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Put some tonal variety in a recital program

Discussion in 'Music [DB]' started by neilG, Jun 17, 2016.

  1. neilG


    Jun 15, 2003
    Ventura, CA
    I attended a master class recently in which a fine young player played a bass/piano transcription of Debussy’s “The Girl With the Flaxen Hair”, which is originally a piano prelude in G flat. The version she had was in D, and claimed that she enjoyed that because it was a more resonant key on the bass. I’ve been to any number of DB recitals, and one of the things that really annoys me is that I come away with the sense that everything I heard that night was in G, D or A, because that’s normally the case. It’s worse than a rock concert. Open G strings and harmonics ringing out all through the recital. As nicely played as it was, I would have liked to hear this transcription in a less resonant key. Something to consider when you put together a recital program.
  2. bassmastan

    bassmastan Guest

    Jun 25, 2011

    I think you bring up a good point... a majority of our repertoire are pieces that are in "resonant keys, however I think that it's up to the performer to fix those issues with harmonics and open G strings. I can't even begin to tell you how a G harmonic in the "Alla Breve" section of the Koussevitzky KILLS the entire melody, you get a resonant but dead sound that isn't warm and vibrated. Even in orchestral music my teachers all believe in closing those resonant notes and vibrating them, I think it warms that resonance and you get a really beautiful sound. I don't think the key is the problem, rather how we play in the key (closing and vibrating notes, or changing the fingerings of notes to what may seem less comfortable but sound much better).

    There may also be a hesitation to play in more difficult keys because of the old stigma that bassists can't play difficult music like the rest of our string family. You and I know that's just not true and some of our virtuoso's are better than theirs, however people still imagine the bass and the player as the big huffy instrument that plays I and V, and the players as the guy trying his best to squeeze down some aircraft cable... My friends who I play for or introduce to music are always surprised at the sound of the instrument in it's most singing register... Even my Bubbie this morning said to me how beautiful the bass sounded and she thought it only went low.

    The level of bass playing today is better than it's ever been in the history of bass playing, and some of the stuff we play doesn't necessarily reflect that.
  3. MikeCanada


    Aug 30, 2011
    Toronto, ON
    I was waiting for some others to weigh in who perform recitals a little more frequently than I do, but why not throw in my $0.02? In Canada we got rid of the penny and would round that down anyway, so you get a sense of just how valuable it is.

    There was a time when decisions about what key a piece of music was in was an integral part of writing that piece. Different keys had different associations and in a way their own "tonalities" especially before equal temperament was the norm. If you have a chance to listen to an organ or harpsichord in a different temperament system play in a variety of keys, it really is an eye opening experience. While there are some keys that are more resonant for certain instruments, when the majority of what we do in a solo context is accompanied by a piano, you do lose some of that to an extent. Instead of a whole orchestra of strings behind you either brilliantly ringing in a particularly string friendly key or sounding a little less resonant in a key with a few more flats than we typically like to see, a piano accompaniment isn't going to sound a whole lot different if it is in A or Ab, where an orchestra would.

    A lot of us talk the talk about being comfortable in all keys, but very few of us walk the walk. In classical music, the majority of what we play in orchestras is in comfortable keys, and if we find ourselves somewhere we don't like to be we're usually not there too long, or it's a slow movement anyway. In solo repertoire, it's just about unheard of for something to be written in Db, F#, or really more than 3 in either direction. In Jazz there's a bit more flexibility, but a lot of standards happen in their standard key, and vocalists that call a tune in a different key are occasionally looked down on for "not being able" to do it in the "right" key. YMMV depending on the musicians you keep company with, but I find myself less and less comfortable with the "challenging" keys as time progresses, to the point where I am actively making an effort to rectify that.

    As for how it sounds on a recital program, or a program in general, it really can make a big difference. I played in a band for a while that played almost everything in D. The vocalist found those two keys comfortable, they sit well on all the instruments that were in the band, we were making arrangements from maybe some lyrics and a melody anyway, so it seemed like a good idea. Occasionally we would do something in A or G because of where the melody sat, but that gave it more of a V or V of I type feel/sound than really moving to a different key. Seeing as there are only a finite amount of ways you can string the same notes together and each instrument has things that sit better or worse on it, unintentionally we started using some of the same fills/licks/solo content in different songs, because what are you going to do? We played a show once where everything on that show was in the same key. And wow, did it really get to you after a while. A few of the musicians in the audience really got into it, saying it drove the show and connected things in a sort of subliminal way. A few others made comments to the effect of "you do know there are more than those 7 notes, right?" but ultimately it ended up having an impact that we hadn't put much thought into.

    Some musicians put a whole lot of thought into it. I think it was Zappa who would occasionally plan sets where each song was one semitone higher than the previous one, regardless to what it was originally recorded in. Others intentionally move to keys that compliment each other or keys that don't when putting together a program, which is also a good idea. A lot of us put together a program of music we like, we think will go well together or contrast nicely, pieces we are interested in learning, or some of the "standard" repertoire that is expected on programs, and don't necessarily think about the keys they are in even if they often are quite similar.

    When it comes to commissioning or arranging something, we really have to be proactive about this. If you do not feel comfortable in the keys that don't get a lot of mileage it might not make sense to put something there, but at the same time a lot of composers and arrangers do not go there because of how frequently we complain about keys. I can't think of the last time something in B+ landed on my music stand and my reaction was "awesome, let's do this!" instead of "well, we'll get through this because someone decided a semitone in either direction was too much work". If I was a composer and saw the types of reactions certain keys get on a regular basis, I would avoid them too.
  4. neilG


    Jun 15, 2003
    Ventura, CA
    "In classical music, the majority of what we play in orchestras is in comfortable keys,......"
    I would disagree with that, especially if you spend any of your career in opera pits. Must be that Canadians are so nice they only program pieces in easy keys. :) :)
  5. MikeCanada


    Aug 30, 2011
    Toronto, ON
    I have played in a few opera pits, and I would definitely concede a point there. From my very limited experience with opera, they have a tendency to be all over the map when it comes to keys.

    As for the symphonic repertoire, I'm not sure where to really take that argument. There are absolutely works in "bad" keys. Debussy's La Mer comes to mind, and the Largo movement in Dvorak's New World as well, with the latter being an example of a slow movement in an ugly key in a symphony otherwise in E-. I thought about going through my library, or compiling a "greatest hits" list, as there is a lot of orchestral repertoire out there, but a small portion of it sees a lot more daylight than the rest. That likely varies a bit from market to market, but I'm guessing Beethoven 5 is still one of the most commonly played pieces in the orchestral repertoire. It happens to be in C- which is not a particularly difficult key, the slow movement is in Ab+, and then we're back to C- for a while, but when we get a lot of notes in the Fugue that happens to be in C+, and the piece ends in C+. Beethoven's symphonies were in C+, D+, Eb+, Bb+, C-,F+, A+, F+, and D+ respectively. There is a case to be made about "the Storm" being in an ugly key, but that seems fitting given the nature of that section.

    When it comes to concertos, they often stick to "easy" keys as well. I am guessing that part of that has to do with the comfort of the soloist, but if you are playing an instrument you are trying to get to carry over an orchestra, being in a resonant key is helpful, although the orchestra is also in that resonant key. It would be an interesting experiment to score the same phrase in D+ and Db+ for a string soloist to see how the dis/advantage of the keys alter projection of both the soloist and the orchestra, but I digress. Piano concertos are occasionally in keys we would not consider easy, but a lot of black keys can make moving around on the piano easier instead of harder.

    I am not having a lot of luck thinking up an abundance of particularly well known or commonly performed orchestral pieces that are in nasty keys. Pops concerts are coming to mind, but some people do not consider that part of the symphonic repertoire. Operas, musicals, and anything with a voice happens with far more regularity, and there is a case to be made about non-resonant keys there, as well as vocal range. To the best of my knowledge the human voice is not more or less resonant in any one key, so voice could be at a distinct advantage over an orchestra playing in a "bad" key.

    There is also the possibility that we are bias in our interpretation as well. Chances are the key of a particular piece of music is going to be more memorable if it is a "bad" one, where we don't really think about music being in "good" keys because it's just music. If I play something in C+ and the most memorable thing about it is that it is in C+, I would hope that piece doesn't see a lot of daylight.

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