I had an assignment to listen to a performance by an orchestra of Ravel's Bolero. since I don't really have an ear for critical, or analytical listening, I decided to approach it as an English assignment; Enjoy.
I should probably mention that I am partially deaf in my right ear. And, as it happens, I am just getting over an ear infection in my left ear. So, to be honest, I listened to this 3 times without being able to hear the difference between the first several instruments; I have never really been able to identify timbre within a given family of instruments, besides guitar (i.e. acoustic vs classical). I finally found a filming of a recording of Bolero by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which helped me see the different instruments.
Link here: http://vimeo.com/7881392 (performance starts around 11min 30sec)
Obviously I knew from the list of instruments in the assignment description that Flute was first, but like I said, I cannot tell the difference between most woodwinds. I was even tricked by the video, wherein a flautist appears to be playing his flute (although he may in fact just be keeping time or something) but the camera then pans to reveal the clarinetist is actually the one playing. The instruments that stood out to me, as it turns out, were the switches between instrument families (with the exception of the Saxophone, which I have only just learned is not a member of the brass family).
The Soprano saxophone is recognizable to me because of my grandmother's extensive collection of Kenny G (I don't think I ever heard her listen to anything but Kenny G and Richard Clayderman). But, I fear I lack a vocabulary to describe its tone. Except that it reminds me of the soundtrack on the animated version of "The Wind and the Willows".
The Piccolo always surprises me at how very high-pitched it is. I was able to recognize it when it finally came in, but I actually mistook the second entry of the flute for it, because i forget how very piercing the its tone is.
The next instrument I was able to recognize was the Trombone, which is unique because of its "slide" tone, where the notes are not so much/always "jumped" between. it reminds me of an elephant's—none in particular—trumpeting sound. It also has a very wide range that starts to sound like a tuba toward the end of its solo.
Lastly, the strings are recognizable because of their unique style, which is a mixture of quick, clippy notes and notes that are held out longer. They also have a wid versatility in volume, and the vibrato is also characteristic.
The mood of the piece make me think of a cadence for a militia. The drums feel like a marching beat, and the piccolo always makes me think of civil war movies, though it is more relaxed than a marching cadence.
The tempo remains the same for the majority of the piece, and the various different instruments remind me of the idea of sampling, or demonstration. As if the composer were trying to pick the right instrument to compose the piece for, and held auditions, to which all kinds of anthropomorphized instruments show up, and sort of try to one up each other in the rehearsal room, eventually forming gangs based on their familial ties, and ultimately ending with a battle.
The intensity builds dramatically toward the end of the piece. but it is a very subtle build in the rest of it. When the groups all come in, and the volume increases, is the first time that I, as a listener, become aware that it has gradually been building up to that point.