Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A Perceptual Oddity

     A friend of mine, after reading Dr. Vigneau’s interview with me elsewhere on this site, asked me to elaborate a bit on my failure to derive enjoyment from the sound of massed strings.  First of all, allow me to assert that I have no intrinsic dislike of stringed instruments; I merely prefer winds. Probably foremost among possible reasons is the fact that most string players (as I stated in the interview) use vibrato to a degree that I generally find aesthetically disagreeable, and that (in my opinion) is stylistically inappropriate in most other-than-Romantic-period music. Additionally, the fact of the most commonly-used stringed instruments being unfretted, leads, invariably, to pitch inconsistencies.  The effect (at least for me) of these inevitable variances of pitch is exacerbated by unison scoring for multiple players, which, of course, is a common state of affairs in orchestral string sections.  This is something I’ve discussed, over the years, with various people. It seems to be the case that when most people hear a string section ostensibly playing the same note, these sounds get, in essence, “averaged out” to produce a single lush, warm tone. (I think this experience probably depends on a certain minimum distance for best effect.)
     However, this “averaging-out” effect doesn’t really happen with me, or at least not until I actually leave the room and listen through a door. I don’t fully understand why this should be, I merely know that it is. When I hear a violin section play a sustained tone, particularly if it isn’t an open string, I hear many distinctly separate notes that compete with one another for my attention. I am often aware (without desiring to be) of the individual contributions of particular players (to whom I can generally, if desired, unerringly point) whose vibrato (or pitch) might be especially out-of-step at a given moment.  This perception, largely unaffected by room acoustics, is almost always unpleasant, (especially as it interferes with my ability to fully enjoy orchestral music) and when I was younger, and my hearing more acute than it is now at the age of 54, the sensation was sometimes actually painful. (This sensation of pain when younger, and mere displeasure as I have grown older, is almost entirely limited to the treble clef. This means, of course, that violin sections are much more likely than other string sections to prove unpleasant to my ear.)
     Although I don’t fully understand all the reasons that contribute to what I have come to regard as a hearing anomaly, I do have theories.  One, to which I’ve already alluded, involves vibrato, and the fact that precisely coordinating that parameter with many players at once is usually not an orchestral rehearsal priority. A lifetime of listening to string quartet literature has brought home the reality, for me, that quartets that take the time (at least sometimes) to precisely coordinate their vibratos, are much more pleasant to my ears than those that don’t. This leads me to the conclusion that conflicting speeds and widths of vibrato are likely to be at least partially to blame for my inability to perceive a string section as the cohesive unit that most do.
     Another almost-certainly relevant component is the fact that, until quite recently, I had perfect pitch. I became aware of what perfect pitch actually was, and that I had it, when I was seven or eight. I have early memories of finding highly unpleasant the common situations that generally irritate people with perfect pitch. These include, but are not limited to, hearing or playing out-of-tune pianos, the usual pitch vagaries of singers, (particularly the surreal caterwauling that characterized the unaccompanied congregational singing in the fundamentalist church of my youth) and, also, at least for me, the unpleasant sensations of hearing a string section. The fact that, as I have aged, I have been aware of the decline of my pitch acuity corresponding to my growing tolerance (and, much more recently, even enjoyment) of string ensembles to be indicative of my perfect pitch being at least a factor in what I have, again, come to regard as a hearing anomaly.
     In the fall of 1974 I developed an ear infection that resisted medication, and as a result, tubes were placed in my eardrums.  Following the procedure, eardrops were used to prevent subsequent infection, and I had a violent allergic reaction to the eardrops, and was almost totally deaf for about ten days.  Over the next six weeks, my hearing gradually returned to a condition that I acknowledged as normalcy. During the spring of 1975, I had my hearing tested twice, and the results both times, according to our (new) ear doctor, were that my hearing was twenty-odd percent more acute than what was considered perfect.  I only tell this story because the incident precipitated hearing tests that seem to bear out the fact that my hearing has always been a bit different than the norm, not to suggest that the medical incident had anything to do with how I hear. 
The fact, however, of my extra-normal hearing acuity is probably the culprit in my traditionally greater unease with violins than with other stringed instruments. The brilliant tone quality for which violinists normally strive (and to which most listeners respond pleasurably) quite simply extends beyond the comfort zone of my hearing.
     Now that the aging process (with an able assist from rock music) has rendered my hearing a bit less unerring in some respects, I find myself increasing able to ignore any residual unpleasantness that I’ve traditionally associated with the hearing of strings, and especially violins. Last year, for example, I was totally mesmerized by violinist Tim Shiu’s performance of an early work by Crumb. Hopefully, I’ll soon be able to embrace the violin experience in a way that has previously eluded me!

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