Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's BĂȘte Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Tuesday, July 27, 2004


. . . is the name of a book by the 20th century American composer and astrologist Dane Rudhyar, which Jon Hassell's notes to his gorgeous and brilliant Fascinoma turned me onto. I've only barely dipped into Rudhyar's book, which I found somewhere used and cheap a couple years ago, but the phrase has really stuck with me.

On July 14 I said that rhythm and timbre define genre more than any other musical characteristics. A silly generalization about to get sillier: of the two, timbre is the more important. Country shows this most strongly -- you can rap over electronic drums and a funky beat and still get played on country radio as long as your words are intelligible and high in the mix and you sing with a southern accent. Hard rock guitar, bittersweet fiddle, extrasweet string section, rock beats, polka, brass sections, waltzes -- it can all be country as long as it has those two characteristics, which are qualities of timbre. At the Vancouver Folk Music Festival my beloved spouse and I heard a rural Canadian First Nations hip hop act whose members sounded like black men from New York City, in the local accent of their words and the weight and tone "color" of their voices. They adopted the vocal tone of their chosen genre.

Timbre is the most mysterious, least understood quality of music. Melody, harmony, rhythm, tempo, and dynamics can all be communicated fairly effectively with the written language of musical notation. To the extent that timbre can be communicated effectively in written language, it is only in abstruse computer code that no composer to my knowledge has taken the trouble to learn to the extent that they would be able to create and predict new sounds based on their mind's ear's mastery of the code.

Something in us craves beautiful sounds and leads us as a species to devise ways of making them. To paraphrase Shakespeare (because I can't find the original): What is it about horsehair scraping against catgut that causes a man's soul to leap out of his body?

Rhythm and melody are still my main gods, but timbre is the secret god.

(These reflections were occasioned by having heard Brian Wilson's recent version of "God Only Knows" from "Pet Sounds Live" the other day. It's note-perfect and tonally way way off. I saw that tour, without the string and brass sections, and live and in person it all worked movingly.)

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