[Smt-talk] Pieces with improvisatory openings

Joel Lester joellester at aol.com
Tue Oct 25 05:18:39 PDT 2011

Dear Mitch, 
Yes, indeed, "improvisatory" is a very slippery word.  Thanks for clarifying the sense in which you asked the question that initiated this most interesting thread.  
>From the perspective that it's hard to tap or conduct while following a performance of Chopin's G-minor Ballade, the nature of how we perceive meter comes into focus.  Perceiving meter depends on perceiving levels of pulses as they interact with one another (i.e., layers of pulses in which the faster levels nest within slower levels) and then discerning the location of beginnings of metric units at what we will eventually perceive as the primary metric level.  (I'm thinking of meter in common-practice-period music here.) 
Metric ambiguity at openings of movements (or after fermatas or long rests) arises most commonly because (a) it's hard to get a fix on the pulses, or on how the levels of pulses interact with one another, or (b) it's hard to discern which of the various ways of parsing the music will turn out to be the primary metric level.  In the G-minor Ballade, for instance, the eighth-note pulse is pretty clear once it gets going, but without knowing even whether the first of the eighth-notes is on a beat or off a beat, it remains difficult (as you note) to figure out which of the eighth-notes should be considered strong and weak -- without knowing that, it's hard to discern consistently how the eighths nest into the next higher metric level (which, after all, could be in groups of three just as well as groups of two when the eighths first begin).  (Compounding the metric ambiguity here is also the harmonic ambiguity, as the Ballade's opening note turns out to be the third of a triad, and as the opening harmony turns out to be quite distant from the slowly emerging tonic.) 
Issues can arise even in much less "improvisatory" pieces.  Consider the subject of the C-minor Fugue from the first volume of The Well-Tempered Clavier.  I've never heard a live performance or a recording where the performer grunted on the silent downbeat (and hope never to hear one) to make clear when the opening downbeat occurs (although a conductor would surely have to visually indicate the time-point of the opening downbeat if this were an orchestral piece; and all performers probably do some such counting mentally) -- but without knowing where the downbeat is, there is a sense of metric ambiguity right through the measure, even though the nesting of sixteenths within eighths within quarters is obvious very swiftly.  
Perceiving all this, of course, depends on how well a given listener knows the piece (something absent from many analytical discussions of music).  We all know the C-minor Fugue so well that most of us immediately adjust to the silent opening downbeat without even being aware that we are doing so retroactively (because, of course, we cannot know when the downbeat occurred until after its time-point is in the past).  
And, in the case of pieces in styles where rubato is common (e.g., the G-minor Ballade), the performer can help or hinder how we perceive the location of beats.  
I wouldn't apply the term "improvisatory" to the C-minor Fugue as I would to the G-minor Ballade.  Rather, I get the sense in the Fugue that (as in so, so many other Bach fugues) that the subject is exactly that:  a "subject" for "conversation" that the piece will explore as the other voices enter and as the piece unfolds.  But despite all the obvious differences between these pieces (and their styles and genres), there is a sense that this fugue, like this ballade, build on deep-seated ambiguities that take time to be clarified.  I.e., the difference between improvisatory and non-improvisatory openings is probably not a binary opposition, but rather a matter of where a given opening stands on a continuous range of improvisatoriness.  
But what about an opening such as the first movement of Beethoven's Piano Sonata in G, op. 14 no. 2?   The movement is virtually a "moto perpetuo" (here the quotation marks are genuine scare quotes).  Even on first hearing, we probably learn to perceive the sixteenth-note pulse and the nesting of sixteenths into eighths and eighths into quarters by the time the left hand enters.  But I've never encountered a first-time listener who places the downbeat where Beethoven notates it until some measures later.  Everyone hears the notated meter by m. 8, but there are lots of places between mm. 1 and 8 where the meter can become clear for different listeners (and when hearing different performances).  (I've discussed this passage and its consequences for the movement at some length in "The Rhythms of Tonal Music."  One fascinating aspect of this relatively tame movement is how Beethoven finds ways to suspend the meter before thematic entries throughout the movement, either by fermatas (such as before the recap) or even by what can be heard as a written-out ritardando at the end of the exposition.  The coda then plays most elegantly (and humorously) with the metric ambiguity of this theme by recasting the rhythm.  
And then there are instances like Haydn's "Sunrise" String Quartet, op. 76 no. 4, where there's very little metric ambiguity, but the opening imparts quite an improvisatory effect (at least retrospectively) when the leisurely opening phrases are followed by quite different music.  Is this less improvisatory than the G-minor Ballade because the harmonic context and meter are so clear?  
Joel Lester

-----Original Message-----
From: Mitch Ohriner <mohriner at gmail.com>
To: smt-talk <smt-talk at societymusictheory.org>
Sent: Mon, Oct 24, 2011 10:20 pm
Subject: Re: [Smt-talk] Pieces with improvisatory openings

Hi everyone,

I’m grateful for all the suggestions my little query has elicited. I’m interested where thread is going and thought I might try to clarify my use of the word “improvisatory” for the benefit of Eliot, Charles, and others. (I feel responsible as the initiator of this discussion for pinning down this word, which we all seem to use while hoping no one asks for a definition).  

My initial interest is the transition (perhaps even “state change”) between a passage that is ambiguous with regards to tempo and one that is not. Tapping or conducting along with a performance of the G-minor Ballade can be very difficult at the beginning and is usually much easier after m. 9.

This is the feature that makes the opening of the Ballade seem improvisatory to me. To say that the opening is improvisatory is of course fictive. I know the sequence of notes that starts the piece and I would be quite surprised if a performer deviated from them. But if for whatever reason one was trying to convey such a fiction, avoiding a clear tempo would be a good strategy. If I can’t predict when events will happen, it seems easier to maintain the fiction that I also can’t predict what those events are. And because I can more successfully maintain this fiction, the passage seems improvisatory even though I know it’s composed.

I’d be interested in others’ considerations of this very common word.

Thanks again for the many recommendations,

-Mitch Ohriner
Shenandoah Conservatory

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