Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Perfect Pitches

So, of course, yesterday's post wasn't all true - maybe I fabricated that very authentic-looking Beethoven sketch and maybe I doctored the video a little bit, but there's always a little truth in fiction.

The truth here is that while listening to Paavo Järvi conduct the passage on the left at 8:44...

...both my wife and I independently thought of the famous "Rite of Spring" passage on the right at 3:01. Obviously, a lot of it has to do with the heavily accented, thickly scored chords in both the Beethoven and the Stravinsky, but I was also intrigued to find that each set of chords features a D-sharp (or E-flat) on top.

Not only did that make it easier to mash Stravinsky's chords into Beethoven's -  I think it's highly likely that this pitch connection is part of what made me hear the connection between the two pieces, even though I certainly don't have perfect pitch. That's the cool/frustrating thing about pitch memory - it's clear to me that my brain can sometimes hear pitches in a way that resembles perfect pitch, but it's also clear that I can't access that skill reliably. (I have "slightly perfect" pitch!) Here's part of a blog post I started more than a year ago and never finished:
I do not have perfect pitch or anything like it. Like a lot of musicians, I often find that I can imagine a familiar piece and discover I'm hearing the pitches in the right place, but that's hardly a failsafe method for me. To test myself, I tried imagining the opening of Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata the other day, and I was distressed to be a half-step low. I thought I'd get that one right for sure. 
However, I had an interesting experience with pitch memory recently. I was coaching a mezzo-soprano in Schumann's Eichendorff Lieder, Op.39 and when we got to #5, Mondnacht, which is perhaps my favorite song ever, I remembered that her middle-voice edition puts this song down a minor third from the original. In fact, I was quite consciously aware of this before I started because there are some funny chromatics in the opening that I knew I might mis-read in this unusual key. So, I started, fully aware that I'd be starting in "the wrong" key. 
And yet, from the second that first low A-flat sounded, I felt a quite strong sense of disconnect I hadn't expected - the note sounded as wrong to me as if a piccolo note had sounded, or as if I'd accidentally struck two keys at once. It even felt wrong. This wasn't a conscious reaction, this was my whole musical being (aural and tactile) saying, "No, No, No." Of course, striking a black key does feel different than striking a white key, and pitch differences in that register are probably more noticeable as well, but still. For someone without perfect pitch, it was the closest I can remember feeling to that sense of absolute certainty about a particular pitch's quality. (On the other hand, other transposed songs in the set hadn't really affected me.)
I stopped and mentioned all of this to the singer; she laughed and said I'd said exactly the same thing when we last coached the song last Spring. Of course, getting old and all that, I had NO memory of that conversation, but my identification with the opening of this song is apparently just as strong. It is a song I've played and talked about a lot. I've added it to the listening list for my Music Appreciation class for the past three years, and I always talk about how that opening B in the left hand represents the earth, which is then kissed by the high C-sharp in the right hand. (The text that follows is: "It was as if the sky had quietly kissed the earth.") So, I've played those two particular keys many times with an intense focus on what they feel and sound like. 
Here's what they sound like:

You can decide for yourself what they feel like, but I think they're perfect.


Liz Garnett said...

'Mondnacht' down a minor third is quite a mind-bending thought. If nothing else the colours would be all wrong - the black of the B and the silver of the C sharp are very much part of the imagery in my hearing. (More thoughts on meaning and synaesthesia here:

On the subject of pitch-associations being part of musical reminiscence, doesn't the first of Debussy's Ariettes Oubliees remind you of 'Mondnacht'?


Fascinating comment - clearly you hear more colorfully than I do. As for the Debussy, I don't think I'd ever made that connection, but as soon as I read your words, it all linked right away in my head; especially, the feeling of sounding that low B (or B-F# in Debussy) and then answering with black keys above. One wonders if Debussy was channeling Schumann, or if they were both channeling something more elemental.

Fascinating - and probably more telling (in terms of similarity of sentiment) than this strange pitch/color connection I once found between Mendelssohn and Copland.