TYPOFILE - Will-Harris House

Could Stravinsky have made fonts?

or: Fear and Loathing in A Minor

By David Rakowski, composer and digital font maker

Stravinsky's ballet L'Oiseau de Feu (The Firebird) was written for Diaghilev's Ballet Russe, for performances in Paris with a topnotch orchestra and dancers, around 1907 to 1909. It was the piece that first brought Stravinsky to the attention of the musical world, at the age of 27. He had studied composition in Russia for many years with Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who originally brought Stravinsky's music to the attention of Diaghilev. The music of The Firebird is very strongly influenced by the music of Rimsky-Korsakov, and in addition, owes a great deal to Debussy (who in turn had absorbed quite a bit from Mussorgsky, a Russian composer of an earlier generation).

The ballet opens with slow, low music that gradually rises and gets brighter and more colorful, never becoming terribly loud or brash--until the second major number of the opera, called Katschei's Dance. A clean, unbroken string of delicate, sensitive and colorful music is suddenly interrupted by a big chord that the entire orchestra plays, usually jolting the audience out of their seats and getting them to sit up and pay attention.

Clever Chord

That big chord that begins Katschei's Dance is ingenious in many ways. On the level of the whole ballet, the simple surprise of the moment causes the whole ballet to take a sudden turn, into a breakneck, whirling, devious-sounding dance number. The construction of the chord itself is also ingenious: though it takes 60 or more people to play the chord, it only contains two notes, A and E, spread across many registers. The lack of a third note to make it a full triad is part of what gives the chord an "exotic" flavor: Beethoven used that same gesture many times (a sharp chord, such as at the beginning of his third symphony), but he always used a full triad. Without that third note, you don't know if the piece is major or minor, and you get a faux-ancient sound of just the open fifth. Deciding how to distribute just two notes amongst 60 players is no easy feat, either. If the trombones, cellos and violas all get the same note, the chord could get middle-heavy; if there is too much emphasis on the top or the bottom of the chord, it will sound too bright or too ponderous. Now even more ingenious is the few little notes that get put just in front of the chord in the piccolos Ñ 3 or 4 notes go up the scale in the piccolos in a brief moment just before everyone else hits the chord, synchronizing at the top of that scale with the rest of the orchestra (think of the notes between the finger snaps in the "Addams Family" theme song played really fast and really high). That little stroke turns the chord from a heavy BOPP! to a funkier BYYOPP! that has a character all its own. And a bass drum and cymbal add extra depth and sharpness to the chord.

Experience creates technique

How did Stravinsky know how to do all those things, and why did he put all that effort into this chord, just for something that lasts less than half a second? This certainly isn't the first sharp chord in music, or even the first sharp chord with a few little piccolo notes in front of that (Stravinsky stole that touch from his teacher, who in turn could have stolen it from Berlioz). Where did Stravinsky learn enough about the orchestra to get the sound of the chord to match the chord in his imagination? Put simply, he absorbed hundreds of years of music through a traditional study of counterpoint, harmony, form and orchestration, went to hundreds of concerts, learned to play instruments himself; twenty years of that gave him the smarts to write the chord that begins Katschei's Dance, to make it startling in the context of the ballet, and to give the chord just the right acoustical identity. Not to mention, on average, the players involved in producing the chord usually have an average of 30 years of musical training each, and many years of experience playing together to get the right blend. All of those factors conspire to produce the one moment.

Fast forward to 1995. A family is shopping in the Sound section of the local Wal-Mart. The 4-year old runs up to the display of home keyboards and presses a key. Out comes the Stravinsky chord! He presses more keys. Out comes the Stravinsky chord higher, lower, in harmony with itself, in scales! The boy calls to his mother, "Hey mommy! It's the car commercial!" When the boy is 6, he'll learn how to play chopsticks with the Stravinsky chord.

Technology tries to replace technique

This issue's subject, "Type On The Tube," gives me reason to think a little about Stravinsky on the Wal-Mart keyboard (or perhaps worse, in the car commercial). Nowadays, even a four-year old can set perfectly kerned, 63-point Garamond Italic just by pressing a few keys on his computer, without the slightest inkling of the history of Garamond, Granjon, Caslon, metal type, phototype--or of how Garamond compares to any other typeface, or of even what the letters mean. Which is, I guess, a shorthand way of saying that the more computers are able to take hundreds of years of somebody else's experiences and make them available to us, like magic, at a stroke of a fingertip, the less we appreciate all the artistic and technological effort that went in to making something beautiful in the first place--and tragically, the less effort we make to find out about it.

Think of the hundreds of years of cumulative music experience that went into the making of the Stravinsky chord now condensed into a few thousand bytes on a chip on a keyboard, occupying a physical space smaller than the angels on the head of a pin; now it's available to anyone with electricity and a finger that can push the "Orchestra" button. And then when the sound does come out, the only cultural point of reference the "performer" has to it is "the car commercial"--NOT the relative placement of the bassoons and trombones and the piccolo notes that give the chord its character, or even a musical context for the chord. Stripped of its function as an integral piece of a beautiful work of art, the chord has become an ordinary object for everyday use. And something very profound is lost in the translation.

My own technological technique

I admit it. I'm a Fontographer user. Though I lack any training whatsoever in graphic arts and typeface construction, I've acquired an embarrassingly large reputation as a great digital font maker. My real ability is as a composer (depending on whom you ask). How could such a great unwashed as myself acquire such a reputation? Type on the Tube. With typeface specimen books, a scanner, Adobe Streamline, Adobe Illustrator and Fontographer in combination, I've figured out how to get what's on that page to show up more or less in the same form on the tube. I'm sure many professionals in the field think of me in roughly the same way I think of the four-year old at the keyboard in Wal-Mart.

That's all right, though. Of every hundred thousand keyboards sold with Stravinsky's chord on it, maybe one or two will be sold to creative musicians who can do something really original with it; we have to live with listening to the other 99,998. I consider myself one of the 99,998 Fontographer users, struggling to get into the field of two, and you have to live with my fonts until I do. Over the years, I've realized that to get someone else's loving, artistic typeface creation into a Type on the Tube form that does justice to the original, I have to learn more about spacing, kerning, tracking, hinting, and study other typefaces, among other things. Will I ever create a worthy original typeface? Maybe. Probably not, though. Right now I'm more concerned with writing a worthy original cello concerto (after all, I DO have twenty years experience as a composer, and have already written two concerti).

In the same way that a great majority of music being written and recorded nowadays is junk, so are a great majority of digital typefaces being used junk, especially in the freeware and shareware domains. The availability of sophisticated typographical software to everyone, and the availability of huge, cheap collections of junky fonts also means the undiscriminating use of junk typefaces, and junky combinations of good typefaces. Is it worth sifting through the junk to find the pearls?

As a reformed junkmeister (both in the type and musical domains), I can only answer with an unqualified yes. Only please don't make me look at Tekton again, okay?

PBS-Like Pledge Drive: If you like and use this article, please send too much money to Columbia Composers to help finance the performance of music composed by Columbia students. Your voluntary contribution is tax-deductible. Make a check payable to Columbia University, and send to Cynthia Lemiesz, Music Department, 703 Dodge Hall, Columbia University, New York, NY 10027. With your check, please enclose a piece of dead skin, a discarded fingernail, or the floppy portion of the inside of a floppy disk, and insert a postcard that reads "Many blorfs are feasting tonight" in green ink.

DAVID RAKOWSKI teaches music composition and theory at Columbia University, bites his fingernails, lives in a rural setting, doesn't have enough facial hair for a real beard, makes the world's greatest pizza, drinks Thai chili pepper sauces by the spoonful, owns three Macintoshes and a canoe, and is one of Amtrak's major subsidizers. His music is published by C.F. Peters Corporation, 373 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10016. His wife is named Beth, and his cats are named Poom, Drip, and Bly. He has flown into and out of all three of New York's major airports, but not usually simultaneously. He can be reached at 73240.3060@compuserve.com

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