Brand new sound: a moving experience

I stumbled upon something quite by accident and want to share the good news.

No I can’t take credit. We’re fixing some old windows, and needed to work with the contractor, who was blocked off by the way the furniture was arranged.

I was at my mom’s, when Erika took the initiative. She asked me if it would be okay to experiment a bit, and I said “sure”: because her taste is really good. It made sense for her to do this when I wasn’t around to get in the way or object.

I’m still impressed by how much she moved all by herself: especially the piano.

So as I report on our experience, let me propose this to you as a possibility, something to consider for your own living space.

Have you ever wanted to make a change, but lamented that changes are usually expensive & difficult? A new paint-job? New furniture or decor?

A new piano?!!

That’s the thing. Whatever you have, high-tech or acoustic, can seem brand-new if you do as Erika did. She simply re-arranged the furniture. Please note, she didn’t have the acoustical properties of the space in mind. It was primarily to do with the guy fixing the windows, and the need to clear space for him to work.

He’s coming this week!

Have you ever analyzed the acoustics of your living space, the way your instrument(s) make(s) sound when they’re played in your home? Even if you only have one room, there’s likely a place in the room, the proverbial sweet spot, where the music sounds best. If there are multiple rooms, there are surely places where the sound is dead, and others where it’s alive. Maybe you seek out the softest place to play, to inflict the least sound on your neighbours, maybe you seek out the most lively response. Maybe you play as softly as possible. Maybe you don’t hold back.

No I’m not suggesting you be a scientist, an acoustical engineer. I merely mean, listen, and pay attention to what you hear. It might change the way you play, indeed it should change the way you are playing, because after all when we make music we’re also listening: and not just to ourselves. The title of Gerald Moore’s memoir sums up the old-school understanding of the accompanist (a word that is out of favour in the 21st century), namely “Am I too loud?” To answer such questions, one doesn’t merely play, but one listens as one plays.

But I digress.

Do you listen to the room before you start? And this can be the funniest part, although haha the joke may be on you.

What does it sound like when you’re not playing, when you’re listening to the ambient sound?? Is there sound from other apartment dwellers? Perhaps music drifting in (and I am suddenly recalling the experience waiting in the corridors of the Royal Conservatory, hearing singers & instrumentalists all working away…. Creating a fearsome din).

And suddenly I remember the first time I did music for a show in the Robert Gill Theatre back in the 1990s, while I was doing my MA at the Drama Centre, University of Toronto. It was a thrill to get to work on the show, written by Daniel David Moses, directed by Colin Taylor. As I sat in the empty theatre talking to Colin he pointed out something about the theatre: that I had never really noticed.

The Robert Gill Theatre is on the 3rd floor of the Koffler Student Services Centre, a wonderful multi-purpose building in what used to be the Central Library at the corner of St George & College Streets: repurposed as a student centre and bookstore with multiple office spaces. The old theatre on the third floor was refurbished for the Drama Centre’s use, but had some weaknesses, both as far as sightlines and acoustics.

Colin was alerting me to the sounds in the space. And I now recall Anton Kuerti long ago talking about the bane of musicians everywhere in Canada, especially those who have to tour, an issue also present in the Gill, namely ventilation noise. Music is ideally presented into silence: but that’s not what we’re usually working with.

Before Colin & I even started to discuss cues for the show, he asked me to create something he called “a bed-track”, that would conceal the ventilation sounds behind a curtain of something quasi-musical, gentle sounds that would be meta-music, given that we’d play this track at the threshold of hearing, just loud enough to meld with the noises but not be so obtrusive as to be noticed.

We’d start playing it during the pre-show as the audience came in. It was one among many lessons.

I’m still learning: as we flash forward to 2020 and Erika’s experimentation. When the piano moved it had at least three impacts:

1) The place looked different: and Erika liked it. This might have been her primary consideration..? I suspect this is what one often faces in real life, that visual concerns trump everything else.

2) The dog had a new place to sleep, given that the piano is a den where she sleeps. Believe it or not she’s under there while I am playing, sometimes happiest (it seems) with the biggest loudest pieces. I say this because when she’s elsewhere and I begin playing one of these she gets up and finds her way over to her bed under the piano.

Who’d a thunk it?

3) The piano sounded different.

I am still figuring this out. One of the first things I played through was the last few pages of Tristan und Isolde minus the voices of course, something I’ve been playing a lot over the past few weeks.

It sounded brand new: because the lower notes had a new depth and sonority with the walls bouncing the sound to me in new ways. The upper notes sounded sweeter, as though they were free to fly, where previously I hadn’t heard them as clearly.

This has been true for everything I’ve played since the move. Chopin and Schumann and Dvorak and Wagner and Ravel and Debussy are all sounding different. I was hesitant about joining in (weird to say that… I said that impulsively, not remembering that it’s ME who is playing) with my voice. Singing along with myself in this new location feels different. Because of course the singing voice is also different with the new acoustic, the different set of surfaces bouncing the music (both instrumental & vocal).

I find I want to play differently now. Indeed I think this is always the case with any new instrument, that I hear the music in new ways and understand the contours and shapes of the music in new ways.

Let’s set aside the question of whether it’s any good. As a critic, a person expected to judge, to tell you this is good and/or bad”, you may want to frame this around judgment & questions of making something better, perfecting the music. But anyone can change their musical experience by examining their acoustic. The options may not be huge, indeed you may already have found the sweet spot and are sounding as good as you can in your space.

Even so, I want to put this out there.

If the pandemic means you’re not able to get out to the usual places where you practice and /or perform (and I am certainly missing the church where I was accustomed to sing & play, especially the loving community)? If you’re not feeling inspired because you don’t have the usual opportunities?

Altering the configuration of your space is a way to rejuvenate your experience of music.

This entry was posted in Animals, domestic & wild, Art, Architecture & Design, Dance, theatre & musicals, Music and musicology, Opera, Personal ruminations & essays, University life and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Brand new sound: a moving experience

  1. flibertygibit says:

    The best acoustic area in our house is the shower. Unfortunately we can’t get the piano to fit.

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