phrasing

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ratsrcute
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phrasing

Post by ratsrcute » Tue Jan 17, 2012 5:20 pm

I'm a composition student (first year) at Cal State University, Northridge. I've been analyzing pieces lately, and my attention has been drawn to phrasing and sections. A composition often has a number of sections which are separated by "breaths"--by which I mean a phrase reaches its local climax, then comes down in intensity and arrives at a moment of silence before launching the next phrase. (It doesn't have to be a literal breath--it just feels like one.)

Noticing this, and paying special attention to it, has led to increased enjoyment of many composers. Just to give one example, Richard Felciano (at U.C. Berkeley)--I listened to his "Evolutions" (for clarinet and piano). When I first listened to a recording of this piece about two years ago, I wasn't particularly drawn to it. But now that I'm paying attention to phrasing, I realize it has lots of clear phrases with clear dramatic shapes and clear breath-points. I really enjoyed it today, as I graphed its formal shape with pencil and paper.

I also know now why some pieces don't work for me. I don't mean to pick on Jay Greenberg---he's an amazing young talent--but listening to his quintet for strings written as a young child (maybe 10 years old), I notice that it does not have any breath points. When the music is settling down after a local climax, I keep feeling like this would be a good point to settle down to actual silence for a moment. But he never really gets all the way there.

I think breathlessnes CAN be made to work, just maybe not in this piece.

Mike

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jbuck919
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Re: phrasing

Post by jbuck919 » Tue Jan 17, 2012 5:34 pm

Stravinsky claimed that he never wrote for the organ because it never needed to breathe. Come on, Igor, we would have forgiven you for just saying you didn't know what to do with it. :wink:

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

John F
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Re: phrasing

Post by John F » Tue Jan 17, 2012 6:37 pm

Many composers and musicians have believed that all music, including the purely instrumental, derives ultimately from singing and the human voice - and of course singers have to breathe. This doesn't have to be so, especially in modern music, but it often is.
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Heck148
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Re: phrasing

Post by Heck148 » Tue Jan 17, 2012 7:32 pm

phrasing is the essence of musical expression. without it, we have only formless sequences of notes. it is perhaps the performer's main duty [beyond mastering the actual notes] to discover the phrases and to present them coherently to the audience...

the sound does not need to stop - ie- "be silent - for a new phrase to begin - Bach wrote so, so many works that just roll right along, non-stop - but the phrasing is built right in to the melodic/harmonic structure - the polyphony clearly defines the pharses, and no pause is necessary.

ratsrcute
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Re: phrasing

Post by ratsrcute » Tue Jan 17, 2012 9:18 pm

Yeah, Bach doesn't usually have outright silent pauses as breath points, but some of his cadences (sometimes followed by quieter, more settled music of simpler texture or simpler harmony), to me, really feel like a big sigh, a deep exhale.

One of my teachers says that "breathlessness" is a valid possibility--one of his own compositions has a 10-minute long climatic phrase with no big breath until the end.

Jay Greenberg's piece had no breath points--- so did it work as a "breathless" piece? To me, it felt like the nature of the material was heading toward a nice, relaxed moment of silence, so when he never gets there, to me, it feels like the piece doesn't work. But he was 10. I'm sorry to be picking on him. My own music isn't very good either. I'm just saying I have a lot to learn, but at least I know what to study.

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Werner
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Re: phrasing

Post by Werner » Tue Jan 17, 2012 9:46 pm

I note that Mike's opening post deals with phrasing as an aspect of composition - which is the subject he's studying - which leaves little room for consideration of phrasing in performance, which is where the written work is brought to life.

I would suggest that he consider the change in effect that a composition might have if the performer made some changes in phrasing - say, a slight change in accent, dynamics, tempo changes - rubato, allargando, so slight as to require no express changes in the score.

Any musical work is an intellectual excercise - important as that is - but the reason performers have gained the fame they have is their ability to bring the written scores to life, with sound, timing, temperament, and a living pulse that capures and maintains the listener's attention and interest.
Werner Isler

Heck148
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Re: phrasing

Post by Heck148 » Wed Jan 18, 2012 12:00 pm

Werner wrote:.... their ability to bring the written scores to life, with sound, timing, temperament, and a living pulse that capures and maintains the listener's attention and interest.
right - a score is simply symbols on a page. it takes performers to translate that into an audible work of art. same thing with a blueprint in architecture - it is simply plans, lines, drawn on a page. it takes the architect, builders to actualize those symbols.

ratsrcute
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Re: phrasing

Post by ratsrcute » Wed Jan 18, 2012 1:13 pm

Do realize that in the composer's imagination the music is a living, breathing thing with nuance. The notes on the page are an intermediate step between the composer's imagination and the performer's imagination, and you could even make a case that the real product of composing is the music in their imagination, while the notation is a necessary evil to try to convey this to someone else.

In a piece for solo piano I finished last year, there was a point in the piece where I imagined it being performed with a certain rubato that would convey deep passion. There was no way to notate such subtleties. So the performer got it into his hands and lo and behold he plays that part exactly as I imagined it. That was pretty cool.

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Werner
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Re: phrasing

Post by Werner » Wed Jan 18, 2012 1:54 pm

That must have been a most satisfying experience. Congratulations and best wishes for the future.
Werner Isler

Heck148
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Re: phrasing

Post by Heck148 » Wed Jan 18, 2012 4:43 pm

ratsrcute wrote:you could even make a case that the real product of composing is the music in their imagination, while the notation is a necessary evil to try to convey this to someone else.
yes, of course, the score/notation is the "pritnted word" designed to best express what the composer hears in his/her head. before printed notation, performers simply learne by rote, by imitation.

absinthe
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Re: phrasing

Post by absinthe » Wed Jan 18, 2012 6:12 pm

ratsrcute wrote:Do realize that in the composer's imagination the music is a living, breathing thing with nuance. The notes on the page are an intermediate step between the composer's imagination and the performer's imagination, and you could even make a case that the real product of composing is the music in their imagination, while the notation is a necessary evil to try to convey this to someone else.
We have to allow a bias on this forum in favour of performing and performances at the expense of composers. So the emphasis is on what a performer can make of a composition rather than how the composer might control what the performer does*. To me the score is a set of instructions. It isn’t perfect… because it isn’t definitive: some parameters are ambiguous and rely on qualitative judgement by the performer. Hence performances relying on humans are never the same. Works composed on electronic storage media are definitive if humans aren’t required and, like recordings of acoustic (or mixed-media) are always the same (plus or minus the adjustments a listener can make on playing the thing).

* Sometimes the nature of a composition requires that a performer "makes" the composition, fine, but here I'm thinking of composers who hope to compose a definitive work.

Nevertheless, at least some composers hope to limit the boundaries - understandably because they hope performances can approximate their imagined performance. (Yeah, ok, there are plenty who don’t even have an ideal performance in mind, some haven’t a clue what they’ve written - go to a few rehearsals and you’ll know what I mean.) Ravel was one of those who stated that performers should be no more than slaves.

Several devices exist to help define musical phrasing and cadence (and if you wish to call it, marking breath-points). What you’d use in combination and otherwise would depend on your musical style, genre, the size of the work and instruments in use, what you wanted done and maybe other things. As a composer it’s probably best to be guided by your inner ear. Good to develop intuition. And study scores...

Werner
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Re: phrasing

Post by Werner » Wed Jan 18, 2012 8:25 pm

A bias for performers "at the expense" of composers? Isn't the idea that composers benefit from the work of performers? (at least, if the performers know what they're doing?)

At least, the composer's work is to reap the benefit. So I've always seen it - maybe the twenty-first century has brought a change I haven't quite caught up with yet.
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Re: phrasing

Post by living_stradivarius » Wed Jan 18, 2012 8:45 pm

I've always wondered why composers don't make all phrases more obvious (or even come up with some explicity notation for it) - perhaps because they want to leave it to interpretation? Still, it'd be nice to see :). Of course, the mark of a great composer is constructing the phrase so that it is performed naturally by any performer.
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Heck148
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Re: phrasing

Post by Heck148 » Wed Jan 18, 2012 10:45 pm

living_stradivarius wrote:I've always wondered why composers don't make all phrases more obvious (or even come up with some explicity notation for it) .
Schoenberg did it - with inverted "L -shaped" brackets - if you saw those, you knew that was a piece of the main phrase - you had to become aware of who preceded you, and who succeeded you...

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