Thinking about color
(This is a re-posting from my old blog, originally published January 28, 2013. I made small edits to it Dec. 2017)
I began writing this post as a review of the LA Philharmonic’s recent premiere of Peter Eötvös’s second violin concerto, “DoReMi,” but it has expanded to something a bit more soul-searching. I was preparing to rather casually assert a belief which, on reflection, demanded a far harder look. So, if you’ll indulge me …
As a composer, one of the things that is always in the forefront of my mind is managing so-called “Musical Parameters.” The manipulation of these parameters is basically all that composing is. The most obvious of these are melody, harmony and rhythm, but likewise I would include form, range, density, rates of change, etc. One of the most fundamental of all, and what I’m thinking about today, is color.
Color (a.k.a. timbre) is simply the combination of the physical means by which a sound is made, with the particulars of its overtone series (this wikipedia article offers a nice overview of the acoustical physics of timbre).
When music (in Western Europe) started to reach the levels of complexity that produced the concept of orchestration, initially color wasn’t really the main concern. Orchestras were growing in size to match increasingly large venues, and the various instruments employed were usually used in very formulaic ways. Even as late as Haydn and Mozart, the coloristic use of the orchestra appears to have been mainly pragmatic, and less expressive. Beethoven was a central figure in the pivot towards color-minded orchestration, notably using trombones in his 5th Symphony during the finale only (a historic first, sometimes disputed but which I feel confident in defending), or employing voices during the iconic “Ode to Joy” of his 9th Symphony (which was also a historic first, for a Symphony). Through the century which followed coloristic choices abounded.
Leonard Bernstein with the Vienna Philharmonic
With the arrival of the 20th Century, color became as critical as melody, harmony and rhythm in the ears of many of the greatest composers. The utilitarian concerns of centuries past weighed only gently as composers tried to concoct increasingly adventurous palettes. One of the earliest to do this in a way which to my ears still sounds utterly modern, was of course the archetype of French Impressionism, Claude Debussy:
Valery Gergiev with the London Symphony Orchestra
In some instances, color became not just a primary concern but the actual focus of the piece itself. Melody had long been the chief arbiter of musical form and progression, with harmony eventually rising to a close second in the 19th Century. With the rise of all the various “-isms” in the 20th Century (ImpressionISM, ExpressionISM, Neo-ClassicISM, etc) color now found itself an object of obsession. One of the earliest great works for which this is true is Schoenberg’s 3rd of “Five Orchestral Pieces” from 1909:
In the context of still-widespread use of Classical forms, a piece like that was considered immensely radical. Personally, I think one of the only reasons why this particular work has endured in the orchestral repertoire (though it’s certainly no staple for most orchestras or audiences) is because of its novelty; Color for its own sake was, at that point, basically unheard of. Of course, creative use of color (and incidentally, also a fantastic treatise on rhythm, which had been equally under-developed until that time) came in 1913 with Stravinsky’s towering “Rite of Spring,” which I believe sits at the apex of the entirety of music written in the 20th century (though on some days, I’d give that to Bartok’s “Concerto for Orchestra”):
As the 20th Century continued, experiments in color continued to be ever-more daring. This was not isolated to the classical music traditions of Europe and the US; jazz and all manner of pop music (Doesn’t get much better than this!) also saw color as a primary compositional consideration. That said, this belief was still pervasive: a piano reduction MUST communicate the essence of the piece. In other words, removing all the coloristic gestures must leave behind music which retains its fundamental integrity (in fact throughout history most composers have composed orchestral music as a ‘piano score’ first, and later adding orchestration as a second, nearly self-contained step).
In the middle of the century, a new voice emerged: Gyorgy Ligeti. He is probably the greatest example of a later composer who wrote music often expressly *about* color itself, and with brilliant results:
Ligeti’s “Atmospheres” — Sir Simon Rattle with the Berlin Philharmonic
It is important to distinguish for a moment this notion of adventurous use of color, versus something being expressly about color. In Ligeti’s case, he meticulously crafted his music to make the evolution of its color communicate the actual arc of the piece, whereas in an example like “The Rite of Spring,” Stravinsky is using color to maximize the arc which is otherwise being achieved via the more conventional parameters of melody, harmony and (perhaps above all) rhythm. First with Schoenberg, and later (and far more significantly) with Ligeti, composers everywhere seem to have accepted the notion that color is an equal musical parameter with the others.
My own initial compositional experiments (as a kid) were largely piano based, so by the time I started writing orchestrally I had a built-in notion of thinking in terms of abstract notes, harmonies and rhythms to which I would later apply color. However, during my college years as I underwent a formal training, I quickly saw color as a genuine compositional device. Its own full-fledged musical parameter (exposure to Ligeti had a somewhat radioactive effect on me). My score to flOw is basically my first genuine stab at that technique:
Thus do I arrive (and I sincerely hope you, dear reader, along with me!) to my thoughts on the recent world premiere of Peter Eötvös’s second violin concerto, “DoReMe.” This piece, in many ways, is a wonderful representative of much of the recent concert music written in the last few decades. The dictatorship of academia over what is considered ‘proper’ has come and gone, though some strains of it remain. To this day, in 2013, piles of new music are written which leave audiences feeling cold, seemingly as a result of composers’ fear to genuinely emote through their writing. I happily say this is not the predominant trend anymore, but it’s still quite common. I am not familiar with most of Eötvös’s work (his most famous probably being the opera “Angels in America”), but this felt a bit like a residual piece of that prior era.
Aaron Copland’s wonderful little book “What to Listen For In Music” has a discussion of how best to listen to new, challenging music. The main takeaway is that a single live performance of a work can never properly do a piece justice, even a masterpiece. So if you find yourself skeptical or even outright hating a new piece, his task for you is to seek it out and listen again, and again and again. And if after many hearings it still doesn’t seem to work, you probably will have arrived at very sound reasoning why. Of course therein lies the composer’s dilemma, since repeat hearings of a new work, if not instantly popular, are not very likely. Jazz and pop artists have the same problem. If it’s not a hit out of the gate, it’s likely to be instantly forgotten.
So in short, I did NOT like Eötvös’s “DoReMi,” despite an impassioned and genuinely entertaining performance by Midori (I say ‘entertaining’ in the best sense: she is a lively and animated performer who is captivating to watch play ANYTHING) and seemingly masterful control by visiting conductor Pedro Heras-Casado. It seemed to suffer mainly from an issue I feel plagues most music lately: a lack of large-scale architecture (at least, one which translated emotionally). I didn’t feel an arc spanning the piece, justifying the progression from section to section. It was seemingly just a series of moments, and those moments felt like nothing but explosions of color. Unable to hear the piece a second time, I sought out additional materials. First was this, Midori offering a few words about the piece:
She makes a key statement in there, revealing that so much of the piece is “about the sound.” In other words, color? In fact the piece is SO obsessed with color that the musical exploration of the main motif (a simple major-key Do-Re-Mi) seemed secondary. I felt a constant sense of trying out new settings without making them a means for taking me somewhere. Of course not ALL pieces are about traversal. There definitely is meditative, non-developmental music that I enjoy (though admittedly it’s about a 100:1 ratio of works like this that don’t hold my interest versus those that do. But that’s not necessarily a failing of the composers).
If this piece was supposed to be emotionally static in that sense, I think it failed on a grand scale. But I don’t believe that was its goal. I think instead its emotional messaging was simply unclear in the face of such massive technique. Eötvös is clearly a master orchestrator; the colors were magnificently explored. I even heard a few of those very rare and special moments wherein I legitimately had no idea how he had produced a given sound. But, as a musical narrative, there was almost no dramatic contrast at any moment in the piece, and thus virtually no emotional progression. My favorite moment came, ironically, when the orchestra sat silently during a duet between Midori and the principal viola.
The LA Times’ review by Mark Swed seemed to agree. Strangely, Bartók’s final masterpiece, the aforementioned “Concerto for Orchestra,” was objectively far less colorful and yet left the impression of being far more so:
The 20th Century seemed to suggest that color was an equal musical parameter to melody, harmony and rhythm. And yet the contrast between “DeReMi” and the “Concerto for Orchestra” revealed my long-simmering suspicion that that isn’t actually the case. Long had I clung to the belief that it was, and I think part of my desire to do so was because so much new music I heard had nothing to say except for experiments in color. I wasn’t ready to accept the idea that most of what I was hearing was utterly un-moving and unexciting, simply because it wasn’t adhering to the age-old model that a piano reduction (removing the color) would retain its integrity. For a while it felt uncomfortably conservative to fall back on this notion, leaving me with the fear that I was rejecting something which might otherwise prove inspiring. But yet I wasn’t feeling overly inspired. Most new music felt like “just color,” and that wasn’t adding up to a great musical experience. A wonderful term I picked up at some point was David Rakowski’s OLAMBIC: Orchestrated Like A Motherfucker But It’s Crap.
If composing is like cooking, wherein we take given ingredients to make something new, then color (i.e. orchestration) is most akin to adding spice. And when was the last time you ate something consisting entirely of spices?
Simply put, spice isn’t food.
And yet Ligeti in particular gnaws at me. I have refused to consign color to a lesser spot on the parameter hierarchy because there is at least this one shining example of a composer who can write a piece *about* color and achieve artistic success doing it.
I asked my dear friend, fellow composer, and all around brilliant thinker Jeremy Howard Beck what he thought and he had several interesting responses.
First, on color in the broad sense:
“I think, in a way, color is the most important and most fundamental musical parameter. The quality of a sound is the very first thing you hear. I think, even before you register harmony, you register that, say, it’s a piano… I think color in music is the surface, the primary interface with the listener.”
I am often fond of saying that no person in history has ever heard a composer’s composition, they’ve only heard a performer’s performance of it (or a recording playback). This is basically the same idea. You hear the execution, which comes in the form of color, but that color is the babel fish of sorts, translating this purely metaphysical concept into something discernible to the human ear. It is not, however, the music itself.
In raising the idea of OLAMBIC music, Jeremy replied:
“It’s like the body of a car. If you have a killer muscle car body with a rinky-dink V4 in it, the body is meaningless. But if you plop a supercharged V8 in my old 1987 Volkswagen, there’s a total mismatch between the performance and the aesthetics.”
In that analogy, the conceit is that color is the dressing. It’s your first contact yes, but it’s more like the gateway to the actual substance. It’s that thing which connects you in the mortal world to the music as it exists on some ethereal plane.
If the fundamental musical value of something is strong enough, it often seems transcendent of color, and hence the whole notion of an artist ‘covering’ the work of another. Music wouldn’t be coverable if the core musical DNA couldn’t survive the transformation to different settings. Does that not also consign color to somehow a lower rung? As less fundamental to the music’s expression?
Jeremy, whose music is consistently VERY coloristic, defends color as an equally-weighted parameter to melody, harmony and rhythm, and yet his own car body/engine analogy seems to confirm my suspicion that color is somehow lesser (in his words, color is the “jumping off point,” from which he generates material, and is therefore inseparable from the musical concepts of a work. This would theoretically make his works un-coverable, but I absolutely think they could be). So, now convinced by all of this that color rests lower in the parameter hierarchy, I asked him about this troublesome exception of Ligeti, writing genuinely beautiful music expressly about color.
“Yeah, don’t try that at home.”
So while I didn’t love Eötvös’s work (despite admiration of his technique), I do feel I owe him a thanks. The mere act of dissecting my reaction to his concerto has led to a fairly confident belief that I was up ’til then unconsciously struggling with.
Of course I can’t help but notice that I wrote “fairly confident” …
PS that nice image at the start of this post came from this site: http://www.musicalcolors.com/tst/home.html