Listening for Resonance
The opening of “Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten” by Arvo Pärt
The experience of this magical work is immediately intensified with the application of deep listening principles:
- Tune the ensemble with exceptional care to the sound of the bell
- Listen intently to the ppp sound of the bell as it opens the work. Hear it fill the whole space, and hear the individual harmonics that make up the sound
- The sound of the bell will be making the instruments in the ensemble vibrate subtly – be aware of this at least as a concept if it is difficult to experience in reality
- The 1st violin’s entry in bar 7 (high on the E string on the notes A and E) join the resonance of the bell that is still present in the space – the open strings of the instruments will already be subtly vibrating. As the first A and E are played, if the violinists imagine that rather than playing high notes on the E string they are amplifying the resonance that is already present in the A string the sound takes on a different colour because of the quality of their listening. This intense listening will also enable them to hear a difference tone (a lower E) between the high A and E, and tune accurately as a result
- The entry of the divisi 2nd violins in bar 8 joins this resonance – their open strings will already be vibrating, expectant and again their entry releases the vibration that is already there. Again rather than thinking of playing notes on individual strings, if each player focusses on the resonance of the whole instrument (the outer player on A will visibly see the open A string vibrating an octave below the note they are playing, the inner player on E will visibly see the open E vibrating) again a difference tone (a low E) will be present between both notes
- The viola entry in Bar 9 builds the resonance further – the violists will play this A on the D string but through focussing on the resonance of the whole instrument will visibly see the A string vibrating as a sympathetic string
- The entries of celli and bassi extend these principles into the lower register, continuously building on the initial resonance of the bell
Tuning through Difference Tones
The Clarinettist Joseph Rabbai remarked that as a young player in New York he would sit down with Julius Baker (flute) Eli Carmen (Bassoon) and Bob Bloom on oboe (all legendary players trained during the first half of the Twentieth Century) without a single tuning note being given and magically everything would be in tune, simply because everyone listened to the sound of the whole section and adjusted according to everyone else. Joe Rabbai lamented that with all the sophisticated tuning equipment available nowadays woodwind sections play less well in tune than they used to – because no one listens for difference tones anymore.
With a colleague try the following example (loosely based on the Pachelbel canon). If there is any difficulty hearing the difference tones, try it an octave higher. With practice the difference tones written in bass clef will become more and more audible. Use them as a place for both sounds to unite, and you will be using a sophisticated tuning method that has worked for thousands of years.