6. The Distortion or Attention-Grabbing Technique
The Craft of Musical Communication by Keith Hill and Marianne Ploger, ©2005
This technique encompasses any device used to get or place the listener's attention where the performer desires it to be. A clearing of the throat is just such a device - it draws the attention to that particular moment. Magicians’ tricks would never work if they failed to employ this device, which they call distraction. A trill or any other ornament is also such a device. When a singer changes the vowel being sung during a long held note, it is a distortion of the original vowel and creates a feeling of increased interest in the minds of the listeners on the long note. Noise or "dirt" is another example - the acciaccatura is an example of "dirt" being added to a chord.
Distortion technique is heard when a singer allows the voice to crack or break for emotive effect. Another example is when a violinist crushes the string when playing a specific note to create a distortion which "attentively loads" the note. The conventional definition of portamento refers to a glide in pitch from one note to another; that, too, is a distortion technique.
Although Aristotle does not use the word "dirt," he does, in fact use the word "error" in the following sense: "error may be justified, if the end of the art be thereby attained, that is the effect of this or any other part...is thus rendered more striking." (Poetics, XXV) He adds to this the warning: "If the end might have been as well, or better, attained without violating the special rules of the poetic art, the error is not justified: for every kind of error should if possible be avoided." No clearer definition of poetic license can be had. The distortion technique needs to be used judiciously if the end result is not to be marred by a wanton intemperate use of the technique. And so it must be for all the techniques.
The greatest error of all is to create a feeling of boredom in the listener by a too-polished performance...it is the grossest breach of good taste. Here we must add a comment: there are listeners who actually like music played in a manner that most people, us included, find totally boring and meaningless. These listeners tend to be interested primarily in the information presented in a piece of music, how it is constructed, how the composer has played with the information, and the mathematical accuracy of the performance. The ideal performer for such listeners would be a computer, because they make no mistakes in the data transmission. But neither data transmission nor accountancy is appropriate to the realm of art. Most listeners listen to music to feel what the music is about, that is, to feel the feelings which the great composers intended when they first wrote the music. Where feeling is natural and genuine, there is bound to be some element of chaos and unpredictability. The impulse to eliminate these elements is an error of arrogance and ignorance. For man to assume to know better than nature what is right is arrogant, and to assume to understand nature without the ability to create naturalness in art, even to the slightest degree, is ignorant, even if that nature is only that of music.
Therefore, think carefully when sterilizing a musical performance by eliminating everything interesting and unpredictable, lest you achieve perfection without realizing that the only thing perfect about perfection is that it is perfectly boring. The true aim for perfection in art is the feeling of perfection, not the fact. The feeling of perfection in Botticelli's "Birth of Venus" is a direct result of the astonishing amount of distortion he used in the creation of that painting in relation to the proportion of its design.
Application: Don't be afraid of making ugly sounds, especially if the affect you are after needs it to feel right. Ugliness, like Beauty, is relative. We experience something as more beautiful when it is juxtaposed with something ugly - that is the appeal of stories like “Beauty and the Beast.” Conversely, music without dissonance is boring. Dissonance without consonance feels irrelevant and harsh. Consonance without dissonance feels saccharine and dopey.
When learning to master ornamentation, understand that adding an ornament enhances the moment in the music to which it is added. Avoid ornamenting or enhancing moments that are already loaded with some other more effective technique of enhancing. Since the great composers clearly understood these techniques, they wrote them into the scores so that musicians would know which technique they were asking for. The ornaments a composer wrote into the music were those considered to be essential and therefore, obligatory. However, more could be added ad libitum as needed depending on the instrument, the room acoustics, and the tempo.
Zest is the principle effect of the distortion technique. Even a disconsolate affect needs zest to communicate the degree of intensity of the feeling. Poetic license grants every performer the freedom to create an enhanced experience of feeling for the listener by whatever means necessary. It is not, however, a certificate of refined or sensitive taste. That is the responsibility of the performer - despite everything being allowed, the performer must always be sensible to a quality of integrity so that the music, not the playing, remains foremost in the hearts of the listeners.