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December 8, 2003

visual aspects of music

Hearing live chamber music one night last week, I thought about the visual dimension of music, which we miss when we listen to recordings. Musicians often show a lot of expression on their faces, and they exchange meaningful looks that are interesting to interpret. In a string quartet, they all hunch over when they're playing fast and intensely, and then sit back during lulls. I also like the general sight of their gleaming wooden instruments and slender bows, vibrating like insect wings.

I suspect that composers often think about visual issues when they write. For example, why give a theme to the first violin and the accompaniment to the second, and then switch their roles after a few bars? On a recording, it would sound the same if the first violin repeated the melody. But it's visually interesting to see a motif passed around a semicircle of musicians, or bounced back and forth.

One of the pieces I heard last week was Tchaikovsky's sextet for strings, "Souvenir de Florence," which I happen to know quite well from a CD. According to the program notes, the composer told his brother, "I definitely do not want to write just any old tune and then arrange it for six instruments, I want a sextet--that is, six independent voices, so that it can never be anything but a sextet." By listening to a recording, someone with a reasonably experienced ear could tell that there are two violins, two violas, and two cellos playing; and the piece would sound different with a different ensemble. However, you would need a fabulous ear to tell that the first viola has a consistently different role from the second. This is much clearer when you can see that the first viola is sitting over there, and she's the young Japanese-American with a somewhat worried expression who re-tuned after the first movement; whereas the second viola is an older Jewish gentleman with a serene expression. One might object that these assignments were no part of Tchaikovsky's plan. But he did expect us to be able to keep track of parts. Moreover, the combination of different musical roles, instruments, and players' faces creates an interesting aesthetic layer that is missing on a CD.

December 8, 2003 8:00 AM | category: fine arts | Comments


I have no chance to hear live chamber music and to study the subtle expression on the musicians' faces as you said. I just listen to cds. But I do believe "music" goes beyond just two aspects. When a piece of music goes, you may smell the tender grass, you may see the beam sheding onto the glade, you may hear the struggling breath, you may feel the fear or happiness. You may experience what the composer and the musicians experienced, or what they want you to experience.
Music is not just to entertain our ears, it is in fact nothing but its producers' real life.

December 14, 2003 12:30 PM | Comments (2) | posted by Hehui

and a question: why keep posting your diary on web?

p.s. I just reached your page by chance, hope I and my question didn't bother you.

December 14, 2003 12:37 PM | Comments (2) | posted by Hehui

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