Delights in variety

I tend to like variety in many aspects of life.  In daily travel patterns, in church gatherings, in food menus, and in music choices, etc., variety and change are both welcome and important to me.

In instrumental music
My large-ensemble preference for the wind band over the orchestra in many cases has at times been met with curiosity by orchestral and choral musicians.  The presumption is that orchestral and choral music is more substantive and significant — and this was largely true through half of the 20th century — but the sonic variety is greater with the wind band.  Its seemingly unlimited woodwind and brasswind timbral varieties, its percussive colorings, and the burgeoning, many-faceted, energetic compositional scenario that exists today all combine to make the wind band an instrumental medium of greater variety.

As an experienced instrumental conductor, I can hardly resist the mystery of the combination of bass clarinet and piccolo.  Or the suffused sounds of muted brass, later openly blossoming into full-out fanfare figures.  What about a rapturous flute and horn duet, perhaps accompanied by sustained clarinets and saxophones?  Marimba chords and bowed vibraphone to set up a euphonium line, joined by oboe or English horn?  You can get some of this variety with an orchestra, but not all.  (The only way you get it with a choir is if the winds and percussion join in!)  The full band tutti sounds are at least as impressive as the full orchestral ones.  Older band compositions may justifiably be criticized for their predictability and lack of compositional variety, but the last two or three decades have seen the rise of some resplendently colorful varieties in the wind band sound medium.

In popular music
On the other hand, one of the criticisms of music based in popular styles¹ is its sameness.  Monotonous sameness is to be seen and heard in tempos, volume, instrumentation/timbres, and melodic range, for example.  While some might find comfort and pleasure in the lulling effects of sameness, I am likely to be quickly bored with it or repelled by it.

In church music
Let’s take tempo² as an example.  In some churches, the same tempo (say, ca. 80-88 beats per minute) might be used for

Amazing Grace
Shout to the Lord
O Happy Day
Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee
How Great Thou Art

Which of the above ought to employ the quickest tempo?  Not “Shout to the Lord,” surprisingly.  Rather, assuming that a quarter note is the beat unit, “Joyful, Joyful” should move along the most quickly among those.

And who am I to say how fast a group should sing a song?  It’s not that I would presume to dictate precise tempos to anyone else, yet there does exist a range of acceptability—a tempo “window,” if you will.  If it’s too fast, people are out of breath, and the song seems frantic.  On the other hand, less “contemporary” leaders more commonly choose tempos that are too slow.  The main point here is this:  when all the music is sung or performed at the same  tempo, it’s boring.  People may be lulled into a soporific state of nothingness.

In churches that use a full band, attention ought to be given to sameness, as well.  Vary the volume, for example.  And don’t let every song be guitar-driven or controlled by an uncontrolled drum set player.

There are times in which “same” is desirable, but my general exhortation here is for music-makers and listeners alike — and Bible readers and preachers and cooks and bosses and parents and husbands and teachers and pretty much everyone! — to explore more variety.

~ ~ ~

In chamber music
Right now, I’m listening to a piano trio.  Now, a piano trio is not performed by three pianists.  Historically and in common experience, a piano trio is composed for and performed by violin, cello, and piano.  These three instruments are different from one another.  They blend, but they differ in timbre and in range.  The violin carries the melody much of the time, but one of the great delights in this genre of chamber music is when the cello takes the melody and the violin rests, or when the piano takes the melody and the two strings play accompaniment.  Variety is a delight.

Last week, I had the pleasure of auditing a Land’s End Ensemble rehearsal.  I heard not only a piano trio but also three strings (2 violins, cello) accompanying an oboe.  More variety!  These players were not only gracious as people but provided me the finest listening experience I’ve had in more than a year.

Quite the rutabaga (unexpected delight), actually.

B. Casey, 4/6/15

¹ The purpose here isn’t to segregate and judge styles . . . but, in order to clarify, “popular” music would include most rock, country, contemporary Christian, some jazz, “standards,” rap . . . and, yes, anything that anyone calls “pop.”  All of those and more may aptly be judged to stylistically “popular” — as opposed to “art music” or “music from the cultivated tradition.”

² For more on tempo in church music: (Matt Redman, a cappella church singing, and tempo)

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