Wednesday, July 21, 2010

ITF Reflections #3 Bonerama and the Stapedius reflex

One of the groups I was looking forward to hearing at ITF was Bonerama. Well, I guess I'm an old fuddy-duddy because after one or two tunes I had to leave. Why?

Maybe loudness is simply the "terroir" of this musical style. It raises some interesting questions, though. I'm guessing that, on some level, these guys want to be edgy. Watching them, I got the impression that they were really committed to what they were doing. I wanted to enjoy what they were doing, musically but I had to bail because I was physically uncomfortable.

I'm not against loud music. Without the benefit of amplification, I've had moments where I've enjoyed generating quite a few decibels. BUT, these loud moments were just that: moments The loudness was in contrast to other moments.

It seems that, by making everything loud, you've removed dynamics from the musical equation.

The loudness becomes part of the ambiance, just like the clothing you choose to wear for the performance.

Here's another thought: I honestly believe that the music didn't sound as loud to them as it did to me. I'm not talking about the relative levels of the feedback monitors to the house speakers. I'm talking about our old friend, the stapedius reflex.

So here is a lovely, fascinating paragraph from Wikipedia:

When presented with a high-intensity sound stimulus, the stapedius and tensor tympani muscles of the ossicles contract. The stapedius pulls the stapes (stirrup) of the middle ear away from the oval window of the cochlea and the tensor tympani muscle pulls the malleus (hammer) away from ear drum. The reflex decreases the transmission of vibrational energy to the cochlea, where it is converted into electrical impulses to be processed by the brain. The acoustic reflex normally occurs only at relatively high intensities; activation for quieter sounds can indicate ear dysfunction and absence of acoustic reflex can indicate neural hearing loss.

Now here's something that has been hanging around in my memory: I seem to remember that when that stapedius muscle is tensed (to protect the ear), less blood gets to certain vital ear regions. Also, I seem to remember that is takes about 24 hours for the muscle to completely relax again. So, if I'm remembering correctly...

Frequent loud noise = stapedius is flexed most of the time = less blood flow = long term hearing loss.

Or, for the guys in Bonerama...

Lots of loud performances = stops sounding as loud = turn up the volume.

So we return to a twist on that basic irony: as we perform we can never truly hear ourselves as the audience hears us. The twist: I'm guessing they don't/can't know how loud the music was for me/many of us.

They seemed like a really cool group. I'm just sad I didn't feel I could stick around to hear them. Or to put it another way: I heard so much of them that I couldn't stick around to hear them.

Should have brought ear plugs....

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

ITF Reflections #2: Bousfield, volume and timbre

Here's another interesting tidbit from Ian Bousfield's master class at the International Trombone Festival...

He described a 'typical' comment from an American player:
"I like this trombone. I can go from soft to loud without the timbre changing too much"

He contrasted this with a typical European player:
"I like this trombone. I can go from soft to loud and get a nice change in timbre"

So, in his view (if I understand correctly), Europeans want a greater variety of timbre in their playing.

Here's a corollary idea - as a trombone gets louder, the sound gets brighter. It would seem that, from Bousfield's perspective, Americans view this as a problem and Europeans view this as an advantage.

I could imagine an American complaining, "This trombone gets too bright when I play loud."
I could imagine a European complaining, "I have to play too loud to get the brightness I want."

A while back, I got called on short notice to fill on playing principal with the Charlotte Symphony. The main piece on the program was Symphonie Fantastique. The guest conductor (who was Swiss I think), kept egging me on to play louder and shorter. He also asked me to attack the notes with more and more accent. We were sitting right behind the trumpets and the first trumpet was none too pleased with my assault on the back of his head. Whenever I backed off, however, the conductor got on me to play out more. He even said, "First trombone, I want you to play those notes as loud and accented as possible." (not something you often hear in an orchestra rehearsal).

Finally, I opened up more and played in a style I would normally reserve for the loudest shout sections in a jazz band. This evoked a big smile and a 'thumbs-up' from the conductor while my trumpet colleague's ears turned red with anger. Tough spot to be in.

Looking back on it, I wonder if the conductor was wanting a more brilliant sound and I was just having to play that loud to give him the timbre he wanted.


Tuesday, July 13, 2010

ITF Reflections #1: Ian Bousfield and "Terroir"

I recently returned from the International Trombone Festival in Austin, Texas.

During the masterclass sessions, I didn't take notes but still have some reflections worth sharing.

#1 Ian Bousfield and "Terroir"

Ian Bousfield, an Englishmen who is currently the principle trombonist of the Vienna Philharmonic gave two great masterclasses on consecutive days. During this time, he introduced the idea of terroir - a French term related to wine-making. Specifically, it means that one region (with its specific soil conditions, weather, sunlight, etc) will lend a sense of uniqueness to the wines produced there. More loosely, it can mean "a sense of place."

Ian's point, if I understood it correctly, is this: if you grow up in a region and are immersed in its culture, you have a more innate understanding of music from that region. Case in point: people who grow up in Vienna, immersed in the local musical culture, will have a deeper appreciation for Mahler. Unlike most Americans, they are in a better position to hear Mahler's music in the context of its roots and thus are better able to interpret it. In answering a question, he even went so far as to say that he preferred to avoid those concerts in which Vienna played music not from their own terroir - say, French music for example.

What impressed me was his description of the prevalence of 'art music' in common culture. Whereas, in the United States, orchestras are fighting to hold on to dwindling audiences, in Vienna [as he observed] it is not uncommon for children to receive tickets to an upcoming opera production. He pointed out that the Vienna State Opera performs almost daily to sold-out houses. Don't believe me? Check out their schedule.

He told a great story about a farmer passing by his house on a tractor. [remember I'm paraphrasing here] The farmer stopped and asked, "You're with the Philharmonic aren't you? The 'Giovanni' was sh*t!"
Point taken: how often in our country would a person on the street even know what opera was being performed much less have seen it and have an opinion?

I have a relative in Paris whom we visit on occasion. I do remember how many little central town intersections had electronic kiosks with a schedule of local cultural events.

All this makes me think about Jeremy Wilson. If I remember correctly, at an ETW a few years back Jeremy won both the jazz and classical solo competitions (I was one of the judges on the classical competition). What does that mean? Well, a lot of talent, obviously. But also .... GOOD EARS.

In preparation for the Vienna audition, I believe Jeremy really focused on internalizing the style of that ensemble. I'm guessing those great ears that he developed, partly through jazz playing, helped him to be flexible in adapting to a different musical style. You might even say "adopting" that style.

So let me go with a crazy idea here: musically, if the audience can't hear it, it doesn't exist. Whatever advantage 'terroir' provides, it is only relevant in audible musical choices.

No, Jeremy Wilson (or Bousfield for that matter) didn't have the Viennese "terroir" working for him but he had great ears and musical flexibility. In the end, what came out of the bell, even though it was more 'studied' than 'native' apparently was good enough to win the audition.

So, as you practice those excerpts, ask yourself...
What style am I using?
Do I articulate notes differently for Berlioz and Bruckner?
Am I just being a dumb trombone jock pounding everything out with basically the same sound and style.

I am hopeful that, the higher the level of audition, the more this matters.