Friday, April 24, 2009

An Acoustic Masquerade

I had an interesting conversation with a former colleague, who is well-versed in the physics of sound production, in conjunction with covering Vignettes: Covered Wagon Woman by Alan Louis Smith for last night. We often have discussions about how specific instruments achieve particular effects. I try to point these out to her, explain the process in my own words, and then try to fish around for a physical justification of why the sound comes out the way it does. Most recently, I have been particularly interested in passages for string instruments written in harmonics, trying to home in on why I recently called that sound "other-worldly" in one of my reviews.

The sound came up in the "vignette" about an encounter with a Sioux encampment. In this case Smith had explained that, for this particular piece, he had been inspired by Sioux flute music. Now I am not sure just how Smith heard that music, but he interpreted it by having the cello play in harmonics. This became a point of departure for my intermission discussion with my former colleague. It occurred to me that the process of playing a harmonic, touching the string lightly at a nodal point, rather than pressing it against the fingerboard, probably limits the overtone structure of the resulting sound. In other words this is a good way to hear the fundamental and not much else. Similarly, the sort of wooden flute that Smith may have heard in conjunction with Sioux music could have had similar limitations in overtones. Thus, to some extent, the cello was "masquerading" as a wooden flute from Sioux civilization; or, as Smith put it, the cello could "impart the flavor of the native instrument."

This led me to think about the opening of Dmitri Shostakovich's Opus 67 piano trio in E minor. That passage also features a cello playing in harmonics; and, given what we know about Shostakovich's life (and the difficulties we have encountered in knowing it), we might think that, if anyone wanted to resort to masquerade, it would be Shostakovich. Thus, as I had speculated that there might be an autobiographical element to his Opus 87 preludes and fugues from 1950 and 1951, there might be a similar element in Opus 67, which was composed in the far darker year of 1944 and would probably be even more concealed! Such speculations can easily deteriorate into mere parlor tricks, but it is still tempting to think that much of Shostakovich's music may be based on codes that still need to be broken.

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