Wednesday, October 9, 2013


Last week I suggested that in order to make music effectively we need to know how to group notes into musical gestures. In searching for an example, we compared musical interpretation to the way we interpret words on a page if we say them out loud. This analogue actually lead to two rather different insights.

The first, rather basic, is that small packets of information are grouped together in English as well as in music. Letters grouped together become words. Words grouped together become sentences. Being adept at recognizing words and groups of words quickly makes reading significantly easier then if we were forced to come to terms with e a c h l e t t e r a s a s e p a r a t e t h i n g.

Besides helping to increase fluency, these packets of information rely on grouping for some of their impact. In other words, where you put the information has some bearing on its meaning.

But our little example led inadvertently to something else. Noting that when we read we often lump some words together, such that a non-native English speaker might think we were saying one very long word when in fact it was two or three short ones with no space in between, and that we sometimes pause where no visual indication is given, such as a comma or period, we found that in fact, sometimes an oral interpreter does Not parse elements the way they are presented on a page.

This is a particularly useful insight for music because of the methodically metrical way it is written. In English some words are longer than others; sentences and paragraphs are often unequal. But in music, measures are usually the same length, and notes are grouped together into beats or groups of two or three beats, and these groups are pretty consistently of the same time value. Looking at a page of music we might conclude from the well-trimmed sameness which which a row of consistently distributed sixteenth notes greets us that it was balance that was most important in music, not forward momentum.  Stasis.

In fact, publishers go to some trouble to preserve the "aisles" between beats. Let's suppose a sixteenth is followed by an eighth note and another sixteenth. That's one beat grouping, in which the notes are all beamed together, with a break before the next beat. Suppose the second beat is identical to the first. Now imagine that the last sixteenth of the first group is tied to the first sixteenth of the last group. Why? Since the two sixteenths together add up to an eighth why not simply write an eighth note?

In this and many similar cases, the reason something is notated one way and not another, often necessitating ties rather then simply putting a longer note in there, is that this way one can easily spot the division between beat groups. It makes reading that rhythm much easier because you can always located the pulse at the beginning of the next grouping rather than in the middle of some note in the middle of a group. You can practically see it on the page.

However, when we perform we often work against that visual representation. I remember a teacher at the conservatory taking a pencil and re-beaming part of a Beethoven Sonata so that the last three of a group of four sixteenths was beamed to the first note of the next group, then the last three of the next hooked to the start of the following group and so on. The point was to subtly propel forward into the next beat, to keep the music moving, which meant actually rethinking the way the music was written.

Leon Fleischer once made a colleague of mine laugh (he often did at Mr. Fleischer's remarks) by suggesting that music should be written on toilet paper....(pause for effect, glasses on head) that it could be unrolled gradually.

You could write it on a scroll, too, but that image just wouldn't be arresting enough to remember years later.

Considering how many divisions there are on a page, it shouldn't surprise that radical countermeasures might be needed. Every 2 or four beats we have a huge vertical slash breaking the music into bits, every beat group is kept separate, full chords often stack the notes high and make us forget the horizontal axis, all working against that forward momentum needed to make the music go somewhere and make us want to ask where.

But you'll notice that that teacher of mine from the conservatory still broke the notes into groups, it just wasn't at the beat but after it. The idea, I think, is not to take actual liberty with the tempo (or none that is very noticeable) but to allow for a mental break--chunking the information, which is vital to the performer's comprehension of the piece, and also crucial to helping the audience "get" the flow of the piece. To give you an example, I've posted a little piece by our Birthday composer (Mr. Johann Friederich Krebs turns 300 this week) in which I make little pauses between groups of notes that I am thinking of as music units--musical words, perhaps. The gaps between the words are larger than I would make in an actual performance, and are designed simply to show how one might break up a piece into little components for understanding, for practice, and to be able to control the movement of the piece. Here it is:

Krebs: Our Father in Heaven

Next time I'll discuss this bit of strategy in more detail.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I don't bite...mostly.