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Exploring texture and timbre with Jordan Pal’s Iris

Music is made up of many parts, which we call its elements. One of these elements is called texture, which is the way the different musical voices interact with each other. Another is called timbre, which is the quality or colour of the sound.

The piece Iris by TSO’s RBC Affiliate Composer Jordan Pal is a wonderful way to experience how these musical elements can be used to paint pictures using sound. The title of the piece refers to iridescence, that magical, rainbow effect that shimmers, glows, and changes as it scatters light.

Here’s what Pal has to say about the way he uses texture and timbre to create a musical picture we can see with our ears.

“I use texture by layering complementary sounds on top of each other. This creates a detailed web of sounds and rhythms. Layering and adding instruments allows me to play with densities in sound. As the music gets more intense, I can fill out the sonic space with more instruments and colours. As the energy decreases, I can subtract sounds.”

A TSO percussionist drags a cello bow across a sheet of steel during a performance of Iris.
Steel Sheet
“This is not a conventional instrument. We made it out of a large sheet of steel bought from a heating and cooling company. You can hit it, scrape it, shake it, or even bow it with a cello bow. It produces many wonderful sounds, from deafening thunder to what sounds like whales undersea.”
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Harp
“The harp helps create the blanket of sound you hear throughout the opening passage of Iris. I’ve asked the harpist to perform bisbigliando, a technique wherein the player rapidly performs a few repeated notes to create a soft blurring effect.”
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Celeste
“Like the harp, the celeste performs a repeated pattern that slowly changes and evolves with the woodwinds over the course of this passage. It’s used as a colour instrument, helping to create that lustrous sheen we hear.”

Use the Melody Tracker below to follow the principal line for the first part of Iris. The principal line is the main musical idea, or the musical voice that is speaking the loudest. As you listen for the principal line, you will also notice how the instruments listed above are used to create that shimmering iridescent sound quality.

Recorded live at Roy Thomson Hall on March 4, 2017, by Music Director Peter Oundjian and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

performance of Inuit Games at Roy Thomson Hall
Teachers: Download supplemental resources and lesson plans.
Grades 1—3
Grades 4—6