Monday, April 29, 2013

Anechoic Chamber

Back in the 60's I had the opportunity to go into an anechoic chamber, a room especially constructed to absorb nearly all sound waves. There's a picture of one here. I found it an uncanny and unsettling experience. Something about getting zero auditory feedback from the environment made me weirdly anxious and I made a hasty exit.

I went looking for that picture not long after I went down to Durham last month to hear a performance of Timepiece, a wind quintet I wrote some time ago. The performance was at a very nice senior living community. The auditorium where the performance took place was especially engineered for amplified sound, and part of that included very sound absorbent walls, floor and ceiling. 

I've never needed a microphone to speak in a room that size, but I did in this one. Because there was zero reverberation, without the microphone my voice just sort of disappeared. With the microphone my voice was much louder than usual, but with all the sound absorption there was no boominess or feedback - and ideal setup for a population with more than average hearing loss.

The wind quintet was not amplified. The horn and oboe were OK with that, but the bassoon, flute and clarinet had to work to be heard. And since there was absolutely no reverberation there was no blending of the timbres of the instruments - I could hear each one individually at all times, but never heard all the blending of the timbres, which to me is the soul of the piece. What really got to me was that when the quintet was warming up in another room with much better acoustics, they got the blends wonderfully well.

Music As Medicine

Here's a short article based on a survey Daniel Levitin did of 400 scientific papers having to do with music as medicine. There's nothing really new, but it's a nice roundup of where we are.

. . . They found that music had documented effects on brain chemistry and associated mental and physical health benefits in four areas:

Management of mood.
Stress reduction.
Boosting immunity.
As an aid to social bonding. . . 

. . . One paper even compared patients at a hospital before surgery who were randomly assigned to either listen to music or take an anti-anxiety drug such as Valium. 
"People who received the music had lower anxiety levels than people who had the drugs and without side effects," Levitin said. . .

. . . Studies showed that slower music tends to be more relaxing than faster music, but familiar music is more relaxing, regardless of the type and tempo. That brings up an important point about the use of music in a medical setting, Levitin said. "Rather than the doctor saying, 'Oh, you've got depression — take two Joni Mitchells and call me in the morning,' I think what we need to have is recognition that people need to have control over what they are listening to.". . .

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Horn Diary

Two weeks to go before the performances of the Brahms Requiem. Working with the horn parts for it continues to be a revelation for me. I feel blessed to experience such an opening into a realm of music I wasn't really aware existed. Back in my college and conservatory days, thirty years and more ago, I listened to the Brahms symphonies but never really connected with them. I always preferred medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Chopin and Satie.

What has led me into the Requiem has been the horn writing. Over and over again I've had the sensation of more deeply appreciating what he's up to as I work with the music. What's been especially amazing has been how learning to play the various horn parts has been teaching me how to play the horn. Somehow the gestalt of individual phrases leads me to better understanding the sheer expressiveness of the horn. There are times when it feels more like I'm singing wordlessly than playing an instrument - and other times when the phrase could only be imagined as being played by the horn. 

A practical result of all of this is being drawn to practice the horn even more than usual. I've pretty much put down the flutes, keyboard and the guitar and singing for the duration. My endurance has increased as a result. The question will be whether it's increased enough. Since I'm the only horn, I'm playing the first horn part as well as bits and pieces from the other parts when they are prominent. (Which means transposing at sight horn in E, Eb, D, C & Bb tief - an achievement of which I'm inordinately proud ;-)

One thing I've started to do is use how I'm holding the instrument to help with dynamics. When the horn part is meant to be high in the mix, I hold it away from my body (always off the leg) and angle it out a bit so the sound can flow unencumbered. In all the pianissimo sections I'm holding the edge of the bell tight against my torso with a bit of a downward angle so as to damp the sound a bit. That also changes the sound some, making it much more appropriate when accompanying quiet voices.

One particular revelation has been his use of off-beats. In community band I'm used to off-beats being very mechanical and fast. From time to time Brahms uses them in slow passages to amazing effect. Even if the tempo doesn't slow, there's a wonderful sense of peaceful relaxation.