KW Unplugged

It’s a busy day for me here in Pendleton, with a rehearsal and concert to get through, but I want to take a few lines to clarify what I said about classical music as acoustic music. 

Robert Gable at Aworks is quite right to point out that there are certainly important examples of works in the classical tradition that integrate electronics with acoustic instruments. There is also a substantial and important tradition of totally electronic art music. Perhaps I would have been better to use the terms “symphonic and chamber music is overwhelmingly acoustic music.” 

Nonetheless, I don’t think it’s unfair to say that amplification remains, as I said yesterday, a blunt instrument, and integrating sounds from speakers with sounds from instruments is incredibly difficult on a purely technical level. Also, works that integrate live performance with things like tape or computer-generated sound tend to date very quickly. Even more quick to date are pieces that use synthesizers- many early examples are now limited by the difficulty in finding a working Moog or whatever else. We all smile mockingly when we hear the formerly ubiquitous tinkling of the Yamaha DX-7, scourge of 80’s music, but there are pieces in classical music that are also prisoners of outdated technology. Violins will still sound hip in 50 years, but I’m not sure about the DX-7. 

On the other had, Turangalila is one of my all-time favorite pieces, and the strangeness of the Ondes-Martinot really helps to make the piece for me. I love the theremin, wouldn’t leave planet earth without it. Black Angels wouldn’t be the piece it is without Crumb’s use of amplification. 

However, I’m not sure that putting body mics on singers in the opera house is anything more than a concession to sloppy orchestration or performance practices, unless the composer has specified that the voice should be not only amplified, but somehow manipulated by a signal processor. An expert orchestrator should be able to create just about any palette of sounds without making the orchestra so loud that singers need to be amplified, and a good conductor should be able to keep a well orchestrated piece of vocal music soft enough for a trained singer to be heard easily (and once amplified, what happens to the more subtle aspects of the orchestra writing?). At its best, the human voice is the most thrilling sound on the planet, and something of its color, power and beauty is always lost when it passes through a circuit. Certainly there are specific artistic situations where that is a worthwhile tradeoff, but it would be a tragedy if we just suddenly decided to start shoveling the voice through an amplifier as a matter of course. 

I guess what I’m saying is, in the circumstance of the Cal series, no amplification system is going to make acoustically conceived music sound better, only louder, more artificial, and more confused. Your adding sound sources, which gives the listener a much more confused sense of where the music is coming from, and you’re still not fixing the problem, which is that you apparently have a room that does bad things to musical sounds. You’re also creating a sound picture that is not what the composer or the performer had in mind. Acoustically conceived music should be performed acoustically. 

In the larger context, of course electronics can bring something to a work that is totally integral to the music, but, I would also say that anytime you bring electronic instruments, electronically generated sound or amplification into the orchestra or the chamber ensemble, you sacrifice a large range of color and nuance in the acoustic instruments, and you create a lot of technical challenges. I’ve seen plenty of Turangalilas ruined by an out-of-control Ondes, just as an example. Feedback, E.Q problems, balance problems, uneven mic coverage, or just being, as Birtwistle put it, “so effing loud.” Yikes! If you, the composer, are sure that you’re prepared to make those sacrifices and accept those challenges, we, the performers, will go through hell to make it all work for you. Just make sure your sound man is a genius.  c. 2006 Kenneth Woods   


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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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