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Orchestral colour in the 21st century - fashion in new sounds

by Arthur Butterworth

In the mid-1950s one of the sensations of the time, especially among young women, or indeed anyone of any degree of sophistication - nowadays we might say those who are "cool" - was the so-called "new look". This was one of the more memorable fashion dictates concerning how women dressed. It arose, at least partly, from the more relaxed ideas about the length of skirt after the strictures of war-time, when on account of a real shortage of material for clothing - when everyone had a book of clothing coupons much in the same way that they had a ration book for food - the tight restrictions on how many new clothes an individual might be allowed to buy in a year, were suddenly, or almost suddenly withdrawn. It has long been known that skirt length is, or at least was, supposed to be an indicator of a country's economic status. So the "New Look" "invented" - if that is the right word - by Dior, became all the rage and every woman who had even the slightest pretension to self-esteem just had to discard all her frumpy old wartime wear and get "with it" as the saying had it.

It strikes me that there could be parallels in music. Of course there have been obvious purely musical evolutions: melody, harmony, notions of form and structure, all challenging an earlier sense of a musically correct language - the sonata or symphony, or other long-established fundamental ideas as to what music should say.

One of the more obvious developments in orchestral sound, though perhaps not of course in chamber music or other small and intimate forms, is the present-day interest in percussion, which might be said to represent a kind of "new look" in the fashion of the art of orchestration. Five years ago - October 2001 - one of the articles in this series examined the situation of percussion in present-day brass band music. It pointed out that at one time percussion in brass band scoring was virtually non-existent. Ironically the very earliest brass bands, or indeed wind bands of any kind used for outdoor purposes: royal or religious ceremonial, military pageantry and such depended to a large extent on the exhilaration of drums exciting the most basic of all human responses: a rhythmic beat which stimulated and encouraged the natural human pulse. This of course has ever been a characteristic of popular music; hardly needing comment today with its obsessive cult of pop music. The very earliest instrumental music must have been for some crude kind of percussion instrument, and all young babies are given a rattle or other crude rhythmic device to play with before any other sound-producing toy.

However, as ensemble music evolved it was instruments capable of producing melodic rather than rhythmic sounds that became more significant and meaningful to the human mind. Mere rhythmic signals were thought to be inexpressive; the mind yearned to be stimulated with melody and harmony. The evolving art of music was paralleled by a growing intellectual nature, no longer satisfied with crude, inexpressive rhythms where subtleties of pitch were non-existent.

The great age of the baroque, followed by early classical and then romantic music almost ignored the element of percussive rhythm for its own sake; it was thought fit only for people of lesser intellectual development, so that apart from a very few instances such as Mozart's overture to "The Seraglio" where so-called "Turkish" music is called upon for local colour, the percussion was just not considered to be musical at all. It is not without significance that at one time bands were said to comprise musicians and "drummers" implying that the latter could hardly be considered as musicians since they did not contribute to melody or harmony, but merely added a dash of extra rhythmic emphasis and that could just as well be ignored since the melodic and harmonic elements of music contributed their own inherent pulse or rhythm without any real need for artificially bolstering up by mere drums or other percussive devices - hence the term "harmonic rhythm". That phrase implies that subtle quality that the sense of the "right" harmonic sequence possesses, and which many students of harmony find difficult to manipulate. Only the timpani section was regarded as a musically-percussive requirement. Thus it has ever been admitted as a basic part of the orchestral palette, equally as important as string or wind sound.

In baroque and classical times it was string sound - that most subtle and satisfying of all tone-colours - that was of prime, and at times the only importance. The heroic, often arrogantly aggressive sound of the trumpet (such as in Bach) fell out of fashion when the more easy-going rococo age succeeded the flamboyance of the baroque. Haydn and Mozart were far less assertive. Of course things progressed: Beethoven and the later age of a new heroic romanticism witnessed new ways of expressing things in music just as in all other aspects of human endeavour. It was soon the turn of woodwind instruments to challenge the supremacy of the strings. Although woodwind began to make their mark more effectively in the orchestra, their acceptance in chamber music was probably a little less marked, although there are some notable examples of wind chamber music from classical times. However, the more theatrical and dramatic demands of opera persuaded composers to seek more colourful sounds from an otherwise perhaps staid though reliable string sound. The nineteenth century saw some of the most imaginative developments in the field of woodwind, and especially brass instruments, but percussion remained - relatively - somewhat beyond the pale. To the fundamental timpani, the bass drum and cymbals were the mainstay of extra rhythmic emphasis, mostly as little more than noise-makers, adding to the dramatic excitement in opera. It is worth remembering that in the more staid concert hall - the realm of symphony and concerto - the percussion, even the ubiquitous bass drum and cymbals, hardly ever entered; they were not considered to be 'musical' instruments at all. It might surprise many listeners to the present day orchestra to know how very little even the great masters of the late nineteenth century resorted to percussion. Berlioz, Wagner, Richard Strauss, for all their colourful, and at times, awe-inspiring imaginative orchestration only used the percussion sparingly; remembering the old adage: "percussion is effective in inverse ratio to the amount it is used" which perhaps also recalls, not only concerning percussion, but orchestration in general, a pertinent remark by Hans Richter, Wagner's distinguished apprentice and one of the great conductors of all time: "The greater the number of staves in the score, the fewer the number of ideas".

In the twentieth century, probably largely the result of the influence of other cultures impinging upon that of the age-old one of western Europe, there has been a veritable explosion of interest - one might even say an "invasion" - of percussion in all fields of instrumental music except perhaps chamber music, although even that rarefied field has not remained absolutely untouched. This of course, has admittedly brought a huge and colourful new asset to orchestral sounds, but it is a matter of taste as to whether this has been of universal advantage, or whether a new, even insidious element has become too assertive. So many scores by present-day composers ("contemporary" in the jargon sense of the word) appear to be obsessed by percussion; it has become an end in itself.

What might the objections be?

This is where many readers will probably disagree most forcefully: it will be argued that any additional source of new colour - "timbre" - must be a good thing; why should we be restricted, as in the past to string and wind tone, with just limited incursions of percussive sounds? Fundamentally it could be put this way: String and wind instruments, and indeed that most percussive of instruments, the piano are capable of a subtlety of expression that, basically, no percussion instrument can match. While it is true that the vast number of new instruments from every culture in the world is now available, few possess that indescribable expressive ability that string or wind instruments can command. The very word "percussion" implies that these are sound-producing means that have to be struck in some way, and once the sound is "struck" there is no means of expressively moulding it otherwise. Certainly several of the tuned percussion can simulate an artificial expressiveness: marimba, xylophone, for example: but their otherwise cold inexpressiveness sets them apart from wind instruments that can become part of the player's very human and physical self, or the intimacy of the string player's caressing attachment to the strings and the bow. But percussion is here to stay.

What might all this suggest?

If the great classical age of the strings - often called "The Age of Enlightenment" - represented a truly human quest for self-expression, and the romantic age which saw such development of wind instruments expressed an even more scientific evolution of all things, perhaps the later twentieth century and even more so this twenty-first century is being expressed through percussion. But what might be, psychologically, the unconscious reason for our present-day obsession with such "inexpressive" sounds? They are functional and to the point. Might they not be yet another facet of our reliance, if not indeed growing subservience to the robots in our lives? - the computer, the now awe-inspiring new means of communication: the mobile phone, the internet, text messaging, space exploration and all manner of "de-humanised" phenomena which we have become slaves to? Might the music of the not-too-distant future become solely a thing for robots to manipulate? This has already happened in many senses: the almost

unbelievable means to create music, seemingly without recourse to human inspiration at all. The equipment to create and reproduce musical sounds has become almost absurdly too easy to manipulate; so much so that many so-called "composers" cannot be looked upon as creative artists in the way we once assumed all artists functioned: a manifestation of something uniquely personal to them, for now so much so-called inspiration or unique invention of the individual human mind has been handed over to the computer to initiate; it can become all too easy to abdicate one's inspiration. This might hotly be denied, but this writer has already seen this happen in some students, who genuinely believe that they have 'composed' something when in fact they have merely relied on a machine not only to take the age-old drudgery out of the process - a necessary and salutary burden making one realise the profundity of what one is about in the act of creation - but to go a stage further and even begin to do the thinking, the true creative process, for them. It is this present-day unconsciously psychological process that percussion instruments - so overwhelming in a vast number of contemporary scores - seem so balefully to symbolise.

Arthur Butterworth


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