Intelligent Design
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Music is communicated through changes in sonic tension. The quantifiable or objective changes that are often missed because they are immediately made obvious by the composers’ markings fall into three main categories: changes in timbre, changes in harmonic tension and changes in momentum. The more changes in tension that you can identify, the more opportunities you will have to share a deeper understanding of the music.

Changes in Timbre
These would include changes made in the orchestration and/or voicing or tessitura of the music. For instance, when a brass quartet is playing a passage and the trombone part drops out, this can be a clue that a difference in intensity is being attempted by the composer. Often the remaining performers assume the orchestration is simply a means of giving players rest and will simply play their parts and expect the composer’s orchestration to be the sole facilitator of timbral variety. This behavior represents a missed opportunity. Even a change in voicing, be it sudden or gradual, offers a chance for a performer to affect the audience beyond what the notation/scoring alone can do. Shifts in voicing from open to closed position chords and changes in tessitura are among the notes which composers give to the performers to indicate a change in tension. If a performer simply plays these ‘notes’ without highlighting the intent behind any changes in tension, they are not expressing the music—just the notation. A composer’s premeditated changes in timbral tension may be discovered by analytically listening to the work or visually studying its notes for clues.

Changes in Harmonic Tension
These include chord progressions—in fact, the word progression, as it relates to music, implies a tension that guides a listener from one moment to the next—and pitches within a melody that create a heighten tension through their relationship to the other notes in the melody or accompaniment. Since many jazz players engage in the act of composing through improvisation, they are very conscious of how harmonic tensions contributed to the success of a line. A jazz player will often play a ‘blue’ note—a note that creates a distinctive tension within a phrase or chord—differently than other notes. After engaging the works of Wagner and Stravinsky, it’s no wonder that classical players will not recognize the somewhat more subtle changes in harmonic tension in the lines of Bach and Mozart. Classical players often bypass much of the harmonic tension in classical music due to a desensitized ear and they are often content to play a note in time and in tune with no further effort to express any existing special quality. Being aware of these changes and understanding their purpose—a minor seventh in a chord by Haydn may not function the same when it appears in a chord by Thelonius Monk—will give the performer an objective basis and occasion upon which to take a more subjective action. Listening for pitches and harmonies that fall outside of a fundamental sonority or otherwise defy or delay a basic harmonic or melodic expectations of a phrase is key to discovering these types of changes. This can only be done after the ear has been tuned to the harmonic characteristics of the genre and composer. Remember, comprehension of the theory behind a work being performed is extremely helpful, especially in contemporary music.

Changes in momentum
These include changes in the character of a rhythm and changes in the rate of change of the harmonic and/or timbral tensions. When changes in the character of a rhythm are brought out, they can create a profound affect. For example, a triplet figure in an otherwise duple passage could indicate a change in rhythmic feel. Are the triplets in a particular passage meant to give forward momentum to the music or to be heavier and hold it back? Playing every rhythmic notation on the page with computerized precision is not only difficult but risks sounding uninspired. Again, jazz players display a keen awareness of rhythm when they choose to ‘lay back’ on certain notes even though there is no change in tempo. Of course, any change in the rate of change of the harmonic and/or timbral tensions, is an opportunity for a performer to maximize its affect through the use or addition performance techniques.

Other changes in the music are usually easy to identify due to a composer’s marking (e.g., dynamics, tempo changes, accents, text indications) and are subsequently engaged by most performers. Musicians, however, must aspire to also identify the less obvious elements of a piece’s musical design in order to give their interpretation depth. Still, identification is only the first step. The presentation of these moments should not only compliment their intent but also show imagination and flexibility on the part of the performer.

For a look at what performance tools we should consciously employ to be musically expressive when revealing these hidden opportunities see Diversity in Phrasing.


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