Close Encounters With Music

Sounding Off On Sound: Beauty Reconsidered
By Yehuda Hanani

“What a beautiful big sound!” How often do we hear this comment during intermission or from musicians discussing a colleague they admire?

This commonly voiced and seemingly flattering exclamation is problematic to me and stands as a disturbing commentary on the state of music making today.

Since music covers the entire scope of human experience, it can by turns be angry, mysterious, majestic, aggressive, martial, erotic, religious, fragile, painful, happy, or crude, as well as elegant and pretty—and I intentionally put the last two at the end of the list. Even when a composer writes espressivo, he does not tell us which expression is intended.

What then is beautiful sound?

Today's generally accepted "beautiful and big" could be described as a thick, juicy, voluptuous, solid, and sustained sound high in cholesterol, which focuses on the instrument rather than on the music and amounts to what I have taken to calling “musical pornography.” It would perhaps do well for a Glazunov piece—indeed this concept of sound production probably originated with the Russian school of violin playing.

August Rodin was not much of a musician, but his ideas on art and literature are relevant to our discipline. In his marvelous collection of conversations, Rodin on Art and Artists (published by Dover) he says, “You never think of praising either drawing or style which is truly beautiful, because you are carried away by the interest of all that they express. It is the same with color. There is really neither beautiful style, nor beautiful drawing, nor beautiful color; there is but one sole beauty, that of the truth which is revealed.” And, conversely, he reassures us, lest we fear that craft will be left by the wayside: “You see a picture, you read a page; you notice neither the drawing, the color, nor the style, but you are moved to the soul. Have no fear of making a mistake; the drawing, the color, the style are perfect in technique.”

In listening to the old masters of yesteryear, it is striking how quickly we identify them by their sound, regardless of the inferior quality of the recordings by today's technological standards. Huberman, Tibeaud, Kreisler, Elman, Szigeti, Casals—all are recognizable instantly without having to read the labels. What has happened since to make today's major performers so interchangeable and lacking in individuality?

Over the past three or four decades, music has become a popularized mass-culture pursuit, and teaching music an industry catering to a vast market of demi-connoisseurs. Rather than an artistic calling, mastering an instrument has increasingly become a tool for eking out a living. The trend created the teachers and the teachers reinforced the trend. Efficient teaching methods have evolved that separate instrumental training from the music, and thus students are processed through a uniform system that produces assembly-line products out of an identical mold.

Competitions only serve to reinforce this reality. In order to appeal to the greatest number of jurors, players refrain from making personal statements, opting rather for a neutral, middle-of-the-road, objective, and "correct" sound. They recognize early on that artistic convictions can easily work against them. In competitions, where the aim is to displease no one, and therefore where individuality can be a disadvantage, one often hears contestants who exemplify the "competition sound,” toward which teachers, who capitulated to this anti-art institution, have guided (or misguided) their students.

Because of the time factor (some of the auditions are as perfunctory as five minutes), players are impelled to make an impression quickly, and so they trot out their voluptuous, big, "sexy" sound, which has instant appeal and instant impact, much like a television advertisement. Auditions for orchestral vacancies usually operate under similar assumptions. Would Enescu or Busch have gotten a job under these conditions?

On the more advanced level, the soloist is challenged to succeed in a mass-culture milieu where the line between art and entertainment has all but disappeared, and where accomplishments are not measured artistically but numerically: how many records sold, how many concerts per season, how much money per concert, etc. With this as a yardstick, it is small wonder that the general tendency has been to popularize—and, alas, to vulgarize—and it is against these forces that a young artist has to find and preserve his or her voice.

Another major accomplice to the equalizing process is the recording industry. The availability of numerous “canned” performances of the repertoire sends students rushing to the library upon receiving a new assignment, and rather than struggling to unlock a new score in a personal way, they produce a Frankenstein-like monster—a slide from this recording and a bowing from that—a mindless imitation that makes any creativity and psychological insight impossible. To a great extent, the sound in these recordings is the creation of engineers who, with the help of high-tech equipment and advanced splicing and editing methods, achieve superperfect performances, larger than life in volume, highlighting the soloists by superimposing their playing over the orchestra and giving them overwhelming presence at all times, whether musically justified or not.

These recordings present false models to budding artists and warp the expectations of concert-goers. This brings us to the second dubious adjective in the “beautiful and big” pair and seems to have more to do with Playboy magazine than with any art form. The obsession with size is a known American phenomenon; whether it is jumbo strawberries and elephant garlic in the supermarket or Dolly Parton's physique, big is beautiful. The exaggerated importance of big sound coincided with the democratization of music when about a century ago music moved out from under the patronage of the palaces and salons of the upper classes and into the large concert halls and emerged as a business with tickets, impresarios, and publicity agents. While orchestras were augmented and the piano kept growing with the expanding auditoriums and audiences, stringed instruments retained their size. But to respond to the new exigencies, fingerboards were reset at a sharper angle and bridges became higher, thus increasing the string pressure. Metal strings were introduced and harder and heavier bows came into being.

All these modifications were aimed at exaggerating the loudness and brilliance of the instruments, most often compromising quality in favor of quantity and projection. The steady rise in pitch of the concert is part of the same development. Historically, the great Italian luthiers strove for warmth and subtle textures of sound; loud, cheap violins were designed for outdoor dances and weddings. Expecting to satisfy the urge for volume with an Italian instrument is like quenching one's thirst with rare wine. Any number of newly made, infinitely less costly violins will do better.

Incidentally, fighting the big halls and big orchestras and attempting to measure up to the artificial sound of recordings is why so many of today's players suffer physical and medical problems. Many performing artists who feel pressured to produce the "beautiful big" sound on stage receive cortisone shots routinely because of tendonitis and inflammation of muscles.

“Big” is both quantitative and qualitative. While the quantitative meaning is “loud,” it is the qualitative aspect of “big” that interests us as artists. Rainer Maria Rilke was Rodin's secretary for a while and was much influenced by the sculptor's way of seeing. In a letter to his wife Clara, he wrote:

“In his studio in the rue de l'Université, Rodin has a tiny plaster cast of a tiger (antique) which he values very highly: ‘C’est beau, c’est tout,’ [It's beautiful, it's everything] he says of it. And from this little plaster copy I have seen what he means, what antiquity is and what links him to it. There is in this animal the same kind of aliveness in the modeling; on this little thing (it is no higher than my hand is wide, and no longer than my hand is) there are a hundred thousand places that are all alive, active and different. All this just in plaster! And the representation of the prowling stride is intensified to the highest degree, the powerful downward tread of the broad paws, and simultaneously that caution in which all strength is wrapped.”

In his book Rodin (published by Peregrine Smith Books), Rilke states the case less subjectively and less elliptically. “In Rodin's studio there is a cast of a panther, of Greek workmanship, hardly as big as a hand....If you look from the front under its body into the space formed by the four powerful soft paws, you seem to be looking into the depths of an Indian stone temple; so huge and all-inclusive does this work become.” The description of the miniature tiger could be practically unchanged to describe the magnificence of Bach's music—but that is another article!

Projection and strength come from the proper dramatic arching of a long melodic line, a sense of direction and structural planning, rhythmic energy, timing of harmonic tensions, and conviction in concept—and not from adjustments of volume. The power of Casals' playing—what gives it its monolithic authenticity and authority—lies in the way he seizes upon essences and truths, in the directness of the delivery, and the disdaining of effects or any false, enervating gestures. What is “beautiful” about Louis Armstrong or Edith Piaf is how fabulously their voices suit the content of their music and become inseparable from it. Message and vehicle are faithfully intertwined.

How then do you teach sound? An entire tome could be devoted just to this question. Briefly, I would say: by basing all efforts on trying to connect the player with the text, insisting that music is a language and that students should constantly attempt to convey not just frequencies of sound but human language and gesture. I recommend listening open-mindedly and adapting to the student's individual personality. Sound is an expression of personality, and you can't follow a preconceived idea of how you want someone to sound. Think like a vocal coach. You are working with a given voice, and the more open-minded you are when approaching someone, the more chance there is to help them find their own voice. The vibrato that would sound natural with one player may be ill-suited to another. (The speed of the vibrato, for instance, might be related to the intensity of the personality.) Cultivate differences instead of uniformity. It is a riskier and windier path and you may stumble into some dead ends, but inevitably you will return to the main road with the student enriched. I don't advocate a one-size-fits-all prescribed course of study, either. Some of my students begin with a Romantic sonata, some begin with a Bach suite, depending on the type of expression they most need to cultivate at the time. Teaching a musical text is the act of felicitously merging the personality of the student and the character of the piece. Challenge students by creating an atmosphere of exploration and adventure; discourage comparisons among them; and while working on technical problems, make sure not to iron out exciting personal traits along with the flaws. How often teachers do away with the devils in someone's playing and chase away the angels in the process!

(While touring in Eastern Europe before the Iron Curtain crumbled, it was always striking, and tragic-comical, to note the uniformity in food, dress, and even women's hair color. One winter all of Yugoslavia was ablaze with a brassy, rust henna, probably all that was available in the beauty salons and chosen by some government official. We are justly proud of our freedom of expression, but how can we hope to accomplish it if artistic individuality is compromised in a doctrinaire approach to teaching and through the dictatorship of imitation?)

The next step for the performer is to synthesize his or her voice with that of the composer, the piece, and the period. Listening to any recordings during this formative stage will be paralyzing and destructive. The sound and diction of a composer is closely linked to the sound of his language, his landscape, and the cultural context in which he worked. The controlled passion in French (even when it is in flames, it is a blue fire), the round and robust thickness of Russian, the syncopation and dropping intervals in Hungarian speech—all appear in the music with different physical and emotional landscapes.

Read Lorca while studying De Falla, see an Impressionist exhibit to better understand Debussy's anti-Romantic and anti-German revolt, visit Gothic cathedrals when engaged in Bach's music and its spiritual architecture. There is no compartmentalizing in culture, and the broader the background, the deeper are the wells of insight and inspiration.

The role of craft is invaluable and essential as a means of accomplishing the task. A variety of bow speeds, deft adjustments of pressure, a large vocabulary of syllables and attacks, accuracy of intonation, an extensive palette of shifts, vibrato, and strokes must all be at one's disposal. No inspiration can replace the patient, long hours of practicing. But technical capability has to be connected from a very early stage to an artistic-personal content. Consummate technique is the kind you don't notice, because it serves the music and does not draw attention to itself.

A beautiful sound is not an Irish folk song sung with an operatic voice, nor overly “juicy” string playing that does not differentiate voices in a Bach partita. It is not a persistent, sustained nagging sound in a string quartet that, being too concentrated, does not allow a primary voice through. It is the sound that is true to the moment.

The only way we can hope to turn the crisis in music around is to reestablish the proper order of importance, that is, to stop glorifying the instrument and the players and consider the greatness of the music. (There are a number of editions of Bach Suites and Beethoven Cello Sonatas on whose covers the publishers had the audacity to print the names of the player-editors three times larger than those of the composers!) In spite of the overwhelming presence of the market, we must find our true voices and use them. False notes are forgivable, but false music is not. Let the music speak, and give it its true expression. Let there be music!

(This article previously appeared in Strings magazine and in the 2007 Playbill for Close Encounters With Music.)