Monday, June 14, 2010

The Vuvuzela: A World Cup Fascination

I don't know about you, but in my circles, it seems that the biggest buzz surrounding the 2010 World Cup has to do with how annoyed people are. "I have to watch the games with the sound turned down," laments one of my Facebook friends. "It sounds like a swarm of bees," complains another. All this wingeing about something I had never heard of a couple of days ago.

Of course, like any sports fan, I was not unacquainted with the "instrument" of torture itself, but I had always thought it was merely called the "stadium horn," a sad, utilitarian label if ever there was one. But thanks to the miracle of wikipedia, I have since learned everything I wanted to know about the vuvuzela, as noble and poetic a moniker as I've ever heard.

Image source: Berndt Meyer

But my fascination would have ended with the word itself if one of my Twitter peeps, CĂ©line Graciet (whose excellent translation blog, by the way, is certainly among the best-named in the galaxy), had not alerted me to a piece of music written for vuvuzela.

The composition in question, Breaking balls Sonata, by a certain Soymalau Baptisti Enculado* (KV 423), is a simple yet subtly pleasing work that plays to the instrument's strengths (or should that be "strength"?) rather than forcing it to stretch outside of its comfort drone zone. (Not having a vuvuzela on hand, I played the piece on my trombone and found that while the tone was perhaps somewhat mellower than ideal, the piece works quite well on brass rather than plastic instruments.)

The work opens with an uncomplicated four-note figure followed by a bar of rest, presumably to allow the performer to get a really good breath, given the demands of the rest of the piece. The sonata proper starts in bar six, based quite obviously on the opening material, but with the indication forte.** The work's structure, an AA form (as indicated by the repeat sign), mirrors the thematic material in its straightforwardness, and Enculado gives no dynamic indications other than the opening forte, from which we can presume that he meant to give the performer a great deal of interpretive latitude. The work ends with a bar of rest, just another example of Enculado's subtle compositional style, which few concert-goers will truly appreciate unless they read along with the score.

One very interesting matter of note concerns the actual pitch used in the work. As anyone with perfect pitch who has listened to a football/soccer match knows (or anyone else curious enough to run to the piano whenever they hear an interesting sound and want to find its pitch—not that I know anyone like that…) the vuvuzela's basic pitch is a B-flat. And yet this work's note is A.*** This strange discrepancy suggests two unusual and likely hitherto unknown details about the vuvuzela. First is that the pitch standard used by most vuvuzela players is A=466 (i.e., a whole semi-tone higher than the modern concert pitch of A=440). Hence, we can deduce that, much like the Baroque trombone 400 years ago, the vuvuzela is thought of as being in A at 466; however, at A440, the note that actually sounds is B-flat. Secondly, although the usually reliable wikipedia states that the vuvuzela originated only 40 years ago, the fact that its pitch standard is likely 466 would seem to indicate a much earlier origin, perhaps as early as the 17th century in Spain or Italy.

Of course, this is all somewhat speculative for now and, admittedly, based on the analysis of a single sonata. One can only hope that the recent World Cup spotlight trained on this instrument—beloved by so many yet steeped in controversy—will encourage musicologists bring to light other works for the vuvuzela so that the questions raised here may be settled with more certainty.

N.B.: I would never presume to perform the "Breaking balls Sonata" myself, especially since I don't even own a vuvuzela, which is absolutely essential to do the work justice. However, I did find an excerpt of a very respectable performance on YouTube (and I think we can all agree, that an excerpt is plenty in this case), which I include below.

*I suspect that this is not the composer's real name and, indeed, may be a rather naughty pseudonym.

**The expected dynamic is, of course, fortissimo, but this is likely an example of Enculado's subtle sense of humour.

***Another odd fact is that the piece is written an octave above the instrument's sounding pitch, though it is possible that this is simply convention.

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