Beethoven’s Synth

I embark this month on eight performances with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony in the “Beethoven & Bates” festival, consisting of several of my largest electro-acoustic symphonic works alongside some of the warhorses of ol’ Ludwig.  The lopsided pairing, which comes with an almost baked-in punch line (Beethoven who?), nonetheless provokes a discussion about the living animal that is the orchestra.

Think of a black-turtlenecked composer in the 1960’s, surrounded by several huge analogue synths amidst a sea of patch chords.  That’s Beethoven.

After all, the orchestra is an acoustic synthesizer consisting of lots of third-party hardware.  Fragmented development was the bane of Steve Jobs, but it’s worked just fine for the symphony, which means simply ‘a sounding together.’  That definition was pretty loose through the 17th Century: musicians showed up with something that made noise and, garage-band style, followed the charts.  Early composers rarely specified exact instrumentation, focusing on the purity of harmony and counterpoint.  Then, around Bach’s time, the first standardization emerged: the strings splintered into violins, violas, celli, and basses.  What was once a few knobs on the synth soon became four, then five (the impulse to divide the first violins not unlike early rock’s ‘division of labor’ into lead guitar and rhythm guitar).

By the time Haydn and Mozart churned out scores of symphonies, the orchestra may have seemed relatively stable: pairs of winds and brass, a few tuned drums, the string section.  But even when things seemed static, the orchestra was always being tuned-up under the hood.  String instruments, for example, eventually stopped using cat-gut (that’s right, the technology behind the melodies was once the guts of cats).  Mozart’s use of trombones in his Requiem is always given high marks in the evolution of the orchestra, not the first (nor certainly the last) of many sonic expansions by composers.

The brass, in fact, would be arguably the most impactful section of the orchestra for years because of the new harmonic possibilities it gave composers.  Beethoven’s third horn in his Erocia symphony was, yes, just one more knob on the synth, but it was a crucial one that allowed for thicker chords.  The woodwinds were also moving up the evolutionary ladder: if there’s a flying squirrel, perhaps it’s the contrabassoon, whose 18 feet of tubing magically opened up the sub-sonic.

At the end of Beethoven’s output, the orchestra gained an especially extraordinary addition: singers. When the chorus and soloists appeared in the finale to the 9th Symphony, they came with the wonderfully messy baggage of peace, brotherhood, and love. With singers came text, and with text came content.  That’s ripe stuff for a composer, and Beethoven’s successors ran wild.  Berlioz, in particular, embraced the pregnant possibilities of not just new sounds, but audacious new forms made possible by narrative.

Go into hyperdrive over the next two centuries of music, and all manner of new instruments pass by: Wagner’s tubas; Mr. Sax’s strange hybrid brass-woodwind; Strauss’s use of alphorn; Varése’s engorged percussion section.  There’s no pomposity in adding the use of electronic sounds to this list of palette expansions, as it’s just another knob that’s appeared on the world’s greatest synth.

But I do find electronics a particularly rich addition.  Its limitless rhythmic possibilities, especially when informed by the intricate grooves of electronica, make me feel a little like a 19th Century composer first encountering the chromatic possibilities of brass valves.  And the dramatic possibilities are limitless too: a symphony about water, for example, can actually travel to Antarctica by using field recordings of glaciers calving.  An archival recording of a NASA spacewalk can take us to the outer atmosphere of Earth.  Maybe it’s not exactly like having a  chorus in the finale of the 9th, but using electronics in the concert hall certainly throws open the narrative possibilities.

So come to the SF Symphony this month and the world’s greatest synth, with knobs old and new.  Info here:

Jan 8 – 10: The B-Sides, orchestral suite informed by the ‘b-sides’ of psychedelic rock and the early modernism of Arnold Schoenberg.  INFO

Jan 15 – 18: Liquid Interface: ‘water symphony’ beginning with actual recordings of glaciers calving in Antarctica and heating up in each subsequent movement.  INFO