Monday, November 11, 2013

Non-Typical Instruments

A while ago I asked for reader's suggestions about future posts and one frequent commentator wrote:
A post about classical music composed for instruments not typically used in classical music (accordions, banjos, harmonicas, you name it).
Yes, there are compositions for the common instruments and ones for uncommon instruments and I suppose I could talk about the uncommon ones. One example that comes to mind is a piece by the Japanese composer Jō Kondō for two guitars tuned in quarter tones and cow bells! He gave me a copy of the score many years ago (subsequently lost, alas!) but I never had the opportunity to give a performance of it. The cow bells add an exotic dimension to a piece that is already rather exotic. Here is a piece for flute and piano by him that might give you an idea of his style:

Then we have the situation where we hear familiar classical music on an unfamiliar instrument. Chris Thile just released an album of Bach solo violin music played on mandolin, but he is getting lots of publicity so let's listen to someone else. How about the banjo:

Well, that was quite nice, but it is probably not going to woo us away from the cello!

The interesting question for me is not whether exotic and unusual instruments can be used in a classical context, of course they can. One piece I have performed a number of times is the chamber opera El Cimmaron by Hans Werner Henze for baritone, flute, guitar and percussion. Everyone gets to play exotic instruments in that piece. The guitar-player alone, in addition to guitar, has to play mbira and a whole bunch of percussion instruments. Here is a photo of one of our rehearsals:

Click to enlarge

You can see that I have to play bongo drums, cowbells, maraca, guiro and in some places gong and thunder sheet. Here is an excerpt from the piece where the players are on their principal instruments:

But the question that I find most interesting is why some instruments have become so widely used and others not. The violin, piano and cello are possibly the most important solo instruments and the orchestra and string quartet the most important ensembles. Why, for example, is the wind quintet so much less important than the string quartet? The simple answer is because composers have written a great deal of very profound music for string quartet and comparatively little for wind quintet. But why is that? Let's ask Rimsky-Korsakov. He writes in his Principles of Orchestration that:
Stringed instruments possess more ways of producing sound than any other orchestral group. They can pass, better than other instruments from one shade of expression to another, the varieties being of an infinite number. Species of bowing such as legato, detached, staccato, spiccato, portamento, martellato, light staccato, saltando, attack at the nut and at the point, down bow and up bow, in every degree of tone, fortissimo, pianissimo, crescendo, diminuendo, sforzando, morendo--all this belongs to the natural realm of the string quartet.
The implication is that wind instruments do not have nearly this range of expressive possibility. The winds are hugely important in the colors and textures they can add to the string core of the orchestra, but they can in no way replace the expressive range of the strings. Similarly, percussion instruments add even more extreme colors and textures to the orchestra, but again are each very limited in their individual expression.

Some string instruments like the mandolin and banjo are also very limited in their expressive range. The classical guitar has probably the greatest expressive potential other than the bowed strings, but it has some pretty severe limitations as well. The piano is interesting because, while it has a huge range of notes and dynamics, it is very limited in other ways. It has no vibrato for example, nor can it execute any of the other articulations such as pizzicato, that the strings can. But it is capable of intricate textures and counterpoint which it manages by mechanizing the production of sound. Indeed, it is this mechanization of sound production that prevents the other possibilities. Of course, 20th century composers overcame this by getting inside the piano and plucking the strings directly or by inserting foreign objects to alter the sound. John Cage's music for prepared piano is the classic example:

Let's end with a sample of musical expression on classical guitar. Just listen to the amazing range of colors and textures that Julian Bream wrests from the guitar in this piece by Granados (originally for piano), La Maja de Goya:

UPDATE: What's an mbira you ask? Another name for it is "thumb piano" and it is an African instrument consisting of a number of metal slats on a resonating soundboard. In El Cimmaron the part is notated exactly. Here is a photo of an mbira:

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