Thursday, 22 March 2012

How can we know the dancer from the dance... (on 'Twirling' to Bach)

A friend commented on a desire to twirl on a swivel chair to the music of Bach. "But Mozart is not the same for twirling!". Having noticed my daughter also having a propensity for twirling on swivel chairs (although not requiring the aid of music), I thought this was an interesting statement.

I think there's something in it. After all, 'spinning' in Bach and Baroque music generally is well-known to musicologists: 'Fortspinnung' is a feature of many arias in Bach cantatas (see Motifs are repeated at different levels of the scale creating a continual driving musical energy (actually, the driving force is usually the rhythm) that unfolds over time in an apparently relentless pursuit of the final cadence.

Having said that, not all Bach is like this.. I'd like to know about the 'twirling' properties of the final "At the Sepulchre" chorus in the St John Passion (Taverner Players – St John Passion BWV 245, Part Two: No.39 Rhut wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine) (this still has some aspects of 'fortspinnung', but a very different mood), or the slow movement of the first violin concerto (Joji Hattori;Scottish Chamber Orchestra – Violin Concerto in A minor BWV 1041: Andante). But Mozart is clearly different in sensibility, and this may explain its difference in 'twirling' property, which in itself may seen to be a manifestation of that driving rhythmic force.

The difference would appear to have something to do with the driving rhythm of the semiquavers in the Bach example (letft) which become replaced with the 'alberti' rhythm of Mozart in the left hand here:
But what else is going on in these two examples? In the rhythmic patterning of the left hand in the Mozart example there is more melodic and harmonic stability. The jump up a 5th requires some sort of 'filling-in' to make it harmonically satisfying. Contrasting this to the Bach, although harmonically there is basically one chord per bar, the harmony is inferred through a scalic movement, each step of which contains a range of possibilities as to how the next step might proceed. In essence, the level of uncertainty note-by-note in Bach is greater than in Mozart. With my cybernetics hat on (very fetching!) I might be tempted to say that Bach has greater entropy, although this would be misleading because although the note-by-note uncertainty might be greater, Mozart uses low-entropy moments (with devices like the alberti bass) where time sometimes appears to be suspended to create structural surprises with thematic and tonal developments over a broader span in his music. It is the difference between a microscopic and a macroscopic perspective, and a question which I ask myself as I write this is "if you were to look at the total entropy patterns across the spans of both Bach and Mozart, how would they compare?"

That's interesting, but not what I want to think about here. Because what matters in this case is the difference in the physical (and presumably emotional) responses to the music. What are the differences in us as we hear the music? And what about the difference in our physical responses to it?

'Twirling' is a sympathetic physical response - like dancing. Yeats knew about this and asked the obvious question:
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
I wonder if an answer to this lies in the essence of 'sympathy' and the coordination between music and movement. What seems to occur is a 'coupling' - a self-regulating relationship between music in the environment and the biological system of a human being with a particular disposition and freedom to respond. What occurs physically is psychologically meaningful: in coupling the twirling and the music there is a harmony between psychological expectations of the music and expectations of physical sensations which feeds back to the continuing production of those physical sensations (so twirling continues) as the music continues to produce the conditions that feed it. And 'fortspinnung' may produce these conditions most effectively.

Mozart's music, in having 'low entropy' moments punctuated with 'surprise increases' in disorder (which are then controlled) clearly does not lend itself to a continuous physical movement like 'twirling'. It requires something more nuanced, sensual and responsive where phrasing is mirrored by waves of emotional and physical response which are more like caresses than continuous motion. Hard to do that with a swivel chair! But if one were to move to Mozart in sympathy, the same issues of expectation of the music and expectation of the physical sensation apply. The meaningfulness of a movement to music lies in the alignment of expectations both of physical feedback and musical events.

But finally there is the question as to why we are drawn to different kinds of music at different times and in psychological states. I suspect this has something to do with what we feel we need to do to our bodies at a particular moment in time in response to broader self-regulation within ourselves in response to our environment. In chaotic and stressful times, when there is high entropy in our own minds, a low-entropy physical sensation like swivelling on a chair may provide a necessary corrective (how might that work?). But with space to think and reflect, maybe a need for a more sinuous movement takes hold... (not that my improvisation below falls into either category!)

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