Keys, Strings, and Valves: Theorizing Instrumental Spaces

By Jonathan De Souza (University of Western Ontario)

Author’s note:  This blog post builds on my book Music at Hand: Instruments, Bodies, and Cognition (Oxford University Press, 2017).  The book examines body-instrument interaction in various musical styles, combining music theory, psychology, and phenomenology.

The hall is still.  The pianist rubs his hands, then raises them, inhaling as he prepares to strike the opening chord.  His hands drop and… laughter ripples through the audience.  Clearly, this is no ordinary recital.  The “pianist” is the comedian Rowan Atkinson.  Starting over, he launches into Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata.  The performance is full of energy, his fingers flying and his face full of expression.  Only one thing is missing:  the piano.

Atkinson is miming.  His exaggerated gestures and facial contortions supplement the sound, emphasizing theatrical or visual aspects of instrumental performance.  Yet this routine—like his invisible drum kit sketch—might also call attention to the absent instrument.  It’s easy to take instruments for granted, especially familiar ones like the piano.  But as Martin Heidegger argues, awareness of a tool can be heightened when the tool is missing or broken, when everyday expectations are interrupted.  Paradoxically, then, making instruments invisible helps show how they mediate instrumentalists’ actions.  With the “air piano,” for example, Atkinson’s hands travel along a horizontal line, sweeping left and right.  Even this virtual keyboard constitutes a space for embodied performance.

How are instrumental spaces organized?  How are they traversed in performance?  How do they present pitches in particular locations, or according to particular dimensions?

Transformational theory offers one way to approach such questions.  In general, transformational theory uses mathematical groups to model diverse musical “spaces.”  These spaces might involve pitches or chords, but also rhythmic patterns, timbral spectra, contrapuntal permutations, textural streams, banjo picking patterns, and so on.  Near the beginning of Generalized Musical Intervals and Transformations, for example, David Lewin shows how chromatic pitches resemble the integers (Z)—that is, the infinite set of all positive and negative whole numbers.  We can imagine notes, like numbers, going up and down endlessly, into regions too high and too low to hear.  And we can measure the difference between any two pitches (or integers), counting the steps between them.  Alternatively, Lewin treats the chromatic pitch classes as a twelve-element cycle (Z12), like the numbers on a clock face or the months of the year.  The huge chromatic descent from the Pathétique’s introduction would represent smooth movement through either space, with each step corresponding to the interval –1.

De Souza-PAIG Ex 1

Example 1.  Beethoven, Piano Sonata no. 8 in C minor, “Pathétique,” op. 13, mvt. i, m. 10

Piano keys resemble the set of integers, too.  Any real keyboard—from a toy piano to a concert grand—has a finite number of keys.  But conceptually it could continue indefinitely.  (This is demonstrated by another quasi-Heideggerian comedy routine, where Victor Borge keeps reaching for nonexistent high keys.)  Because each octave has the same arrangement of keys, we might also imagine a cycle of twelve “key classes” (see Example 2).  Either way, keyboard space is further defined by an asymmetrical pattern of white and black notes.  At the piano, we might say, 12 is 7 + 5.  This supports a distinctive kind of stepwise motion, since a player might move one “step” in white-key or black-key space (e.g., G-flat to E-flat would be –1 in black-key space, as shown in Example 2b).  Of course, keyboard patterns typically correlate with pitch patterns—but these associations can come apart, with prepared piano or keyboard MIDI controllers, and we can model instrumental patterns apart from their expected sounds.

De Souza-PAIG Ex 2

Example 2.  (a) Key-class space, and (b) a transformation network showing same-color adjacencies (white-key and black-key space)

Key color relates closely to fingering.  The standard “French” fingering for the chromatic scale, for example, keeps the thumb on white notes, letting the longer index and middle fingers reach for the raised black keys (see fingering in Example 1).  These finger-key associations impose kinesthetic groupings (12 as 2 + 3 + 2 + 2 + 3), which pianists generally hide through an even touch.  Aspects of keyboard space, though, are central to certain pieces—for example, Chopin’s Étude in G-flat major, op. 10, no. 5, where the melody floats along the black keys (see Example 3).  (Lang Lang mischievously highlights the étude’s black-keyness by playing the right hand with an apple or orange.)

De Souza-PAIG Ex 3

Example 3.  Chopin, Étude in G-flat major, “Black Keys,” op. 10, no. 5, mm. 1–4

If keyboard space is linear, other instrumental spaces can be multidimensional.  String instruments like the violin or guitar juxtapose two dimensions:  players can move along or across the strings.  When playing a chromatic scale on the violin, most finger moves travel along a single string but with occasional cross-string breaks.  For a chromatic scale in Bruch’s first Violin Concerto, the soloist’s fingers ascend along the D string and the A string, then climb further up the E string.  Soon after this scalar passage, though, the solo part features rapid, repeated string crossing.  With these two orthogonal dimensions, the fingerboard might be understood as a space of finger/string coordinates, analogous to the Cartesian plane (Z × Z, see Example 4).  Again, the topology of this space is conceptually independent of any particular tuning.

De Souza-PAIG Ex 4

Example 4.  A partial map of fingerboard/fretboard space.  Each node’s label combines a finger-position number and a string number.  Horizontal arrows move along strings, while vertical arrows move across strings.  Though real instruments have a finite number of finger-positions and strings, the theoretical space remains unbounded (for further discussion, see my forthcoming article in the Journal of Music Theory 62/1).

Trumpet valves offer a different kind of space.  While piano keys activate a sound when pressed, valves—whether up or down—help facilitate sounds produced by breath and lips.  And where each piano key is associated with a single pitch, a valve combination opens up a field of sonic possibilities.  Mathematically, this valve space combines three two-element cycles (Z2 × Z2 × Z2).  There are eight possible valve patterns here, in four inversionally related pairs (e.g., ●●● inverts to ◦◦◦, ●◦◦ inverts to ◦●●, etc.).  Moreover, these patterns also parallel eight valve-changing operations, moves or intervals in valve space.  Each operation can be represented by three plus or minus signs, which either keep (+) or change (−) each valve’s position:  (+ + +) keeps all valve positions the same, (− − −) changes all of them, (+ − +) changes only the middle valve, and so on.  These possibilities can be laid out in a table (Example 5), or a spatial network (Example 6).

De Souza-PAIG Ex 5

Example 5.  Table of valve combinations and operations.  While this is an exhaustive list of valve patterns, it is possible to define other transformations in valve space (e.g., a rotation transformation could take ●◦◦ to ◦●◦, etc.; or a retrograde transformation could take ●●◦ to ◦●●).

De Souza-PAIG Ex 6

Example 6.  A network for valve space, showing selected operations.  Dashed arrows correspond to inversion (− − −).

Again, formalizing this space can help us analyze instrumental patterns that might be inaudible or deliberately concealed.  The open valve position, somewhat like a violin’s open strings, often has a distinctive position here.  For example, a descending chromatic scale from a high G (◦◦◦) involves an interesting additive process (12 as 3 + 4 + 5).

De Souza-PAIG Ex 7

Example 7.  Transformation network showing valve positions (and transformations) for a descending chromatic scale on trumpet

This pattern appears without the A-flat in Jean-Baptiste Arban’s variations on “The Carnival of Venice” (Var. 1, m. 12), making the sequence of valve operations slightly more consistent (see Example 8).  The passage uses four valve patterns, but (with one early exception) only two valve operations:  change-2nd-valve (+ − +) and keep-3rd-valve (− − +).  Alternating between (+ − +) and (− − +) creates a four-element cycle (see Example 9).  Repeating both operations twice, that is, returns to the starting valve pattern (i.e., (+ − +)(− − +)(+ − +)(− − +) = (+ + +)).

De Souza-PAIG Ex 8

Example 8.  Transformation network for Arban, “The Carnival of Venice,” Var. 1, m. 12

De Souza-PAIG Ex 9

Example 9.  Network showing two (+ − +)(− − +) cycles, related by inversion (dashed arrows).  The cycle on the left relates to the preceding example.  Such cycles can be created by alternating any two valve operations (not including (+ + +)).  For example, (+ − +)(− − −) and (− − +)(− − −) cycles are also implicit in this network.

Such patterns help make Arban’s showpiece highly idiomatic, despite its difficulty.  In the final variation, every other note has the open valve position (◦◦◦).  Each operation is repeated twice in a row, immediately undoing itself.  The variation, in fact, can be played with a single finger!  This break with conventional technique directs attention to the valves, to the instrument itself.

A transformational approach to instrumental space, of course, has its limits.  It is productively supplemented by ethnographic, organological, or phenomenological methods, since it models instruments and performative actions in a relatively abstract or idealized way.  Formalized keyboard space, in a sense, is just as imaginary as Atkinson’s air piano.  Still, transformational thinking can support analysis of characteristic instrumental moves and stimulate reflection on instrumental topology.  And at the same time, these explorations continue Lewin’s own interest in bringing performative perspectives into music theory, and his desire to theorize musical space from the inside.

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SMT Preview

By Edward Klorman (McGill University) and Nathan Pell (The Graduate Center, CUNY)

As we look forward to the upcoming SMT meeting in Arlington, PAIG has surveyed the program and abstracts to identify papers that pertain to performance topics, including those involving the analysis of recorded performances.  Below is a list of the papers we were able to identify; if you know of any we overlooked, please let us know.

In a future blog post, we will share some reflections on the papers listed below.  If you attend any of these papers and are inclined to share a few thoughts (even just a sentence or two), please email Nathan Pell by November 15.

 

Thursday 2:00–5:00 pm
Notation and Performance:  Influence, Intersection, and Interpretation (Studio D)

  • Solomon Guhl-Miller (Temple University), “The Early History of Modal Rhythm: What Theory Tells us about Practice”
  • Heather J. Holmquest (Buena Vista University), “Choosing Musica Ficta: The Modern Tradition of Historically Informed Performance Practice”
  • Carolann Buff (Indiana University), “In Search of the Ars Magis Subtiliter
  • Adam Knight Gilbert (University of Southern California), “Juxta artem conficiendi: Notating and Performing Polyphony in Solmization”
  • Megan Kaes Long (Oberlin College Conservatory), “The Mensural Ambivalence of Repeat Signs”
  • Karen Cook (University of Hartford), Loren Ludwig (Independent Scholar), Valerie Horst (Independent Scholar) Respondent Panel

Thursday 2:45–3:30 pm
Revisiting Prolongation and Dissonance in Jazz (Salons 1 & 2)

  • Joon Park (University of Arkansas), “Theorizing Outside Playing in the Improvised Jazz Solo”

Thursday 3:30–5:00 pm
Instruments and Transformations (Salons 1 & 2)

  • Jonathan De Souza (University of Western Ontario), “Instrumental Transformations in Heinrich Biber’s Mystery Sonatas”
  • Toru Momii (Columbia University), “Sounds of the Cosmos:  A Transformational Approach to Gesture in Shō Performance”

Thursday 9:45–10:30 pm
Rhythm and Meter in Popular Genres (Studio E)

  • Mitchell Ohriner (University of Denver), “(Why) Does Talib Kweli Rhyme Off-Beat?”

Friday 12:15–1:45 pm
SMT Performance and Analysis Interest Group (Studio A)

  • Bonnie McAlvin (The Graduate Center, CUNY), “Using Embodiment Schema to Help Student Performers Relate to Their Theory Work”
  • Jonathan Dunsby (Eastman School of Music), “Three Case Studies In Search of Holistic Performance Research”
  • Wing Lau (University of Arkansas), “Paradox of Interpretation and the Resolved(?) Dualism”

Friday 2:00–5:00 pm
Special Invited Session:  Models in Improvisation, Performance, and Composition (Salons 1 & 2)

  • Philippe Canguilhem (Université de Toulouse), “The Teaching and Practice of Improvised Counterpoint in the Renaissance”
  • Giorgio Sanguinetti (University of Rome–Tor Vergata), “Who Invented Partimenti? Newly Discovered Evidences of Partimento Practices in Rome and Naples”
  • Elaine Chew (Queen Mary University of London), “Notating the Performed and (usually) Unseen”

Friday 8:00–9:30, 10:00–10:30 pm
Considering Coltrane:  Analytical Perspectives after Fifty Years (Studio E)

  • Barry Long (Bucknell University), “‘The Black Blower of the Now’:  Coltrane, King, and Crossing Rhetorical Boundaries”
  • Brian Levy (New England Conservatory of Music), “‘Pursuance’ and ‘Miles’ Mode’:  Untangling the Complex Harmonic and Rhythmic Interactions of John Coltrane’s Classic Quartet”
  • Milton Mermikides (University of Surrey), “Changes over Time: The Analysis, Modeling, and Development of Micro-Rhythmic Expression through Digital Technology”

Saturday 10:30–11:15 am
Theorizing Musicality (Salons 1 & 2)

  • Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis (University of Arkansas), “Theory, Analysis, and Characterizations of the Musical”

Saturday 10:30 am–11:15 pm
The Music of George Friedrich Haas (Studio E)

  • Landon Morrison (McGill University/Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technologies), “Playing with Shadows:  The Reinjection Loop in Georg Friedrich Haas’s Live-Elektronische Musik

Lost in Translation, starring David Lewin and Four Singers; or, What Happens at the End of Schubert’s “Morgengruss”?

Benjamin Binder (Duquesne University)

David Lewin’s legendary 1974 monograph-length analysis of Schubert’s “Morgengruss” (Morning Greeting)—the eighth song of Die schöne Müllerin, D. 795 (1823)—has at long last been published (posthumously, in 2015), and I’ve recently written an extensive review (forthcoming in Nineteenth-Century Music Review).  The analysis is magnificent:  engaging, insightful, provocative—everything we’d expect from Lewin writing on music and text.  But, in my review, I express some concerns about the relationship in his argument between analysis, performance, and interpretation, particularly when it comes to understanding the song’s conclusion.  Here I’d like to go a little farther with that critique.

“Morgengruss” opens with the miller lad greeting the object of his desire from beneath her window, at which point she immediately turns away; thereafter, he stands from afar and cajoles her to reappear.  The final lines of the song cap off his urgent plea, but the precise meaning of Müller’s words is impossible to pin down:

Die Lerche wirbelt in der Luft,
Und aus dem tiefen Herzen ruft
Die Liebe Leid und Sorgen.

For the first line, I would give, as most translations do, something like “the lark warbles in the air.”[1]  For the final two lines, the grammatical subject has to be “die Liebe,” since the verb “ruft” is singular.[2]  One could simplify the word order as follows:

Und die Liebe ruft Leid und Sorgen aus dem tiefen Herzen.

“And love calls pain and sorrow from the depths of the heart,” more or less.  But two unanswerable questions remain.  First, whose love and heart are we talking about—the miller lad’s, or the maiden’s?  Second, is this love calling forth pain and sorrow (that is, bringing them into existence), or is it calling those feelings away (that is, getting rid of them)?

As I discuss in my review, there are many plausible interpretations and translations here.  Lewin, however, doesn’t draw any attention to the ambiguity of the lines and presents his own translation as definitive:  “and, from the heart’s depths, call love’s pain and cares.”[3]  For Lewin, the whole point of the song is for the miller lad to finally recognize that the turbulent pain and cares that he bears within his loving but unrequited heart are what might have scared the maiden away at the beginning of the song.  To greatly oversimplify Lewin’s analytical argument:  on our first hearing of Schubert’s strophic setting, the moments in the melody that grab our attention most are the striking high F in m. 9 and the E in m. 16 to which it ultimately resolves, as the miller lad agrees (temporarily) to leave the maiden’s window.  But by the time we hear the final strophe, our attention to the F–E connection fades, and we focus more on the D that concludes the first phrase of the song in m. 10, not to be resolved definitively until the C in m. 17 (on “Sorgen”).  In Lewin’s reading, then, Schubert’s miller lad comes to realize by the end that his own “Leid und Sorgen” indeed pulled him toward the maiden’s window in the first place.

Morgengruss Score

Singers performing this song have to decide for themselves how to translate the final two lines and express their own dramatic conception of the song’s conclusion.  As Lewin himself reminded us many times, a performance is itself an analysis, an interpretation, and can articulate musical and dramatic insights and perceptions at least as well as the written word.  So I find it striking that Lewin never mentions any performances that might have influenced his own particular hearing of the song, especially its ending.  That leads me to wonder how Lewin’s interpretation might sound in performance, and moreover, what performances Lewin might have had in his ear when he drafted the Morgengruss essay in 1974.

It turns out that Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore released a recording of Die schöne Müllerin in 1972, and to my mind, that performance translates the end of the song in much the same way that Lewin does.  Fischer-Dieskau makes a clear contrast between the bright, tremulous energy of the lark in mm. 12–13 and the languorous depths of the heart in mm. 14–15.  By connecting mm. 14–15 to mm. 16–17 without a breath, and making a gradual crescendo of volume and expressive intensity through all four bars that climaxes on “Sorgen,” Fischer-Dieskau’s miller lad releases the anguish stored within his loving heart as it now cries out to the maiden—“and, from the heart’s depths, call love’s pain and cares,” as Lewin would have it.

But there are also other ways of translating the ending, and performers can show us the way.  Consider Olaf Bär’s 1986 recording with Geoffrey Parsons.  Bär’s lark also “warbles” with vitality, and he infuses a bit of plangent despair into his rendering of “tiefen Herzen.”  But by taking a breath before “die Liebe,” Bär highlights the importance of that word and its function as the subject (and perhaps even the goal) of the sentence.  There is no crescendo into “Sorgen,” and most crucially of all, Bär and Parsons treat the repeat of the phrase in mm. 18–19 as a gentle echo.  Here I cannot help but hear the echo as a tender, inward lullaby—“trust in love, for it will sing the heart’s pain and sorrow to sleep,” Bär’s miller lad seems to say, perhaps to himself, perhaps to the maiden.  By returning to a fuller sound for mm. 19–21, Bär ruefully acknowledges the existence of the heart’s “Leid und Sorgen,” but this doesn’t invalidate his basic message:  love will call pain and sorrow away from the heart.  This is rather the opposite of Lewin and Fischer-Dieskau’s translation.

The most striking thing about Michael Schade and Malcolm Martineau’s 2005 recording is the way they handle that fermata on “ruft,” just before “die Liebe.”  Like Bär, Schade takes a breath, but it is animated by a sudden, vigorous impulse that leads purposefully into “die Liebe” in m. 16.  The shift to flowing triplets in the piano also contrasts more sharply with Martineau’s hushed, hesitant duplet eighths in mm. 14–15, lending a new energy and an optimistic shine to “die Liebe Leid und Sorgen.”  Even more than Bär and Parsons, Schade and Martineau make “die Liebe” into the focal point of the song’s conclusion, rather than “Sorgen.”

Jonas Kaufmann brings an entirely different sort of vocal instrument to “Morgengruss” in this performance with Helmut Deutsch from 2009.  Kaufmann doesn’t use the full intensity of his Heldentenor here, but there’s still something of the suave operatic leading man in the way he handles “die Liebe Leid und Sorgen”:  a kind of heroic, ringing quality throughout the entire phrase that makes me feel as though this miller lad is singing directly to the Müllerin here, promising to take away all her pain and sorrow if she would only give in to the promptings of love and fall into his arms.  Kaufmann doesn’t take a breath before “die Liebe,” but he blooms on that word after restraining himself in the previous phrase, and the way he lingers on the “L” in “Leid” creates a certain resistance which he can then valiantly overcome by the time he gets to the end of the phrase at “Sorgen.”  Kaufmann’s final “Leid und Sorgen” in mm. 19–21, like Bär’s mm. 18–19, are quieter and more inward, and I can’t quite decide if his miller lad is briefly retreating back into his own pain or imagining and depicting for the maiden the way that both of them will feel their pain dissolve once their love is consummated.  Like all of these performers, then, Kaufmann shows (to me at least) that more than one reading is possible, and multiple, even contradictory emotional and dramatic meanings can emerge from the same performance.

To finish up, let’s return to Fischer-Dieskau, still with Gerald Moore but this time back in 1951 when he was about 26 years old.  Fischer-Dieskau seems to be the only one of these performers who sides strongly with Lewin’s translation.  Did he always read the words that way?  From this performance, I’d say yes.  Certainly Fischer-Dieskau’s younger voice conjures up the dewy, tender Jüngling here, rather than the more adult and assertive vocal persona of the 1972 recording.  But as in the later performance, the focus is on “Sorgen.”  Fischer-Dieskau again takes no break before “die Liebe,” and while there is no crescendo into “Sorgen” in mm. 16–17, there is a hint of delay before that word, and the phrase moves steadily towards it, with no lingering or special emphasis on “Liebe.”  Instead, the young Fischer-Dieskau saves the crescendo for the repeat of the phrase in mm. 18–19, releasing onto “Sorgen” after a great deal of anxious vibrato.  His treatment of the final “Leid und Sorgen” in mm. 19–21 is the quietest and most inward of all these performances.  I see the miller lad just standing there, immobilized by his pain and loneliness, with no Müllerin anywhere to be seen—for Fischer-Dieskau, this moment isn’t really about her.

These are just my reactions to these performances, of course.  No performance can be translated definitively, just as no text can, musical or poetic, especially the texts of Müller and Schubert’s “Morgengruss” that I’ve been considering.  My little point is that performers and performances ought to be in the conversation from the get-go when we’re translating or explicating song lyrics, especially ones that are particularly ambiguous.

 


 

[1] A more contemporary meaning of “wirbeln” is “to circle,” but given the simile between the lark’s warbling—a morning call like the poet’s “Morgengruss”—and the heart’s call, both acoustic events, I’m inclined to stick with “warbles.”  Contemporary support is found in J.C. Adelung’s 1811 Wörterbuch.

[2] If “die Lerche” were the subject, we would expect the word “sie” in the second line and commas in the third:  “Die Liebe, Leid, und Sorgen.”

[3] Problematically, Lewin’s version of the text gives “der Liebe” instead of “die Liebe,” a reading with very little, if any, philological support.  In fact, “der Liebe” is ungrammatical; for “Leid und Sorgen” to be the grammatical subject of the final two lines would require a plural verb:  “rufen,” not “ruft.”  However, Lewin’s translation is still plausible even if the words are “die Liebe” instead of “der Liebe.”

Performing Bodies and Musical Objects in Andrew Norman’s “Susanna”

By Mariusz Kozak (Columbia University)

Author’s note: The following is a very short fragment from my forthcoming book, Enacting Musical Time.

“Susanna,” the third movement of Andrew Norman’s Companion Guide to Rome (2010, for string trio—but the movement is for solo viola), presents a fascinating case study of how a performer’s body becomes implicated in the constitution of emergent and transient musical objects. These are objects that lack the kind of endurance we typically associate with notes, chords, or generally events that can be represented on the page. Instead, they are fleeting phenomena that arise and dissolve together with the flow of time. In what follows, I want to suggest that these transient entities materialize in real, bodily relationships between performers and listeners, turning those relationships into proper objects of music analysis.

You can listen to the movement and follow its score by clicking here.

Norman’s miniature for solo viola has a very sparse and rudimental pitch structure, containing recognizable elements from common-practice tonality (such as chains of 4–3 suspensions and open fifths) without actually operating within a tonal system. It’s somewhat reminiscent of J.S. Bach’s works for solo stringed instruments, but Norman doesn’t use any identifiable quotations. In fact, whatever tonal techniques he does employ seem to be completely banal, mere stock figures that could’ve come from just about anywhere, used more for their capacity to stand in as markers of archaism than for their motivic potential. From a purely formalist perspective, the deceptively simplistic pitch structure offers interesting capital for a pitch-based analysis. In particular, notice below that the whole-tone descent in the lowest voice that supports chains of 4–3 suspensions, or the boxed-in “failed” tritone resolutions (e.g., E–A# → E–B).

Contrapuntal Reduction

Reduction of the first two lines of Norman’s “Susanna” showing chains of 4–3 suspensions.  Solid boxes indicate “incorrect” resolutions of the tritone.

Yet, I want to suggest that it’s not the pitch structure but rather the performer’s bow hand that is the principal purveyor of meaning in “Susanna.” The violist is instructed to apply heavy pressure to the bow while initially shaking it and, later, moving it very slowly, producing sounds that barely escape the instrument. From an almost inaudible G#–B dyad in the opening, to the full-throated broken chords in the third line of the score, there is a gradual opening of sound, an increase in clarity that corresponds with the upsurge of dynamics. A dominant-like C–B suspension against an open G–D fifth suggests imminent tonal closure, but the sound is arrested once again. Finally, in a last-ditch effort, the music lunges into an exasperated climax on a broken d-minor triad, only to be brutally and summarily choked by the violist’s heavy bow hand.

Thus, more than merely reproducing notated pitches, the body of the violist quite forcefully conceals “normal” sounds behind the harshness and awkwardness of the stutters and the shakes. Rather than thinking of this body as something “extra”-musical, I will argue that it is very much an indissoluble element of the music. The sounds we hear function as vehicles for a body caught up in an action that urges musical interpretation.

To be clear, the product of such an interpretation wouldn’t be stories of the sounds taken by themselves. No: they would be stories of how sounds signify particular kinds of bodily exertions, and what those exertions might, in turn, signify of the person producing them; or stories about historical figures, such as St. Susanna, the third-century Christian martyr and patron of the Roman church that inspired this movement; or maybe even stories that critique and challenge our societal assumptions regarding bodily norms and abilities. In all these cases, there is a human agency latent within sound, a gesture that gives it life and becomes the (transient and emergent) object of analytical attention.

*          *          *

Let’s delve a bit into this gesture: Who makes it? What is its musical significance? How do we incorporate it into our analytical stories?

The human body is a signifier par excellence because it always seems to stand in for someone who is more than a mere collection of his or her parts. There is always a “self” or a “subject” that inhabits the body, someone who gives it character: playful, lustful, sick, angry, fragile, powerful, confident, timid, and so on. However, as Naomi Cumming has shown, musicians’ bodies signify this subjectivity somewhat differently, for they exist in a liminal space between pure physicality (exemplified by the sheer athleticism of technical facility) and pure musicality (mediated and interpreted as particular kinds of sonic signs). As such, it becomes possible to conflate sounds with musicians’ identities because “the characteristics of sound are the aural ‘marks’ of bodily actions.” Thus, when listening to a recording of Midori (whom Cumming discusses at length) we don’t merely attend to the sounds, but simultaneously construct a body that produced them (or one that we imagine could’ve produced them). Based on our prior knowledge of bodies, and of correlations between actions and sounds, we supposedly create a “persona” of the performer.

For Cumming this attention to something beyond the acoustical signal constitutes the heart of musical experience. For example, a so-called “singing” violin sound (as highly desirable as it is elusive) doesn’t emerge because this sound merely refers to vocality, or because the violinist imitates a singing voice with the instrument. Rather, Cumming claims that listeners interpret it as emanating directly from the violin because “singing” is “heard as belonging to a sound.”

The pedagogical tradition of comparing the sounds of stringed instruments to the voice goes back at least to Leopold Mozart’s Treatise: “singing is at all times the aim of every instrumentalist.” In this same passage, particularly relevant to Norman’s “Susanna,” he furthermore praises the human voice for its ability to “[glide] quite easily from one note to another,” without creating a break between notes except to produce “some special kind of expression, or the divisions or rests of the phrase demand one.” Because of this long history of associations, the sounds that the violist makes in “Susanna” can be heard as violating some norm, marking them as pathological (stuttering, choking, etc.). In turn, this creates an image of a body that might produce these sounds, a body that struggles to express itself, a body engaged in some excruciatingly difficult and painful labor, fighting against some force, straining to liberate itself from whatever internal or external power is trying to suppress it.

But remember that for Cumming vocal pathologies belong to the sound and not to the body of the performer. This means that we are not dealing with the real, physical human body directly engaged in making sounds. The violist in “Susanna” isn’t literally choking or stuttering. Instead, Cumming proposes that performers project what she calls “presence,” which is a body created metaphorically through acts of interpretation. In other words, bodily presence in sound is mediated by language or other representations; it’s a sign. Or, to use another of Cumming’s terms, the sound conveys a “virtual agency,” akin to Edward T. Cone’s “persona” or Carolyn Abbate’s “figural subject.” These agents, personae, and subjects all take the human body as their (imagined) form, but it’s not a body like yours or mine, made of flesh and bones. Instead, it’s a body created in the semiotic act of listening, a body that is unrestrained by physical laws and thus capable of superhuman feats. In short, it’s a body that has been defleshed and deboned. This somewhat grotesque act of butchery displaces the immediacy of communication between performers and listeners, turning it in to an “illusion,” a “mediating representation” created by the performer’s negotiation of “the mediating space between physicality and interpreted gestural motion.” Presence here is thus a construct, an effect of semiotic play.

*          *          *

Perhaps we sometimes need this semiotic play to create a distance between ourselves and the music, an act reminiscent of Homer’s Odysseus tying himself to the mast of his ship in order to experience the treacherous song of the sirens. But, contrary to Cumming, I propose that this distance, a culturally mediated space promising safety and aesthetic enjoyment, is not at all how the presence of the body in “Susanna” is created. Here we’re not dealing with a body that is a product of our imagination, nor is the intimacy enacted by the performer a mere effect of interpretive work, an “extra”-musical appendage in excess of the notes themselves. No, these aren’t the sounds of nobody; these are sounds made by real flesh and blood and stained by pathology and violence. The relation between performer and listener is immediate precisely because sounds mark the bodies that produce them.

To be sure, the nature of this relation may not be captured by metaphorical descriptions like “stuttering” and “choking.” When I hear this piece I don’t have the urge to leap onto the stage and start performing the Heimlich maneuver. Nevertheless, I want to suggest that the whole point of “Susanna” is to hear the body that makes the sound, not just the one imagined in it; to hear the violist defy and defile those very modes of sound production that constitute our Western performance tradition; to hear her body tense up, close up, force itself into shapes and gestures that transgress everything she has painstakingly cultivated through years of study. The communion thus established between the performer and her listeners is far from an illusion created by mere semiotic play, but instead is as real and as moving as those between bodies engaged in intimate––if violent––nonmusical acts.

It is this communion that brings forth the emergent and transient musical objects I mentioned in the beginning, objects that may not necessarily be concrete and precise, but are nonetheless experientially genuine and transformative. Indeed, a dogged focus on “the notes themselves” wouldn’t create a sufficiently rewarding listening experience, but neither would an approach that considers the intimate link between performer and listener a mediating illusion. In contrast to Cumming’s claims, the manner in which Norman directs the violist to perform “Susanna” does not merely inscribe the body in the sound, but makes it so that the sound is heard as explicitly issuing from a very real, physically present body. And it is the tangible corporeality (corpo-reality) of this body that becomes musically meaningful.

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Dynamics

By Nathan Pell (The Graduate Center, CUNY)

First an anecdote:

At the end of my masters degree, I was required, as all composers were, to pass a jury in which members of the composition faculty comment on a portfolio of recent works.  One of these—a spare, quasi-recitative setting, the first in a larger collection of Blake songs—was met with great displeasure from one of my examiners (a composer of renown, whom I respect a great deal) because I had written it with no dynamic markings whatsoever.  What could have possibly motivated me to do this?, I was asked.  Did I want the performance to be “flat,” that is, lacking dynamic shape?

I gave a twofold answer.  First, that I had omitted dynamics in order to restore to the performers some interpretive license (the tempo marking was “Liberamente”):  my small antidote to what I regard as an outbreak of over-notation that has pockmarked scores from the past century.  As composers have given increasingly specific performance instructions, performers in turn have grown more dependent on these instructions—and, thereby, on the composers who write them.  By notating less, I said in my jury, I hoped I could encourage performers to reclaim a more equal share in the creation of the music—even if that resulted in performances I didn’t like.  (Nor am I alone in this opinion.)  I added that modern performers certainly know how to put across “under-notated” music (Bach, for instance) without sounding “flat,” despite the anachronism of the notation.

Second, I told the jury that I considered all of the dynamics in my piece to be “extrinsic”; the rest of this post will explain what I meant by that.  I can’t say that either this argument or the preceding screed against over-notation managed to win over my jurors.  But all’s well that ends well:  I passed my jury, and the composer in question was kind not to mention the disagreement in the official write-up.  I do understand this composer’s points and am glad they were raised, for they have led me to develop my thinking on this subject.

*          *          *

Charles Rosen writes:

Dynamics [in the eighteenth century]…were one way for the performer to elucidate the structure of pitch and rhythm and make them expressive and even personal.  With Haydn and, above all, Beethoven, however, the dynamics are often an integral part of the motif, which has become unthinkable and unintelligible without them.  Gradually…dynamics…[were] removed from the process of realization and transferred into the basic process of composition….  In several pieces of Debussy, it would give the music less of a shock to play a wrong note than to play the wrong dynamics or apply the wrong touch  (Freedom and The Arts:  Essays on Music and Literature).

Continuing this line of thought, I would argue that dynamics are of two sorts:  those that are more or less implicit from their musical contexts, and those that are not.  Put another way, some passages give the sense that they “belong” at one and only one dynamic, whereas others suggest a wide range of plausible interpretive possibilities.  I have sensed this very often while composing.  Some dynamic markings write themselves, so much do they feel woven into the fabric of the piece.  Others give me pause, and at these moments I feel that I am interpreting more than I am composing:  indeed prescribing a single performance solution out of several conceivable ones, rather than describing the dynamic that seems already “built into” the music.  These two sorts of dynamics can be said to occur at different stages in the composition process—the interpretive kind at a later, more “post-compositional” point, at which performance markings are added to pitches and rhythms that have already been worked out.

I’ll call “intrinsic” those dynamics that seem “baked into” what music the composer has already written.  Those that seem subject to negotiation are the more open “extrinsic” dynamics, written in by the composer-as-interpreter.  Of course, most music falls on a spectrum somewhere between these two poles, and sensible musicians will be able to disagree about most cases.

*          *          *

My first examples will come from music whose dynamics are left unnotated, for these will show what I mean most clearly.  As a cellist, my natural gravitation is towards Bach.  Who would dream to play the opening of the Third Suite at any dynamic other than forte?  Nobody, I’d hope!  I surely haven’t heard it any other way, and for good reason.  It is expansive, proclamatory, a bit grand; indeed, much could be said about the topical associations of these traits.  It is also, intrinsically, forte music, even though no written instruction to that effect is provided.  When nineteenth- and twentieth-century musicians edited the suites, they all dutifully wrote in “f” here (unless their editions contained no dynamics at all).

Norblin

The first edition (Louis-Pierre Norblin, 1824)

But in doing so, they weren’t telling anyone anything they didn’t already know:  they were stating the obvious.  By virtue of the culture in which this music came to be and (to some extent) still remains, its forte-ness is understood.

Not so for the Second Suite, whose opening has been played and understood at many different dynamics:

1008 Collage

The Opening of the Second Suite in a Sampling of Editions from the Nineteenth and Early-Twentieth Centuries

Of particular interest are the editions by two tremendously influential cellists:  Julius Klengel and Hugo Becker.  Klengel instructs that the D and A be played as double stops, resulting in quite a loud execution.

Klengel

Edition by Julius Klengel, 1900

In contrast, Becker requests that the opening be played up the rather muffled-sounding G string:  a much more subdued affect.

Becker

Edition by Hugo Becker, 1911

By clicking here, you can hear me play the opening of the Suite in these two very different editions.  Because this passage suggests no obvious dynamic level, the dynamics are more extrinsic here than in the Third Suite.

*          *          *

The distinction I am making applies just as much in music whose dynamics are notated.  The finale of Beethoven’s Sixth concludes with two orchestral waves, each beginning piano, attaining fortissimo, and ebbing back down again—intrinsic dynamics.  The second, larger swell ends at a hushed pp sotto voce (a later composer might have added “religioso”):

Beethoven

From the end of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, Fifth Movement

But how is the passage’s crescendo (fifth bar) to be taken?  Does it effect a linear increase from pianissimo to piano, or should the “p” be taken subito (the crescendo exceeding piano)?

The question has divided musicians ever since the ink dried.  Transcriptions by Hummel (below) and Liszt (played here by Gould) adopt the linear interpretation, marking the downbeat fp:

Hummel

Transcription by Johann Nepomuk Hummel, 1829

I’ve made a compilation video in which you can hear many orchestras playing the passage over the years.  With few exceptions, the performances preserved on early recordings seem to have favored the subito version (Weingartner); only after WWII does the linear option begin to take hold (Barshai).  Toscanini’s career encapsulates the changing performance practice:  having long performed the “psubito, he can be heard switching camps in his final recording of the piece. Nowadays, you can hear both in concert (Järvi, Merrill).  As these performances show, both versions work at a range of tempos.  I strongly prefer one way over the other (I won’t say which!), but must admit that both can yield beautiful performances.

Beethoven could have notated the passage more clearly:  “subito p,” Hummel and Liszt’s “fp,” or even omitting the “p” entirely.  However, he would not have used mp or mf, which do not appear in the symphonies.  But this raises an interesting question:  should nothing in the Beethoven symphonies, then, ever be played mezzo forte?  Is something about the symphonies intrinsically not mezzo forte?  The answer, of course, is no; for no dynamic marking (or in this case, lack thereof) is ever entirely intrinsic—nor do dynamics merely tell one how loudly to play.

*          *          *

In the C minor Nocturne, Op. 48, No. 1, Chopin marks the A’ section (where the minore returns) pp agitato.

Chopin

From the Retransition and A’ Section of Chopin’s C minor Nocturne, Op. 48, No. 1

Emil Gilels follows Chopin’s instructions almost to the letter.  Most pianists do similarly.  Because the A section begins rather quietly (mezza voce) and the A’ very quietly, it seems that Chopin designed these (intrinsic) dynamics to buttress the piece’s ternary form.

But we must reassess upon hearing Myra Hess’s shattering account of the work (a performance I cherish), in which she plays ff agitato at the same spot; the dynamics must not be as intrinsic to this passage as we thought.  Her fortissimo makes sense because of the added triplet figuration, carried over from the B section; it’s as if the B section has caused the A’ section to get louder.  She’s well aware that playing from here to the end of the piece at this loud dynamic would be onerous on the ear, so she uses the written diminuendo in bar 4 of the minore to get down to Chopin’s marked dynamic, or thereabouts.  This approach allows her to dovetail somewhat the join between sections; she helps us recognize that the A’ section blends elements from the A and B sections.

*          *          *

I am aware that my thoughts on dynamics—particularly their separability or inseparability from “the music”—may tell us far more about how I myself conceive of them, and little if anything about “music itself.”  And I have not had time here to address much that I want to, including “workhood,” non-score-based traditions, and changes in performance culture.  Furthermore, for many friends of mine, composers who write a dynamic level first (or a texture, or governing instrumental technique) and fill it out with pitches and rhythms second, perhaps all dynamics are necessarily intrinsic.  We must ask, then, whether we have been right in calling such parameters “secondary”; for dynamics can be as central to the creation of musical structure and affect as pitch, even when these dynamics are devised by the performer rather than the composer.  At the very least, I hope the view from where I sit—as a performer, composer, and (apparently) a theorist—is found interesting if only for the questions it raises.

Performing Metrical Interplay in Brahms

By Edward Klorman (McGill University)

Author’s note: This blog post is adapted from Chapter 6 of my book Mozart’s Music of Friends: Social Interplay in the Chamber Works (Cambridge University Press, 2016).

When examining a metrically ambiguous passage, many musical analysts will seek to untangle problems by explaining which among multiple metrical interpretations is “the correct one.” In this blog post, I explore metrical conflicts from a different point of view—namely, that of the performers.

Musicians often strive to find ways to play better together, to match their phrasing and shaping in order to “feel” the music in a unified way. But what happens when they encounter a passage in which their parts don’t match, but are in conflict? The subordinate theme from Brahms’s Sonata in E♭ Major for Piano and Clarinet, op. 120, no. 2 is a case in point.

You can get a sense of the issue—and imagine how you might approach it in performance—from this video. (Since my clarinet skills are a little rusty, I perform on viola instead!)

To provide some context for the subordinate theme, let’s first look briefly at the main theme and transition. The sonata opens with fairly regular four-bar hypermeter, as I’ve shown in my markings above the staves.

Brahms1.1

Some metrical dissonance arises in mm. 15–17, which tend to sound more like 3/2 meter than the notated 4/4. Within these four bars, the piano’s left hand emphasizes the off beats, playing on the weak quarters of each half-note pulse. The four-bar hypermeter is restored in mm. 18–21, but the piano’s syncopations continue to emphasize weak quarter notes. (These syncopations foreshadow an ambiguity I will discuss in the subordinate theme.)

Brahms1.2

In m. 21, the final bar of the transition, the diminuendo hairpin and the rest on beat 4 encourage the players to use some rubato, allowing the sound and momentum to dissipate as the passage comes to rest on a tentative German augmented-sixth chord in B♭ major (a harmony that yearns to resolve to V in the new key, the traditional cadential goal of an expositional transition).

And then what? After the general pause, the clarinet begins the subordinate theme on the notated downbeat, with the piano imitating one beat later.

The Subordinate Theme in Brahms’s Notation

Brahms2

This imitation constitutes a canon per arsin et thesin, whereby strong beats in one part coincide with weak beats in the other. Coming right after a general pause, this passage would challenge many listeners to determine whether it is the clarinet’s entrance or the piano’s that falls on the “true” downbeat (if the listener is not following the score).

Indeed, for the first several bars of the theme, it seems plausible that the bar lines might be located one quarter note later than how Brahms notated them, as shown below. Only by m. 28 (best seen above, in the print of Brahms’s score) is the notated bar line unequivocally confirmed: the clarinet’s eighth-note upbeat clearly establishes the downbeat of m. 28, and moreover it is at this juncture that the piano gives up the metrically ambiguating canon. Simply put, my alternative notation below seems plausible initially at m. 22 (making the placement of bar lines difficult to discern for several measures), but by m. 28 it is absurd.

Subordinate Theme in a Plausible Alternative Notation

Brahms3

Why do I hear this passage as so metrically ambiguous? And how should musicians approach their performance of such a metrical conflict? I will explain my own understanding and performance approach:

After the German augmented-sixth chord and general pause in m. 21, the clarinet’s entrance on concert F may initially seem to represent dominant harmony, bolstering the sense that it is an upbeat to the piano’s tonic entrance. But when I play the passage (on viola), I try to make the entrance in a metrically neutral way, stressing neither note of the (concert) F–F gesture. Observing Brahms’s sotto voce marking and emulating a clarinet’s capacity for niente entrances helps to achieve this. Once the piano enters in canon, the two players might emphasize their conflicting meters with a gentle persistence—that is, with the piano emphasizing the long slurs beginning on beat 2 (and thus suggesting my alternate notation). Brahms’s beams across bar lines encourage the pianist to count in terms of my alternate notation. This performance approach heightens the conflict and suspends the sense of metrical ambiguity as long as possible (ideally until around m. 28), thus taking advantage of a special opportunity afforded by Brahms’s passage.

 *          *          *

The approach I’ve suggested here is consistent with performance advice proffered in eighteenth-century performance manuals, such as those by Leopold Mozart, Johann Joachim Quantz, and Daniel Gottlob Türk. These authors encourage performers to emphasize beginnings of slurs, especially those that are syncopated against the meter (as in the piano part here). Brahms was certainly familiar with these ideas and harbored a highly traditional understanding of the meanings of slurs, one that is particularly relevant in a passage such as this. (On these eighteenth-century writers’ understanding of slurs and their execution, see my discussion in Mozart’s Music of Friends. On Brahms’s affiliation with older understandings about slurs, see Heinrich Schenker’s essay “Abolish the phrasing slur” in The Masterwork in Music, I [1925]).

I’ll close with a perspective on performing metrical conflicts from an author more nearly contemporary to Brahms (and certainly one who felt a strong affinity to him), Heinrich Schenker:

It is the responsibility of the performer primarily to express the special characteristics of a composition, as they sometimes coincide with the meter, sometimes oppose it. Today, not only the failure to recognize rhythmic relationships but also sheer indolence creates a performance for the metric scheme alone—a dismaying evidence of decline (Free Composition, translated by Ernst Oster, emphasis added).

Leaving Schenker’s hortatory tone aside, he offers an idea well worth pondering. In everyday life, we strive to avoid conflicts or else to resolve them. But in playing music, our impulse to resolve conflicts should be questioned. A conflict-resolving performance strategy might conclude: “Brahms clearly intended the meter as he notated it, and this is confirmed by m. 28. Therefore, we should perform in accordance with the notated meter, minimizing signals that rub against it.” But a more satisfying approach, at least to me, is to allow the conflict to flourish and for the two musicians to each make an earnest bid for the meter as suggested by their own parts. The clarinetist’s bid for the notated meter ultimately prevails, of course. But our final-state understanding of the metrical structure is, like history, determined by the victor, and only after the conflict has ended.

Creaking Chairs and Metric Clarity: Microtiming Glenn Gould Recording Schoenberg Op. 19/1

by Richard Beaudoin (The Royal Academy of Music, London and Brandeis University)

gould

Glenn Gould performed and recorded on an increasingly rickety, loose-jointed, swaying piano chair that his father, Bert Gould, had fashioned from a folding bridge chair in 1953. Its telltale clicking/cracking noises — made whenever Gould shifted his body — can be heard in this 1966 film of Gould discussing Schoenberg’s music with Yehudi Menuhin. Below are two photographs of the chair, in all its skeletal beauty:

I encountered Gould’s chair creaks up-close while microtiming his recording of Schoenberg’s Op. 19/1, to use as the basis for a series of new compositions called New York Mikrophon. I found the trajectory of Gould’s chair creaks intriguing, and I began to investigate.

My approach, which extends Paul Sanden’s writings on “corporeal liveness, considers Gould’s so-called “ambient” or “extraneous” chair noises as significant “sounded movements.” Quantifying sounds that are normally marginalized, my research connects sound studies, music theory, and performance analysis, and fuses published analyses about rhythm and meter in Schoenberg’s composition with the audio artifacts of Gould’s corporeality.

The elements of my analysis can be seen below:

elements

Using the Lucerne Audio Recording Analyser [LARA], I made millisecond-level measurements of the number and location of all of the sound events — including each chair creak — in Gould’s recording of Schoenberg’s Op. 19/1, made in September 1965, at 30th Street Studios in New York.

This recording is very noisy, even by Gould’s standards; there are 85 creaks in this 86-second track. I noticed that the creaks were not spread uniformly across the performance, but, instead, followed a rough trajectory (see the image below). In addition, prominent gaps in the creaking were not easily explained.

spectrographRather than propose my own analysis (which might be seen as self-serving to the microtiming data I had collected), I surveyed the published scholarship on rhythm and meter in Op. 19/1. This led me to publications by Jonathan Kramer, Charles Morrison, and John Roeder. Kramer devotes a chapter of The Time of Music to Schoenberg’s 17-measure work, and singled it out as exhibiting “the emergence of a foregrounded meter” (Kramer 1988). His tracing of the work’s metric evolution is outlined in the three score-based examples below:

kramer-1

kramer-2

kramer-3I set about comparing the location the chair creaks in Gould’s recording with Kramer’s chart of the emerging metric hierarchy in Schoenberg’s work.

Within this specific recording of this specific work, the level of Gould’s body motion that is transferred to the chair correlates to the gradual emergence of a metrical hierarchy: as Schoenberg’s written meter becomes the sounding meter, Gould’s physical shifting largely abates. The image below presents the first stage of my findings; I presented more detailed analyses in a paper given at SMT/AMS Vancouver 2016, as part of the session called Performing Meter.

spectrograph2

You can listen to how Gould’s creaking relates to Kramer’s metrical observations here.

The microtiming also turned up some wonderful ‘hidden’ details in the recording, including:

  • Gould re-attacking a tied note on the downbeat of measure 8 (the tie exists in Schoenberg’s manuscript and all printed scores), which affects the perceived metric clarity,
  • a peculiar gap in the creaking that corresponds precisely to measure 7, which Kramer highlights as the clearest meter thus far in the piece,
  • an unusual bit of vocalizing in measure 2, in which Gould sings a motive which is not simultaneously occurring in the piano (as was his common practice), but which instead occurs a few moments later — a kind of subtle, improvised vorimitation.

I’ll write more about these in the future, as I prepare a paper on this research.

I don’t, however, take these findings to be general proof of what pianists do when playing metrically irregular music. Nor do I use them to hypothesize about body movements by pianists, twentieth-century pianists, mid-twentieth-century Canadian pianists, or Glenn Gould in his mid-30s, etc.

Rather, what interests me is how all of the sounds captured by the microphone in New York in September 1965 work together to create a distinct impression of this unique piece. And in this single case, the proliferation and exact placement of the creaks made by Gould’s chair does, subtly, guide the mind across a trajectory of movement that is sympathetic with a recognized structural aspect of Schoenberg’s piece. In this way, they are perhaps analogous to microexpressions.

My work — in some ways the opposite of corpus analysis —involves detailed cataloguing of all of the sounds within a single recording. Doing so, I unearth little signals provided by overlooked, over-heard, so-called extraneous noises. Removing or suppressing such “insignificant” sounds — a common practice in the recording industry — deprives the listener of unique types of intimacy and musical understanding.