Posts Tagged ‘tone’
Women are natural masters of tone. Their voices are extensions of their bodies and feelings – from cooing and whispering to babies, to the murmurs and cries of love making, to the exactingly regulated interview or phone voice of a business professional, to the bark of a drill sergeant or the yell of a basketball coach, to the whining shared grievances and inebriated hilarity of girls night out, to the plaintive pain of a close-miked blues singer, to the glass-shattering beltings of an old Broadway pro, to the moans of mourners the world over… Men have no equivalent for such emotional precision. (We do have other advantages.)
Tone is as fundamental to art as it is to life. It is about relationships. It is about attitudes. It has a billion nuances. Tone subverts speech. It is pre-literate: dogs, like newborn infants, get the message. Like breathing and heartbeat, tone springs from sources preceding the analytical brain.
Each scrap of civilization is permeated by tonalities. And each separate civilization has its own dominant tone. Choosing a tone, we can actually choose what sort of civilization we wish to live in — what sort of civilization we are creating, second by second, from the ground up (actually, from the underground up).
Tone is interwoven with the materials and techniques peculiar to each craft, each art. The sounds of musical instruments are analogous to those of the human voice — bestowing limitless expressive possibilities. Musical fundamentals – harmony, melody and rhythm — open into endless variations of emotion, attitude, relationship: carriers of thought and feeling, from sudden joy to the wisp of a half-forgotten memory. Essential to this conversation is the artist’s sensitivity to the ears of his listeners. Refined artistry implies respect for people’s receptive capacities.
And tone is interactive. New Orleans jazz derived from street processions before it moved indoors to dance halls. The early jazzmen and their listeners were conditioned by both. At certain events one early bandleader is said to have occasionally surprised everyone by shouting “Feet!” – an instruction to his players to suddenly cut the volume so far they could actually hear the shuffling feet of the dancers.
Tone is crucial in writing. The element hardest to teach, it remains after everything else has been fixed. After each essay has been structured, each meaning parsed, each meaning clarified, the voice of the author, and his fictional characters, is what finally counts. It is what we hear below the surface of language — what we ultimately care about in a person or a book. The off-putting snarl, the simmering poetic glow, the endearing humor: tone is the attitude of the speaker toward his listeners and himself.
Tone is the light in the eye: the energy radiating from a person – what we really take away from an encounter.
Representations of the human face or body, in all the visual media, include great examples of tonal artistry — translating the invisible into the visible. Titian painted many scenes from classical myths involving nudes; many sacred scenes in the Christian tradition, involving more discreet clothing; and many portraits. His women often present a thoroughly mixed message: their neutral stare, the amount and distribution of skin revealed, and the sumptuous coloration and warm compositions, combine to make his subjects appear, at once, as holy as the Virgin and as sensual and shapely as a Venetian courtesan. Rather than presenting these as opposites, he presents, at least in some cases, a mixed message. As important as what they do or do not reveal of their breasts is the care the artist gives to the sumptuous fabrics and delicate lacework around or over the chests, arms and bodies.
For me, Titian is using all his matchless talent and vast technical means to express the multi-layered, multi-valent wonder that is Woman. Hiding while revealing, Titian enrolls us in the mystery, leaving it to us to make what we will of his women’s inscrutable faces. This great Renaissance painter stood astride two intersecting epochs — the religious and the classical. He was trained in the old, tightly restrained, exacting tempura technique; yet he pioneered the new, freer, emotionally expressive medium of oil and impasto on canvas. Such dualities fused to inform his work, but did not determine his vision. Whoever happened to be sitting for him, in whatever moods, and whatever myths and fashions might have shaped the story telling, what counts for us, five centuries hence, is the look of the work – an aura of person-hood that confounds interpretation: a nobility of tone emanating to us from the canvas, delivered to us out of the artist’s own being.
In photography, especially of people, whether clothed or unclothed, the word “tone” also applies to technical choices involving lighting, contrast, paper color, etc. Such choices are necessary but not sufficient means en route to the work’s larger tone and overtones. The attitude and intent of the photographer affect his choices of dramatic stage lighting vs. soft shadowless light – deep shadows for striking layouts in the magazine era, for instance, vs. subtle grey-scale values for intimate personal portraiture. Layers of over-civilized European irony permeate the tough commercial nudes of glitterati like Helmut Newton or Karl Lagerfeld. Whereas the nudes of gentle humanists, alive in a gentler age, such as Imogene Cunningham or Paul Strand, are all about tenderness.
How we see is who we are. Inevitably, our tone, our voice, is a projection of our inner state — our inner self.