Arguably one of the greatest innovations in compositional thought over the last century is the introduction of timbre as an essential building block of music, as are elements like pitch, rhythm, and dynamic. Timbre, which refers to the varying qualities of the sounds being produced (for example, think of the changes effected by different kinds of trumpet mutes), cannot be easily quantified and resists description, much less categorization—yet it is an aspect of music that works powerfully on our perceptions and emotions. Composers can choose many angles from which to sculpt a piece’s identity—rhythm, melodic contour, counterpoint, dynamic contrast. Like these more traditional features, changes in timbre can shape a work in surprisingly forceful ways, different kinds of sounds combining to affect the listener’s aural experience.
This sort of music—which can be as difficult to notate as it is to hum—is often the focus of composer Benjamin Scheuer, whose palette of musical sounds defies all traditional boundaries. His conception of a piece is rarely limited to the usual sounds made by standard orchestral instruments, and in this way he reaches outside of the controlled environment of the concert hall to mimic the wider world in all its chaotic, overwhelming glory. Objects from daily life are a staple of his instrumentarium, as are their sonic parallel, “found” sounds captured on tape. This determination to merge musical sounds with the soundtrack of life finds its natural corollary in Scheuer’s interest in theater. Recently, he was awarded an Aldeburgh Opera Fellowship to develop a new chamber opera in collaboration with Irish playwright Tom Swift and director Tom Creed. International collaboration is a key part of Scheuer’s career, and in between studies in his native Germany—in Hamburg, Karlsruhe, and Freiburg—he has travelled to the U.K., Spain, the Netherlands, France, and Ecuador (where he is a frequent visitor through an organization he co-founded, Musicians Without Borders). He was a Tanglewood Composition Fellow in 2012.
Although Voices is nominally scored for two woodwind quintets, familiar woodwind sounds are merely a few of the participants in the work’s veritable Babel of voices. The sounds emanating from the stage can be parsed according to source, but in practice the blend is often impossible for the ear to untangle: an alien but humanoid, or perhaps prehistoric, language. There are of course recognizably familiar, “regular” instrumental colors: fragments of melody, flourishes, long tones held in harmony with or in contrast to the surrounding activity. Then there are the slight oddities of extended technique that have worked their way into the standard contemporary instrumental palette, including rough horn glissandi, shrill mouthpiece squawks, flutter-tonguing, and wide, distortive vibrato. Add to this a battery of auxiliary instruments/objects assigned as follows: flute 1 (blown bottle, rubber balloon, music box), flute 2 (tuned wineglass, music box, plastic air pressure horn), oboe 1 (kazoo, mouth organ in F#), oboe 2 (mouthorgan in C, wooden slide whistle), clarinet 1 (fine sandpaper), bass clarinet (polystyrene plates), French horn 1 (low rattle), French horn 2 (tam tam or large cymbal played with super ball), contrabassoon (melodica)—and the collection expands to include pitched instruments whose eccentric but melodic sounds are heard as if from the other side of the looking glass, as well as unpitched sounds with a variety of percussive and distortive effects. Completing the tapestry are two loudspeakers playing pre-recorded sound files, most of which are recognizable as vocal sounds—singing, laughing, shouting, or a warped hybrid of the three.
The taped sounds, far from being decoration or intrusion, are actually the core of the piece. Voices was conceived from an unlikely beginning, a collection of sounds emitted by a pontoon boat in the harbor at Odessa, on the Black Sea. The strangely vocal quality of the resonant creaks, groans, and scrapes gave Scheuer the idea to record human voices in response, in the form of his friends singing in spontaneous, semi-improvisational style from graphic notation. To this assembled dialogue he added the ten instrumentalists, who, he says, can use their own intimate knowledge of their instruments to react much more minutely to the tape than could ever be notated—adding, with the spectrum of sounds available to them, a real-time dimension to the conversation.
The language of Voices becomes comprehensible, however, not by understanding the sources and eccentricities of each sound but by accepting them on equal terms, as they interact and cohabit aural space. The music, in fact, has a great deal of unity: the language is one of constant response and reaction. The pacing of the 11-minute piece is varied but fluid, an ebb and flow; catalysts for change come from every corner and cause swift reactions within the ensemble’s sensitive web. And while the large-scale shape of the piece is elusive, its molecular level is populated with distinctive, self-contained, rhythmic figures. Scheuer explores the extremes of the rhythmic spectrum to either side of what is quantifiable: there are long, amorphous tones wavering between bent pitches, and stuttering strings of fluttering, rapid-fire notes.
Rhythmic events are heightened and magnified through repetition, transitions achieved in surprising fashions. For instance, a fairly substantial character shift is effected about one-third of the way through the piece: from a series of overlapping, multi-shaded keenings comes a fast section in which instruments skitter, slide, and flourish in tandem and counterpoint. The pivot point is the recorded sequence of voices: a cry changes to an upward stammer, a figure picked up and thrown about by the instruments and offset by the smoothness of slide whistle. Later, transitions become abrupt, even violent, the recorded voices setting an increasingly unstable, manic tone infecting the rest of the ensemble. A detour near the end brings a breath of relaxation, as the instruments layer in rocking, sliding, strangely chorale-like motion.
In Voices, identity is malleable. The recorded voices are gripping, intimate—sometimes disturbingly so. Yet as the work progresses, divisions of instrumental hardware, technique, and technology blur and eventually dissolve. The many voices here are all sounds used for expression, whether gathered, compiled, squeezed out of objects, or transformed by the intricate workings of instruments. Their ability to mimic and communicate, the ultimate sense of their commonalities, is even more striking than their extraordinary timbral qualities.