Pioneering Pianist Nancy Garniez Explains Her Commonsensical, Paradigm-Shifting Discoveries in Tonal Refraction
Nancy Garniez’s latest achievement is a groundbreaking discovery in the field of sonics as they relate to memory and performance, which she calls Tonal Refraction. The iconoclastic, individualistic pianist has built an unselfconsciously brilliant career spanning both the worlds of classical and the avant garde. She’s commissioned new works from notable composers like Ursula Mamlok and several others. She continues to coach both professionals and casual players. Her blog is infused with a crushingly sardonic wit, and her commentary on the state of classical music is spot-on. She also happens to be mom to Rachelle Garniez, the multi-instrumentalist chanteuse and Jack White collaborator who might just be the most consistently brilliant songwriter working in any genre today. But ultimately, Tonal Refraction may be Nancy Garniez’s most lasting legacy. In anticipation of presenting her findings at the International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition in Seoul, Korea this summer, she graciously took some time away from her teaching and research to answer a few questions.
Nancy Garniez: If I have learned anything from Tonal Refraction it is that the race to produce quantities of notes with minimal attentiveness, risks distancing players from any sense of real satisfaction in their music making, whether amateur or professional. I am now teaching players of all instruments, all levels, how to adjust their attention to include the elements that trigger the strongest, most reliable responses: I call it Music Inside and Out.
Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: My rudimentary understanding of Tonal Refraction, as you describe it, is that in this new system pitches are associated with color rather than musical notation in order to better enable performers to hear what they’re playing or are about to play. What’s wrong with standard notation? Is color really more memorable than, say, that leger line above B that says “middle C?” Could it simply be that some people respond to color better than notation – or vice versa?
NG: It is perhaps better to think of Tonal Refraction as a process rather than as an alternative to standard notation. The process begins with the individual matching her feeling about a specific pitch to a color, tuning it, as it were, in this visual medium. Sometimes it is a favorite note, sometimes a problematic tone in a specific composition. Usually -but not always – the people involved have no previous association of color with sound. So it is important that the color is generated by the maker of the Refraction, not given as part of a method. In this sense it is a reverse notation since the color corresponds to a level of emotional response based entirely on experience of actual sound rather than being an equivalent to standard notation.
LCC: How about people like me who come from the world of improvised music where the cues are typically audio rather than visual?
NG: I have not worked with people like you, probably because the audio/visual coordination in your case – and Rachelle’s! – is so entirely different from that of a person who is reading music.
LCC: Throughout history, there have been umpteen methods for notating sound, although I’m not aware of color being one of them. One method that comes to mind is the shape-note system popular in the US in the late 1700s and early 1800s. What do you think of that?
NG: These are all evidence of the complexity of rendering the auditory in some other means to facilitate memory or execution…there will always be experimentation along these lines.
LCC: Why Tonal Refraction and not Tonal Reflection? Or is that just a matter of semantics?
NG: The word “refraction” is taken from Proust, who uses it to describe what happens to sensory memory when it is altered by layers of subconscious emotion, association, etcetera. I find it extraordinary that, upon Googling Tonal Refraction, I discovered “refraction” on page 38 of a theory treatise, Tonality and Transformation, by Steven Rings, University of Chicago. He uses the word in ways quite parallel to mine, though not with the literary association, rather with the prismatic image of the coloring of tone by experience. His work is based on the same thinker who inspired and informed my entire life as a teacher, Viktor Zuckerkandl, a psychologist, philologist, musician, who was at the Institute for Advanced Studies back in the 50’s, and whose book Sound and Symbol goes into these intricacies thoroughly, brilliantly, and hopefully, from the standpoint of how to make a meaningful life teaching music.
Incidentally, he met Robert Hutchins on a trans-Atlantic sailing and taught music at St. John’s College in Annapolis – thus he was passionate about music and the human race, not the conservatory subspecies. The second volume of his work is called Man, the Musician.
LCC: One thing that struck me immediately about Tonal Refraction is that it emphasizes the individual. After all, we all perceive sensory input differently, whether that’s audio or visual or tactile or any other kind of stimulus. How specifically is Tonal Refraction tailored to individuals?
NG: Here you are right on the money. The idea of my putting forth my own Tonal Refraction of a composition is not to stimulate your disinclination to go along with it, but rather to come up with your own images in both sound and sight.
LCC: What specifically does Tonal Refraction empower a musician to do that can’t be achieved through simple practice, or exercises, or ear training?
NG: I am amazed at the changes this technique has wrought in my listening, my playing, my teaching. The use of a code of related colors suggests interest in overtones as well as discrete pitches. And I haven’t even mentioned the grid: Tonal Refraction uses two potent elements: First, color for pitch relatedness: I can tell right away by the individual’s selection of colors whether or not she hears tones in relation one to another. Sometimes the power of color to show this is overwhelmingly clear in a way that has nothing to do with music theory or ear training. In one stunning instance, pointing out to a professional pianist how arbitrary his colors were for the C major scale began a conversation about how he hated overtones (they are, after all, inconsistent and therefore quite dangerous on the piano). Having never been taught to be aware of them he blanked them out with audible humming while playing. He no longer does so.
Second, the grid for tonal space decisions – that’s the vertical axis – plotted over a visualization of a time constant, which is the horizontal axis. As an example of tonal space, you might take the opening notes of Fur Elise: Beethoven alternates E and D# several times, starting with the E. These tones are so close together as almost to sound like a single tone with a wide pitch band. I would probably visualize that by changing color within one horizontal bar. But on page 2 the alternation begins with D# and the tones (D# / E) are clearly marked as separately articulated pairs, thus increasing the distance between them, as I understand that marking. I would indicate that by showing them adjacent horizontal bars. In other words, whereas they would be played on the same piano keys in both cases, the auditory distance would not be equivalent and I could emphasize that in my visualization.
;LCC: What is the physiological basis for Tonal Refraction?
NG: I am sure there is one and have perhaps found people to investigate this further. It is a matter of response in time. Musicians experience time in minuscule increments; during countless milliseconds we make more decisions than we can possibly track. Some of these decisions are based on emotional reactions to sounds themselves, as opposed to the composition as an entity. We know about this because of such responses as unbearable muscle tension, the humming I described above, focal dystonia — all of which I have “treated” using Tonal Refraction.
One of my former students, a neuroscientist, has connected me with a colleague, Daniella Schiller, who is working on the neuro-physiological fear response: animals, including humans, respond to fear physically before they are aware of the cause of their fear–it is so immediate a sensory event. Dr. Schiller, having tried Tonal Refraction, agrees that there are profound similarities between these types of event except that music unleashes a veritable torrent of response.
When I first began working with Tonal Refraction a student showed it to a colleague at Albert Einstein College of Medicine who referred me to the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function at Beth Abraham Health Services in the Bronx, a facility for treatment of long-term neurologic disease. Dr. Concetta Tomaino, the Music Therapist with whom Oliver Sacks worked for decades, set me to work with several patients. I undertook this experiment as a volunteer and, after three sessions, achieved results “unlike anything we have seen in music therapy.” in Dr. Tomaino’s words.
Preferring the artistic life I did not continue in that setting.
LCC: Was there a particular problem or issue that sent you off on the road to Tonal Refraction? What initiated this journey of discovery and where did it lead you?
NG: I fell in love with the sound of the piano at age 3 or 4; it was a neighbor’s piano across the hall from our apartment. I had never seen a piano or heard anyone play one. It invaded my imagination; I loved the sound. We moved away, the choir director made my father buy a piano, and I began lessons at 7. It was a huge disappointment – no magic! So I played incessantly but never practiced. Until Mozart. That book of sonatas contained sounds that matched my feeling for the instrument — not all the sounds, just some, here and there. Of course, the discrepancy was baffling and I could not articulate it. For complicated reasons I was unable to pursue the standard training and career of a pianist, though it is the only thing I ever really wanted to master. Then, at age 57 a new invention of physical therapy gave me, for the first time in my adult life, unfettered use of my left arm, so I programmed a solo recital to include the Mozart that had so puzzled me at age 12. In the middle of the night I awoke sure that now I could SHOW people what it was about that music that had stayed with me so clearly. And thus it happened–out of the experience of childhood. It is one of the reasons I take teaching children so seriously.
LCC: Can I play devil’s advocate again and ask if Tonal Refraction has the potential to do much good, why hasn’t it already been adopted in the music education community? Or has it? Are there other people doing what you’re doing, or on the same track at least?
NG: Parental pressure for short-term achievement is calling the shots with increasing authority these days. Competition is all. The commitment to it is deeply entrenched.
LCC: Can I play devil’s advocate again and ask why, when we have Youtube and Soundcloud and a gazillion other places where we can learn stuff by ear, and if we get lost we can rewind, do we even need written notation? After all, an awful lot of people who play music, some of them very well, can’t read it…
NG: I refer back to my story of discovering those particular sounds in Mozart. I had no clue who he was or what it was but I knew I was not alone in the world. Had the music not been printed for me to stumble across all by myself on my piano none of the above could have happened, though I deplore the reliance of the classical music community on visual analysis rather than on auditory vitality – the recording industory has also been subservient to that order of priorities.
LCC: As you know, in Hindu mythology, certain pitches as well as certain colors are associated with the various chakras in the human body. I’m not aware of what if any mathematical correlation there might be between sonic and spectral frequencies in that system. Is there one in yours? In other words, does the correspondence between pitches have a mathematically corresponding color shift?
NG: These are issues that Zuckerkandl treats very beautifully. My work relies on the variability of acoustical events and the perception of them. In this respect it is not attractive to most theorists seeking mathematical formulas, though I feel the work is inherently mathematical. My brother, a mathematician, saw that right away, though he knows nothing about music.
LCC: I should say “congratulations” for being selected to present your findings at the upcoming International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition in Seoul this coming August. What specifics are you going to unveil there?
NG: Thanks!! No one is more surprised than I at the proposal having been selected. The proposal seems to address many of your questions quite directly: “The study aimed to determine whether individuals could be made aware of their involuntary experience of tone relatedness, demonstrated by Viktor Zuckerkandl (Sound and Symbol) to be integral to the musical life of persons with or without training; and, if so, whether it would make any difference.
Seventy-two individuals, including professional musicians, amateurs, listeners, and children, were seen for three weekly sessions of 1 ¼ hours. Session I: Each was asked to identify a tone that had particular meaning for them, then to choose out of hundreds of colored pencils a color to match that tone. Proceeding then to relate that tone/color either to a scale, or directly to the tones in a specific composition of their own choosing, the individual drew the tones on a grid, as if depicting vibrations. With the horizontal axis of the grid corresponding to time measured objectively, the vertical axis registered degrees of rise and fall as perceived by the inner ear, i.e., subjectively, often deviating significantly from standard notation. Continuing to depict the composition the individual worked in silence, relating to the score without relating physically to an instrument or actual sound. Session II: A continuation of the work. By Session III 67% of individuals already registered a clear response, generally manifested in improved reading; and better, more confident coordination in instrumental or compositional performance. Of this group 13% presented acute physical or psychiatric symptoms; with the exception of only one individual in this sub-group, the results were dramatically restorative.
For 30% of participants the process seemed to have no evident relevance while, for 3%, the first two sessions evoked such psychological pain as to preclude completing the study. Representative samples of work from all three groups will be shown. This research has direct implications about relating visual to auditory experience. Whereas failing to account for the difference between fully resonating sound and the discrete symbols of standard notation risks alienating the reader from innate musical sense, a system that translates auditory experience into visual terms may restore the connection.”
LCC: Being familiar with your blog, I’ve noticed that you have a prophetic streak. You’ve been a champion of live performance and live recording versus studio recordings, and you’ve also gone to bat for community-based performances and ensembles, both ideas which have validated themselves in recent years. To what degree, do you think, or would you venture to say, is Tonal Refraction an “I told you so” moment?
NG: It’s good of you to say that and thanks for reading the blog. After a while I got used to being a bit ahead of the pack, having noticed already in the 50’s that recordings and television were going to pose problems in terms of attentiveness and sound quality, which influenced my approach to programming. My teaching has always been experimental, including some far-out work in ensemble and in piano at Mannes Preparatory Division until the influx of Eastern Europeans in the 80’s wiped away all trace of what was creatively American in approaches to music education. I had to stop even pretending to accomplish anything against the Sovietization of classical music. Alas. But I still have acive contact with some extraordinary young musical minds. Most of my support has come from your generation and younger with the exception of a few highly perceptive artist teachers here and there.
LCC: Thanks for the enlightening chat! I’d like to remind those of you in New York that Nancy Garniez also puts on a very enlightening piano salon in a welcoming, intimate Upper West Side space: the current focus of these early evening house concerts is Beethoven sonatas and the fine points of the composer’s rhythms. Details may be found here.
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