Chords; Plus a Tip About Legato
Irving is playing the prelude in C Major from Book One of the Well Tempered.
Do the notes of a chord need to sound simultaneously or need at least to have sounded in sequence, for the chord to be there in our aural consciousness?
The goal I propose is to realize, with the ear, that the chord is already there at the very beginning of each new measure. How many notes does the student need to play in the new measure before they “hear a chord”, as a whole. At first one might think it is from three to five notes. Indeed, at five notes every note of the chord has had a chance to sound.
What we hear when we perform is a delicate balance of sounds arriving through the outer and sounds coming out of our musical imagination. When we consider it from this point of view, a chord is already present, in its entirety, as soon as all its notes are sounding either to the outer ear or to the ‘inner’ ear.
Irving and I worked on his “hearing” the chord at, or even before, his playing the first note of the next measure. Or, at least for it to translate from expectation to sound as early as possible in the measure. The chord, rather than materializing itself during the measure, instead “reaches out” and “embraces” the notes of the measure as they sound. The notes from ‘outside’ feel the attraction of the chord from the inside in a way analogous to how iron filings are bent into alignment to a magnet’s lines of force.
Our ultimate goal was to play the melody (in this piece all the melody notes are chord-tones) as if we already heard the entire chord. That the chord is ‘there’ the moment the melodic phrase began. To put it somewhat dramatically “the chord is always there”.
Another points of view on a chord:
Another way we looked at a chord was to think that the separate chord notes, and the order in which they would sound sequentially through, time ‘held’ or ‘contained’ in the simultaneity of its notes sounding together at once. The beauty of the situation is once the chord is compressed into a simultaneous experience, all sense of the order in the chord tones will sound is lost to the ear. The joy is to undergo the process by which we learn in what fashion the chord unfurls itself into a sequence of notes in time.
We practiced extracting single notes, one by one, from the simultaneity of the chord. We allowed the same note to be pulled out of the chord more than once. We allowed for some of the chord notes, once liberated from the simultaneity of the chord, to be connected, in this ‘outer’ space of time, by passing tones, and other tones of embellishment.
Tricks with time:
A way of retaining the effect of the notes sounding together while playing the melody, is to hold each note of the melody over into all the following notes of the melody. Much like playing the melody with the pedal down. At first the notes emerge separate and liberated from the implied simultaneous chord, but only to start accreting again into a simultaneous sound. The melody is then an intermediate phase between the simultaneous chord and the simultaneous chord.
A more “chordal” way of hearing an arpeggio:
Play an arpeggio over several octaves holding the pedal down throughout. Usually when we reach the final note of an arpeggio, we simply move on to the next notes printed in the score. But in this case, the final note is not the end of the sound of the arpeggio, just the beginning of the point when all the notes in the chord are resonating together. topping point, we keep the right pedal down so we can here all the previously made sounds resonate together. We can continue to let this chord or cluster ring for seconds or more until it has slowly died away. It’s an entirely new aesthetic experience: a decrescendo-ing chord, with ample time to hear conjure with the effect of all those notes sounding together.
After a while Irving could play a melody in such a way that one almost was convinced that he was hearing a chord sounding throughout the duration of melody, accompanying each of the notes. From time to time it was apparent from his playing that the current chord had just ceded its presence a new chord, which in turn reached out to embrace and enclose the current notes of the melody.
A related tip – about legato:
If you want to create a legato sound in a series of sequential notes, first play a group of the adjacent notes in the melody as a simultaneous cluster. It doesn’t matter if the cluster is dissonant or consonant. Now extract the notes one by one from that cluster. Think of the melody notes as already latent already in the cluster. Our job, as legato players, is to feel the glue between the notes that comes from, not just from how the end of one note connects to the next note, but by the fact that hear them already connected as in the cluster.*
For a legato connection between just two notes, just play first the two notes together, and then play them in sequence, but in your inner ear keep them glued together.
Sometimes I will think of legato as a group of notes that leave behind them in time a “thick trail”. Like the ice crystals trailing behind a jet that is already at a high altitude. Like your hand is a large paintbrush which, as you move your hand in space, leaves a thick sinuous line on the canvas.
*As we start the melody it is as if we have a “pre”-memory in time of what the cluster will be when we finish the last note in the group.
Complex counterpoint in Bach
Some of the most complex wonders of Bach’s counterpoint, such as the F minor Sinfonia or the first movement of the B minor flute sonata, result from a procedure that is structurally, surprisingly simple.
There are three voices in the Sinfonia and three in the flute sonata (two in the keyboard and one in the flute). At the same time, there are several distinct motives present, any one of which can appear in one voice or another at any time. There are often three different motives appearing simultaneously in the three voices.
This suggests a creative procedure similar to making a mosaic. In a mosaic, there may be only several differently shaped pieces, or tesserae. From these few pieces, the entire structure of the work is created.
Though there is great variety in the sound of the piece, the parts making it up at any one moment are just one of the severally shaped pieces of the mosaic.
The counterpoint is most effective when these basic pieces are as different from each other as is possible. The F Minor Sinfonia is the perfect example of this. There are just three motives: one is a series of slow, chromatically descending quarter notes; the second is a series of three eighth notes, a movement up of a third and then down of a second; the last is faster, moving motive in sixteenths and thirty seconds. Bach creates an entire universe, aesthetically full and complete, with these three motives that each take up abode in one voice and then another. What genius!
While artists may follow the procedure of “separating” the voices in their playing, sometimes the greatest separation effect comes from following a single motive as it migrates from voice to another. I first discovered this principle in the five voice fugue in C-sharp minor in Book One, especially after the eighth notes begin.
Quality distinguished from quantity
Quantity versus quality, the immeasurable versus the measurable.
Non-typically, Irving has chosen to start work on a piece by Debussy.
This affords an opportunity to revise his customary way of approaching a new piece.
Part One: Keeping score on the number of wrong notes.
Usually, when Irving begins a practicing session, he measures his improvement in direct proportion to the increasing percentage of right notes that he plays and the decreasing number of errors.
This means he is devoting his conscious effort to ‘measurable’ quantities (the pitches of notes) rather than other things that are, in contrast to quantities, best termed qualities that are evoked in his playing.
How do we sidestep his “pointillistic” application of correct notes to the piece?
The first step was a bit drastic. I asked him to leave the right pedal down until a large group of notes were all swimming around in a common and confusing sounding tonal pool.
We then refined this so the notes that were thrown in the pool were only those that were chord-tones according to the current harmony. By doing this, a chord was being gradually built up, one note at a time, until all the notes of the chord were sounding together.
Now came the leap of musical imagination together with a slight derailing of the forward arrow of time. “The sound of this chord-cluster in its entirety,” I said, “should be in your imagination from the moment you play the first sound of the group that is going to form the chord at the end of the process. It is like a magical pedal that not only combines the sounds left in the wake of each sound, but can also summon up the presence of the sounds that remain to be heard.”
Once this effect is achieved with regularity, the next step is to re-create that feeling at will, with or without relying on the literal application of the pedal.
Part Two: Some other the desirable ‘qualities’ to evoke in the Debussy.
One note then the next:
A new note doesn’t always ‘eclipse’ an old note. The new note should not be opaque, in time, to the memory of the previous note. Let each note blend into the next, yielding its essence as an inheritance to the next note.
Melodies should seem to leave thick ‘trails’ behind their advancing wave front in time. The combined presence of their notes persists in time. Even without the pedal, the melody should sound in the imagination as if it were sounding in a perfect echo chamber; each part of the melody is inseparably bound to the overall shape of that melody.
Even in the early stages of reading a new piece, the pianist sometimes should try to play a passage in the intended final tempo. Otherwise the pianist who is interested primarily in right notes will automatically exclude from his consciousness the unique musical qualities of the piece that will animate and give life to the performance that will only become manifest in the piece’s proper tempo. Make the piece yield up its secrets before all the notes are learned.
Quality is so fundamentally different than quantity that the notes, if they are merely correct, eclipse the ability to modulate and shape sound, create tonal imagery, and release – as a flower giving off an aroma – all that is non-quantitative and miraculous about the piece and its sound.
Tempo can be used generally as a tool with which to experiment for evoking the qualities inherent in a piece. Playing a passage in its final tempo* sooner rather than later in the learning process, including wrong notes, will bring us to a realization of the indefinable aesthetic essence of the passage, rather than repeating the passage over and over in a gradually increasing tempo. The downside of approaching the final tempo gradually and incrementally is that the desired tempo may never actually be reached. Why? Because the successful execution, in the final tempo, depends as much on a clear musical vision of the aesthetic qualities of the piece as it does on physical technique. We need the qualities of the piece to guide and lead the notes into yielding their musical essence that transcends the actual identity of the pitches.
* whether this final tempo is slower or faster than the initial practice tempo
Coaching an instrumentalist for an orchestra audition
In today’s incarnation, “Irving” is a bassoonist rather than a pianist. He is about to audition for a local orchestra. The required excerpt for the audition is the opening of the second movement of Scheherazade.
I listened to him play the solo through. The notes were there, but overall it lacked a sense of the presence in his imagination of the other instruments playing at the same time, and the effect that would have on how he sounded the passage.
He had played the same solo a year or so earlier in an orchestra. So I asked him “what instruments were accompanying you during the solo?”
He thought about and said “the woodwinds?”
I said, “No, it is actually four solo double basses.”*
He played the solo again, but this time I played on the piano the chords played by the four double basses. This caused a sudden change in his playing. One thing that happened was that he fine-tuned both the pitch and the feeling of his notes to better fit in with the chords. In tonal music, no note has a single, abstract, or ideal pitch. It varies in small amounts to best fit in with the harmonic context in the form of the chord that is sounding at that moment. Each chord in turn has a certain feeling, which if recognized and felt fine tunes the timbre or tone quality of the bassoonist’s note.
No longer was his playing an island to itself, it had a broader context. The trick, I said, is to make these modulations to the sounds even when you are playing by yourself without the other instruments, which can only be heard in your head. The person auditioning you is listening to see whether this broader musical context shines through the notes that you play.
“How do I do this,” he asked?
Let’s start with knowing when in the solo the chord in the basses changes. He didn’t know. I said: let’s play through it again, this time listening specifically for the changes in the chords. It shouldn’t be too difficult to do because, based on how he had played the passage when I played the chords at the piano, he was already subconsciously responding to them.
Next I asked him if the first chord in the basses seemed to last a surprisingly long time before changing. If so, what beneficial effect did that harmonic inflexibility have on the effect of the solo? He said that it made the bassoon solo seem more “frozen and static.” I agreed.
Was he, I asked, aware that this first chord contained only root notes and fifths and lacked the third of the chord, the note that which would determine whether the chord was a major chord or minor chord. It was incumbent on the bassoonist to make that choice clear to the listener, and to be especially aware of when the bassoon made up for the deficit of the third by momentarily playing the third himself.
Later in the session I wanted to demonstrate, in a more general way, how the ‘color’ of a note depends on the chord to which it belongs. And how this color could change, depending on whether he was playing the root, third, fifth or seventh of the chord.
I had him hold a single note for as long as he could, while I surrounded his chord with first one chord then another. I started with the three major chords and the three minor chords that contained the note he was holding. Then I went on to seven-chords that contained his note. Then I gradually shifted to chords that didn’t contain his note, which therefore caused his note to be dissonant – but always dissonant in a specific enough way to create a definite and peculiar color to the dissonance.
Though he held the bassoon’s pitch relatively constant, he instinctively changed the timbre and the intonation to reflect the way his note fit (or did not fit) in the chord.
* albeit an odd orchestration, but an inspired choice given the shape and mood of the solo.
Bach’s counterpoint – who’s on “top”?
The amazing thing about Bach’s counterpoint is that the musical meaning of a piece does not change if you transpose one or more voices to different octaves or simply rearrange the order of the voices from highest to lowest. The voice that is originally on top does not have to be on top for the counterpoint to have the same effect. It is as if each voice in a Bach fugue is transparent to all the others. No voice, regardless of its pitch range, is opaque in that it blocks or occludes any other voice. The voices shine through each other. Figuratively speaking, every voice is on top.
Being the top voice loses its automatic prominence to the ear. All of them, in effect, are on top, or none of them are.* You can think of it either way.
It is a mistake to concentrate our attention when playing on the top voice, or to whichever voice currently “has the theme.”
Of almost no other composer is this true. In a Beethoven sonata, for instance, only rarely can you move the right hand notes into the bass and the left hand notes into the treble and have a result that ‘works’ as well musically, that aesthetically resembles the un-switched version. In Beethoven, depending on which octave a note sounds in, it creates an impression of sound that is different than the same note sounding in a different octave. Each octave range has its own sound-personality.
One of the ways of determining the unique properties of the musical space of a great composer is to experiment subjecting the piece to certain specific types of distortions and then noting the results sound-wise. One such attempt at distortion is the rearrangement of the voices described above. Here are some others:
– how much can you change the tempo of the piece without distorting the meaning of the piece or its character?
– how much can you change the rhythm of the melody without changing the essence of a melody?
– how much of the essence of the music is changed by changing the instrument or instruments playing it?
– to what extent will the integrity of the piece be ruined by starting to switch around parts (what comes first, what comes second, etc.)?
The answers to these questions will be obvious to the ear, and will vary from one composer to another. They reveal to us what some of the basic, “geometric” properties of that composer’s “musical space” are.
These experiments are similar to those in the mathematical subject of topology, where a common question is to ask how much one can distort a shape and still have it retain certain basic properties.
*This is why Bach’s fugues for organ work as fugues even though it is often the case that each voice sounds in several octaves at once because of linking an eight foot stop with a four foot stop and/or a sixteen foot stop. The same applies to Bach on a harpsichord when ‘couplers’ are used to cause a note to sound in more than one octave at once though we are only pushing down one key.