The language of music

Why do you still use Italian as a technical language in music? And why one has to mix Italian, French (laissez vibrer!), German (Ftzg!) and English terminology in a score?

Textual indications are more symbols of a technical vocabulary, more than actual linguistic elements. So, we use them in the language they were first used as technical devices and not for their literal meaning. Here, connotation is more relevant than denotation. Espressivo is a really expressive word, even if nobody would use it in their everyday life.

Most of the modern 'Italian' terminology appeared in the late 1500, and developed until mid-1700 while the various Italian schools dominated the European music. Some of the words/sentences we use today are obsolete Italian, no longer used in common talk. Take for example 'sordino': modern Italian would be 'sordina', with even a change of gender. 'Allegro assai' would sound funny, more than happy, in conversation.

During 1800, German and French musical technology replaced the Italian's as the dominant ones, so many French and German terms started to appear. Impressionism had a huge influence on music from the end of 1800, and Stravinsky used a lot of French terminology. Mahler, Strauss and Schoenberg were other major influences at the beginning of the 20th Century, so there are words or abbreviations, like 'Ftzg' or 'Sprachestimme', we use as musical symbols, without even asking what they really mean from a linguistic point of view.

Then, English is the new Italian in music. During the next century, musicians will wonder what those obsolete English terms did actually mean.

The fast changing pace of articulation switching

What happens, when you play a piece with one of the modern, rich sound libraries? The computer takes your music symbols, and converts them into commands to select articulations. Here is how a solo violin looks in VSL's Vienna Instruments Pro, in a short video I assembled over an orchestral prototype I'm working on. Isn't it a bit like the Nineteenth Century Iron Age's mad utopia of musical automata?

Sound libraries and extended techniques

Grown in the European academia, I always feel a strong need for extended techniques. That is, those strange sounds going over the usual round technique used for crafting beautiful melodic lines, or the smart spiccato with which you push your most frantic rhythm ahead. Scratchy digging, feeble harmonics, colliding multiphonics.

These aren't very commonly included in sound libraries. I’m grateful to the handful of houses making sample collections including at least some of them.

While testing my new VSL-based orchestral machine, I moved in territories very dangerous for a humble sampler. And tried to replicate the mad violin of Sciarrino’s Capricci. Nearly impossible to play with a real instrument, virtually impossible to make with virtual instruments.

Yet, there are some interesting findings in exploring the extremes. And trying to recreate a, so to say, naturally produced sound can teach a lot on the nature of instrument virtualization.

Sound maps extending over 128 entries

Keyswitching can be done better with a common reference map, allowing for easy exchange of the same code between different sound libraries. The same Expression Map or Articulation Set can then be used or easily adapted to the various libraries in your arsenal.

My personal maps for libraries like VSL and Spitfire are modeled on the UACC map. Spitfire is not always coherent with their own map, and it is easy to understand why, thinking on how little conventional are some or their libraries like Tundra or Uist.

VSL has no reference organization system, but they have tried to standardize their presets over the years. Collections from different generations have a similar system to organize the many articulations, but these systems different between the different generations, and the different instrument families. The very flexible Vienna Instruments allows however to create your own presets, and set them as they better fit your workflow.

It may seem strange, but the 128 slots allowed by the Spitfire's UACC map are not always enough. My personal map contain many nuances, going from the basic sustain vibrato or non vibrato, or espressivo, to things like molto sul pont., with heavy pressure, or various degrees of measured tremolo. Overthinked and overworked, maybe, but an effective tool to avoid thinking to the mechanics behind the libraries when actually making music.

Something I've done in Logic to get more articulation slots is to duplicate the first 128 entries to the second group of 128 in the Articulation Set, to fill all the available 256 slots. This way, any variation to the base articulations can fall in a slot mirroring the ones in the first group. For example, there are two basic Longs at #1 and #2 in the UACC map. If you need two more, you can place them at #129 and #130.