MUSIC NEWBORN - Oliver Hirsh




in tune?

Music has two intersecting coefficients: intonation (relative pitch) and rhythm (relative movement). Both have the potential of aligning with an ‘organic’ hierarchy, which gives life and breath to performance. But both elements are notated without regard to such inner structure, implying an even symmetry, which only approximates what actually happens when the music comes alive. If the ‘letter’ of the notes were our only clue to learn pulse and pitch from, we’d have a problematic start. But since notation was primarily invented to remember the music by, it’s our hearing and experiencing the music, which is passed on from teacher to pupil, all the while the traditions of generations slowly transmute. (Not just hearing, for behind the sound hides feeling and intuition.)

The rhythmic flow of music has obvious parallels with rhetoric. Sure, it’s possible to codify certain patterns, to equate hesitation with accentuation or indecision or illumination or… In combination with emphasis and articulation, there’s no limit to possibilities. Each must be worked out in practice. And that’s where we’ll leave it for now! * Intonation is also much more complex than most of us care to admit (though it still is miraculously possible to ‘hear’ music in the inner ear without impediment). Any instrument requiring more than one tone to be tuned presents us with decisions. Why couldn’t I tune the lady’s harpsichord ‘clean’ as she asked me to? Because any fixed tuning means compromise. Assuming she wanted octaves pure, there’s the conflict between fifths and thirds to be adjudicated; they can’t all be nice, or even tolerable in certain combinations. Let the violinist or cellist make all three fifths stand still, then try what kind of third (two octaves above the lowest string) will be given by one more pure fifth stopped on the top string. That’s where the concept of tempering enters the picture! Other experiments can be valuable to win acceptance for the concept of temperament. Piling three pure major thirds up convinces us: enharmonic notation implies impurity (or one of them is a diminished fourth). The viol player, whose six strings comprise four fourths and a third, discovers that most of them must be stretched to fit. (Fourths are inverted fifths, at least some of which must be tempered small to make a circle instead of a spiral.)In the course of music history, different adjustments have been made, often, as in musical expression, leaning on vocal precedent. (How to execute a particular embellishment? “Do it as the singer does.”) But confronted by questions of intonation, our singer of today has a monumental handicap: even-tempered keyboard dictatorship steamrolls the field, which is kept obediently levelled through chromatically sequenced exercises. To sing in tune is mainly not to stick out from whatever accompaniment is supplied. And let vibrato cover any discrepancies. How to discover an inner structure or necessity? As long as the modes ruled, there was a way, and ways for voices to get the best out of their ensemble-singing.In recognition of the central importance of understanding the modes, I’ve invited to a short course At home in the modes the last ten years or so. To achieve most in the way of feeling at home, each session has focussed on a pair of the regular eight – each of which, besides normal (though by no means obligatory!) ambitus, emphasizes particular melody tones and prefers a certain order of cadences.An indispensable aspect of learning to sing and to understand the modal structure of music in the 15th and 16th centuries was the relative nomenclature attached to pitch letters a – g, which placed them in melodic context. Most of us have had to face some unlearning in order to catch on, because the crucial syllables ut re mi fa sol la were not identical with southern European pitch names nor with Hungarian (Kodaly method) tonic do key (root) orientation. As shown in diagrams in so many early learners’ manuals, each pitch letter could be identified with 2 or 3 different syllables: g sol re ut, a la mi re, b mi or fa, c sol fa ut, d la sol re, e la mi, and f fa ut. (From this it will be seen that keys using more than one accidental were deduced from the central models.) What the manuals do not include is a handy table of pitches with equivalent frequency in cents! Acquaintance with the modes in melody and polyphony presumably leads to a suitable if not fixed uneven temperament, with the possibility of favouring many intervals with a modicum of purity, and allowing repeated notes (in polyphonic context) to keep their pitch, while other voices adapt. A very useful practice for ensemble pitch is for each singer or player to become conscious of which triad-member is currently represented in his/her part.And back to warming up: we’ve found it helpful at courses in Renaissance music to keep within a modal context while practicing vocal production; whereas moving an exercise chromatically – fine from a technical standpoint – tends to erase the feeling of structural identity (home base).

*(In a wide-ranging DR broadcast, Henrik Metz has convincingly illustrated the role of pulse in Romantic music.)


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