Saturday, September 15, 2012


I've been indulging my enjoyment of Baroque music in recent weeks.  I even have a channel on Pandora dedicated to Baroque choral music, centered on the English composer Henry Purcell, the Italians Alessandro Scarlatti and Gregorio Allegri, and Georg Phillip Telemann.  Of course, Bach gets tossed in there.  Even more than the Classical and Romantic era, there's something about the structure of Baroque choral music I find very uplifting.

Last Christmas season, while listening to a holiday channel on Pandora, I heard the following song and I stopped doing whatever I was doing so I could listen:

Now, in most ways one can imagine, the structure of this piece is about as far from Baroque as one can imagine.  At the same time, the piece seemed to embody the essential understanding of beauty from canonical aesthetic theory: in which constituent parts are assembled precisely to create a whole that transcends their individual perfections.  Baroque music does this by its insistence on avoiding dissonance, creating soaring harmonies that fit the composer's goals of reflecting the divine harmony in creation.

Eric Whitacre is that occasional phenom: the really popular composer in the classical idiom.  Along with choral pieces, he has composed for symphony orchestras and various ensembles.  He composed an oratorio rooted in Japanes anime using contemporary instrumentation, yet loosely patterned after and so entitled, "Paradise Lost".  He premiered it at Carnegie Hall, with an orchestra and a 425 voice choir.  Steve Smith at The New York Times wasn't as impressed as the audience.

The virtual choir was Whitacre's idea.  Response to his first, shown above, was so good, he tried it again with his composition, "Sleep", and then "Water Night".  It includes over 3700 videos submitted from people in 73 countries.  Moriah's high school chorale is preparing this same piece for a concert, and while certainly not as LOUD as the collected voices of three thousand seven hundred forty-six people, the aesthetic and emotional power of the song should work well even in a group of about thirty or so.  This is so not because of the harmonies.  Rather, Whitacre's music is affecting because of the intelligent use of dissonance.

The reason for this, as well as my initial, "Wow!", reaction to "Lux Aurumque", lies in what the title of one piece analyzing this composition calls "The Physical Properties of Sound Itself".
How exactly does Eric Whitacre’s ‘Lux Aurumque’ work? How can it move us so deeply, so mysteriously? It does this in part through Whitacre’s extensive, deliberate use of beat-frequencies between the parts. For me—and maybe for you as well—the effect is not just the richness of a clashing pair of notes; it’s also the ‘phantom’ note that the beat-frequency of a note-pair implies: the ‘implied’ note that we hear when the dissonance is sounded. That implied or ‘phantom’ note has a pitch equal to the frequency difference between the two dissonant notes—the beat-frequency of the difference in frequency. Close-harmony like this is like a human analogue of ‘voix celeste’ on an organ—phantom notes expressly created by the dissonance beat-frequency. Yes, a choral tune is set as a cantus firmus—but it isn’t purely horizontal: there are all of the vertical/harmonic implications as well as the contrapuntal associations. . . .
This relationship can be expressed as a mathematical equation:
The author continues:
Mathematically, we should hear the sine wave (f1 + f2)/2 as the average of the two pitches. But the sine part of the right side function alternates between negative and positive values many times during one period of the cosine part, and when this happens only the absolute value of the envelope is perceived. So the beat-frequency we hear is just the difference between the two frequencies: (f1 − f2).
The piece goes on to give a history of the use of these harmonics, as well as demonstrate from Whitacre's score how the composer achieves it in context.  It's certainly fascinating, and more than a little disconcerting that beauty can be described as precisely as a mathematical equation (although, I suppose this does answer the conundrum about whether or not beauty is something "objective"; I figure if you can write a trigonometric equation to describe it, then the answer is "Yes").

All the same, it boils down to this: Whitacre's choral compositions (I've listened to some of his instrumental pieces, and for some reason they don't work quite the same way; perhaps it's some property of the human voice that makes his choral compositions work so well)  have a quality most listeners call "transcendent" because the human ear resolves the dissonances of the notated score by offering a middle tone that isn't vocalized.  Perhaps these harmonics work on the physical structure of the human ear much the same way as sympathetic harmonic vibrations work with guitar or piano strings; if you play particular chords on a guitar or piano and watch carefully, strings NOT played vibrate, not in consonance like a wine glass breaking to a high tone, but in harmony.

Much the same principle is involved in Barbershop Quartets, with what is called "the fifth tone", an overtone that one writer says "produce a ring or overtone -- a fifth tone that nobody is singing, but that we all can hear."

After hearing "Lux Arumque" for the first time, I spoke to the choir director at church.  She is a musician, and I told her "It's like he's inventing chords."  In a way, I was right.  Whitacre is an extremely smart composer, being very deliberate in the way he structures sound so listeners "hear" notes that aren't even articulated, creating an even bigger sound.  Thus, the parts are indeed constructed in such a way so the whole is, indeed, something more.  So, I have little fear that Moriah's chorale will sound less somehow than the thousands of voices here:

Virtual Tin Cup

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