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Timbre

Interesting ARTICLE by Tom Service in the Guardian today about Pierre Boulez.  Including this quote:

“That’s the central achievement of Boulez’s music. Like no one else has managed to do in music before, he has turned timbre – the texture and grain of the way instruments sound, and the special, surreal possibilities of electronic music – into a carrier of feeling and emotion. Previously, western music was all about pitch, rhythm, and harmony: the traditional routes to creating musical expression. Boulez adds another dimension to what music can do, and his works open up a new way of hearing. If you surrender yourself to his music, you can’t help but be intoxicated by its sonic fantasy  … “

I wonder if this is a new way of hearing at all.  It got me thinking about my work with DANIEL LEVITIN last year on our BEETHOVEN AND YOUR BRAIN. I think one of the most interesting things I got out of working with someone who is interested in the science of listening was learning how important timbre actually is.  It’s the first thing we respond to as listeners, before rhythm, melody and harmony. It is, in fact, our most primal reaction to music.  I think musicologists made western music “about” pitch, rhythm and harmony because that’s how most music is intellectually put together (this is true of Boulez’s music as well).  Timbre is the elephant in the room.  No one writes or even really talks about it, but it’s pervasive and it’s the way music hits listeners at the outset.

I think Boulez’s music, and other similar music, does focus us on timbre by eliminating most possibilities of expectation or pattern recognition as far as rhythm, melody, harmony.  It makes the experience of listening similar to walking through an unknown and beautiful space, and being acutely aware of every sound, twitter, drop of water, rustling leaf.  It might be a new way of hearing, but it’s also an ancient one.