Sonority, virtuosity, musicality

Whether one ascribes it to cynicism or merely to a "typical composer's perspective," as I've heard it described with a chuckle, my underlying remarks on sonority & virtuosity have become a refrain. Simply stated, if they do not contribute integrally to the musical expression, they are worthless. Like most statements, that one is not clearly true, so the time has come to explore what it might mean. One simple fact cannot be escaped, namely that music is tied up directly with sound, and consequently with sonority. While postmodern composition has stretched definitions quite a bit, the underlying playing field is essentially the same. Whether it is present or absent, constrained or arbitrary, music is related directly to sound. Likewise, while reading music in score can be very satisfying on its own, and can often be less frustrating than real performance, it remains an endeavor of less real expression. Indeed, while some hardened score readers might disagree with that, I think it safe to say that there would have been no scores without sound-making. The question then is the extent of the role for sonority and its extension in virtuosity.

My remarks are generally made in reaction to others in which sonority is given such pride of place that any other aspects are placed thoroughly in the background. For instance, too many early choral performances seem to be reviewed entirely on the basis of purity of tone and vertical blend. This makes me very unhappy, because I cannot resist the conclusion that the evaluation would have been identical had the same group sung a vaguely similar piece, or indeed merely a series of held chords & filigrees churned out for the occasion! Of course, I do value sonority, but not above getting the notes right, or phrasing, or diction, or any number of other qualities. I've seen too many rave reviews for performances which were completely unintelligible, and I bristle at the frequent implication that some of the more complex music I enjoy was meant to be so. What is true is that clear articulation usually means "sacrificing" vertical blend, and that is too often what is meant by sonority. I enjoy a razor edge on a single syllable, and the slight slur of a bridge to the next. Such delicate moments can add up, in the best music, to an overwhelming whole, but in their absence there is only uncommunicative gibberish with a contour of form. So indeed sonority is very important, although I am willing to make some sacrifices there for musical phrasing and basic intelligibility. Such a sacrificial performance would be a first step, whereas without those elements there is no step at all.

Virtuosity is another aspect of performance which is frequently admired beyond all others. Indeed, there are many 19th & 20th century pieces written specifically to highlight this quality. What exactly is virtuosity? Interestingly, the OED gives the first definition, now obsolete, as "manly quality or character," which goes to affirm my previous contention that it is essentially sexual in impetus. Of course, what is generally meant today is "... characteristics of ... one who has special skill ... in music." That can hardly be a bad thing, and indeed one cannot ask that performers be unable to execute the full range of a piece. But what of a piece written specifically to highlight that technical range? It is of little interest to me as art, although it can be as an exercise. Worse yet, what of a piece commandeered by a virtuoso for this purpose? A variety of performance is to be preferred I agree, and that sentence perhaps needs interpolation between every line of this column, but when such performances are universally hailed at the expense of all others, without a word regarding what is lost in the translation, I am disturbed. From that perspective, I claim that virtuosity has no place in medieval music, and little in the Renaissance. It is principally a Baroque idea, one which was anticipated in a few earlier bodies of work, and of course adopted enthusiastically later. I would never dream of preventing performers from doing such things, but I regret the dominance of such presentation methods.

It is perhaps clear by now that I favor bringing out the inherent musical strengths of a piece of music, rather than grafting it onto later ideas of virtuosity and purity of sound (the latter being later indeed). That is one way to modernize a work, something which is done inevitably due to the basic contradictions inherent in the musical museum. However, it is an approach which seems to lose far more than it gains. It necessarily leaves early music in the position of being inferior, simpler, or both. The other area in which these general topics have a role is the production of new instruments or techniques for modern music. Of course, music will never stand still in this regard, and the introduction of new sonorities and concomitant virtuosity has produced virtually everything we have today. Here again, I am predisposed toward looking at what is to be expressed, and how a new sonority might aid that expression, not toward novelty for its own sake. The former is certainly a relevant topic, and indeed I could not go so far as to say that e.g. "Industrial" does not serve such a purpose, even if I do not enjoy the sound. In many ways, sonority has become synonymous with genre, and that is reflected in the prevalence of the term "original instruments" for HIP, even if that aspect has been only a part of the movement.

Administrivia: As I am finding the schedule too hectic, the column will switch to fortnightly, beginning in two weeks. Hopefully this will allow a better quality of writing, as opposed to the less fully formed ideas I've needed to use of late.

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Todd M. McComb