How do you form a concept of sound? How can you be sure your concept of sound is “good” by any standard?
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When approaching the idea of sound concept on a brass instrument, I always discover myself resorting to culinary analogies to best visualize the ultimate product that I wish to create. My description of a perfect cheese cake is one that is both subjectively appealing (delicious) and objectively appealing (firm structure with proper balance of ingredients and layers). Similarly, I believe that an objectively appealing sound is comprised of two different “ingredients” that work cohesively to create a satisfying product: core and resonance.
If I were to describe core once again in culinary terms, it would be the bottom layer (graham cracker) or foundation of the cheese cake that is essential for defining the shape and structure to support other layers. On a brass instrument, the core would be the vibration of the pitch itself that is at the center of the sound, essentially providing shape and clarity, along with aiding in projection. Conversely, I think of resonance as simply the overtones and corona of sound that provide richness, fullness, and depth to the sound itself - ultimately adding nuances of warmth to what would otherwise be a dull sound. In the cheese cake analogy, the resonance is the outermost layer of cheese and toppings that determine the flavor itself (chocolate, plain, etc.) as well as overall texture.
Returning to the initial idea of subjective appeal, I believe that musicians have the option to experiment with the ratio of core to resonance, just as a baker would strive to arrive at a satisfying balance of ingredients to produce that prize-winning dessert. Certain palates may prefer a thicker-sized crust with less cheesecake substance, while others may desire primarily cheesecake soft-layer with a thinner crust. Regardless of individual preference, however, I believe that when one recognizes that both layers are inextricably linked and are both required to form a delicious product, one is able to turn the dial in either direction to fit the situation. Similarly, I believe that being able to adjust the dial of core vs. resonance in one’s sound is often key to being a versatile musician, possess malleability, and it ultimately amounts to having multiple tools in the toolbox for any occasion!
What does it imply about a composer when they describe their formal compositional process as simply writing music that they think sounds good? We may think of them as being a savant, someone who has an innate talent for writing melodies and orchestration. Where does this talent come from? To me, the answer is a strong musical intuition.
When forming a concept of sound, I would begin by defining a characteristic sound on the instrument. The definition of this character sound would have traits that are universal in “good” sounds (i.e. “open,” “resonant,” ‘focused,” etc.). What comes next would be outlining what you would like to hear in a tuba sound.
The concept of our sound can only be as strong as our musical intuition. How could we develop this intuition? Listening. Listen to music and great artists and orchestras. Ask yourself what they do that you would like to be able to do on your instrument. If I were to spell out my influences, it would reveal that my concept of sound is a Frankenstein’s monster of sorts- an amalgamation of components from many great musicians: Carol Jantsch’s control of timbre and soft entrances, Emmanuel Pahud’s detailed note shapes, the crispness in Heinz Holliger’s sound. The list goes on! This may seem to contradict my process for forming a concept of sound. Are we sacrificing individuality by doing this? For me, this would be problematic if your sources were narrow. You aren’t trying to sound like a cover band of Player X, but rather taking elements of their playing that you find to be essential to that of a great musician..
In his book Being and Nothingness, the great French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre tackles the concept of identity. He states that there are two components of identity (of equal importance): facticity and transcendence. Facticity is a list of objective facts. For example, I am 27, I am a tuba player, I have brown hair, etc. Transcendence is what we have the potential to do. To greatly summarize this, a bad faith argument is when we only view people through the lens of facticity. To apply this to music, it is easy for us to fall into bad faith arguments with timbre. We are quick to label ourselves or other musicians as “dark” or “bright” players. Why would we limit ourselves this way? If I were to define transcendent musicians, they are musicians that are able to play any musical piece compelling and make any sound on the instrument. There is nothing they can’t do! Are they limited in the timbre of their instrument? Of course not. Timbre is an important expressive device.
As a performer, finding your voice on the instrument is imperative to communicating your ideas through the music. Aim to be your favorite musician.
I don’t normally form a “concept of sound” because I believe sound is inseparable from the other musical decisions I make in a work. When I approach a piece, I focus on making aesthetic, historical, and interpretive choices in each section, and those decisions fuel my approach to sound. In a broad sense, my sound is a collage of different concepts and colors that evolves throughout a performance. I actively work on this in all of my technical and fundamental practice. Before I begin any exercise, I choose a composer’s style to emulate. I often ask my students to work on their favorite articulation exercise in the style of a Mozart Piano Sonata, a Shostakovich String Quartet, or a Sousa March, three very different aesthetics! These different musical references can enhance our technique and our musicianship by ensuring our technique is inherently artistic.
The greatest measure of sound quality is consistency through different “obstacles.” Sound should not waver in the face of technical challenges. While I choose to alter my tone in relation to the musical aesthetic of a piece, I work to have my sound remain stoic in response to the technical demands of a work. For example, if a work has a very warm, comforting, and Romantic aesthetic, I would want to make sure that I can maintain that quality of sound through both articulated and slurred passages, through all registers, and through a full spectrum of dynamics. In the same way my concept of sound is tied to my artistic vision, my judgement of sound is related to the consistency of that vision.
As a listener, I like to hear sound utilized in an expressive way. Personally, I love shaping and weight, and I believe both of these techniques are incredibly expressive and can enhance a phrase’s harmonic and formal construction. Generally, I’m hoping to be enthralled and fixated by a performance or recording, and I won’t reach that level of engagement if the performer is not actively using their sound as an artistic tool.