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Sarah Vandemoortele

Some thoughts on analysis

April 8, 2013 at 1:04 PM

An analysis needs ‘translation’ into sound, however I think it is not the final presentation of the analysis – whether that is verbal or, in the case of Schenkerian analysis, visual – that serves best for translation into sound. In common language we tend to compare the end product of analysis with a skeleton, that still needs to be filled with flesh. I don’t think this ‘filling up’ happens by taking the final presentation of the analysis as a starting point. In a way presenting a piece by means of words or a graph is leading us along the wrong way if all we want to do is to be able to imagine the sounds of a performance, since we are using the wrong medium. A verbal or visual analysis may represent an interpretation of a composition, but is at the same time a performance of the composition in that medium. The part of an analysis that we need to translate into sound in order to come up with a performance that contains both skeleton and flesh is the process that leaded to the final presentation of an analysis, just like this process leaded to a performance of the composition in a verbal or visual medium. In this sense it in fact becomes superfluous to actually present an analysis in a verbal or visual form when – as a performer – you are analyzing for your own purposes.

So what can a verbal or visual analysis offer us? Is such an analysis really so ‘neutral’ that it can be used as the starting point for (widely) diverging performances? When one would offer an analysis to a group of performers, they would have to work their way back as it were to understand the process that lead to the analysis. All performers would have their own vision on how the analysis came into being, so indeed an analysis can lead to diverging performances. However, this seems like saying that the performers analyzed the analysis – they analyzed a (verbal or visual) performance of the composition. In so doing they hopefully did get some useful insights into the composition, but it wouldn’t make sense to intend to ‘perform an analysis’. Just like we can understand much easier how an analysis came into being when we know the theory on which that analysis is based (e.g. Schenkerian analysis, pitch class analysis…), we can understand - we would hope – a composition by understanding the theory that lies at the basis of a composition process. A whole load of repertoire of course was in reality not based on such a theory, which was often reconstructed post factum. The most famous example is probably that on sonata form, however that doesn’t mean composition has never been based on a preconceived theory. I’m not sure what’s the relation between analysis and theory, but probably one function of analysis is to uncover general compositional rules. Perhaps it should not exceed that function and therefore it should not claim to be the basis for the understanding of individual pieces. I guess though, we have to make at least a distinction between formal and structural analysis. My somewhat harsh verdict on analysis then would only apply to formal analysis. Structural analysis does not need to have the ultimate goal of uncovering general compositional rules. I guess my notion of ‘structural analysis’ in fact coincides with Boulez’ explanation for what he calls “active analysis”, which can be broken down into three steps: observation of detailed musical facts (sort of like making an inventory of what goes on with each musical parameter), finding underlying rules of organisation that provide coherence to these separate elements and finally interpreting these compository rules. This way, one can learn to understand individual works, even when there are no other works available that provide a useful point of reference. In most cases though, our knowledge of general compositional rules and a so-defined structural analysis both contribute to undertstanding a composition.

However I’m going off-topic now. We all must do like a good kid our homework and analyze a piece, so analysis definitely has a purposeful use. What makes it unsuitable for performance then, is either a by-product of analysis, or something which analysis lacks. I think we could make a whole list of things that fit within either of the two categories. Opinions can range from “analyzing makes you think and thinking in performance isn’t good” to “analysis never unites all musical parameters and is therefore always incomplete”.
I also claimed that during performance a similar process as the process prior to the end-product of analysis is going on. With that I mean that when we perform, we perform the piece only once in actual sound, but several times in our heads, so to speak. Every note belongs to several structural and formal layers. Our mind has to go continuously back and forth along those layers in order to make sure each note fulfills its function in every layer it belongs to (some notes thus have to fulfill several functions). This process seems to me very similar to analyzing a piece and undoubtedly benefits from it too, since we have already located the structural and formal layers we should be aware of when performing. Now, a mistake I often made, was to analyze a piece and then play through it as if analyzing wasn’t necessary anymore – I had already analyzed it, why still think in an analytical manner while performing? In other words, I understood the skeleton, but didn’t consider it necessary to translate that into sound. All I thought of doing was to fill it up with flesh, as if the sound only represented that. This is what I mean with “taking the end-product of analysis as the starting point for performance”. It means, one is immediately after having done an analysis concerned with things like emotion, expression, meaning, gesture… all these fancy words. That way analysis becomes in retrospect really nothing more than a nasty homework. Under “being immersed in the music while performing” I understood something like experiencing the music only once, but to the full. I wanted to experience each event in the music as something unique, therefore I didn’t allow myself to ‘experience’ it several times during one performance – in other words: I forbade myself to jump back and forward during my playing. How an obsession with expressivity can jeopardize sensible playing… In fact, only when we do allow ourselves to go back and forth while playing, we can experience the emotional impact of the music and this impact is generated every time anew when playing through the composition. In a way, it is not possible to prepare one’s mood and emotions for a piece in advance and impose them upon anything that may happen with the structure during the performance. I never thought I would ever say it, but it seems to me now that emotion really is generated by the structure – not only from the point of view of the audience, but also from that of the performer. I’ll leave it at this confession.

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