Of the four strictly definable parameters of any musical sound—pitch, duration, loudness, and timbre—the last of these, also called color, may be hardest to define or describe. Think about it: a tone can be pitched either high or low; that tone occupies time such that it’s either long or short; it may also sound soft or loud. But are there any one-syllable words to describe a tone’s timbre?
I think not.
Consider the flute. We know that a crucial component of timbre is the overtone series generated whenever an instrument produces a tone. Overtones are the barely audible pitches that sound “higher” than the principal pitch. They color that pitch and provide essential information about its identity; with their help, you hear the sound of a flute, not an oboe or clarinet.
Overtones line up in mathematically coherent ways: on a low-sounding C, for instance, the first overtone will be the C an octave higher; the second overtone will be the G an octave and a fifth above that low C; and so on. But overtones are not the only sound our flute is making. Sounds that don’t line up coherently—i.e., noise—are also present. The characteristic timbre of a flute is formed when its quite simple overtone series (usually consisting of the fundamental and first overtone) combines with the sound of the player’s breath blowing over the mouthpiece (as with a soda bottle) and through the tube attached to it. A tiny windstorm takes place, and that shapes the breathy timbre of the flute.
But wait, there’s more: every voice or instrument also makes a differently colored sound when it’s first sung or struck or blown, then as it continues, and finally as it ends. The continuous process defined by these attack-and-decay phenomena used to be called the envelope, at least by the people who invented our first synthesizers. Audiophiles may be more familiar with terms like transient or transient response, e.g., the sound of a snare drum struck by a stick. Just remember that an initial transient occupies only a portion of the envelope. On a pitched mallet instrument like the marimba, successive envelopes are bewitching in their variety. Listen:
That’s Guillo Espel’s Zamba Para Escuchar Tu Silencio (“A Zamba for Hearing Your Silence”) as played by excellent percussionist Vivi Vassileva. She performs with remarkable rhythmic freedom and flexible dynamics—every single note (which is to say every envelope) exhibits a slightly different loudness/softness quality, not to mention slightly different envelopes, which more than compensate for the instrument’s limited color range.
The zamba, incidentally, is not to be confused with the samba. This dance-with-a-z comes from the gaucho culture of Argentina and southern Brazil. Vassileva’s guitarist, Lucas Campara Diniz, apparently hails from those parts: “He drinks maté tea all day and he grew up with the traditions…Thanks to him I learned the authentic way to access zamba.”
That’s not all she accesses in the eleven timbrous tracks of Singin’ Rhythm (Alpha 463). Eric Sammut’s jazz-flavored Sailing for Phil gives Vassileva’s quintet a chance to swing gently as she puts her vibe stylings to work. The first two of its three movements are especially tasty, although greater rhythmic flexibility would have helped, especially in the laid-back middle movement. Four colorful, effective arrangements follow, the first two of which (Bate Coxa, Hora Staccato) feature guitarist Diniz. I especially enjoyed Variations on Dowland’s Lachrimae Pavane, a work for solo marimba by the great Keiko Abe (b. 1937).
Vassileva follows that up with her own Kalino Mome, a tour-de-force in which she plays 13 different instruments, alone or in combinations that surprise and delight. You can hear the whole thing in the YouTube mix above, but here’s a teaser with the artist explaining what she’s up to:
The album ends with two additional works of substance, Piper Misturado, co-written by Vassileva and Diniz, and El Pario, by Orio Cruixent (b. 1976). Of the latter Vassileva says, “I love this piece because it allows me to sing on the vibraphone, and I could never pass up an opportunity like that.”
Two more virtuoso displays of solo timbre come to us from violinists Jennifer Koh and Merel Vercammen. Both have released double duet albums in collaboration with other musicians—and thereby hangs a bit of twisted history: even as musicians continually sought to introduce new colors in the modern era, they tended to make string sound a default “neutral” color, a bed on which to display singular jewels. (Think of the way Debussy uses the orchestral strings in L’après-midi d’un faune to accompany solo flute, harp, horns, etc.) Thus in any violin-plus-one scenario, a violinist has to make sure she doesn’t come off as the black-velvet presentation mat. No worries, though: both Koh and Vercammen bring plenty of color—all manner of pizzicati, fingerboard snaps, harmonics, double stops and more, not to mention sheer creative energy—to their encounters.
I was especially struck by the way Koh’s collaborators in Limitless (Cedille CDR 90000 191) consciously manipulate timbre as a creative strategy. Of The Banquet, its 12-minute opening track, Brooklyn-based composer/drummer Qasim Naqvi writes:
I was learning how to use a modular synthesizer—a type of voltage controlled [analog] musical system that predates modern keyboard synthesizers…I’m drawn to the beautiful and complex textures it creates because of [its unstable properties]…I wanted to highlight the synthesizer’s treatment of odd and even harmonics against the natural resonance of the violin.
The result is a haunting journey that also addresses “the challenges of expressing beauty during times of great emotional turmoil.”
Vocalist/composer Du Yun’s give me back my fingerprints is another extended track that rewards those who invest the time. What began as a subvocal murmur—radio interference? a neighbor’s conversation?—soon builds to a woman’s shattering, cathartic cry for independence.
Timbre-wise, there’s much more to explore. Nina Young’s Sun Propeller metaphorically references Tuvan throat-singing, especially its use of a “low drone-tone that is filtered…to create rays of overtones.” Check out also Tyshawn Sorey’s glockenspiel-laced In Memoriam Muhal Richard Abrams, Wang Lu’s percussive Her Latitude, and Missy Mazzoli’s Vespers for Violin (featured complete via YouTube below); works by Lisa Bielawa and Vijay Iyer offer more conventional but hardly less compelling sounds. (Highlights available on the Cedille link above, complete tracks on YouTube and Spotify.)
Merel Vercammen’s The Zoo (trptk TTK0042) consists entirely of improvised duets. She’s passionate about improv as a collaborative process, and in her liner notes argues persuasively for it. Among other things (“bring yourself into a flow state”) she notes that often enough, she and her collaborator chose the first take from their session as the best. Here’s “Halcyon,” in which she pairs with Vincent Houdijk, who contributes vibes and Tibetan singing bowl (e.g., eerie bell-like sounds):
And “Birds,” with vocalist Bernadeta Astari:
Okay, how ‘bout one more? This is “Frog,” with pianist Tobias Borsboom:
We’ll finish off this column with orchestral color. After Debussy and Ravel, the French composer who probably worked hardest to establish timbre as primary creative material was Olivier Messiaen. Now not only Messiaen but also Dutilleux and Boulez are gone; a younger generation of French colorists has taken up the timbre torch. Among them is Marc-André Dalbavie (b. 1961). Conductor Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle SO have recorded an entire album of Dalbavie’s music, including his 2008 La source d’un regard, a tribute to Messiaen. At the very beginning of the work, the orchestra sounds a sequence of four notes, bell-like iterations derived from that composer’s Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus. Each leaves a sonic after-image (an envelope) in its wake:
You will have noticed the album cover, which lists Dalbavie’s oboe, flute, and cello concertos. Are they also colorful, striking, essential? Yes, of course. Check out Demarre McGill’s electrifying performance of the Flute Concerto:
Mr. McGill, incidentally, is Principal Flute at Seattle; his brother Anthony, late of the Met Orchestra, holds down Principal Clarinet chair at the NYPO. I can’t help wondering how their double album of improvised duets would sound.
[Thanks to Paul Schiavo, from whom I borrowed words on La source d’un regard from his liner notes for this album.]