Nuance

Composer John McLachlan argues that there is a sixth musical parameter which never gets mentioned in musicology or theory

It is a commonplace of the composition class that there are five parameters or dimensions in music, and that it is helpful from time to time to consider them separately. They are pitch, time, timbre, amplitude, and envelope (or articulation). A great deal of trouble, disagreement and healthy dialectic too has followed the coining of this idea (not to mention debate about who coined it, some time in the middle of the last century). For a very short while in music history, in Europe and America in the 1950s, there was a fruitful questioning (and occasional subversion) of the traditional order of their importance as the determinants of musical structure, and some limited attempts also to create arithmetical, abstract schema that could then be applied to more than one parameter. The main embodiment of this, total serialism, was pursued rigorously for only a very short time and its overblown perceived historical importance tells us more about music theory (and those who write it) than it does about music.

While its historic moment has essentially passed, the parsing of music into five parameters is still used as a tool to open up the minds of beginner composers, and in the field of analysis it still seems necessary to repeat that pitch is not the only parameter that can contribute meaning.

There are many other categories that seem to cry out to be considered alongside those five, such as morphology, line, harmony and so on. They invariably turn out to be secondary, in the sense that they are all dependent categories (e.g. line or harmony are special cases under pitch or pitch + time, and so forth). In fact such deep musical thinkers as Carl Dahlhaus have argued that, in actual music, as opposed to theory, only these ‘secondary’ categories exist, so it is those that should command the attention.

Pragmatism, in terms of how we really deal with music, seems to determine whether we really have four, five or six parameters. Because, for one thing, there is no good reason not to include Stockhausen’s proposed sixth parameter: physical position of the sound source; except for the fact that it is not needed all the time – and that it’s a bit of a mouthful. Also we must suspect that ‘envelope’ should be removed from the five, as it is ultimately a combination of amplitude over time; but because our notation gives it a special place in the form of articulation marks (slurs, staccato and so on), it is practical to allow it. The first four, which are aural embodiments of numbers, seem to be on more solid ground.

As a listener and composer, I have often felt that there is another ‘ghost parameter’, or perhaps just a special category, which never gets mentioned in musicology or theory at all. I call it ‘nuance’.

The characteristics of a sound that hit the listener first, its character, even before the brain can get to work and say ‘oh, it’s a sax playing a high, loud Bb’, are obvious to all, and may even be more obvious to untrained listeners than trained. We cannot name the essence of the character because it has no name. We know it only as a degree of difference. Gross differences are not of interest here; it is only the finer difference that counts as nuance. It is a combination of the immaterial and the material, and a measure of the quality of connection between these two; in plain English: the performer’s self plus material things like the quality of their instrument, and especially the richness of the interface between the two. Other things are involved too, the performer’s intuitive response to acoustic and human environment being among them.

The reason that ‘nuance’ does not appear in classical music theory or musicology is that at some point the mission of classical music became to transcend nuance. A search for, and elevation of, the permanent ‘art work’ above the ephemeral and transitory performance leads to a downgrading of the relevance of ‘nuance’. The concept that a score can exist with its own integrity, that the intentions of the composer can have a higher, abstract existence separate to the performer’s whims and errors, is, in the final analysis, what separates classical from all other musics. As a result of long years of this objectification, the music conservatories have ended up working quite hard to make everyone sound the same, that is, to avoid accidentally expressing themselves – at least until they can first express the composer’s intention as accurately as possible. After the conservatory you may then decide whether you have a personality of your own to exploit, in which case you extract yourself from the orchestra/ensemble and become a soloist. Even then you will never lose a certain tension between your importance and that of the composer on the bill. This is unlike other music. In jazz and traditional music, the player is not the interpreter but the re-inventor. The life they give to the music is a re-birth. Meanwhile in pop and rock the identity of the performer is all, and it is expected that they also produce the original composition. Tellingly, when others come along to ‘cover’ the song, they usually fall short of the original version, whether they try to mimic it faithfully, or more sensibly try to bring something fresh to it.

There is always deviation from an original in any kind of performance, and the degree to which it exists, is tolerated, is enjoyed or is celebrated is a key to where the genre positions itself, almost like a caste system, with classical on top and rock on the bottom.

In the search for renewal that preoccupies so much of contemporary art music, the ‘nuance’ aspect has, in a not very structured way, been considered and has entered into the arena in a big way. I say that because there are so many composers of new music who struggle with or reject the somewhat uniform sound of the professional classical musician. They move away from it in all sorts of ways: whether it is just using a band of close collaborators, or performing themselves, or capturing the sounds of traditional musicians as a source for electro-acoustic music, we can see many departures. And these are sometimes also departures from the idea that a score will result for reproduction years later. Why they do this at all is because the anxiety of listening to an impersonal, quasi-uniform method of tone production has outweighed the anxiety of not having a transferable document, while digital recording has also stepped in to assist on that side. There are still composers who write the score as the primary art object, indeed they may still be a majority among contemporary classical composers; even they prefer to work in collaboration with their soloists or commissioners, for the same reason.

Those who produce only acousmatic music, i.e. music for projection through speakers only, are somewhere else again – they have truly transcended nuance by transcending performance. There is no performance, and the sound exists frozen in perpetuity, like an insect in amber. But have they sacrificed one of the basic dimensions of music?

Published on 1 September 2007

John McLachlan is a composer and member of Aosdána. www.johnmclachlan.info

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