Monday, October 20, 2008

pointing out the obvious

Rehearsing the "Flying Music" from E.T. last Friday, conductor Richard Kaufman stopped the orchestra at one point and turned to the bass section. "This is a bass soli," he told us, which was rather surprising since we weren't playing much more than pizzicato downbeats. He went on, "For John Williams, the bass section is the engine of the orchestra!"

This is always nice to hear, though from the bass section's perspective we're pretty much always the engine of the orchestra. If a conductor makes a point of it, we'll play louder and more assertively, and maybe further to the front side of the beat. As in most things a conductor asks for, there's no major transformation -- just a shift in emphasis, a heightened sense of importance. Maybe that will project to the audience, maybe not; in any case, the other sections of the orchestra will probably be more attentive to what we're doing, and so we'll be better able to contribute.

An analogy in last week's New Yorker caught my attention on a similar subject:
In his acceptance speech at the Convention and in the first debate -- his two big-audience occasions on foreign policy -- Obama mentioned cooperation but emphasized aggressive action much more strongly. In that way, the Obama campaign is like a symphony orchestra, with the need for international cooperation as the string section and the necessity for aggressive action as the horns. Both sections are always playing, but usually one or the other is playing louder. During the fall campaign, the horns have dominated the strings.

- "Worlds Apart," by Nicholas Lemann, October 13, 2008 issue of The New Yorker
As an orchestra musician, a lot of things about this analogy bother me -- the strings and horns are always playing? why is it just "louder", what about differences of articulation, tone quality, expression, etc.? and how about the different voices within the strings, not to mention the brass and percussion and woodwinds, what do they represent?

All that is just nit-picking, though, since I think it's a very effective analogy for what the point Lemann is making. We do balance our messages, and we'll change our focus, wording, and content for different settings and audiences. It's one of the most basic elements of human communication, so essential that we might not give it much thought. And it's also a good explanation for what a conductor does in balancing the orchestra -- he or she draws our attention to certain things, or minimizes certain others. Within any musical score, be it John Williams or Beethoven, there are countless details and possibilities for what might happen -- the conductor gets to imagine those possibilities and, with the cooperation of the orchestra, bring out the details that make the imagined real.

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