At some point in my adolescence, I finally managed to play the famous Nocturne in E-flat major, Op. 9, No. 2 by Frédéric Chopin. At the very beginning, the composer encouraged me with a dolce espressivo, later intensified to dolcissimo. Once he asked for con forza; as a young man at the piano, I didn’t need to be told twice. And then, just before the end of the piece, he puzzled me with: smorz, short for smorzando, as my piano teacher knew.
To this day, I cannot help but associate smorz with what I spontaneously associated it with during that time: schmürzele, a similar-sounding word in Swiss German. This can indicate a slight smell of burning in the air as well as the combustion process itself.
Now, the process of resolving and sublimation seems entirely appropriate to all kinds of sound experience, and Chopin’s music in particular is undoubtedly sublime, but prioritizing a biting stinging in one’s nose is certainly inappropriate.
Consulting a dictionary actually reveals the completely opposite meaning: smorzando comes from the Italian smorzare, which means nothing less than to extinguish a fire, smorzare il fuoco, but also to temper a too-spicy tomato sauce (smorzare il piccante).
But, as is well known, the Italian used in music is an artificial language, and consulting a music dictionary gives another meaning. There, smorzando immediately follows the expression smorfioso (grotesque) – I’ve never come across that in any score – and means weakening, extinguishing, dying, an utmost diminuendo with simultaneous ritardando.
One could now list countless examples of music containing smorzando or related expressions, such as morendo or calando. Instead, my article focuses on the phenomenon of the ephemeral in music in general. I would like to stay with piano music for a while, where the rapid fading away of tone is normal, and a central component for the regulation of this process, the damper, is called il smorzatore in Italian. The Préludes Op. 28 by Frédéric Chopin will serve as one example; I will later move on to a piano LP by the Swiss artist Dieter Roth and will end with an orchestral work by the young German composer Hannes Seidl.
We begin with the Prelude no. 1 in C Major, recorded specially for this occasion by the Italian pianist Marco Scilironi.
Frédéric Chopin. Préludes Op. 28, No. 1, entire piece (original version). Marco Scilironi, piano. Filtered with a reciprocal mp3-filter (VBR 190) by Hannes Seidl.
Both the title and many gestural details clearly show what Chopin was studying at that time; the piece is unmistakably reminiscent of Johann Sebastian Bach’s C Major Prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Vol. 1. As in that work, we have here a rhythmically uniform arpeggio measuring a wide-span progression through the tonal space. But have we heard correctly, did Chopin always use the same rhythm? In more than half of the bars, yes, but occasionally a rhythmic variant interferes in the upper voice, which slows its tempo down in a ratio of 5:6. This refinement is unusual and barely audible in general, meaning that some pianists bring these individual measures into line with the gesture of the majority. For instance, Alfred Cortot even published a smoothened Students Edition (1926), here following Chopin’s own student Karol von Mikuli. However, this sounds far less exciting to me.
Frédéric Chopin. Préludes Op. 28, No. 1, entire piece (Mikuli/Cortot version). Marco Scilironi, piano.
Frédéric Chopin. Préludes Op. 28, No. 1, entire piece (Mikuli/Cortot version). Marco Scilironi, piano. Filtered with a reciprocal mp3-filter (VBR 190) by Hannes Seidl.
Apparently, barely perceptible or even inaudible events seem to have an audible effect on the overall gestalt.
Let’s proceed to the first two bars of the Prelude no. 2.
Frédéric Chopin. Préludes Op. 28, No. 2, ms. 1-2 (original version). Marco Scilironi, piano.
Here we find quite a confusing game of deception at pitch level, as a melodic figure is set rhythmically in unison with a swinging ostinato of two tones. Let’s now follow the rest of this complex accompanying figure.
Frédéric Chopin. Préludes Op. 28, No. 2, entire piece (original version). Marco Scilironi, piano. Filtered with a reciprocal mp3-filter (VBR 190) by Hannes Seidl.
These constantly crossing voices make it very difficult to hear any linear continuity, and if you are taken in by this trompe l’oreille – Chopin enhanced the effect using a simplified notation from bar 3 to create a trompe l’oeil – then this non-linearly abstracted interval sequence sounds very unusual, almost weird, from a harmonic perspective.
Frédéric Chopin. Préludes Op. 28, no. 2, ms. 1-2 in different resolutions. Marco Scilironi, piano.
At least, this is exactly what Ingrid Bergman discusses with her fictional daughter Liv Ullmann in Ingmar Bergman’s film Autumn Sonata, after the daughter has obviously foundered on this complicated accompaniment. The mother concludes: “You have to battle your way through it and emerge triumphant!” Confusingly, two Gestalt-psychological factors interfere here: the law of continuity (horizontally, motivic counterpoint) collides with the law of proximity (vertically, resulting in non-harmonic chords). Only in the final chords do the two levels reconcile, and the hidden motif is resolved into a simple sound progression.
Frédéric Chopin. Préludes Op. 28, no. 2, final chords. Marco Scilironi, piano.
The piano is known as a very fast-fading instrument; more than half of its sound volume dies away in a rapid decay after each attack. But pianists have found many technical tricks to create the illusion of a continuum; no wonder that Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann discuss special fingerings in the scene mentioned above. Prelude No. 3 is a good illustration of the application of different continuity strategies.
Frédéric Chopin. Préludes Op. 28, no. 3, entire piece (original version). Marco Scilironi, piano. Filtered with a reciprocal mp3-filter (VBR 190) by Hannes Seidl.
You may have noticed that the left and right hands operate very differently here: the left is a very fast continuum. I have measured some pianists playing up to 12 notes per second, therefore approaching the auditory threshold at which we can no longer mentally resolve every impulse. The upper part employs two other means: sometimes, barely perceptibly, the melody is expanded into airy chords, which create additional resonances that help to extend the fading out, and melodic tones are rhythmically repeated with increasing tension. All these playing techniques are typical for the entire repertoire for stringed keyboard instruments, for instance in Chopin’s model work, as well: Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. But as recently as the 19th century, piano music overcomes the peculiar dying away qualities of the instrument through illusionistic means of orchestral effects and, in return, also discovers the expressive quality of that ephemeral character. Two examples, also taken from Chopin’s Préludes, may illustrate this:
First, Prélude Nr. 8:
Frédéric Chopin. Préludes Op. 28, no. 8, entire piece (original version). Marco Scilironi, piano. Filtered with a reciprocal mp3-filter (VBR 190) by Hannes Seidl
Here a performance can result in up to 17 tones per second, which is definitely beyond our sensory and cognitive abilities of resolution, with additional blurring due to extensive pedalling. Alfred Cortot comments in his Students Edition: “musically speaking, the demi-semiquaver figure should be effaced before the melodic interest of the theme played by the thumb of the right hand. It only exists to add to the theme’s intensity by the turbulent effervescence of its accompaniment.” (Cortot 1930: 19) On the other hand, this theme is consistently located in the middle of the global texture, gradually rising and falling with the simplest uniform rhythm in more than half of the bars, which reinforces its dissolving into a continuous stream of sound. And so it evolves just before the end, where the melody shrinks more and more and finally insists on one tone: the figuration now comes to the fore with a subtle oscillation between major and minor keys. The piece already provides a suggestion of future developments in the evolution of piano music, e.g. in pieces by Scriabin, Debussy, Ravel, Messiaen and Boulez: a shimmering, illusionistic key-firework where melodic gestures and harmonic colours penetrate impenetrably.
As a final example, I offer Prélude Nr. 17.
Frédéric Chopin. Préludes Op. 28, no. 17, entire piece (second version). Marco Scilironi, piano. Filtered with a reciprocal mp3-filter (VBR 190) by Hannes Seidl. [Ex. whole piece, 2nd version.]
This piece exists in two versions, and their comparison is revealing. I would first like to focus on the final section.
Frédéric Chopin. Préludes Op. 28, no. 17, ms. 84-90 (first version). Marco Scilironi, piano.
In the version heard most recently, a single sound space unfolds in which the harmonic changes are blurred to create a kind of lontano effect: the music does not simply fade; it passes by, disappearing into the distance. The second version is much clearer; instead of da lontano, a smorzando indication would seem more likely.
Let us now compare the beginning of the two versions:
Frédéric Chopin. Préludes Op. 28, no. 17, ms. 1-18 (first version). Marco Scilironi, piano.
Could you hear a difference? There are some significant changes in the bass voice, but more than half of the modifications concern another realm: in the second version, Chopin left out several harmonically unimportant tones, most likely for both technical and dynamic reasons. And he simplified the distribution of the chords between the hands for a more convenient fingering. For instance, let’s compare bars 9–10, just the left hand to start.
Frédéric Chopin. Préludes Op. 28, no. 17, ms. 9-10, left hand alone (second version, then first version). Marco Scilironi, piano.
Did you hear how the first version contains a little contrapuntal line, which is missing in the second version? Here the leading voice is broken by a chord played with the other hand. We’ll now hear these two bars with both hands together.
Frédéric Chopin. Préludes Op. 28, no. 17, ms. 9-10, both hands together (second version, then first version). Marco Scilironi, piano.
To put it bluntly, the second is like an MP3 version of the first. Chopin rasterized the piece somewhat more coarsely, eliminating masked sounds, therefore reducing the bit rate, and quantizing horizontal polyphonic operations into vertical chords, but at the end of the piece – where everything is resolved in the first version in a complex sense of space – he increased the resolution and analytically filtered out the harmonic processes more clearly.
Frédéric Chopin. Préludes Op. 28, no. 17, entire piece (first version). Marco Scilironi, piano. Filtered with a reciprocal mp3-filter (VBR 190) by Hannes Seidl.
In summary: in Chopin’s Preludes, the typical ephemerality of the piano sound or its illusionistic overcoming of this ephemerality becomes an expressive and impressive factor. In return, a single resonance space is created by the generous use of the pedals, so that sound and line, melody and chord, foreground and background, become functionally (and thus perceptually) blurred.
Dieter Roth. Radio-Sonata, beginning © Dieter Roth Estate / Courtesy Hauser & Wirth.
You have heard the artist Dieter Roth in his famous Radio Sonata. In 1976, he recorded a 45-minute LP filler (Roth) in a Süddeutsche Rundfunk studio, a piano performance that is subject to three types of ephemerality:
First, unlike Chopin, non-pianist Dieter Roth doesn’t manage to overcome the continual dying away of the piano sound. But he seems to stage even this complete failure when he claims: “Ich würde darum bitten, das so trocken wie möglich aufzunehmen” (“I was asked to record this as dryly as possible”). Thus, he can only struggle through the seconds and minutes with his cramped five-finger-unroll-technique; shortly afterwards, he audibly complains of pain in his forearms. In this context, it seems logical that he punned on the German word Klavier (piano) with Kla-ge (lament) on the album cover.
Second, under these circumstances there is no musically enriched time that might also charge moments of silence with tension and weight. During Roth’s studio session, there is only an external, purely technical time: every pause becomes a hole, and Roth struggles against the emptiness by constantly talking, drinking liquor or (mostly) immediately playing on.
Third, Roth is obviously concerned that the recording could possibly miss something which would be irretrievably lost. “Kann man das Hören, was Sie sagen?” (“Is what you’re saying audible?”) and then “Das nehmen Sie auf, nicht?” (“You’re recording this, aren’t you?”). Finally he formulates the principle behind it all: “Immer weiter spielen, immer weiter aufnehmen” (“Keep on playing, keep on recording”).
We have now transitioned from the microephemerality of the piano sound to the macroephemerality of any music. Dieter Roth is well-known for his mould museum and his artistic approach to waste, shit and failure – symbols, ultimately, of our ephemeral existence – but he also had a penchant for expensive self-archiving and created lovingly-designed repositories and boxes where the fleeting, accidental and anecdotal of our existence could be framed and preserved.
Due to the ephemeral nature of music, this basically primordial human need for structures suggesting permanence could be fulfilled only through secondary media. I am thinking of the concert hall architecture in the second half of the 19th century: temple-like buildings with columns, caryatids and ceiling reliefs. In this spirit, the musicians playing here used gold-embossed, leather-bound scores, with mostly arabesque-like calligraphic propylaea surrounding the title page. The musical moment is inescapably fugitive, so musical monuments at least pretend to outlast the centuries.
A short time later, it was finally possible to catch the sound itself and fixate it on fragile shellac records, later on scratch-sensitive vinyl, and so on. Another anecdote from my childhood in the eighties: I can still see my uncle and my aunt playing Frisbee in their living room with a small flat object called a compact disc, celebrating the supposedly non-perishable canned music.
I also remember, 20 years later, my first MP3 experience when I realized, a little irritated, that the player suddenly seemed to take the name of Schubert’s Unfinished too literally, brazenly fading the end of the first movement or, to put it another way, crossfading it, with the second Song of that very symphony. No matter, my whole CD collection now became an uninterrupted flow of sound.
So, while Chopin, and even Dieter Roth, reflect on the ephemerality of sound in their works, while at the same time building up great encyclopaedic work cycles in a vanitas-like manner, the electronics market suggests unbroken continuities, but miniaturized: more than 300 hours of music can be saved on the latest iPod nano or, even better, stored in an earthquake-proof cloud, bound to temporal limitations only by batteries.
Now, however, digitized reproduction and conversion to MP3 format has turned this sound flow into more of a thin trickle. The original source is known to be quantized and to undergo lossy compression; aurally insignificant signal components, which constitutes considerably more than half of the information content, are filtered out.
Mehr als die Hälfte (More than Half) is an orchestral work by Hannes Seidl that premiered in February 2014 at the Eclat Festival in Stuttgart. In preparation for this piece, Seidl developed a reciprocal MP3 filter that allows him to hear only what an MP3 filter would normally filter out as insignificant.
The last two phrases spoken by the author and filtered with a reciprocal mp3-filter (VBR 190) by Hannes Seidl.
Furthermore, he also applied similar filter techniques to his composition. For instance, the orchestral sound seems rasterized into small packets, and almost the entire score resembles a binary code: “tone tone rest rest tone rest rest tone rest tone rest tone” is the first bar of the piece.
According to the program notes (Musik der Jahrhunderte 2014: 30-31 and 62-63), these orchestral particles were even taken partly from the symphonic repertoire. However, the information content is too short and robbed too much of its original form to allow any kind of association. Instead, we witness more a seemingly strict mechanical scanning operation. Even obvious linear developments, processes of overlapped rising and sinking in individual voices, hardly achieves what we might experience as melodic strength and kinetic energy due to the coarse pixelated texture. The instrumentation has something woodcut-like; instruments often remain in a particular register or an identifiable sonority for a very long time, as if always representing the same MIDI sample triggered by a synthesizer. Therefore, in the course of the piece, it is hardly noticeable that the orchestral sounds are suddenly replaced by real chopped MIDI sounds (Seidl).
Hannes Seidl. Mehr als die Hälfte for Orchestra and Live Electronic Reduction. Premiere recording, February 8, 2014. SWR Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart, Johannes Kalitzke, SWR Experimentalstudio. 00:00-03:00.
Interesting artefacts occur in places, especially if characteristic overtone spectra are filtered out of the stuttering sound machinery, producing sometimes almost vocal-like sound chains, reminiscent of a chanting crowd. In those moments, Seidl points out that connotation with crowd samples that are actually replayed electronically. The title More than Half acquired a new meaning, in Seidl’s own words: “equalized acoustically through the filter parallels are produced between crowds here and there, between the increasing digitalization, the internet and the organization of riots, without leading those parallels to an equation.” (Musik der Jahrhunderte 2014: 62)
Having witnessed the premiere in Stuttgart, it has been especially fascinating for me to observe the retroactivity of this concept into the genuine operational field of music: Seidl speaks of the orchestra as an “apparatus, which produces an extreme excess of expressivity, of sound and of traditional reference.” (Musik der Jahrhunderte 2014: 31) Apparently, this “apparatus” tried to resist the technical precision demanded by the composer during rehearsals. In an email he sent to me, Seidl mentioned expressions of discontent on the part of the orchestra. In fact, this specific overtaxing of the apparatus adds a fascinating quality to the piece, which I would call a humanizing effect: because more than half of the chords were barely together in the performance, often single voices and occasionally entire registers would fall minimally apart from the beat, and the individual and particular attack and sustain characteristics within the whole spectrum of orchestral instruments stubbornly resisted a mechanical uniformity.
When Seidl finally plays back a large section, but MP3-filtered and fast-forwarded, these attack chains blur to a chattering noise. Only when this is transmitted back to the orchestra is the binary quantization temporarily overcome by a deep sound space, which soon disintegrates again in the rasterized gestures of the beginning.
Hannes Seidl. Mehr als die Hälfte for Orchestra and Live Electronic Reduction. Premiere recording, February 8, 2014. SWR Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart, Johannes Kalitzke, SWR Experimentalstudio. 08:30-14:30.
I am not going to join the chorus of critics who regard the MP3 format as sonically inferior; my professionally damaged ears can only guess the actual difference. While listening to Seidl’s MP3 playbacks, I considered something else: flies are said to have much quicker visual processing capabilities than humans, while at the same time most likely perceiving quite a pixelated world through their compound eyes. Their resolution of space is thus weaker, their resolution of time, however, nine times more refined than ours. Are we perhaps in our evolution, or by means of any bio-adapter, on our way to perceiving single sounds quantized more and more coarsely, but in the meantime capable of processing increasing data streams at increasing speeds?
Is this the same evolution meant by Arnold Schoenberg when he prophesied to the violinist Jascha Heifetz about his almost unplayable Violin Concerto: “I want the concerto to be difficult and I want the little finger to become longer. I can wait.” (Rodriquez 1937) But wasn’t it the same composer, who, now in retrospect, described musical history as a differentiation of the human ear? Isn’t it a fascinating prospect to achieve with today’s art a degree of differentiation and to explore dimensions that still fall through our framework of perception? Just as Chopin did in his C-major Prelude?
Contradictions are welcome, but it seems to me that never has a generation so voluntarily and uncritically submitted itself to a coarsening and filtering of their products. This is done in devilish interplay with an archiving mania – Dieter Roth appears to us today as a prophet of Facebook: increasing amounts, accumulated with decreasing quality, on increasingly short-lived media. The epochal accelerando we expect to experience may turn out to be an eonian smorzando. Yet this makes me optimistic again, and I will deter from making complaints: the progressive ephemerality of our age will leave to posterity plenty of creative scope to imagine what we really found important.
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