Classical music, in a way that separates itself from quite literally every other genre of music known to man, relies on dynamic contrast for a good dose of its greatness. There’s some cool quiet bits on Dark Side of the Moon or whatever, but it’s not really a significant contribution to what makes that album amazing. The best song on that album, at least in my opinion, is “Brain Damage,” it’s essentially the same volume the entire time, and it’s rad as hell. But imagine, say, the transition from the scherzo to the finale in Beethoven 5 being one dynamic. It’s ridiculously well-written, so it’s not like it would be terrible, but a whole lot of what makes it great is the crescendo that brings the whole orchestra in like a freight train.
Giovanni Gabrieli is generally credited with the idea of writing dynamic markings into music, beginning with his gorgeous Sonata pian e forte, which hey, translates to Soft and Loud Sonata. Through the Baroque and Classical periods dynamics were generally kept in a relatively confined box between piano and forte, but the Romantic period brought about the dynamic excesses that fit snugly with the rest of what was happening – Tschaikovsky has some “ffff” markings that are strangely fitting for that high-strung bastard. From there, all bets were off.
The problem with dynamic contrast is simple: what the hell should I set the stereo volume to? If I set it too low, I won’t hear all the quiet, peaceful shit that comprises a healthy portion of a given work. But if I set it too high, my eardrums might explode when that “ffff” bit comes around. The truth is, there are no good answers, because there is no consistency to the way things are recorded or processed. The Beethoven Symphony set with Vanska and Minnesota, for example, has an almost ludicrously wide dynamic spectrum, and the last thing you wanna do is miss any of the music, because it’s fucking spectacular.
This is why I gave up on having great eardrums years ago. I’d rather err on the side of too loud, which is why I’m sure I’ve earned everything bad that’s ever happened to me through the bad karma of noisiness. I’ve tried headphones, and they do their job, but it’s not as appealing. I guess I’m writing this to apologize in advance to my soon-to-be neighbors, who aren’t actually reading this because they have no idea who I am or what this is.
But take a listen to the video above. The Pittsburgh Symphony is my favorite band in the land, and their brass section is the main reason why. They play with so much contrast. Their sound, collectively and individually, often walks right up to the line of being crass and unseemly, but they balance that with breathtaking control on the softer bits. The video contains two pieces, both of them standards among the brass quintet nerds: Canzona Bergamasca and Contrapunctus no. 1. The Bach in particular has the magic dynamic sauce I’m looking for. Crank that shit up and enjoy.