Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Speed of Timbre

Last week I was listening to an interview with guitarist Taylor Levine on My Ears Are Open. In the interview Taylor talks about how quickly rock musicians adopted technological innovations that created new timbres. From the electric guitar of Les Paul, to innovations in speakers and pedals, to synthesizers of all different generations, as soon as a new device was invented, it was embraced by some popular musician and loved by audiences. Why is it that these musical explorations are so quickly accepted in the popular music world, and yet innovations in timbre in the art music world don't find a foothold, either with the musicians or the audience?

I think there may be a complexity issue that hampers exploration in the art music scene. Berlyne's inverted U theory of complexity and arousal states that the complexity or novelty of a piece directly affects the arousal, with the optimal amount of arousal created at a midlevel of complexity, the arousal dropping off in either direction as the complexity increases or decreases. I posit that popular music tends to be on the low side of the complexity curve, when considering rhythm, melody, and harmony. Thus any experimentation with timbre will only aid in reaching the apex of arousal. On the other hand, a string quartet by Webern already has very complex form, harmony, and melodic structure. I always felt that throwing in extra timbral effects like col legno was like too much spice, pushing me well over the hump of the inverted U curve, reducing my arousal. Musical works that introduce new timbres successfully will be conservative in other aspects of structure. Thus popular music, minimalist music, and non-pitched percussion music tends to be the most successful. A Stockhausen piece that serializes timbre along with rhythm, pitch, and dynamics will have to rely on things other than arousal, at least until audiences are more familiar with the structures, reducing the perceived complexity.


Anonymous said...

I think there's a lot simpler explanation. In the rock world, most songs are performed exclusively by their composers. It only takes one person to master the Chapman Stick and create a hit single to propel that instrument to the forefront, inspiring other musicians to take it up.

Conversely, if you write a symphony which has a part for theremin, in order for it to become popular it has to be played by dozens of orchestras with theremin players. This involves a significant logistical problem.

Of course, it's happened in the past. Wagner introduced new instruments since he had the same kind of rock-star appeal at Bayreuth that Green Day enjoys now. But there's no one in classical music now with a widespread-enough appeal to introduce a new instrument single-handedly.


I think you're both probably right to various degrees.

Also important is the idealization/idolization (not necessarily bad) of standard timbres that comes naturally through a classically-based conservatory model - one that looks to the past for perfection. The easiest answer for why no one can improve on 300-yr old Italian violins is that the sound of a Stradivarius IS the standard (for many people) for what a violin should sound like. What will ever sound more like a Strad than a Strad? The piano is maybe even a better example because it is an instrument riddled with flaws and compromises, and yet the sound of a 1900 or so Steinway has been so idealized (including its very flaws) that most pianists (including myself) want their pianos to sound like THAT. A modern synthesized keyboard could easily improve on all sorts of problems of register balance, legato, sustain in high registers, clarity in low registers, etc. but most people looking for "digital pianos" don't want those wrinkles ironed out. They want the "digital" to sound analog. (I include myself in this group; I'd always rather play a badly out-of-tune old upright than a state-of-the-art digital piano.) Compare to the evolution of the fortepiano for its first 150 years or so! People were constantly looking for ways to improve it.

If Historically Informed Performance Practice had come in sooner (much sooner), you might never have gotten valves for your trumpet!

By the way, at the same time I opened your article in one tab I'd opened this article in another:

Nice to have you writing again!

Free Sheet Music said...

Interesting discussion -- I wonder how much success is due to the popularity of the performer? If you could do a "blind taste test", do you think you'd find the same results?

Vili said...

I think that there needs to be a realization of what instruments were created for in the first place. That is to imitate the human voice and perform skills that a voice can't. Instruments have become more powerful and can achieve technically feats that our musical ancestors could only dream of. I am quite a young classical music and I think that if a violin can be made in our age that can imitate the human voice and allows for greater technical proficiency than a Strady than why not? Who is to say that the Stradivarius is always going to be the benchmark. I think the bench mark in the human voice not a brand name.

P.S This is a spectacular blog and I'll definitely subscribe and link this to my blog (I'd love if you did the same)