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THE CHANGING ROLE OF ARTICULATION IN THE 20th CENTURY
Copyright - Jim Mccarthy. 13th October 1995.
For the following discussion of Articulation, it will be valuable to have a well defined definition. As this paper deals with the way in which our interpretation of "Articulation" is changing, I have looked to a non-musical dictionary to avoid any habitual clinging to the old ethos. According to the Random House dictionary, to articulate is to "give clarity or distinction to." something articulate is "made clear, distinct and precise in relation to other parts."
It seems then that in music, an articulation marking is any symbol additional to the note, which gives the performer more precise information about the way in which it should be performed.
Throughout our musical history, articulation markings have concentrated only on the shape of notes, in terms of their length and degree of attack etc.; those aspects which can to a vast extent be clearly defined on a volume graph of the type used in this essay. This is perhaps partly because of the relative importance of this area of music, but more so because of the relative weakness of our traditional system of notation in this area.
PITCH and PLACEMENT IN TIME are aspects of musical notation other than NOTE-SHAPE that the performer has to deal with. It is these two aspects of note articulation however, that our traditional system of notation is designed specifically to communicate.
Just as note-shape (which we have come to think of as all of articulation) has become an increasingly complicated issue as music progresses into the twentieth century, so has traditional notation begun to become inadequate in the more subtle communications of note-pitch, and placement in time.
This essay deals with the trends of articulation markings throughout music, and how they come about; then proposes a system of articulation that can cope with the exacting demands of the modern composer. It also explores the new idea, that articulation markings be extended into the other aspects of notation, namely note-pitch and placement in time.
THE INCREASING DEMAND FOR ARTICULATION MARKINGS
When comparing a modern score with that of an older work, one of the first things to grab the attention is the considerably more exact notation. The further back in time we travel, the more written music is a shorthand notation. A performer of music in an early age was expected to understand the stylistic inferences of a composition, and play the notes accordingly. Duration of the notes, attack, phrasing and even tempos were to a certain extent exactitudes of the music's genre. Today this seems like an impossibility. We must remember however that the performer of yesterday did not really have a large musical ethos to select from, so the task of selecting the appropriate manner in which to execute a written piece of music was relatively easy.
As music became more complicated, and the number of stylistic differences became greater, composers felt they had to give more information as to the nature of their works in order to easily extract the correct interpretation from the performer. Usually this information would begin life as a command in written text, like "Staccato". Later the words would often be simplified or given a symbol (as in the staccato's dot) so it could be supplied more easily, and with greater separation to individual notes.
Today's performers have to deal with an exceptionally large variety of music. As well as being required to perform music from many different periods of history and many different cultures, there is the new work of modern composers. The composer in the twentieth century has also generally been exposed to a vast pool of contrasting musics. This means that the music they write may include elements from virtually any music, or even imitate a specific music in an authentic fashion.
It could be a lengthy process indeed for a composer to explain in words the way they required a piece to be performed using just text and a few symbols, even if the musical language used was simple. Many modern compositions however, use a very complex language, and it would be impossible for a performer to gain the necessary musical understanding of the work, without the very articulation markings he needs.
Music in the twentieth century has tended to become more exactly notated. Composers have found ways to be more and more specific in their writing. Sadly though, there is not a universal understanding of the exact nature of the articulation markings which exist. This is because of the way these symbols have developed.
As an example of this, lets take a simple accent.
SOME COMMON ARTICULATION MARKS AND THEIR PROBLEMS
THE ACCENT - There is two basic types of accent in common use
When the Jazz Hat is played in jazz music, the accentuation is always very "hard". That is that the degree of accentuation is fairly high, and is at the very beginning of the note. Unfortunately, as this kind of accentuation coupled with an extreme shortening of the actual note value (staccato) is so common in jazz, the "hat" has become a shorthand meaning to play the note staccato as well as "capped". In classical musics the cap generally means to play only a short accentuation - but has no other inference. Because of the cross-pollination of musical styles and of the musicians themselves, there is often problems involved with the correct interpretation of this accent.
STACCATO - In some cases it is still common practice to actually write staccato where it is required for many notes in a row. To shorten a single note, a "dot" is used.
The problem is always how much to shorten the note.
If the staccato note is of the shorter value, then the amount of extra shortening required, is dependent on the amount of tension and rhythmic energy you want to transmit. (the shorter, the more energy) In cases where there is a longer note value marked staccato amongst shorter note values also marked staccato, then the longer note should be shortened to the same duration as that of the shorter notes.
TENUTO - By definition means to "hold the note for its full value." Originally this "dash" - came about because of interpretation problems resultant from things like staccato markings. Strictly speaking a note should always be held for its full value whether it has a tenuto marking or not. In earlier music though, some of the notes may be shortened according to style. It is only since the number of available styles made errors in judgement possible, that tenuto has really been required.
Nowadays it is generally accepted in modern music, that a note is always given its full value unless otherwise specified. The meaning of the "Dash" has therefore changed a little. The dashed notes should be played as long as possible within their value without actually running into adjacent notes, and have as little shape on the volume graph as possible.
STRING MARCATO -
This is a symbol particularly used by Beethoven, and mainly applicable to strings. The vertical dash.
PROPOSAL FOR UNIVERSAL ARTICULATION
It seems that as composers become more fussy about the articulations that they require, the more performers will have to agree on a reasonably large set of universally interpreted articulations in order to keep up. The following section is a number of articulations based on those that are already in existence, and provide a comprehensive range of note-shapes without leaving too much room for oxymoron within the system.
TIME and INTONATION ARTICULATION
If we extrapolate the current trend of increasing complexity in music notation, it is easy to see a time where our notation system, even designed around communicating Note-Pitch and Placement in time, becomes unsatisfactory for the degree of subtlety with which composers wish to write. Musicians make tiny adjustments in pitch and time frame all the time, even though they may not be aware that they do so. It is only a matter of time before composers become very specific about which adjustments they want.
Time Articulation is a concept that most good drummers and percussionists will understand. In any piece of music with a strong time feel, all the notes are placed within an acceptable degree of perfect rhythmic accuracy. Playing certain notes slightly ahead of dead centre, or slightly behind dead centre, will strongly characterize the feel of the music. A good example of this is the standard placement of the anticipated beat one in jazz music. In the slow tempos of the cool jazz idiom, these notes tend to be placed slightly later than dead centre, or "on the back edge of the time." In the Faster tempos of the hot jazz idiom, the same notes, although written in exactly the same way, tend to be placed slightly in front of dead centre, or "on the leading edge of the time."
The most solid time feel is where all notes are played as close to the centre as possible, and in general this is where the basic pulse will rest. There are times however, when we can create tension by pushing some notes a little to the front edge, or solidify the feel of polyrhythms and hemiolas by playing the secondary rhythm on the back edge of the time.
Intonation Articulation is also something many musicians put into practise every day. Like time feel, there is an acceptable degree of accuracy involved with the exact pitch of a note. Because we have become so accustomed to equal temperament, we tend to think about notes as having exact frequencies. When playing in an ensemble of some kind however, we often alter the pitch of our note slightly from equal temperament, according to natural harmonic or melodic function in the music. A good example of this is when playing the leading tone in a dominant chord. A good player will decide whether his function is more important melodically, or harmonically. If melodic function is more important, then they will sharpen the leading tone somewhat to create more linear tension. If the harmonic function is more important they will lower the note to bring it into strict accord with the natural harmonic series, thereby creating a fatter sound within the ensemble.
Here are some suggestions as to what some suitable markings might be for these two aspects of articulation.