Reflections on the 5th International Performance Studies Network Conference

Lee Blasius recently instructed a program committee:  “One question we don’t need to ask is, ‘Is this music theory?’  The field is an ever-expanding horizon.”  On the surface, many of the presentations and performances given at this summer’s 5th International Performance Studies Network Conference, held at the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo, presented analyses that defied or ignored the conventions that many might associate with music theory (as well as composition, musicology, and performance studies).  Yet the multiple perspectives, disciplines, and topics that attendees encountered in Oslo this July should encourage music theorists, in the spirit of Blasius’s instructions, to think more expansively about what music theory and analysis can do, for whom they operate, what tools and methods they might employ, and what new voices to include.

As always, the parallel sessions prevented those of us in attendance from reporting on the entirety and richness of the full program.  There were, however, highlights that we would like to share with our colleagues.

 

Introduction: David Kopp (Boston University)

The Performance Studies Network (PSN) is a legacy of the Center for Musical Performance as Creative Practice (CMPCP), a five-year initiative based at the University of Cambridge led by John Rink.  CMPCP’s tradition of biennial conferences has continued under the auspices of PSN; this was the fifth in the series, and the first to be held outside the UK.  Darla Crispin, director of research at the Norwegian Academy, was the conference organizer.  The growth and maturation of the field of musical performance studies and the continuation of CMPCP’s mission, framed within the European practice of artistic research , were evident throughout the conference.

The guiding philosophy behind CMPCP/PSN is that musical performance, and by extension music, must be understood as more than the realization of the composer’s vision and its representation on the score.  The performer’s contribution constitutes an essential, active, and creative element of music, thus providing a compelling object of study.  Moreover, because performers are recognized as thoughtful, expert practitioners—not mere channels for a composer’s intent—they are uniquely placed to share in the research endeavor.  Not surprisingly, a majority of conference presenters wore multiple hats:  active equally on the one hand as performers, conductors, composers, educators, and critics, and on the other as scholars (whether in traditional academic fields or as specialists in artistic research).  Many of the performer-presenters were of considerable distinction.

The presentations reflected several topics central to musical performance studies.  These included, among others:

  • Performance practice, from established approaches to historically informed performance to the developing practice of the 21st-century music
  • Determining and articulating performers’ contributions to the realization of music beyond the information on the score, both individually and in collaboration
  • Composer-performer collaborations in which both contribute to the creative product
  • Improvisation
  • Analysis of recordings
  • Anthropological, sociological, and cultural aspects of performance
  • Interdisciplinary and cross-cultural approaches to the development of performance strategies
  • The influence of technology on performance practice
  • Approaches to music production
  • And, last but not least, despite a current of skepticism directed at the privileged position of the score, several talks drawing on the performance and analysis tradition, given by both North American and European presenters.

There were also several concerts given by Norwegian artists, ranging from avant-garde music to music inspired by Norwegian vernacular traditions.  Many of the presentations gravitated toward new music, where the contribution of the performer is often more explicitly acknowledged or readily ascertained.  An equally important goal, though, was evident in other presentations that aimed to demonstrate the unacknowledged and essential contributions of performers to music of the European canon.

The role of music theory in the PSN enterprise was most apparent in, but not limited to, the presentations that involved performance/analysis questions or the analysis of recordings.  If the conference raised any challenges for North American theorists, they might be to better recognize and incorporate those beyond-the-score aspects of performance into analysis, and, through the force of future work, to expand the presence of music theory within the performance studies community.

 

Daniel Barolsky (Beloit College)

Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, in “Aspects of belief and attachment in the performance of classical music,” equated our deeply rooted reliance on compositional instructions to a kind of religious devotion.  Doing so, he drew attention to how normative processes, especially those of performance style, are not only created but also policed.  Attempts to deviate from these norms have been regulated by critics (and theorists, I would argue) in a manner that not only discourages interpretive creativity but also perpetuates, in euphemistic ways, outdated gendered binaries, homophobia, and misogyny.  Although Leech-Wilkinson focused on music criticism, his larger argument can be extended more broadly to “the heteropatriarchal values that underlie western classical music belief.”

Many of the presentations in Olso offered ways to combat these limits.  The most activist strategies could be found in Challenging Performance, a new project created by Leech-Wilkinson and his colleagues that seeks to challenge traditional practices and gives voice to entirely new ways of analyzing and hearing familiar repertoire.  Analogously, Rosanna Lovell, Brandon Farnsworth, and Darla Crispin led a panel conversation on GRiNM (Gender Relations in New Music), a relatively new organization (2016) that confronts the normative mechanisms that have resulted in such major classical music festivals as Darmstadt programming a disproportionate number of compositions by men.  Readers will find it well worth their while to explore both of these websites and to take note as they develop.

In work that embraces more radical interpretations, Lina Navickaitė-Martinelli and Georgia Volioti introduced new analytical lenses through which we might explore new modes of listening.  Navickaitė-Martinelli, in her “P is for Person, Performance, Pogorelich:  Performer’s Identity as Creative Tool,” used a comparison with a slow cinematic take by Michelangelo Antonioni to help reimagine how we might listen to a hypnotically drawn-out interpretation by the controversial pianist Ivo Pogorelich.  However simple the comparison, many of us in the room, previous critics of Pogorelich, came to recognize how the pianist’s tempo, however unconventional, gives the listener space and time to explore—almost like a temporal X-ray—the inner workings, dynamics, texture, and make-up of a given score, details that would have been lost at a faster tempo.  Similarly, Volioti (in “Narrativity in Grieg’s Ballade Revisited:  The Nineteenth-Century Pianist as Storyteller”) used recorded performances by Eugene D’Albert and and Percy Grainger to conceive of the narrative possibilities of Grieg’s Ballade, a theme and variations that had appeared to resist or fail to convey narrative construction.

Cecilia Oinas and Naomi Woo explored the interrelationship between analysis and embodiment, thus expanding the domain of analysis even further.  In “The Body in Pain at the Piano:  Where Form Meets Failure in Ligeti’s Etudes pour Piano,” Woo presented an “autoethnography” of the author’s process of learning (and at times failing to learn) the Etudes.  She provided us with the critical reminder that any analysis of a score as a “work” will always be “radically incomplete” if we limit our engagement to just reading and listening.  In a discussion of Ligeti’s Étude no. 3:  touches bloquées, Woo drew attention to the cognitive dissonance that occurs not only between what we see and what we hear, but also between what performers hear or feel (including pain) and how they play or practice.  A similar cognitive dissonance was explored by Oinas’s paper, “From four-handed monster to an all-embracing Vishnu:  On sensitivity, intimacy, and corporeal interaction in György Kurtág’s four-handed works.”  Because the negotiation of bodily space is central to any four-hands successful collaboration, such music is more inherently physical than other duos.  Not only do Kurtág’s compositions intentionally force the performers to cross over and invade each other’s space—a critical and rarely analyzed element of this music—but because both musicians are playing the same instrument, what the individual performer plays is often confused with what she hears.  The author will be presenting an expanded version of this paper the upcoming SMT conference in San Antonio.

 

Michiko Theurer (Stanford University)

Of the presentations I was able to attend, the one I keep coming back to is a multi-modal performance/lecture given by Anna Scott and Valentin Gloor, entitled “Brahmsphantasie:  Performing Historical Fictions.”  Their presentation posed questions about how historical fictions and contradictions can be used as tools for analysis and interpretation of canonical music, using as an example Max Klinger’s Brahmsphantasie Op. 12, a fantastical creation that led Brahms to reimagine the potential of his own music.  When I entered the room, the lights were dimmed and Gloor was singing Brahms as he climbed over and between chairs in the audience, while Scott played the piano at the front of the room.  The presentation unfolded in a series of seamless transitions between musical performance, scholarly lecture, and theater, sometimes layered in such a way that it was difficult to untangle one from the other.  At one point, Scott compared Klinger’s Brahmsphantasie with Baroque emblem books, explaining that the multiple and conflicting layers in the emblem books forced the viewer to interpret or choose between possible readings.  As she spoke, I kept getting distracted by the sound of Gloor crumpling pages of music in the back of the room.  Why on earth was he distracting from what she was saying?, I kept thinking, until I realized this forced hovering-between-ideas (schweben) was precisely Scott’s point.

Toward the end, Scott announced that at a previous conference (Orpheus Institute 2015) they had presented a paper concerning an entirely fabricated invented correspondence between Brahms and Debussy and the (alleged) resulting music.  In exposing this falsehood, she asked:  did she also in some way kill truth?  The tone of her question was extremely complex, and loaded with the intellectually rigorous and musically persuasive power of their presentation.

 

Victoria Tzotzkova (Massaschusetts Institute of Technology)

When I think about what gives the PSN conferences their distinct flavor, one particular point stands out:  that often there is a palpable sense that the person speaking is a performer.  These are still clearly scholarly presentations, sometimes more historical in approach, sometimes more sociological, psychological, experimental, and so on; but the questions being posed and the ways these questions are treated are, somehow, essentially performerly, to borrow a favorite term from Mine Dogantan-Dack.  In other words, these are questions that come up in the course of practicing, rehearsing, and performing—they are fundamentally relevant to experiences in performance.  Rather than asking performers to do scholarly work in the ways that academic music disciplines already do their work, these conferences seem to have become platforms for research that is not typically native to either the academic music department or the conservatory.

This is not to imply that this research merely consists of the incidental insights performers glean in the course of practice—the work is typically done in depth and with rigor.  But the questions raised seem to be specifically directed at performers, often aim to identify and analyze a particular aspect of performance experience, and generally tend to be readily subsumable back into performance experience.  I found this element of a performer’s voice both engaging and compelling, and I want to briefly trace it in three presentations.  (As a pianist, I gravitated towards more-or-less piano-centric talks.)

Mark Ferraguto’s presentation (“Interior Virtuosity in Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto”) drew on letters, criticism, and philosophical writings from Beethoven’s time and current analytic work to highlight a then-important conversation about distinguishing between real and fake artistry in virtuoso performance.  While I cannot claim to have retained all details of the discussion, the points that stood out for me include the following:  in the context of that distinction, expressive markings can become a way to signal the depth of inner experience; that also within this context emerges the polarity between brilliant vs. expressive virtuosity, both of which can be part of real artistry.  These two styles can become a particular lens through which to analyze and experience specific passages of Beethoven’s keyboard writing, especially in a work like a concerto, where the artistic personality of the composer-soloist is explicitly on display.  Ferraguto drew our attention to passages that exemplify each category, and suggested that knowing about these categories might affect how such passages are treated in performance.  It was exactly that last point that bespoke a performer’s outlook to me:  this understanding of virtuosity—carefully researched and laid out—was offered not only as a piece of historical research but also as an attitude one might adopt in playing the piece.  If, through the many variants of the solo part to the Fourth Concerto, Beethoven was negotiating the full range of his artistic persona, from the brilliant to the expressive, then that same attitude of showcasing a range of inner experience and pianistic prowess may also be productive today.  Ferraguto did not explicitly make this point, but in offering these ways of understanding virtuosity, he certainly opened the possibility.

In “Beautiful Piano Tone–A Matthay Legacy?,” Julian Hellaby presented the findings of an experimental study he undertook which aimed to establish whether pianists in the Tobias Matthay legacy were any more likely to be perceived as playing with “beautiful tone” than pianists who were never in contact with Matthay.  (Being a strong proponent and life-long theorist of beautiful tone in piano playing, Matthay is an obvious choice for questions about this elusive concept in piano performance.)  While the results were personally fascinating to me, the main point I would again like to make is that the question the study asks is fundamentally pianistic and performance-centered.  In the Q&A session, Hellaby used a short Romantic excerpt to demonstrate at the piano an aspect of how he understood beautiful tone.  The very understanding of the concept is rooted in experience at the piano, and sharing that understanding seems to almost require a demonstration, again at the piano.  With a strongly expressed scientific outlook and allegiance to proper experimental design, the study also remains clearly pianistic and steeped in experience:  it treats a question that a performer would ask.

Tor Espen Aspaas’s presentation (“Unfolding Beethoven Extempore”) focused on passages in Beethoven’s piano writing which bear the mark of extemporizations.  Again motivated by performance experience, Aspaas’s research aims to create an improvisational framework in which a performer could experience portions of Beethoven’s oeuvre.  The difference this switch could make is something Aspaas discovered first-hand, having recorded the full Beethoven sonatas cycle twice:  first working from traditional methods for interpretation, then more recently from this improvisational perspective.  There was not sufficient time to spend with his recorded examples, but in his own judgment the extempore framework not only offers a sense of greater freedom in performing the works, but also sounds fresher, more spontaneous, and more compelling than the earlier interpretations.  Again, this is a long-term research project, hosted at the Norwegian Academy and spanning several years, which springs from performance experience and, once developed, aims to directly impact performance experience.

 

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Glenn Gould’s Uncommon Approach to Alban Berg’s Piano Sonata

By Michael Thibodeau (University of Toronto)

Author’s note:  The following adapts material from the second chapter of my dissertation, which can be found here.

Glenn Gould’s relationship with Alban Berg’s Piano Sonata is often overlooked.  Indeed, he recorded the work eight times between 1952 and 1974 in a variety of circumstances:  live and studio recordings, radio and television broadcasts, and a documentary.

ThibodeauTable

Glenn Gould’s recordings of Alban Berg’s Piano Sonata

As I will show, these recordings bear witness to significant shifts in the pianist’s aesthetic.  This post focuses on Gould’s uncommon approach to manual asynchrony and tempo in these recordings, with the hope of encouraging further discussion about performance practice.

Most pianists are familiar with the stigma surrounding what is colloquially known as ‘breaking’:  the vertical separation of harmonic and melodic material in performance.  I can recall one instance in graduate school where I was cautioned for using it.  My teacher reminded me that it was not 1940 and told me a story about an old pedagogue who warned against its occurrence more than once during a lifetime.  This position may seem extreme (and it is), but it reflects current fashion in performance.  In the introduction to Neal Peres da Costa’s monograph Off the Record, musicologist Clive Brown argues that the device’s scarcity in contemporary practice is symptomatic of a modern misunderstanding:  “an extreme example of the ways in which the implicit meaning of the notation fell victim to an unhistorical conviction that fidelity to the composer’s intentions required the most scrupulous literal observance of the notated text.”

Many instances of manual asynchrony in Gould’s recordings flout common practice.  A particularly noteworthy example occurs in his 1974 Chemins de la musique performance during the development section.  In measure 101, Gould sounds the melody’s opening pitch twice:  first with the bass and then as the final note of the (notated) arpeggio.

Thibodeau1

Berg, Piano Sonata, mm. 100–102 annotated to show Gould’s manual asynchrony (the caesura and arpeggio are marked in Berg’s score)

Gould’s motivation likely stems from the dominant-function harmony in the preceding measure.  Despite the notated caesura, Gould is compelled to continue the melody upwards so that it sounds at the same time as the left hand’s tonic.  Gould is consistent with this decision later in measures 103, 105, and 106 where variations of the same material occur.

In measure 102 (see score above), Gould again chooses an unconventional asynchrony.  Of the three numbered pitches (C/A/D#), the middle note is sounded last, resulting in the performance order:  C/D#/A. The purpose of this choice is to highlight the inner voice which begins on A, repeats, and then continues upwards to F# and F♮.  Alfred Brendel’s more conventional performance allows us to put Gould’s creative approach into context.

Gould’s use of manual asynchrony allows him to articulate contrapuntal material with great flexibility.  His recordings demonstrate, in practice, how the work is underdetermined by its score.  Pianists could learn from Gould’s novel applications of manual asynchrony, which represent compelling solutions for highlighting contrapuntal lines.

Gould had a penchant for reconsidering tempos, as is well known from his 1955 and 1981 recordings of the Goldberg Variations.  But a remarkable increase in length also occurs across Gould’s recordings of Berg’s sonata, with the opening theme witnessing the greatest change.  On CBC radio in 1952 Gould plays the phrase in 12.36 seconds.  A notable increase occurs through his next four recordings, until 1958 in Stockholm where it is completed in 25.10 seconds.  Gould’s final recording, from 1974, is the longest at 28.57 seconds.  The total increase between the first and last recording is a dramatic 131.15 percent—more than double the initial length.  To situate Gould’s performances alongside common practice, here is Murray Perahia’s 1987 recording.  The aggressive nature of the first phrase’s growth displays Gould’s search for the limit of possibility.  Indeed, the expansion is non-linear and displays a logarithmic trend, meaning that it is inversely exponential:

Thibodeau2

The increasing length of Gould’s first phrase displayed as a logarithmic trend.

To spur discussion on these topics, I advance the following questions:

First, what should we think about the disappearance of manual asynchrony from common practice?  Have we lost the full expressive potency of revered works?  While the application of the device in Gould’s performance is undoubtedly brilliant, could we ever tolerate again a performance style that involves the dislocation of harmony and melody?

Second, Gould’s continuous reassessment of the work’s tempo demonstrates a restless interpretative search and a dissatisfaction with the habitual.  Should students be encouraged to reconsider their approach when revisiting a work, and can these interpretations reside safely inside of common practice?

Form-Functional Ambiguity: The Issue of Closure in Performance

By Ellen Bakulina (University of North Texas)

Last fall, I taught an undergraduate form analysis course at UNT.  I did not initially plan to focus on performance issues, but, as the semester went on, I got caught up in them more and more, partly thanks to the large number of performance majors in the class.

Among the various aspects of form, I find questions of closure the most obviously relevant to performance.  In the classroom, I particularly value two aspects of relating cadence analysis to performance choices:  (1) it is an effective way to show connections between a theory course and the students’ daily performance practice; and (2) it develops their musical thinking.  Indeed, cadence identification carries crucial performance implications, inviting such questions as:  Where is this passage going, and why?  How can one decide what is and what isn’t a phrase ending—and, therefore, how long is the phrase?  How do these endings (punctuation, to use H.C. Koch’s term) partition the larger whole?  And perhaps more difficult: should one project that a certain point is a goal, and if so, how?  Directly showing the result of one’s analysis in performance may be a naïve idea; as William Rothstein suggests, sometimes underplaying an important structural event has greater value than “forcing” it upon the listener.  (His remark, in fact, refers to melodic material, but it can be applied to many other musical dimensions.)

None of the thoughts here are original or new in the field.  The concept of cadence has been, and continues to be, thoroughly explored by theorists, one of the most recent contributions being the book What Is a Cadence, edited by Neuwirth and Bergé.  My goal is to use existing concepts to offer performance-related suggestions about a specific passage that could be demonstrated in class.  (Of course, the opposite process is often useful as well:  existing performances influence one’s analysis, whether consciously or not.)  I also provide my own performance of the passage in three different versions.  The piece is the first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in E, Op. 14, No. 1.

Beethoven s 9 mt

In my class, which used the theory of William Caplin, I gave this movement for the final analysis project; the wealth of cadence-related interpretations the students came up with enriched my own understanding of the piece.  Here, I focus on the main theme, which offers a truly ambiguous cadential situation with interesting performance implications.  The issue involves both the location of the cadence and its type.  I analyze with the presumption that m. 13 begins the transition, with the main theme ending at this point or shortly before.  The theme is written in a (somewhat loose-knit) sentence form.

Here, I should give some conceptual background.  According to Caplin’s theory, a sentence consists of three phrase functions:  presentation, continuation, and cadential phrases.  The latter two functions are the most likely to be destabilized, or loosened, which is exactly what happens in our theme.  “Problems” here begin in mm. 7–8, whose six-four chord suggests a cadential function.  By m. 9, it becomes clear that the cadence has been delayed, causing an expansion of a supposed underlying 8-measure structure.  The expansion lasts until m. 13 and consists of a cadential progression (the bass line G#–A–A#–B–E) stated twice, finally reaching a true cadence in m. 13 that elides with the transition.  My performance (Recording 1) attempts to represent this analysis.  What kind of cadence is it?  An IAC, one would probably presume at first glance, since ^1 is avoided in the upper part.  But a closer look reveals that this initial analysis misses many musical nuances.

One of the students in my class identified a cadence—a PAC!—in m. 11.  Although it makes harmonic sense (there is a root-position tonic), I don’t like this choice, mainly because the next two measures repeat mm. 9–10 an octave lower and thus suggest that the theme is not yet completed.  (In Caplin’s terms, mm. 11–12 represent an extension of the cadential phrase, and repetition is a defining element of phrase extension technique.)  However, this student’s answer drew my attention to the possibility of hearing the inner voice (G#–G♮–F#–E) as the true soprano line, thus rendering the B on top a non-structural cover tone both times—leading up to m. 11 and m. 13!  This connection, of course, opens up the possibility of hearing a PAC in m. 13 with an implied E3 during the ostensible rest on the downbeat of m. 13.  The descent to E would be the structural descent in a Schenkerian analysis of the theme.

How can one project such an analysis in performance, given that the melodic arrival on E in 13 is so demonstrably withheld?  The key, I think, is to emphasize the inner-voice line G#–G♮–F#–E the first time, making sure the arrival on E at m. 11 is clearly heard, but at the same time avoiding a cadential effect—avoiding making m. 11 too conclusive; and then to emphasize the same line the second time, affording the listener the greatest chance to hear the implied arrival on E at m. 13 in the middle voice.  This is not easy to do, and I’m not sure my performance (Recording 2) does full justice to my analysis.  In this alternative version, I strive to de-emphasize the top-voice B, which I brought out in the first example, illustrating an IAC.

Can one consider another possibility—a half cadence in m. 12 instead of an elided authentic one in 13?  This would mean a linear interruption of the inner voice on the F#, instead of its resolution to E.  This is the issue that Poundie Burstein engages in his recent article on half cadences.  He examines progressions where V is followed by I at phrase structural boundaries; deciding between a half and authentic cadence usually involves determining which harmony is the goal:  the V or the I?

Indeed, several of my students chose to read a half cadence in m. 12, possibly to avoid the phrase elision—of which students are sometimes inexplicably afraid—that an authentic cadence would require.  The dominant of this half cadence is a V7, what Janet Schmalfeldt calls a “nineteenth-century half cadence.”  (Burstein has recently argued that this cadence type can sometimes occur in the eighteenth century as well.)  This reading, supported by the absence of a tonic downbeat in m. 13 (though it is obviously implied), changes the phrase structure and phrase rhythm.  All phrases in the main theme are now two and four measures long, the overlap is gone, and the cadence in m. 12 is hypermetrically weak (an odd-strong hypermetrical pattern has been established from the opening).  This is an important consideration; a hypermetrically strong cadence is likely to sound more conclusive.  Although this is not my personally preferred reading, I have attempted a performance of it (Recording 3).  This version may exaggerate the break between the two sections a little; if it does, the reader will hopefully find their own way to project a half-cadential reading in performance.

I should add that Caplin himself gives the theme up to m. 13, thus implying a cadence there, rather than in 12.  Ultimately, I agree with this interpretation, whether one chooses the IAC or PAC option.  I should also add that both Caplin and Burstein are very much aware of the performance implications of the concepts I have discussed; references to performance choice appear in their work multiple times.  What I have tried to do here is to offer, in a specific situation, some specific performance suggestions for solving the problems one encounters in analysis, and to show its value in a teaching situation.

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.

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.

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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.