Saturday, August 29, 2009

Balancing Dynamic and Intensity

The Great Italian Maestro Carlo Maria Giulini used to tell the members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in his thick Italian accent: “My friends, please don’t confuse dynamic with intensity”; I’ve been thinking about those wise words for the last 30 years.

The dictionary defines intensity as a measurement of energy, but regarding music it needs to be a little more defined. Of course, just a measurement of energy would include the difference between loud and soft; certainly, dynamic is a measurement of energy, but for the purpose of this article I will refer to dynamic as the amplitude, the loud and soft of music, and intensity as the ratio of harmonics; that is tone quality.

The nature of sound as we play, speak, or sing, normally increases with intensity when the dynamic increases, and in piano it decreases. For example, compare the soft timbre of a sweet lullaby compared to the hard aggressive quality of a rock and roll singer. However, it doesn’t necessacerely have to be that way, there is much more to sound than just dynamic variety.

Luciano Pavarotti, for example, was able to sing very softly with great intensity, and a great actor can speak a text in a very soft voice, even a whisper but with frightening intensity; some of the most terrible villains in film and theater speak in a menacingly intense soft voice. Intensity can be the regulator of our musical quality; a pianissimo with no intensity is a weak, often unstable sound, which is nearly impossible to play with regarding intonation. And a fortissimo with too much intensity can simply be ugly.

In playing music we have both dynamics and intensity as our tools of expression, balancing the two leads toward a much richer sonic vocabulary; it’s important to use them both and not to confuse them.

Part of our job as brass players, as well as maintaining our techniques of fingers, breathing, articulation, and embouchure control, is to be aware of that chronic balance calibration between dynamic and energy and to make our personal decision for the correct mix for the correct occasion. But particularly, as lower brass players we need to formulate our opinion as to whether the bass notes, the tuba notes, those that are required in most of our playing, should simply be a big sound with wide amplitude to put a basic bottom on a brass section or to calculate an energy to that sound that is more homogeneous with the higher brasses. I won’t offer an opinion regarding this but I will only say that I have been fascinated by this question for my full playing career. We, with the help of the people we work with, have a choice. Certainly, the correct solution will very from person to person as well as through diverse styles and repertoire. Personally, I recommend keeping an open mind and continuing the search for that correct calibration, the correct mix; it’s more interesting than staying with the comfortable and predictable. Sound is part of our musicality and musicality is a growing aspect that needn’t ever stop evolving. Enjoy this search.

August 29, 2009, Tokyo