Most music is referred to as ‘absolute music’. It simply comprises notes that combine to weave melodic charm. Most Haydn symphonies serve as an example.
At the other end of the composing spectrum lie artefacts—physical objects other than conventional instruments—that are used solely for the compositional process. Here, the craftsman’s art becomes the starting and finishing point for realising the composer’s measured creation—one which you certainly won’t find yourself singing in the shower.
Everyday objects such as rubber bands, champagne corks and dripping taps, for example, formed the basic resource of the musique concrète movement. The term was coined in the 1940s for compositions that made use of tape recordings of everyday objects. These were then manipulated in numerous ways to produce a finished product that could be performed at the flick of a switch, with no further human interface. Here’s an example: the closing section of Pierre Schaeffer’s Étude aux chemins de fer (Study of trains) (9.80117), written in 1948.
In between these two extremes lie works that suggest images of physical objects or actions through clever manipulation of otherwise two-dimensional notes on the page. ‘Word-painting’, a technique used extensively in vocal music by Renaissance and Baroque composers, produced a graphic mental picture in the listener, much more than the ‘absolute music’ of charming melodies.
Instrumental music has its parallels in scene-painting: cymbals can suggest the clash of steel in sword fights, a couple of menacing bass notes on a film soundtrack can summon up a Jaws monster from the deep, and imitating a cuckoo is a snip for the clarinet; Smetana even painted his suffering from tinnitus into his String Quartet No. 1 with a high, sustained violin note.
But then there are pieces that give a nod to the musique concrète movement by incorporating everyday objects or sounds into an orchestra’s usual sound spectrum: the tape recordings of birds native to the Arctic Circle in Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus (8.554147) spring to mind, while Tan Dun’s Concerto for Improvisation: Of Birds and Man features nine live, caged birds that engage in song with the percussion section. Then there’s Malcolm Arnold’s A Grand, Grand Overture, featuring parts for 3 vacuum cleaners, one floor polisher and four rifles, in addition to the conventional orchestra. Ligeti’s Poème symphonique for 100 metronomes dispenses with instruments completely.
Anvils have often been used by composers, either orchestral versions that give a better ring, or sometimes real ones. A number are required in Wagner’s opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen; the Beatles used one in Maxwell’s Silver Hammer; Walton found a place for it in his Belshazzar’s Feast; and opera companies find their individual ways to bring the Anvil Chorus from Verdi’s opera Il trovatore to life.
Anvils also appear in Edgar Varèse’s Ionisation (8.557882), a work for percussion instruments that creates its identity through the use of low, medium and high pitches. But the artefacts that float between these pitch levels, and produce probably the most memorable sound upon first hearing of the piece, are wailing sirens, which can be heard in this extract.
More light-hearted marriages of orchestral and everyday sounds are found in the works of Leroy Anderson. His novelty item, The Typewriter (8.559125), is a good example which you can experience by following this link, while wallowing in nostalgia for pre-PC days.
A more foreboding conclusion to today’s thoughts, however, comes from Mahler’s Sixth Symphony (8.550529-30) in which the composer literally challenges the craftsman’s art to meet his music’s measure. Mahler wanted to incorporate the effect of a devastating hammer blow which, in his words, was to sound “brief and mighty, but dull in resonance and with a non-metallic character (like the fall of an axe).”
Many readers will have their own tales to tell of the various structures carpenters have created to achieve this effect. So, let’s finish by listening to one of those fateful moments in the score that thuds home its point.