Thursday, June 21, 2012

800 Words: The Ideal Band: co-written by Hector Berlioz (part 1)

(The ideal orchestra of the 1830’s in action)

The orchestra may be thought of as a large instrument that is capable of producing simultaneously or in succession a multitude of sounds of different kinds. Its power can be limited or considerable depending on whether it draws on the totality or only part of the performing resources available to modern music, and depending on whether those resources are well chosen or not and set out in acoustic conditions that are more or less favourable.

The band was once thought of as a small instrument that is capable of producing simultaneously or in succession a highly limited selection of sounds. What distinguished it from its predecessors was that through amplification, this small selection of sounds could supersede the largest acoustical orchestra in loudness and visceral impact. Over a period of roughly 60 years, the band has accumulated enough technological and artistic developments to create a multitude of sounds to rival any orchestra. Yet most musicians belonging to them persist in clinging to an ersatz ideal of simplicity which was exhausted many decades in the past.

Whereas the performers of all kinds which together make up the traditional orchestra would then seem to be the strings, tubes, boxes, flat surfaces, of wood or metal, that are like machines endowed with intelligence but actuated by a vast keyboard played by the conductor under the direction of the composer – the performers of various rock bands are also in fact a machine endowed with such self-directed intelligence as the orchestra only seems to have. The band, like the orchestra, is akin to a giant keyboard, but this keyboard is a self-directed one in which the band leaders and song writers are mere consultants. The electronic instruments, acoustic instruments, DJ’s, producers, stage managers, and sound system engineers each play their own part of this giant keyboard; each capable of being coordinated like a traditional orchestra, yet all required to make decisions in an instant that cannot be planned so much as a moment in advance. Each member of the group is in part a conductor and composer for this new type of orchestra.

It seems to us impossible to explain how beautiful orchestral effects are invented, and that this faculty, which practice and reasoned observation probably help to develop, is, like the faculty of creating melody, expression, and even harmony, one of the precious gifts that the poet-musician, like an inspired creator, must have received from nature.
On the other hand one can certainly demonstrate easily and with virtual exactness the art of making orchestras that are suitable for rendering faithfully compositions of every form and dimension.

The place occupied by musicians, the way they are arranged on a horizontal or inclined platform, in an enclosure that is shut on three sides or at the centre of a hall, in a stadium or in a club, with sound-reflectors made of hard material suitable for reflecting sound, or of soft material which absorbs it and cuts the vibrations short, with amplifiers placed nearer or further away from the musicians, all of these have considerable importance. Sound amplifiers are indispensable for a 21st century band; they are found arranged in different ways in any building, open or enclosed. The nearer they emit to the sounds’ point of origin the more effective they become.

That is the reason why open air music can now exist. The most formidable 21st century orchestra placed in the centre of a vast garden open on all sides, such as that of the Tuileries, may now have miraculous effect. Whereas the sounds used to get immediately dissipated in every other direction, they now may be focused by amplification to any direction the artist desires – creating a veritable concert hall within the dimensions of the amplification’s acoustical placement. When placed in an open plain, a single guitar, properly amplified, may have more musical effectiveness than an orchestra with a thousand wind instruments, and a chorus of two thousand voices. After a single rehearsal, an ordinary orchestra of eighty musicians and a chorus of a hundred voices, carefully arranged in the hall of the Conservatoire, cannot achieve the coordinated musical effect of a guitar, bass guitar, drums, and a single voice. The brilliant effect of the finest orchestras in large cities supports this statement while appearing to contradict it. To achieve their Olympian effects, they must coordinate their efforts over tens of thousands of hours of meticulous rehearsal, sectional drills, and individual practice. In this case their music is not in fact a free exercise of the spirit, but a rigorous drill coordinated to the most infinitesimal precision. Each instrumental doubling, each harmonic overtone, serves as its own amplifier. The sound reverberates and circulates actively in the narrow space between them before escaping through the spaces left open into the concert hall. But if the traditional orchestra were to play as a rock band with each player given a wide berth to leave his own interpretive stamp upon the music, the sound would immediately turn to utter chaos, the harmoniousness of a fine orchestra vanishes, and there is no music.
But the finest 21st century band, for a venue scarcely larger than that of the Fillmore in San Francisco, the most complete, the richest in nuances and variety of tone colour, the most majestic, powerful and at the same time the most mellow, would be an band composed as follows:

1 Lead Vocalist

11 Backup Singers 

1 Lead Guitar

4 Rhythm Guitars 

3 Bass Guitars 

3 Violins (must double as electric violinists) 

2 Drummers

5 Percussionists

1 Drum Machine Programmer

1 Synthesizer Programmer to pre-Program 4 Synthesizers 

4 Keyboardists 

2 DJ’s 

(38 musicians)

If the intention was to perform a set involving a horn section, such a band would require:

4 saxophonists capable of playing each saxophone – doubling as 3 clarinets and a bass clarinet 

3 trumpeters 

3 trombonists 

3 flautists 

2 euphonists  and 1 tubist 

(16 extra musicians for a total 54-piece band)

Such an instrumental complement has the following advantages:

12 vocalists may together create as much harmonic variety as there are notes in the Western Scale. In the case of alternative scales which require more pitches, more backup singers may be used. For example, for Indian music one can easily add another 14 singers to make a backup chorus of 25 singers.

4 rhythm guitarists may cover other types of guitars as needed and play against one another in 4 polyrhythms, the maximum the human ear can reasonably be expected to follow.

3 bass guitars may create a three-part harmony in the bass, when combined with 3 trombones the harmony can be given more definition, and when combined with 2 euphoniums and a tuba can be given less definition. 

3 violins may together create a three part harmony in the treble. To add more definition one may add three trumpets, and to create less definition one may add three flutes.

4 preprogrammed synthesizers may create 4 part counterpoint with as many timbral combinations as possible. 4 live keyboardists may create another set of 4 part counterpoint while adding still more timbral combinations. 

2 DJ's may utilize any particularly attractive musical moment for sampling or looping in real time, sometimes to be played against each other. And both can also use turntables for additional sampling to create more musical possibilities. 

By doubling or tripling in the same proportions and order this body of performers the result would probably be a superb superband. But it is a mistake to suppose that all bands must be constructed according to this scheme, which is based on the predominance of electronic instruments. Excellent results can be achieved with the opposite system. In the latter case the acoustic instruments would be too weak to dominate the mass of guitars and percussion and would serve to provide a harmonious bridge with the strident sounds of a band solely composed of electronic instruments. In some cases they would soften their brilliance, in others they would give warmth to the impetus of the music. Furthermore, common sense suggests that unless the bandleader is obliged to make do with whatever size of band is available, he must put together his body of performers according to the style and character of the song he is writing and the type of principal effects the subject may require.

This is the place to draw attention to the importance of the different points of origin of the sounds. Some parts of an orchestra are meant by the bandleader to question and answer each other, and this intention only becomes clear and beautiful if the amplification of groups which engage in said dialogue are placed at a sufficient distance from each other. Before each concert, the band leader must make explicitly clear to his sound team the layout of amplification that he thinks is appropriate.

In the case of drum sets, cowbells, bongos, hammer dulcimer, and slide whistles, for example, if they are used all at once to play certain rhythms in the commonplace manner, they can remain grouped together. But if they are playing a rhythmic dialogue, one part of which is performed by hammer dulcimer and cowbell, and the other by bongo and slide whistle, it is probably the case that the effect will become immeasurably better, more interesting and more beautiful if the two groups of percussion instruments are amplified at the two ends of the audience, and therefore at a fairly great distance from each other. This means that the constant uniformity in the placing of masses of amplification is one of the greatest obstacles to the production of monumental works that are really novel. It is imposed on rock bands more by habit, routine, laziness and lack of thought than for reasons of economy, though these are unfortunately all too compelling, particularly in America. Here music is far from our national habits, our market consumes everything a manufactured musical idol produces, but nothing by real musicians. Wealthy magnates who are prepared to give 5,000,000 francs or more for a crappy painting from a dead artist, because this represents a safe investment, would not spend even fifty francs to make it possible to hold once a year some musical celebration worthy of a country such as ours, which would display to good effect the considerable musical resources it does actually possess but which in practice cannot be put to good use very often.

And yet it would be interesting to try once to make simultaneous use of all the musical resources that can be assembled in Baltimore/DC, in a group of works specially written for the occasion. Assuming a songwriter/arranger had such resources at his disposal, in a vast performance space designed for this purpose by an engineer versed in acoustics and music, he would need to determine precisely before starting work the disposition and layout of this huge superband, and then keep them always in mind while creating these works. It can be assumed that it is highly important in using such a vast mass of players to take into account the distance or the proximity of the different amplifiers that make it up. This is an essential precondition for achieving the best possible results and calculating with sureness the intended effects. In musical festivals up till now all that has been heard are standard bands but with their parts quadrupled or quintupled, depending on the smaller or larger number of performers. But this would involve something very different, and the composer who wanted to show off the prodigious and innumerable resources of such an instrument would certainly have to perform a novel task.

In tomorrow’s post I shall endeavor to show how such a superband could be created. 

No comments:

Post a Comment