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 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music
Author: Tony Pay 2017
Date:   2005-07-14 22:43

Here is a more detailed post about the issue, that I posted to the Klarinet list in 1998. I hope it helps make clear what I'm on about:

-----------------------------------------

I said that I had a few more shots in my locker about this 'beginning-oriented phrasing' business that I intended to get off, so I'll produce them in this post.

I know that some people will find what I have to say obvious, others will disagree strongly. Go figure. We live in a very strange and heterogeneous musical world at the moment!

Here goes.

There are two distinct reasons why beginning-oriented phrasing is important for performers. One has to do with audibility, and one with expressivity. Both tend to be compromised by the tendency to ask the question 'where does it *go to*?' of a phrase, together with the tendency then (by playing the phrase) to answer the question in a superficial way, and thus to base all expressivity on local crescendo.

(It might be objected that the question 'where does it *go to*?' may sometimes be a very natural one, even in classical music. Fortunately, in these circumstances, it is possible to provide a satisfactory answer to the question, yet without undermining the advantages of beginning-oriented phrasing, by allowing the 'going to' to occur on the next higher phrase level. I won't spell this out in detail here (see my article), but consider: the sequence "louder, *louder*, LOUDER!", read 'out loud', constitutes an evident 'going to' the final 'LOU-!' -- yet there is never a 'local' crescendo. *Everything* is in diminuendo.)

(1) The first reason why beginning-oriented phrasing is important -- to do with audibility -- is something that any solo wind player, in any sort of music, but particularly in an orchestra, does well to realise.

One part of it is well-known: you should *begin clearly*, in order to be audible.

However what I find less well known, consciously at any rate, is that it is advantageous to *come away afterwards* (thus giving space to begin again, of course), particularly if you have to overcome a degree of competition from your colleagues. The 'coming away' may occur to a greater or lesser degree (even to zero degree), and there is no suggestion that the continuity of the sound be broken.

Why is this?

First, one sort of explanation: our ears and brain are sensitive to *change*. Something that changes is more easily perceived than something that stays the same. So, even if we are doing a diminuendo, and giving therefore less energy to the note or phrase we are playing, we are more clearly perceived than if we stayed at the same dynamic.

(As another aside, this is part of a sort of paradox about the communication of the *idea* of energy, too. We communicate 'energy' in our playing by rapid changes of dynamic, even though we are thereby playing for a proportion of the time quieter, and therefore less energetically, than we might.)

But there is another, deeper explanation of why we should 'come away' that is more suggestive. It is that to do so is to mimic the surface structure of *speech*.

Speech has evolved subject to the constraints of our perceptual systems. The character of speech is therefore a clue to the character of our perceptual systems, including those that we bring to our perception of music.

The fundamental character of speech is its responsibility to be intelligible, which presupposes that it be clearly *audible*, even against background noise.

For this to be the case, it seems to be important that the constantly changing vowels and consonants at the beginnings of syllables be clearly differentiated from the sounds that immediately precede them. In other words, the beginnings have more energy. This is a natural character of everyday spoken language. Recorded speech in any language, played backwards, doesn't sound like speech.

This structure of speech is the reason why we can understand one conversation even in a crowded party, where there is not only background noise but also the conversation of others to distract and confuse us. It is also why we can switch our attention from one conversation to another, if we hear something gripping in it (like our name, for example).

So if we want to be clear, it makes sense to take advantage of how our perceptual system works and 'speak' the music. Then the musical phrases are like the syllables of words: each phrase begins clearly and then gives way to allow the next to do the same. Moreover and this is crucial if there is more than one line, this 'giving way' also makes room for the beginnings of other phrases in the sequences that are simultaneously in progression in the other parts.

We may range across the spectrum from separation, through contiguity and into sostenuto, whilst still retaining the autonomy of the individual phrases, just as we may do with words when we speak. Our ability to do this is very important. Any method of showing phrasing that does not allow both separation and sostenuto as limiting cases is bound to fail in classical music of any subtlety, because the simultaneous and delicately balanced expression of both unity and diversity is fundamental.

For me, it is something like magic that *what allows us to be clearly heard*, if we are playing an important line, *also allows what else is going on to be clearly heard*.

As I said before, it is therefore to be expected that a music consisting of individual lines, all separately audible yet nevertheless blending in an overall effect, should have those lines share some of the character of speech. In my view, the best classical music is such music.

(2) The second reason why beginning-orientated phrasing is important has to do with expressivity.

Expressivity is a mysterious thing. It has to do with the notions of 'atmosphere' and 'character', and seems to be beyond the notes. It is often approached by analogy, and is something that, in large works, it is an important part of the job of a conductor to communicate or allow.

The best way of thinking of it is as something rather like context, or 'being'.

But just as the conductor's upbeat that represents it occurs before the downbeat, it is something that we create in the moment *before* we start to play. The beginning of what we play is then the first, most crucial moment in which our sound can reflect the context, and communicate it to the audience. Our beginnings are our most powerful gestures.

And, once you consider your playing from this point of view, you begin to see that our abilities to begin phrases and subphrases can be considerably developed and refined. It's no good beginning anyhow, and *then* playing expressively.

The ability of a really excellent violinist lies to a very large extent in how he or she uses the bowstroke -- particularly the *beginning* of the bowstroke.

------------------------------------

Tony

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 Topics Author  Date
 The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
Tony Pay 2005-07-07 22:26 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
diz 2005-07-07 22:40 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
Tony Pay 2005-07-08 21:14 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
Tony Pay 2005-07-07 22:51 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
ned 2005-07-07 22:57 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
Liquorice 2005-07-07 23:03 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
Tony Pay 2005-07-07 23:17 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
diz 2005-07-14 01:27 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
hans 2005-07-14 02:59 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
3dogmom 2005-07-09 03:29 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
diz 2005-07-14 05:20 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
larryb 2005-07-14 11:53 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
EEBaum 2005-07-14 17:49 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
Tony Pay 2005-07-14 21:25 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
Tony Pay 2005-07-14 22:43 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
larryb 2005-07-15 00:05 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
Tony Pay 2005-07-15 01:02 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
Lelia Loban 2005-07-15 14:00 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
Tony Pay 2005-07-15 17:08 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
clarispark 2005-07-15 19:48 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
Lelia Loban 2005-07-16 12:19 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
Tony Pay 2005-07-16 12:31 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
Lelia Loban 2005-07-16 23:52 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
Tony Pay 2005-07-17 06:25 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
Bob Phillips 2005-07-17 01:54 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
Tony Pay 2005-07-18 13:01 
 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music  new
sdr 2005-07-19 13:41 


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