Wave Theory

Wave Theory

Recently I reviewed some field recordings I had made several years ago of ocean waves against the beach in La Jolla, California. I found the overall quality of the recordings to be pretty good, except for some occasional wind noise which could probably be edited out fairly seamlessly, and the sounds of the waves were gorgeous—sweeping high-pass filters of pink noise, performed with nature’s exquisite sense of timing. Not particularly unique or different from the ocean waves you and I have heard over and over in our forays to the beach. Still, I like these sounds, and thus couldn’t help but think about how they might be incorporated into some compostion in the future.

Water sounds in music—always tricky. Due to hackneyed overuse (French composer Michel Redolfi’s work stands far apart), I actually am quite allergic to music that uses the sounds of water as an element. Lots of students seem to gravitate to water sounds, and especially the ocean, and usually not to great effect. I somehow always prefered Takemitsu’s metaphorical and impressionist “use” of water in the instrumental realm. And yet, dammit, real water sounds in all their variety should and can be a great source for the 21st-century composer.

Interestingly the Free Dictionary says the word “cliché” comes from the past participle of the French verb “clicher” (which Presse- francophone.org says means “to dump”), but most sources say the word, indeed French in origin, is an onomatopoetic printer’s term for the sound that happens when a matrix is dropped into molten metal in order to make a stereotype plate. That I found interesting—stereotypes being both “a solid plate or type-metal, cast from a papier-mâché or plaster mould taken from the surface of a block of type” (OED) and a “metaphor for any set of ideas repeated identically, en bloc, with minor changes.” So in fact, cliché and stereotype were both originally printers’ words.

Of course no material is ipso facto a cliché as we have come to understand the word. It’s all in the way it’s used. But some things—be they materials, harmonic progressions, or formal structures—have become hackneyed and trite through overuse. Hey look—I just made a meta cliché!

Seriously, do you ever find yourself afraid some idea might be teetering on the edge of the cliché? And, if so, what do you do about it? Toss the page aside and start over? Or maybe turn the cliché on its head in some ironic fashion? It sometimes seems hard to use old ways to express new ideas; is it any easier finding new ways to express old ideas? I’d like to hear your thoughts. I’ll be traveling for the next two weeks—first to San Francisco to perform with a wonderful ensemble, Melody of China, and then on to Europe for some concerts in Italy and France. While my columns might be a touch delayed, please know that I’ll be looking forward to reading your comments on every Wi-Fi connection I can muster on the road. Until the next time!

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8 thoughts on “Wave Theory

  1. Chris Becker


    After reading this I caught the third act of Britten’s Peter Grimes on PBS which concludes with an incredible orchestral and choral combination evoking the sinking of Peter’s ship into the ocean. I mean, SOMEHOW the listener is able to visualize this massive personality being swallowed by THE SEA without the composer resorting to anything I’d call “cliched.” And the poetry and ambiguity of the final event was preserved – just brilliant. I understand Britten had composed quite a bit of film music before this opera?

    One thing I like to keep in mind is that the recording of a sound is a part of the composing process. The waves I record are not gonna be the waves you or anyone else records. Everything comes into play – the microphone, tape or digital (lately I’ve been using a hand held tape recorder again gathering voices for a performance I’m doing concerning “wave particle duality”), are you walking or standing still, etc etc. We aren’t human sampling machines. We are composers and our use of recording technology is as personal as another composer’s approach to writing for a tenor voice.

    I don’t fear cliches – I know that if my hand or “gesture” is present that the results will translate as a Chris Becker piece. For better or for worse, my hand is always in the mix.

  2. Lisa X

    Great topic Carl. How about a list of cliches we can’t live with as audience members? I mean ones that turn us so far off as to fully spoil an otherwise engaging experience.

    Some I find intolerable:

    bowed gong

    bowed vibraphone

    program notes about how a piece is modeled after some natural phenomenon

  3. Lisa X

    live electronics using an interesting interface device like a video game controller

    sound art proud of its interactivity

  4. Colin Holter

    You know when pianists push down the keys with their fingers? Gag me with a spoon. Sometimes cellists excite their strings with tightened hair. . . somebody stick a fork in that old chestnut!

    Nothing bores me more than when a musician creates a periodic vibration in the air. Played out.

  5. Lisa X

    Funny Colin. Thanks for squashing my question with a easy jab.

    But my curiosity is real. No cliches just beg you to stop listening? Could be a useful exchange.

  6. Colin Holter

    Sorry to have been a wet blanket.

    My feeling about “cliché” is that it’s only a hop away from “démodé.” Bowed vibes might be cliché, for instance, because they used to be fashionable and were trotted out for many pieces; soon they’ll be unfashionable, if they aren’t already. I think we should have better reasons than fashion for dismissing a musical practice. In other words, I try to make at least half (but not all) of my listening brain hear each piece on its own terms – if the flutter-tonguing flutes that grate on me in the context of the rest of the pieces I heard this year do right by the piece that I’m hearing tonight, I don’t want to sell the experience short.

    It’s also a bit of a moving target, isn’t it? For some crowds, I bet scratchy pesantissimo in the strings is quite novel, but for others, it’s the Tristan chord of our era, to paraphrase Mathias Spahlinger.

  7. philmusic

    Well for me, I’m buged when there is more focus on the “instrument” then on the music it plays.

    On another cliché front entirely, when conductors program “crowd pleasing junk”, and then advertise how much courage it took to program it!!

    Phil Fried, Skidroe U. Free Beer!


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