Monophonic versus polyphonic instruments

I really need to just admit that I prefer multi-voice instruments to single-voice instruments, even when they are played in a multi-voice style.

There’s just a difference between an instrument that is meant to be multi-voice, built for it from the ground up, versus one that can only be pushed into that if you have been playing it for twenty years starting at the age of three. It says a lot that, in order to force a violin to do what a keyboard can do without breaking a sweat, you have to be Hilary Hahn.

It always feels as if a string instrument is out of its proper tessitura in a way, its home court, when things like this are done on it. They are at their best when they imitate a voice; this is not the sound of a voice. It’s impressive that one can be made to carry a polyphonic structure, and it’s impressive to see it done, but … it’s awfully mechanical. A string instrument is just at its best when it does what a piano can’t, not what a piano can do better.

I guess I’m just conflicted about strings. Maybe that’s the best thing about a viola. They are so hard to get around on in general ergonomically that you are forced to use it the way a string instrument is meant to be used: one voice, at a reasonable pace sustainable by a good opera singer, with lots of color and expression. Well, meant by me, anyway. I don’t see the point of taking an instrument that can imitate a voice and shoving it well outside of that wonderful place into a place where it just doesn’t sound its best.

I think that’s also part of why I like Keating so much. With the looping technology she’s applied to the cello, she’s enabled it to sustain large-scale multi-voice structures, but without losing that sublime human sound of the thing. There are limitations to live looping in that you have to set the loops up linearly, but there are always limitations to music of one kind or another. All instruments and genres have their obstacles and baggage.

At bottom, I guess I want the portability of a monophonic instrument and the scale of a polyphonic one. Yeah, while I’m dreaming, I want a million dollars and a pony, too …