Color in music: Sweet Voices and Noyses with The Whole Noyse

Dec 1, 2013

Magen Solomon, SF Choral Artists Artistic Directorby Magen Solomon, Artistic Director

Pop quiz!

1. Define “curtal,” “gittern,” “cornetto.”

2. Use all three words correctly in a sentence.

Incorrect: No, “curtal” is not a sauce for roasted meats… no, “gittern” is not a kind of gigolo…no, “cornetto” is not a corn-based snack food …

Correct: “You will shortly be hearing a curtal (early bassoon), a gittern (guitar relative), and a cornetto (early wind/brass instrument) expertly played by our guests, The Whole Noyse.”

Our upcoming concerts are Italian Christmas music but the subtext is color. As a native New Englander, I always have a bit of a heart-tug as the season turns without the color-cues, first brilliant leaves, then the muted grays and browns of bare branches. Similarly, my deep personal need for color extends to my musical work. There are different philosophies here: some conductors combine similar voices and build a seamless, perfect sound which becomes a hallmark of all their performances. I go the other way, seeking singers with a range of vocal colors, in audition asking candidates to sing ‘angry,’ ‘dreamy,’ ‘dark,’ ‘bright,’ intense,’ ‘detached.’ In rehearsal, we strive for a range of colors so that rather than one “ah” we have twenty.

Why go to that trouble? What’s wrong with one gorgeous, perfect sound? I feel strongly that every piece should have a unique, appropriate color, determined by the mood, style, language, country, and period of the work. And if we are expressing something harsh and ugly, we are willing to not sing beautifully. After all, color in spoken language is one of our primary modes of communication; anyone who’s had an argument will know that it is often the color, rather than the words, which are communicating most loudly. That expressive power, I believe, belongs equally in music, particularly in choral music. Thus, joining with the spectacular musicians of The Whole Noyse gives us a chance to significantly deepen and enrich our color palette. The range of instruments they command adds an entirely different color-world to our usual a cappella options, and their nuanced stylistic knowledge brings a subtle range of texture to Renaissance repertoire.

Many listeners (and, alas, some performers) think of Renaissance music as one undifferentiated, pretty, remote style. Nothing could be further from the truth! Do we really think monks singing Matins (3 am) will resemble bawdy partsongs enjoyed around the table after much food and drink?

Long-time SFCA listeners will note that we’ve tipped our repertoire balance toward the Renaissance so we could showcase our guests, but I hope you’ll also find that the evocative power of color in the Romantic and 20th/21st repertoire are heightened by this proximity.

So, now armed with new vocabulary to impress your friends and family, we wish you all “Buone Feste e Felice Anno Nuovo!”