Friday, May 18, 2012


I was listening to "Wintermute" for trombone and tape by Bruce Hamilton yesterday.  I didn't know anything about the music, other than it was performed by Andrew Glendening.  I've performed some trumpet and tape music, so I was prepared for a mix of electronics, musique concrète, samples of standard instruments.  Something more abstract, stretching the boundary of normal timbres, since that is the strength of taped accompaniment.  I was a little surprised how polished the sounds were, and then it hit me that most of the electronic sounds were not abstractly generated, but were rather samples of electric guitar and electric bass.  Oh, and yes some smatterings of drum set, though just hits and ghostly hints of grooves.  The timbres were undeniably rock-oriented, and I started listening with a more third-stream/post-rock/indie-classical-to-make-Nico Muhly-wet-himself stance.  I could easily see this piece converted to allow a DJ to accompany the trombone, spinning various samples. 

There was no four-on-the-floor driving rhythms to make it sound rockish, no blues progressions or pentatonic scales.  The only thing evoking the rock genre was the timbre.  The electric bass, electric guitar, and drum set sound like rock, especially the overdrive bass sound that was used.  What are other timbres that evoke a genre?  A particular vibrato in singing can evoke opera, a raspy off-the-string bowing of a violin can evoke "old-timey music."  Period instruments are for that very reason, to create the timbres that evoke a time period and genre, thus the use of the shawm, cornetto, harpsichord, and lute.  Some world musics have very distinct instruments, like the sitar or the didgeridoo.

Can you name any other timbres that instantly cause you to think of a style of music?  Timbres only, no harmonies or melodies, rhythms or tempos.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012


The idea of composing with timbre isn't new.  Wayne Slawson wrote a book, Sound Color, back in 1985 which details previous attempts at composing in timbre, and his own theory of how timbre composition should work.  Schoenberg's piece – Farben, op. 16 no. 3 – is perhaps the most famous, and the one that gives us the delightfully pretentious title of Farbenmelodie to describe any "melody of timbres."  Check out the Youtube video below, with some very good analysis by F. Nicolas included.

I like Elliot Carter's Eight Etudes and a Fantasy for Woodwind Quartet, particularly the third and seventh etudes that focus on timbre.  Etude 3 (first video, at 2:40) isn't as effective, because I was distracted by the bassoon's movement between notes, though I could still hear the shifts in timbre.  But in Etude 7 (second video, at 3:00), with the hairpin dynamics to suddenly bring in or out various sounds on the single note, there was real motion, a journey of emotion.

Penderecki came up with an organized theory of timbre, based on the types of materials used to make the sound.  However, this theory could not accommodate wind instruments or voices.  Crumb creates some very imaginative timbres, but it isn't the only focus of his compositions.

I want to compose some pieces that attune the ear to very subtle changes in timbre.  I was inspired by reading Tim Rutherford Johnson's latest article on NewMusicBox.  In it, he describes Kunsu Shim's expanding space in limited time.  
 In one two-hour performance of the piece, Pisaro reports, it was 20 minutes before he could make out any sound at all; after which his sense of hearing had become so attuned that those sounds that were produced began to take on an extraordinary richness.
 I want to create that degree of sensitivity, but I don't want to take 20 minutes of the audience's time to do it.  My goal is for the listeners to be engaged, not annoyed.  Is that asking too much?