even within itself.
This sort of example, though, shows just how valuable a workshop can be to a composer. Throughout the piece, the violin is close mic’d with an omnidirectional DPA 4061 microphone. This allows for a close exploration (audible to the audience) of very detailed sounds. In particular, I was asking for a very unusual sound in having the violin tremolo between a natural harmonic and pitch placed at the same place on the string (this results in a tremolo between two timbres or ‘shades’ of the same pitch. Remember that in this piece the Violin’s 4th string is tuned down to an F):
David pointed out that there are two consequences of this technique. The first is that there is a continuous, slight bend of the pitch between the two notes (especially prominent when a string is detuned). The second is that the natural harmonic tends to ring on, even when the stopped note has been pressed down. This means the tremolo doesn’t actually sound very much like a tremolo at all.
We did not just abandon the idea, though! Three alternatives were found. Firstly, this sound does work (with a great deal of variation in the colour of the single pitch) when the violinist plays sul ponticello (moving their bow toward the bridge). There is also an incredibly detailed and nuanced sound, particularly with the close-mic, to instead tremolo between the harmonic and the open string:
Finally, it is possible to use the same effect, but instead to slow the tremolo down so it is actually much more like a very slow glissando between the harmonic and closed pitch:
In the next post, I’ll explore how the opening of the piece was rewritten to centre with much more stability on the first of these ideas, with small hints of the variation to come. I was originally going to include a sound example for each of these files, but on listening back to the workshop, it seemed that the entire discussion (which lasts about 3 minutes) was worth including as it represents how engaged and insightful performers can teach composers and open up compositional possibilities in workshop situations.
Coming back to the piece (and to Albers’ pots of water), whatever the eventual shade of ‘F’ chosen, the first bass clarinet entry shifts the perception of this ‘F’ dramatically:
Throughout this passage, the violin’s F is more than two octaves above the bass clarinet’s material. The bass clarinet slowly rises through the coming pages, and the centre of the piece blooms into a unison dance around the F upon which the piece has been dwelling. Notice that the melody here is mostly symmetrical around the ‘F’ (described with the red text):
While I hope this material wouldn’t be labeled as ‘lukewarm’, the interesting thing is that the F is now appearing as a central pitch within the work. This passage continues on, but even by the end of this first line, the F no longer seems such a high pitch, particularly when being played by the violin.
Later, a return to the ‘unison’ idea is realised, but with a very different registral profile than before. While the violin remains focused on the F, the bass clarinet reaches up to a new height. It is worth noting, for other composers that this is very high writing for the Bass Clarinet (Samuel Adler’s book lists the absolute top of the range as the E a tri-tone below the B-flat written here). This gives you some idea of the incredible sight-reading ability of LSO musicians, but do be aware that such writing does limit the number of players who will (or even can) play a piece.
What is amazing about this sound is that the clarinet and violin are, in actuality, only one octave apart. Because this F is low in the violin register and the octave above is near the very top of the bass clarinet register, the difference seems much greater than this.
Just as the same colour is changed by the interaction of the material around it the same pitch has been manipulated to sound in different ways. Does this convince you that it might be possible to suggest, as Albers does about color in art, that pitch is the most relative medium in music?