Monday, July 19, 2010

Measurements Of Expression

The music desk's been my hangout for the past five weeks, and there're two edited songs 'Corazón Fugitivo' and 'Yo Soy El Sonero' sitting smugly on disk to show for it. A vast chunk of the work has been in getting each instrument track aligned; a weakness of computer-based digital recording is latency, where there is a delay in the delivery of music to the recording musician. This delay can vary up to twenty, even forty, milliseconds which means a newly-recorded track is slightly out of sync with older ones.

It not might seem like a lot, but given that the effect is cumulative, and that the ear begins to distinguish two sounds of similar loudness as individual ones from thirty milliseconds onwards (see Haas effect), the alignment of instrumental tracks becomes a key qualitative issue.

That's at the coarse level.

At the fine detail level in terms of artistic interpretation, the single millisecond is King. No-one I've yet encountered can listen to two examples and objectively say, "that's a millisecond later than the other", but I'd contend that that's not how a millisecond's variance is heard. My suggestion is that such minute fractions of time are detectable, and that they are interpretable by the listener in terms of emotion.

If I may take Catie's flute relative to the other instruments as an example: one thousandth of a second (or even fraction thereof) late to early, changes the feeling of her performance from sluggish, disinterested, passive, laid back, mechanical, keen, energised, nervous, pushy, to single-minded. Ten milliseconds is the span of that gamut from end to end. One day after the CD is done, I shall put these up on the salsa website as audio examples.

This concept of fine timing has tremendous bearing on the professional dancer, who trains long and hard for consistency, precision and accuracy - because a millisecond in time, is a millimetre in movement. I've found very few salsa professionals capable of communicating feeling through their bodies in the way that ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov did in a scene in White Nights; he is, for me, dance's equivalent of Maria Callas.

Lest I end up sounding too high-brow, I chose these two because they are paragons of their Art. It is not enough for me to be dazzled by high-speed spins and 'armography'; Wonderment is an easier feeling to evoke than Longing or bittersweet Joy - Wonderment doesn't require the performer to reach out and resonate deeply with their audience.

Salsa has a rich heritage and doesn't deserve to be short-changed with "it's only a social dance" as an argument for a less-than-exemplary emotionally-engaging performance. I look forward to the day when our displays in salsa-the-dance match the millimeter-commanding expressiveness of Baryshnikov. And why shouldn't we expect it to be so, since our evocative performances of salsa-the-music already stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Greats of other genres?

We certainly don't make excuses for Beny Moré, Hector Lavoe and Ismael Rivera as being "only social singers".

Yeo Loo Yen