DYNAMICS AND YOU
That ticking sound you hear, it sounds like when you've turned your car off and it's cooling down, right? Well, that is the players of the KSO collectively quenching, after an intense run of performances going back to September's Masterworks concerts. The Q Series, Unstaged, and Meet the Musicians slates were full, then the Chamber Classics season started up with a bang on Oct. 1. The Concertmaster and Friends recital at the KMA brought a new star into Knoxville's classical sky in William Shaub, and as if to dot the “ı,” the KSO performed John Williams' dynamic soundtrack to accompany the first Harry Potter film just this past weekend.
I called the Williams score “dynamic,” which is a word that has many meanings in music. It can be a noun or an adjective. As an adjective, it means “vigorous,” “vivid,” or even “vibrant.” The noun version can refer to the “vibe” or the “chemistry” of the group-- e.g., group dynamics. Specific to music, however, the notation of volume at which a player or ensemble should play, the size of the sound, is called the “dynamics.” This is notated with the letters f and p, which are the abbreviations for the Italian words forte (loud) and piano (soft). Multiples of these letters indicate extremes; I have seen as many as five in either direction, but usually only up to two. After three it just gets to be kind of a joke; I mean, we don't have little dials that louden us decibel by decibel, we have pieces of wood and metal, operated by our breath and hands. An increase in volume is called a crescendo, and a decrease a diminuendo (or a decrescendo, they are synonymous). These words can also be replaced with symbols, elongated “>'s” or “<'s” with which the wider, the louder. The usual term for these signs is “hairpin;” I guess “tweezers” would sound a little weird, but it's exactly that shape. A crescendo over several measures will usually just employ the abbreviation cresc., since the converging lines of the symbols would be visual pollution on the page. It's easy to overlook a 5 letter word in italics, however, so a player may boost his chances at correct execution by drawing a symbol in. Slide…
This is the cello part to Beethoven's Violin Concerto, last movement. You can see on the second line down where every other note has a swell on it. In measure 150, a typical Beethoven feature is found; the “crescendo to nothing.” (Not all crescendos result in a f). In measure 158 notice the word dimin. printed, and you'll agree that the dynamic symbol, if used here, would get in the way of other musical indications.
The effect of a composition's dynamics is dependent on each player's adherence to their parts' dynamic markings. A sudden (or subito) piano in the midst of a forte phrase is a lot more embarrassing to miss than the other way around. A sharply attacked note might have the letters sfz or just sf on it; this stands for sforzando and means “with sudden emphasis.” A similar notation is fp, meaning fortepiano, which is just a loud start to a note rather than a sharp attack. The distinction between these two markings can be enigmatic. As if all this wasn't enough, let's throw in accents. They're little “>'s” on a single note, meaning yet another attack scenario. Whatever the indication, the uniformity and force of each players' attack on that note must be worked out precisely; one can't just blat or scrape indiscriminately. Slide…
Here is the opening of Mahler's 4th Symphony. The whole spectrum of dynamic indications is here, as is typical with Mahler's persnickety (yet beautiful) music. Every measure has some sort of “diacritical marks”-- accents, accents under slurs, sforzandos, sforzandos under slurs, fortepianos… All of these must be unified and coordinated across the orchestra-- this is why we rehearse.
So if I said, “the ensemble's attention to dynamics made for an impressive group dynamic that resulted in a dynamic performance,” it appears that I have used the same word three times in one sentence, but I am really just pointing out that the word “dynamic” is a many-splendored thing.