1. The Synaesthesis Technique
The Craft of Musical Communication by Keith Hill and Marianne Ploger, ©2005
Synaesthesia means “multiple, simultaneous perceptions.” The brain is designed for perceiving multiple sensations at the same moment; with the senses of sight, smell, and taste, we expect our sensory experiences to be loaded with multiple, simultaneous stimulations. Even a simple pie is a combination of different flavors from fruit, flour, sugar, salt, spices, eggs, butter, and the effects of cooking. The culinary art lives because people adore eating food that is highly dimensional in flavors. Each dish mingles salty, sour, sweet, bitter, and savory (meaty) in various proportions, and we taste these different flavors on various parts of the tongue, creating the effect of synaesthesia. The senses of sight and smell function similarly. A large measure of the joy of viewing Monet’s best paintings is to see all the colors of the palette on every square centimeter of surface. The sense of hearing likewise needs that same level of stimulation. Yet, due to a basic ignorance among musicians about how the ear/brain makes sense of heard experiences, classical music is performed today in a manner designed to eliminate synaesthesia altogether.
Although the many different frequencies and timbres are detected differently by the ears, we 'hear' or perceive musical and other regular, simultaneous sounds as composites a rather than distinct and discreet frequencies and timbres. When music is performed in a way designed to have sounds such as chords heard as composites, the normal human ear hears only one sound. If the composer has written a four note chord, and all the notes are played simultaneously, the listener will hear not four notes but one sound only; a rich sound, but nonetheless only one sound. If the performer endeavors to perform each note in the chord so that the notes don't sound absolutely together, the normal listener will easily hear all four notes and the chord simultaneously, creating an experience for the listener of hearing a total of five sounds altogether.
The synaesthesis technique requires heard musical information to be slightly desynchronized, just enough for the mind of the listener to perceive all the timbres, all the pitches, all the melodies, all the rhythms, all the details, and all the harmonies, so that they all emerge into the consciousness of the music lover.
The human brain is so competent that it has no trouble following as many as 6 simultaneous streams of information, as long as those lines or streams are functioning with total independence, even if they are "supposed to be together,” as in music. As evidence for this, consider the number of musicians in a normal rock group - 6. Rock musicians understand the need for conveying the feeling of independence of parts even when the score would indicate otherwise. They are exceedingly sensitive to synaesthetic boredom and work very hard to create synaesthesia in their performances...to not do so would spell financial disaster for them.
In 1768, Jacob Adlung in his Musica Mechanica Organoedi, vol. 2, chapter 22, paragraph 522, says of playing the harpsichord, "One must endeavor to use more arpeggios and such, rather than striking the keys together or playing too slowly since the strings cease vibrating right away." Mozart and Chopin also insisted that the hands are never played together.
The result of having the notes in music be "misaligned in time" is that they are desynchronous. Desynchronicity, when other than an end in itself, produces a kind of independence of voices, and when voices sound truly independent, the brain is able to perceive each individual voice more easily. When we perceive two or more voices or lines as distinct yet simultaneous expressions, the effect in us is called synaesthesis. It's an amazing paradox that when the motion of the voices is truly independent, the surface appears exceedingly complex but, in fact, the music is simpler for the average listener to behold and easily follow. Indeed, the listener feels deprived when the feeling of independence of voices is missing. The synaesthesis technique depends on the ability of the performer to hear, follow, and create multiple voices in the music; voices that are clearly independent of the others yet always manage to agree.
When the lines are played as one usually hears them played today, that is, always together or simultaneously, even a trained musician has trouble to tell the voices apart. This is because the brain reads the interval played in this manner as being a composite. Once so recognized, the brain little needs to pay attention to what is happening except in the lowest or the highest voice. Indeed, very few musicians today have the ability to expressively sing and maintain two voices at the same time...this inability results from a "keypunching" attitude in performing, ironically, an attitude that has now even infected singers. Only by consciously creating distinctions between lines and singing each and every voice in the music can the performer make clear to the listener what is happening in music with more than one line. Differences in timbre and volume help create more distinction, but these devices never are as consistently successful at creating clear distinctions between the different lines in music as when the synaesthesis technique is used, even to only a very slight degree.
Giovanni Tosi, in his treatise on singing titled “The Art of the Florid Song,” published in 1736, uses the term vacillare to describe the effect of vacillating in the melody from being before the bass to lagging behind the bass. He states, “The singer should endeavor to sing before the beat or after the beat and never with it." Astonishing!!!!! Today, almost no classically trained singers do this because they are usually mercilessly censured for doing so. Bel canto means “beautiful singing,” not “beautiful tone;” Tosi says of vacillare that it "is one of the most beautiful effects in music." The vacillations he describes give the synaesthesis technique a feeling of flow and freedom...a most beautiful effect indeed.
It is interesting to realize that J.S. Bach, in manuscripts of his keyboard pieces, uses vacillare just as Tosi recommends. When you listen to the next YouTube post below, watch the manuscript as it scrolls by. Careful observations of his manuscript reveals that the vertical alignment of the notes of the right hand either precedes or follows the notes of the left hand. About 60% of time, the right hand notes precede the left hand notes, and about 40% follow the left hand. To suggest that Bach was doing this either unintentionally or that he had problems with vertical alignment is preposterous: Bach was probably the most intentional of all composers, especially when it involved music, and he had no problems aligning notes in orchestral scores.
Forqueray, in his published arrangement for harpsichord of his fathers’ “Pieces for Viola da Gamba,” gives instructions that the player play the music exactly as it appears on the printed page. The pieces that follow show the right and left hand notes being vertically non-aligned even to the extent that some whole notes in the left hand appear in the middle of the measure!!
And Giulio Caccini, in his “Nuove musiche e nuove maniera di scriverle” ("The New Music and the New Manner in Which it is Written," Florence, 1614), suggests something very similar to vacillare when he writes: "Sprezzatura is that elegance given to a melody by several technically-incorrect eighths or sixteenths on different tones, technically-incorrect with respect to their timing, thus freeing the melody from a certain narrow limitation and dryness and making it pleasant, free, and airy, just as in common speech, where eloquence and invention make affable and sweet the matters being expounded upon."
Does all this mean that using a synaesthesia technique in the form of vacillare is easy? Certainly not. Proficiency requires practice. It is even harder to develop the ability to think and imagine all the voices one is playing, be they 2 or 5 at once, so that each voice is sung both extremely expressively and independently of the other voices. But it can be done. We coached an organ student who was unable to play all voices of a 4 part Chorale Prelude from Bach's Orgelbüchlein, and within 20 minutes, he was singing and playing all four voices independently and expressively throughout the entire piece - we know from experience that it is possible for all musicians to learn to do this. Furthermore, Bach's music cannot be heard as it was intended to be heard unless one masters this technique.
Listen to the following musical example of a Bach three part Invention and hear how each voice is being sung expressively and independently creating the effects of Synaesthesis and vacillare. Take the trouble to find other recordings of the same piece and discover if those performers were able to create this feeling of true independence of voices.
Application: Always play with one hand leading the other and vacillate between which of the two hands leads. Give up trying to be together in ensembles. The exception to this is when one arrives at the end, when a simultaneous concurrence of the voices tells the brain that the music has come to an end.
Application: Sing expressively each and every line or voice as independently as possible of the other lines or voices. Prevent yourself from lapsing or dropping your attention to any line or voice; the listeners will hear the lapse in attention and cease to pay attention.
Application: In ensembles, vacillate between having the upper voice lead the lower voice and the lower voice lead the upper voice. This vacillation needs to follow the logic of the musical lines and structure. When the upper voice leads, the music soars. When the lower voice leads the music lingers, resisting forward motion.