Creating characters with tone color

When I was a kid, I had a vision of a candy land that I would build in a box. I recruited a friend to help me with the project and talked my mother into buying the candy. Once my friend and I started working on the project, it became clear to me that some of what I had envisioned, such as a river of blue soda, wasn’t something for which I had the resources or the will to pursue. The image was clear in my mind but the infrastructure to fully realize it, did not exist.

Not having the technique to pull off our musical inspiration can be a problem. However, it doesn’t mean that the inspiration/vision itself is invalid. In fact, the inspiration can be motivating in terms of learning new technique or otherwise making improvements to the physical relationship with one’s instrument.

The image on this card is very similar to my candy land vision. I intended a rainbow of vivid colors. As a child, it was candy. As an adult it is a palette of tone colors for my music. The rainbow itself represents the abundance of one’s imagination.

As a musician, tone color is a way for us to create characters in our music. The X-files has always been one of my favorite shows. There is a deep throat character who appears every once in a while. When he shows up, it is a signal that there is about to be a twist in the story. I love this kind of character. We don’t know very much about him but his arrival creates suspense and drama.

Richard Wagner assigned “leitmotifs” which are rhythmic motives or chord progressions to characters, signaling their appearance on stage. Even before the character has sung a phrase, the audience knows they are there because of the leitmotif. In the absence of this mechanism, musicians can use their own palette of colors to differentiate, develop and even create “characters” in their music.

This weekend my home orchestra, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, is performing the 1919 version of Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite. There are a lot of bright tone colors which is appropriate because of the Firebird character. My favorite part of this piece is “Berceuse.” Because it is a lullaby it requires a different tone color from the brightness of the rest of the piece.

A lullaby should be soft to lull one asleep. It can also be dreamy, romantic, and possibly even a little scary or disturbing. It all depends on the mood you are trying to create. The Berceuse in The Firebird occurs towards the end of the piece. It ushers in a resolution. After all the fantastical excitement, this lullaby holds an intoxicating quality as it puts the antagonist to sleep.

It is such a fun movement to play because the violin parts are divided which gives each violinist more autonomy than usual. It is high up on the instrument with sweeping, light and fast bow strokes. With fast, narrow yet round vibrato, a beautiful and romantic sound is created. King Kastchei falls asleep and the firebird saves the day.

What are your favorite tone colors? How do you create characters in your music? Do you do a lot of research or imagine them purely based on the music?

The Inspiration for Violinists card deck
This “tone color” card is part of a 50 card deck. Every card has a unique image and text inspiring musicianship, mindfulness and spirituality.

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