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Dangerous Doubling

Discussion in 'Tips, Tricks & Talk' started by Paul Poole, Jun 11, 2020.

  1. Okay, so it's pretty much common knowledge that scoring oboes in unison in an exposed, sustained context is ill-advised. It's a roll of the dice, and the risk-reward ratio is probably not worth it.

    If you'd like a curious example of it having been done, and why that advice ought to be heeded, I give you Holst's Beni Mora. I've heard of the piece before, but only recently came across it. It was scored about five years before The Planets.

    As you'll see, it's a real tight-wire act for the poor oboists. It'd be even worse without the english horn. I'll give two links.

    Link no. 1 shows the score synced with a performance that pulls off the dangerous doubling about as well as you can expect. It's not a disaster, but neither is it optimal. The passage begins at the 44 second mark.

    Link no. 2 shows a performance by what I assess to be either a middle-tier or community orchestra, no offense intended. The passage starts at the 40 second mark. It's a very uncomfortable moment for all involved. The conductor was derelict in not cutting the oboes, and instead just adding a clarinet to the english horn.

    Link no. 1

    Link no. 2
  2. The point you make is a good one, and really almost any two instruments in unison is asking for trouble. Something about having three
    let's our mind fill in the gaps and sound pleasing. Yes, the reeds of the oboe are particularly problematic, but could easily occur easily occur say in the violins in a mid-tier orchestra.

    May I play devils advocate here?

    Are we looking at the passage above in too much of a western lens? The "out-of-tune-ness" actually gives it more of an authentic mid eastern feel.
    Many instruments (as I know you know) use a different tuning system and perhaps this kinda mimic it.

    It's clear Holst was into what we would now call "new age" and interested in old styles. It could be very much a desired effect.

    Let me see if I can make an example.

    Ok.... take this piece by Harry Partch.

    Listen to this one first:

    This is the "middle ground" version. Micotones, but not as exotic as when we listen to this on the Partch instruments.

    Now, a more "western" or "legit classical concert" version

    And finally on the original Harry Partch instruments


    Have you by any chance read the book
    Harmonic Experience: Tonal Harmony from Its Natural Origins to Its Modern Expression
    by W.A. Mathieu ?

    If so, I would be very interested to hear what your reaction was /is to his theories.
    Rohann van Rensburg likes this.
  3. Thanks, Doug.

    I think unison flutes, unison clarinets, and unison bassoons can be effective if the setting is right. I like the unison clarinets at the beginning of Tchaikovsky's 5th, the unison bassoons in the first few minutes of Shostakovich's 12th, which is then handed off to unison clarinets—stuff like that. I guess Holst could have intended some oriental flair with the oboes in Beni Mora, I don't know, but it sure is risky. It's their pinpoint-focused tone without any spread that seems to betray any intonation disparities more readily than the other instruments. I felt bad for those players in the Tampa Bay performance.

    Those comparisons of the Partch piece are interesting. Hearing non-tempered music can sometimes be refreshing. I think I prefer the first version. I first became familiar with him some years ago when I was doing a little research on boobams. A real experimenter.

    Yes, I have the Mathieu book. Came across it while browsing at Theodore Front about 10 years ago. Looked interesting, so I picked it up. I haven't read it cover to cover. I read parts of it for interest every now and then, but it hasn't influenced me composition-wise. It seems to be a mixture of Western thought and Indian thought, all wrapped up in harmonic ratios. Some of those terms seem too esoteric, and sentences such as “...the 10:9 D of A minor is ga-blooded” are pretty trippy. It's a unique perspective, though, and I enjoy reading it in bits and pieces when I'm in the mood. Have you been able to apply any of it directly to your music? I'm tempted to see if I can start codifying concepts from it for practical use, since it's presented more in theoretical form.
  4. That's triple winds however. It would be far more risky with only two, than a3. (If we are both thinking of the same section: the start of the allegro)

    Personally (not that anyone has to agree) I think there is an added distinction about the Holst. The entries are staggered. (and so exposed)

    My ear is often drawn to entries and exits of instruments. So in the Holst we hear a solo, then a2, then a3. I think that would be problematic
    for most instruments, and give a little "scoop" effect to the pitch. (I don't know why he did what he did.)

    Of course. That's why it's the instrument the orchestra tunes to.

    About the same as you. I play piano and guitar, so I am not getting far with temperments this way. That said, I really do find some of the 20th century compositions taking advantage of non-western tuning systems quite interesting. Lou Harrison has some wonderful pieces of music.

  5. PS. Thanks for posting the piece. The more I hear of Holst the more in love I fall with his music. I had never heard this work before.
  6. The part of the Harrison example I heard sounds like a gamelan. Nice.

    The Planets overshadows everything else Holst did. I only recently came across these two gems:

  7. Yeah I think this is very much a effect he was aiming for, it's so obviously ethnic and folky sounding that for a piece called "Oriental Suite" I'd be really surprised if this wasn't intentional haha. In fact I think the first example in the opening post is almost butchering it by being too tightly intonated. The more tuney take sounds almost like a hybrid of a erhu and a zurna or something like that in a fun way! Very "oriental" indeed...
  8. If two instruments in unison are very difficult to match, intonation-wise, it is a tacit confession of base level intonation issues with the instrument or player. This fact is merely exacerbated in the attempt at a unison. The bottom line take-away for these instruments is to be writing in their stablest, most reliable zones whenever possible. Because whatever role they are playing, if they can't play well together, they can't play well with anybody else. Instruments have sweet spots, and individual players have sweet spots, too. Always play to the strengths.
    Marcel Schweder and Paul Poole like this.
  9. And he was incredibly pissed about that as he thought he wrote much better pieces than The Planets.

    As for his folk inspirations, him and Vaughan Williams were best buds. They would hang out each day and go on long walks, constantly pinging ideas between. They both liked English folk music and drew heavily from there.

    You can even hear the second theme from his Somerset Rhapsody (High Germany) in the third piece of Vaughan Williams' English Folk Song Suite (Folk Songs from Somerset).

    (My favorite recording of the piece is by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and is fortunately on YT)

    At 0:26
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