Category: Brahms

The timbre-space of every note we play

Brahms: Rhapsody in B Minor, Op 79 / 1.  The increasingly dense and  complex section ending the first section of the piece and leading up to the change to key to B Major.

How quickly can I find an isolated niche of consciousness for each sound, even when these sounds succeed each other so rapidly, almost erasing each other?

We often just place one sound ‘next’ to the another in our ear according to  its sequence in time and then have done with it. It seems to us that ‘time’ creates the niche in consciousness in which the note falls, and not the aesthetic qualities of the note which determine and construct that niche that gives each note a place in which to live.

We might feel that if two successive notes differ only by one step pitch-wise, how important could that difference be on an aesthetic grounds? I prefer having an ear that will first ‘create’ a space for the appearance of the next note* , which fails to hear its uniqueness, and lops it into the same box or container as the  previous note, instead of creating a new, unique residing place,  one that has its own aesthetic and timbre, not just that of a “D” or an “E”.  I want the ear to do this, not so as to ignore how the notes combine into a melody.  The creative act of consciousness and memory to to fuse notes into a melody is such a natural, and strong inclination, that we may not want to be forever locked into it, but be able, if we want, to establish something else beside melody to balance it out: something more in the direction of there being a sound-world contained in each sound, which is an individual phenomenon.

Let us turn our attention now from melody to chord. This same balancing force, or desire on the part of the conscious brain, would make us want each note of the chord to live in its own sound-timbre niche: still interacting with the other notes of the chord to form the sound phenomenon of a ‘chord’, but essentially alone in its own ecological niche. Just as two different species in an ecosystem try to carve out a niche in which there are no other species competing with it for the same food.

How quickly can my ear change registers: fully recognize the difference between a C-natural in one octave and a C-natural in another octave, before hearing that they share the identity of C-ness?** Or recognize how a C differs from an F or a G, not because the other note is “higher” or “lower”, or has ‘already’ formed the aesthetic effect of an identifiable interval (which produces its own, aesthetic phenomenon), but because for even a fleeting moment, we appreciate the difference in the two notes solely on the basis they are “different” in “sound“.

This difference in sound alone may in turn be based on loudness and  softness, on difference in pitch, but perhaps most significantly, difference in timbre, by which the aesthetic effect of the sounding of the note is mostly evoked. Have you noticed that when altering the loudness of a note of a certain pitch, there is a change, secondarily, in its timbre? So timbre will be changed by loudness alone and not by pitch or by what instrument is  playing. We should notice that the timbre of a sound is changed as whenever we change the pitch of a note.

* Ignoring for the moment the working of memory while listening to a  piece, the next note hasn’t been heard yet, and in that sense is new.  Once we hear it, if we are so inclined, we can identify it and store it in a memory bin along with other notes singled out for sounding the same.  But if we concentrate on the aesthetic effects of the ‘new’ note in the piece, we may find that no two notes bearing the same letter name and octave, ever  ‘sound’ the same.  I want to create a place on the keyboard for the ‘new’ note that has just been discovered for the first time, not just sitting there in the space of the keyboard awaiting the note to be sounded.

** How quickly can I play notes of the same letter-name in different octaves, and actively, “situate” each in a unique a timbre-stratum.  How far can I go to recognizing what is different about one of these notes and the next, as if I were trying to be unaware of the commonality they both have for bearing the same letter name.

I’m not sure I create this stratum just as I play the next note, or whether I have already formed it, in potential, before physically going to and sounding the note. My preference is to believe that a sound should bloom in a space that has not existed yet, not one that lies there waiting for it along the keyboard. I want there to be something very “new” about where I discover the note with my ear.

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Sonic Glue – Sameness And Difference

We have defined “sonic glue” to mean hard to find sonic connections between notes: in different voices, in successive chords, between non temporally adjacent notes within certain melodies.  These are often
overlooked, with the result that the piece does not flow or sound in the way we expect it to.

Here I want to mention some of these sonic connections in the Brahms, Rhapsodie, Op. 119 / 4 in E Flat Major.


Measure 254, nine measures from the end of the piece.

On the first chord of the measure, there are three E-Flats
(ef4-ef5–ef6) which are the root notes of an E-Flat Minor Chord.

In the chord that begins the second beat of the measure, there are also three E-Flats to be found (ef4-ef5–ef6) which are the fifths of an A-Flat Minor Chord.

I continue following the trail of E-Flats through measures 255, 267, 257, and the beginning of m258.  They stand out to me regardless of what octave they sound in, and regardless of how many E-Flats show up in any given chord.

The only chord lacking an E-Flat is the dominant chord, B-flat Major, on the second beat of measure 257. 6 bars from the end of the piece.
If I now play those measures, and let my ear focus particularly on the reappearing sounds of the E-Flats, bringing the E-Flats out a little louder than the other notes of the chords (but just enough so that I
‘find’ them with my ear amid Brahms’ thick and active chordal texture) I will notice the effect of those E-Flats as glue linking together otherwise disparate chords.  They form a sonic glue to weld the passage together, amid the din and clutter of the notes.

I imagine a continuous spectrum made up of varying proportions of sameness and differentness among the successive sounds.  On one end of this spectrum, everything sounds the same as everything else.  On the
other end, everything sounds different than everything else.  Neither limit nor end, of the spectrum, is ever reached in normal music.  But the exact point along the spectrum which expresses at a given moment the ratio of the degree of sameness and difference can be made to alter somewhat, obviously by the composer, but as well
by the pianist.

In the present example, as a pianist, I am trying to move the cursor a little, if not a lot, over in the direction of sameness on this spectrum.

Having found this constant (E-Flats) amid the changing notes, a second quality emerges when I play the passage.  As the chords change that contain the E-Flats, the sounds of the E-Flats change as they leave one chord and enter the next.  Like the same dancer or actor on stage who is lit with spotlights of one color and then in another color.  We notice, in quick succession, that something important has changed in the quality of their appearance, followed a moment later by the recognition that despite the change of lighting aesthetic it is nonetheless the same person as before.

Such effects abound in this composition.  Cathedral bells are ringing, and the sound of one has not yet ended when the next sound begins. There is a sort of resonant din that remains constant throughout the recitation of the sequence of bell sounds.

Look for E-Flats in measures 258 – 262 (the end of the piece).  I can obsess over the E-Flats even though they appear in so many different positions in the chords and in such a variety of pitch ranges.

In general, in this piece, there is a combination of drone notes that refuse to change from chord to chord and notes that will vary widely from chord to chord, like a magician’s sleight of hand: things change but how did she do it – I saw no movement on her part.

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