essay: "on resonance"

Reflections from Fontainebleau: The Role of Resonance in my Personal Identity as a Musician and Composer
By: Daniel Temkin

When I was sixteen years old I had an experience that changed my musical life forever: I was playing percussion in a youth orchestra for the first time, and we were rehearsing the Finale of Tchaikovsky’s 2nd Symphony. For those who are not familiar with this symphony, its last movement begins with a grandiose chorale texture in which richly-orchestrated tutti chords emanate from strings, brass, and timpani before coming to rest at fermatas. I distinctly remember that the resonance of the orchestra’s sound was so powerful that the sound continued to reverberate in the rehearsal hall long after the conductor had cut off the orchestra at each fermata. It suddenly occurred to me that there was something peculiar and paradoxical in this: how could the sound continue to maintain its power and sweep after all of the physical motions producing the sounds had stopped? Frankly, although my fascination with this resonance was mostly indicative of my inexperience as an orchestral musician and of my (perpetually) feeble understanding of the physics of sound waves and resonance, it was also a genuine moment of excitement in my life. Like a child who had just heard an echo in a large canyon for the first time, I had discovered on that day that sound, ringing out with kinetic energy, could be alive!

With this realization in hand, things would never be the same afterwards. As a child, I had grown up in a house that didn’t play much classical music, and although I had played percussion in school bands since age 11, and had sat behind the drum kit in dozens of rock bands from age 12 on, I had never experienced the sheer, awesome, power of a live orchestra before. During that rehearsal, centered in the back of the ensemble, hearing the sound pouring forth, I realized that orchestral music could be as viscerally exciting and stimulating for me as riding on a roller coaster or attending a rock concert, and to this very day when I listen to the Coda from Tchaikovsky’s 2nd symphony, my heartbeat speeds up involuntary and I get chills.

In the years following this experience, my musical life took many twists and turns. As a teenager I continued playing in rock bands, composing my own pop songs and arranging them for my bandmates to play; all the while, I also continued to study percussion very seriously, eventually leading me to complete a Bachelor’s Degree as a percussionist under the tutelage of two tremendous teachers (She-e Wu and Chris Deviney) whose detailed and penetrating pedagogy have permanently molded much of my thinking about music and performance. My hunger for orchestral music grew as I began regularly attending Philadelphia Orchestra concerts and spending my summers performing at the Aspen Music Festival. Meanwhile, compositionally, I sought formal training in college from my devoted mentor and friend Charles Fussell, and I worked steadily to refine my understanding of each individual instrument, with the direct goal of one day being able to write a powerful, resonant, piece for the entire orchestra.

During this time I was a diligent and motivated as a student, but I was often so focused on the pragmatic aspects of my performing and composing that I often glazed over important conceptual apparatuses that lay behind my work. One obvious example is that it took me years to realize what a significant role resonance played in my musical life. As a percussionist, one of my main instruments was the marimba. This was an instrument whose notes would ring out with rich, dulcet, sounds, only to suddenly and immediately die away as the resonance faded. Though I didn’t always realize it, the true challenge of playing fluid, connected, phrases on this instrument was in understanding how to control its resonance and by making each subsequent attack of a new note fit into the “after-ring” of notes that had already been played. Meanwhile, while playing in the orchestra, every attack I made on a bass drum, triangle, or glockenspiel, was made with a particular beater, a particular dynamic, and a particular articulation, so that the sound waves I produced would blend with just the right color and tone into the larger orchestral texture. In not so many words, every musical decision I made while playing was related to resonance and to making my sound come alive with just the right character.

Similarly, as a composer it took me many years to understand how significant resonance was to my musical interests. I remember wanting to imitate effects from particular pieces that had jumped out to me because of their raw sonic power (for example, “The Shrove-tide Fair” scene from Stravinsky’s Petrushka, or the major climaxes in “Negative Love” from John Adams’s Harmonium) but it was only years later with careful score study that I realized what made this music come alive to my ears was vibrant orchestration, careful registration, and smooth voice leading—in a word, the main tools one could use to maximize the resonance of the ensemble’s sound. (And how glorious the effect was!)

Now, if you will afford me a slight digression: As many composers will attest, it can sometimes be a tremendous challenge to understand at a conscious level what is driving your own compositions and creative processes, and it can be difficult to pin down which stylistic elements utilized in your pieces are the most genuine reflection of your own core musical identity, rather than imitations of other composers whose work you admire. Indeed, as I have worked to develop my technique over the years, and to come to terms with the works of many great composers who have come before me, I have written music that reflects a multitude of styles: my first serious attempt at a string orchestra work was a pseudo-Ligetian piece titled Atmospheres; this was followed in short succession by an Adams-inspired orchestral overture titled Regenerations; then came a piano piece influenced by Debussy titled A Lighthouse, A Distant Bell…; and this gave way to an extended series of pieces (Rolling River for Orchestra; Brass Quintet; American Pastoral Songs; and Take to the Skies for Orchestra) which tried to emphatically reference the work of so-called “Americana Composers” like Copland, Barber, Gould, and others. It is only very recently that my compositions have begun to incorporate a diverse, but balanced musical language, that grows more unique and personal with each successive piece—indeed, it is in these pieces that I believe I am beginning to find a “true musical voice” so to speak.

And yet, though I wasn’t fully aware of it for many years, it is curious to see that in both these more recent pieces, and in the older works which did not have such a codified style, resonance was a (or maybe even the) principal driving factor in the music. Furthermore, it is now clear to me in hindsight that no matter what developmental stages I have been at as a performer or a composer, my musical life has always centered on resonance, and on the specific goal of making sound come alive with a palpable “ring” to it.

As I conclude this essay, I think of my current surroundings here at the American Academy of Art in Fontainebleau, France. This is the location where Nadia Boulanger taught so many of the American composers I idolized (and who I tried to closely imitate in my pieces); meanwhile, on the other end of the stylistic spectrum, it is also a location in close proximity to IRCAM and to the 21st-Century French contemporary music scene in Paris, which is yet a further reminder of the diversity of styles that pervade in music today. Additionally, I think of my teachers at this program (themselves respected French composers who have studied with the likes of Grisey, Messiaen, Berio, Stockhausen, and others) and I imagine they would read this essay with some skepticism as I proclaim triumphantly about the awesome sonic power of Tchaikovsky’s music.

And yet there is some intriguing irony here: though traditionally the lush romanticism of composers like Tchaikovsky is shunned by the European avant-garde, there is an important similarity between Tchaikovsky and Grisey in that each composer puts tremendous emphasis on the precise registral position and voicing of the vertical chords which ring in their music. And, though spectralist composers may be suspect of music that is too passionate or demonstratively emotional, it is through the very principles which guide their own music that we can best understand the integral role that resonance plays in the formal design and aesthetic effect of Tchaikovsky’s music. For me, as I try to forge my own creative compositional path, the lesson this all teaches me is that no matter which stylistic turns my own music may take in the coming years, resonance will always reign supreme.  - D.T.

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This essay was written in August 2012, while studying as a fellowship composer at Le Conservatoire Américain de Fontainebleau, in France.