A Bruce Springsteen quote: “I’m driving in my car/I turn on the radio.” The car radio gave me the impetus for my first blog about memorable music moments, and serves as a second inspiration for more. This time the focus is on dynamics. One of the definitions in Webster’s New World Dictionary defines dynamics as “relating to or tending toward change.” Then down the list, “the effect of varying degrees of loudness and softness in the performance of music.” Music students learn the basics of soft (p) and loud (f), as well as the gradual crescendos and decrescendos between them.
Back to the car. I was listening to the oldies station and was forced to another station by a song I couldn’t stand, and landed on the classical station. The DJ announced the mother of all classical pieces: “Beethoven’s Fifth.” How can you turn the channel from “Beethoven’s Fifth?” But how many of you have had the experience of listening to classical music in the car? More often than not it is a frustrating experience. Now you hear it, now you don’t. The obvious reason is the use of dynamics. Pop music rarely takes advantage of the effect of dynamics, unless it’s loud, louder, loudest. In fact if you’ve had studio experience, you know that the final mix on a pop song has the dB meter riding consistently just below the red. It’s a different story with instrumental classical music, where a huge part of the effect of a piece is the use of dynamics.
Let’s take a look at Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, in particular the First Movement. Everyone can hum the four note figure in their head, and Beethoven milks it for all it’s worth, loud and intense. At about 1:09, he pulls back and decreases the volume and emotion, only to build up again. In this particular clip we hear some terrific use of dynamics, in the beginning, and also at about 2:46, where we experience the masterful use of crescendos and decrescendos throughout the First Movement. Watch Toscanini as he makes sure that the French horn lick at 4:50 is appropriately soft. It’s also interesting to note that Maestro Toscanini had memorized all of Beethoven’s dynamics and needed no score. It all works because this is concert hall music. People are being as quiet as possible, and no road noise intrudes.
Though separated by a century, setting, instrumentation and an ocean, Count Basie displayed the same skill as Beethoven in the use of dynamic extremes to create excitement in his work. With acoustic music, the most obvious way to increase the volume of a band is to have more people play, with varying degrees of intensity. Look at this version of the Count Basie Orchestra and their arrangement of “All of Me.” This is classic Basie. The piece starts with just the rhythm section, Freddie Green chomping away on the guitar, and Basie handling the melody in the most subtle fashion. Just before the halfway point, at measure 15 and 16 (1:07), all the brass and saxes slyly pick up their horns and lay into a three-note figure that takes the dynamics of the band from double piano (pp) to triple forte (fff). Perhaps some of you have had the experience of hearing the Basie band play this chart. I heard it backstage at a concert and it scared the life out of me. Listen to the audience. They applaud the dynamics! It’s a great moment. And of course, it’s followed by a return to that subtle chunking rhythm, a driving force with minimal volume.
Saxophonist Jerry Dodgion is most associated with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, but in our interview from 1996 he cited his brief time with the Count Basie Band as thrilling and unforgettable. Jerry spoke of the unique ability of the band to play at both ends of the dynamic spectrum and still swing.
MR: Did you get a chance again to record with [Basie]?
JD: Yes, several years later. I didn’t even know it was with Count Basie which was good because I would have probably been nervous. I got a call for three days of recording with Chico O’Farrill on the answering service. And I showed up and it was Count Basie’s band. I’m looking around and I said am I in the right studio? So then I see Chico and I says I guess so. I mean that was really great. That was a lot of fun too. That was an album called “Basic Basie.” And I even played a few solos on that, which I was a little apprehensive about. I mean Lockjaw was on that too and he made that great recording of “Bewitched” on one of those dates. It was really wonderful to see this and be in there and be part of it happening. Because I loved the music so much and heard it on records so much, and heard the band in person. I heard the band in person a lot. And that band, the band of the ‘50s and ‘60s was an unbelievable ensemble band. Maybe it was really one of the best ever. They could play with the great swinging and feeling and the emotion and everything. But together. And the ensemble was just so together it was just thrilling. And the dynamics, unbelievable. I mean they could play softer than we’re talking now, the whole band. And you’d still hear the bass with no amplifier. Frank Wess would play the flute, Thad did some things with flute and bass, and you could hear him. Now I don’t know — when the amplification came in it changed everything, you know? The bass became louder than the band and you could not hear the flute unless you turned up the mic and when the flute player turns up his mic then the bass player turns up his mic and then there’s the guitar player, forget it. And here were — and there’s no end to this stuff. But the real sensitive part of playing acoustically, that band just was the best ever. I just, I couldn’t believe it.
Is there anything softer than triple pianissimo (ppp)? The only answer is silence. A rarely used effect in music is the total absence of sound. Two of my favorite musicians knew about it. Cannonball Adderley and Joe Zawinul had a productive working relationship from 1961-1970. Joe wrote many of Cannonball’s most notable pieces. Here’s an example from a live recording in Chicago. The “Country Preacher” Cannonball refers to is a young Reverend Jesse Jackson. Joe Zawinul composed the song and it starts in a meandering fashion with his electric piano lick followed by some Cannonball ruminations on the soprano sax. The band kicks into higher gear, reaching a crescendo at 2:23, ending with a snare drum whack by Roy McCurdy. What can follow that? How about three or four seconds of absolute silence, and then the most subtle entrance possible? Effective? Check out the crowd. They went crazy for the silence. That’s dynamic.
In a similar fashion, Samuel Barber, composer of the work “Adagio for Strings,” may have found himself in a musical quandary. Most people have heard all or part of this piece, as it has been broadcast at solemn occasions and notably employed in the Vietnam movie “Platoon.” This piece existed on its own for years and was first written as a string quartet. It is a marvelous example of the use of dynamics. No winds. No percussion. It’s simply a string orchestra at an imperceptible tempo, building and building, slowly stepping from one dynamic level to the next with rich harmonies. Barber’s composition climbs through seven highly emotional minutes, challenging the listener to stay engaged. Finally it builds to the point where you’re pleading for it to stop. And stop it does. What could possibly follow this heart-wrenching crescendo? Nothing but silence. A good three to five seconds of absolute silence is followed by a cautious reentry of the strings, allowing you to breathe again. This piece is not served well through your computer, so please plug it into your stereo system. Or, find a recording, turn out the lights, get rid of the video, and be absorbed by this piece.
Arranger Manny Albam was interviewed in October of 1998. His work encompassed writing in the fields of jazz, popular music and classical orchestration. He spoke about dynamics and the potential power they have over audiences:
MA: Subtleties work if you begin to manipulate the orchestra. And that is orchestration. And that is what dynamics in orchestration do[es] for the audience. You suddenly realize wow, they’re doing something I can’t quite hear, I’d better pay attention. That’s part of audience manipulation. I did things orchestrated on Broadway, not too much. I used to help other people and then I got my own thing to do. And I worked with George Abbott, Mr. Broadway, a great director and all that. And I wrote this great arrangement for one of the singers in the show and he called me over and he said “we don’t want applause at the end of that.” I said “no?” He said “no, we want that to dwindle off into the next scene and to be a smooth thing that will go right into the next scene.” And I learned something about that. They don’t want applause. If you want to bring the audience to their feet you write these big chords and the rhythm section and everybody’s wailing away, and the audience will go “hey! yeah!” and get up, “encore! encore!” You know, the show stopper. But these things are for dramatic changes that happen. No applause. I had to re-write the whole last twelve bars of the thing to bring it all down to nothing and then the whole thing would swing into place. Now once you learn things like that from other venues, in other words this is drama, this has nothing to do with music, but music has got a lot to do with drama anyway.
Dynamics leads to drama.