The Vertical

The Vertical

Every situation,

every moment

is of infinite worth

for it is

representative of a

whole eternity.

~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe



Defining the Color Levels

Polyphony – Paul Klee. "I am color."

Polyphony – Paul Klee. "I am color."

I’ve always felt that the most effective performance edition of any work would be color-coded.  Can you imagine having a color-coded edition of the Debussy Préludes edited by French master himself!  Translating tonal colors into visual colors heightens your aural perception, sensitizes your imagination.  I hope the following visual exercise will open your mind to the orchestral choices and demands that confront the interpreter. 

Here are the first few measures of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp minor, in color:


You’ll notice that within the first two measures, no fewer than nine distinct colors are required, each also representing a distinct dynamic of sound.  (My choices are not by any means definitive, even for myself — they’re meant to inspire you to your own choices.)  I’ll list them here in order of importance:


Level 1 — red                                               Level 6 — light navy green

Level 2 — royal blue                                     Level 7 — light purple

Level 3 — dark green                                   Level 8 — light grey

Level 4 — dark blue                                      Level 9 — light yellow

Level 5 — turquoise


Each level represents not only a distinct timbre and relative dynamic level, but also a distinct expressive mood and a distinct temporal relationship to each vertical event.  And we haven’t yet even approached the movement of horizontal energy – it's enough to make you're head spin! But one step at a time …

(In learning a work, the notes come first, and I assume that they are starting to fall easily under your fingers as you advance into orchestrating.)

First, the most basic levels of sound must be defined.  Ask yourself: What is the most important line?  Every work has a single line from start to finish that the performer must latch onto and clearly define for the listener.  The primary level here is the melody in red.  Before trying to define any of the other colors, learn to demarcate this single line with brutal clarity from beginning to end.  Use a bright, clear, strong forte on every red note until a solid physical, emotional and mental path has been etched.  Contrast it with everything else in a pale, soft blue (a loose-legato, pianissimo, after-the-beat touch):


After the red level is well on its way, turn all of your attention to the second most important level, royal blue.  Try to create a single line from beginning to end in the same way that the red level was prepared.  Let the red level for now subside into our soft blue pianissimo level.  Play the royal blue as if it were red — bright, strong, intense:


Once you’ve learned to play the royal blue level as if it were the primary line, start combining the red level against the royal blue level, with everything else in pianissimo shades.  Now is the time to start clearly defining three layers of sound with distinct colors and dynamic levels.  The red level will be brighter, stronger and more expressive than the royal blue level (refer back to the first colored excerpt above).  The royal blue will be more water-based — it should float and glisten but still speak and be strong enough to cover seven more dynamic levels underneath it.  The accompaniment level (consisting for the moment of the remaining seven colors), should be felt as peripherally as possible, a non-espressivo, hovering mist.

Now turn your full attention to the third most important level, the dark green.  This is the melodic harmony (in 6ths below) to the royal blue level’s melody.  Follow the same procedure as before – prepare the dark green level as if it were the primary level.  Next, combine it with the red level separately, then with the royal blue level separately, and then try to balance out all three levels against the rest of the voices, which again form a vague, undefined accompaniment.  Now you’re juggling four objects.

The dark green level is played almost exclusively by the l.h. thumb.  It sings, but in a reticent way.  It has a slow, deep descent, while maintaining a floating effect.  It remains subservient, in the shadow of the soprano melody a sixth above.  Remember here too — it must sing enough to allow six more layers of sound underneath it.

The fourth level, dark blue, is the bass doubling two octaves below the primary red melody and sits in its shadow but should have an ominous, penetrating presence.  Prepare it using the same methods as before, first as if the primary melody, and then slowly coupling it with the higher levels.

The remaining five levels should all be prepared in like manner:

The fifth level, turquoise, is the octave alto doubling of the main soprano line (royal blue) and rests in its shadow.  It should have an even more floating, ethereal quality than the soprano, but should remain serious and have presence.

The sixth level, light navy green, is the octave underpinning of the tenor line and lies in its shadow.

The seventh level, light purple, is the octave doubling below the principal melody (red).  It rests in the shadow both of the red level and the dark blue (basso profondo) level

The eighth level, light grey, shadows the secondary level, royal blue, in parallel fourths below.  If not sufficiently hidden, the melody begins to sound oriental.

The ninth and final level, light yellow, shadows the tenor line (dark green) in parallel sixths below.  This level is merely mist.

With practice and persistence over time, most if not all nine levels become clearly defined to the sensitive ear. 

Do not try to master these exercises before moving on – just taste them. The next post explores my own technical translation of the colors mentioned so far.

    The one who is good at shooting

does not hit the center of the target.

~ Zen Saying