Aesthetics and sound production from 1880 to 1930 in a study of musical sound gesture
Entitling this study of the bass clarinet ‘La maladresse du son’ means to me to embark on a journey through musical aesthetics of the sonorous gesture of the years 1880 to 1930, understanding ‘maladresse’, or awkwardness, as the state of discomfort which can precede sound production on the clarinet following a modification of its ‘interface’(mouthpiece and reed).
Is the bass clarinet from 1880 to 1930 the first representative of an aesthetic that will be adopted by acousmatic music in the 50’s and 60’?
Music has one foot in physics and the other in aesthetics; the musical gesture is indispensable to recover that form which emanates from musical performance.
Employing an interdisciplinary methodology I wish to rediscover and recover a theory to reconstruct a lost musical praxis and a sound production of the bass clarinet connected to a period of experimental changes which occurred between 1880 and 1930.
Objectives, importance and potential impact of the research.
Entitling this study of the bass clarinet ‘La maladresse du son’ means to me to embark on a journey through the musical aesthetics of sonorous gesture of the 1880’s to the 1930’s, understanding ‘maladresse’, as the state of discomfort which can precede sound production on the clarinet consequent to the modification of its ‘interface’.
I use the term ‘interface’ to signify the point of interaction between the initial impulse of sound production, which I call the percussive gesture, whilst the modulating gesture is represented here by the musical instrument itself: In the string instruments this is the action of the bow, in wind instruments it is the embouchure, which in the case of the bass clarinet is constituted by the reed and mouthpiece system.
This unease is at the root of the noteworthy changes in the aesthetics of the period, as well as a factor of creativity and the premise for a search for new forms.
In today’s performance practice on historical instruments it is quite difficult if not impossible to find performers who use bass clarinets which are original instruments appropriate to the repertory of the period between 1880 and 1930. This is a great pity since certain models of bass clarinets from this period habilitated a transformation in sound ideation, enabling composers on the path towards the elaboration of new sonorities and in turn anticipating the possibilities they would later have with electronic instruments.
The mechanical conception of the bass clarinet from the dawn of its existence already contained the prerequisites of an instrument eminently suited for experimentation and the search for new sonorities, with an ascending arc in its development and use beginning from 1880.
The change from artisanal to industrial production, around 1880, was accompanied by a heightened protagonism of the instrument maker’s role with regard to the ‘interface’ of wind instruments increased experimentation and research on the conception of the mouthpiece of the instrument ensued.
To speak of an initial gesture in sound production on wind instruments, delving into its essence, sends us back to the concept of Gestaltung (form-giving) employed contemporaneously by Paul Klee and to an interdisciplinary reflection on the artistic gesture in the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein.
The aim of this study is to provide a phenomenological and aesthetic answer to these questions and, by means of an interdisciplinary and organological approach, to examine tangible responses to the adumbrations of bass clarinet sound production between 1880 and 1930.
A study of musical gesture and sound production
Music has one foot in physics and the other in aesthetics; musical gesture is indispensable to recover that form which emanates from musical performance and to analyse the embodiment of the performer and its perceptible impact on an audience.
Employing an interdisciplinary methodology I wish to rediscover and recover a theory to reconstruct a lost musical praxis and a sound production of the bass clarinet connected to a period of experimental changes which occurred between 1880 and 1930. Musical perception is multimodal insofar as its vectors are not uniquely sonorous phenomena, but are also visual, dynamic and gestural.
Musical gesture and corporal movement have been subjected to various interdisciplinary studies in the last years. From phenomenology to neurology, numerical arts and psychology, new paradigms and perspectives have been forged.
The theory advanced by Marc Leman on the body as mirror of our musical intentions is provoking a reflection on the relation between the body and musical experience giving a method to analyse the performance space-frame.
‘’Werk ist Weg”, the work is the way, is Paul Klee’s affirmation, and one’s own path is designated as Gestaltung in German. The theory of Gestaltung proposes to define those pathways which lead to form.
In the bass clarinet this action is contained in the reed and mouthpiece system which functions as a kind of percussive device and is followed by the sound modulation shaped by the instrument itself.
The initial silence contains an anticipation, a platform or jumping-off point preceding the initial sound impulse which is in turn modulated by the instrument and is in itself a creative act.
The reed-mouthpiece interface is the primary container of this gesture and resumes its image in order to convey it to the listener.
A reflection on the musical gesture ( impulse), and the instrument, (modulation), will be undertaken with Wittgenstein’s and Klee’s work as a point of departure in order to arrive at the dawn of acousmatic music. The writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein, philosopher, mathematician, architect and clarinetist and the propositions in Paul Klee’s notes for the visual arts will be the principle of research on a method of sound production.
Studying early c.20th mouthpiece production can enable the recovery of the aesthetics and the initial musical gesture in the interpretation of music on historical instruments.
There will be studio experiments using ‘motor capture’ and results based on the interpretative embodiment of musical gesture using various original instruments and their associated music.
The ‘sonic visualiser’ would be used for the analysis of phonograph and gramophone recordings comparing them with the musical gesture of modern day historical instrument performances.
One interesting experience will be as well a project at the new laboratory in De KROOK Gent where I would like to do a performance about bass clarinet in Anton Webern music and Japan NOH comparing that to the japonism in Paul Klee work.
A comparative analysis of the styles of castrato Alessandro Moreschi and bass clarinet recordings will also be useful to elucidate respective timbric qualities. Bass clarinets of the German and French schools will be compared.
In addition to this I intend on collaborating with other specialised researchers in music therapy, psychiatry, and phenomenology in order to elaborate a reflexion on effects of the sonorous gesture on listeners, since the interpretative space of the musical gesture is also shaped by its listener.
With regard to the sonorous sensation, Hegel noted that the noun ‘sense’ includes a range of meanings; referring on the one hand to signification or meaning and the on the other to cognition as in sensorial perception. But, as Henri Maldiney asserts there is the meaning of direction and movement, (as in the French ‘sens’) and it is precisely this aspect that I hope to rediscover in this study of instrument making of the late nineteenth century: the directional sense.
Every form, like sound itself, possesses its own motion and this motion moves towards rhythm itself, according to Maldiney. Restituting a person’s rhythm and motor skills is to eliminate her inhibitions and restore the expressive form to its original state, and the sensitivity awakened in hospital patients during concerts have often resulted in consequent gestural phenomena.
For Maldiney the spoken word is too bereft of motor movement and only some languages retain leftovers of that initial expressive disturbance which can convey an expression to the unwell.