Sunday, 9 September 2012

The Alberti Bass and Perception

This is a post about music. I haven't done one of those for ages, and having been deeply tied up in abstractions about economics, perception, learning, explanation, etc., the time has come to step back and think about something concrete. To me there is nothing more concrete than music.

The Aberti bass is a musical accompanimental pattern found predominantly in classical music (that is, the music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven). It's looks (and sounds) like this (it's the left hand that matters!):
There are a number of fundamental questions which I would like to ask about this pattern. The first concerns a comment made by Charles Rosen in his book "The Classical Style". He talks about Schumann's Op17 Fantasy:
At the end of the his book, he says of this music that:
"The excitement of Schumann's first measures is unparalleled in a classical work, and its emotional turbulence is conveyed by the accompaniment's shapeless version of the theme above. In performance it is not easy to define even the rhythm of this accompaniment clearly, and there is no reason to suppose that Schumann expected a clear definition. The defining rhythmic framework of the classical style is rejected in favor of a more open sonority out of which the theme gradually assumes a shape." 
I find this interesting because visually, Mozart and Schumann look similar. These repetitive figures which lie under the hand so well create a sonic backdrop to whatever melody is played above them. Yet Rosen is right about the rhythmic clarity: Schumann produces an extraordinary rumbling at the opening of his Fantasy quite unlike any other classical opening. Certainly quite unlike anything in Mozart or Beethoven (and the piece, Rosen tells us, was a homage to Beethoven).

The question I want to ask is how Schumann's accompanimental pattern is fundamentally different from the classical alberti bass. My intuition is that there is something essential about both accompaniments which is common. Before considering that, perhaps it is useful to examine a few other examples.

Below I have two extracts from Janacek's 1st movement of "In the Mists". The opening of the piece features an accompanimental pattern similar to a classical accompaniment:
But this develops into something more florid and (perhaps) more like the Schumann:
In the second movement (which is my favourite), he seems to play more with these accompanimental figures, but this time using them thematically:
But later in that movement, an eiree but melodic reappearance of the accompanimental figure occurs:
What am I getting at here?

The point of commonality has to do with a kind of gesture which has the form of a 'wave'. Janacek's 

 has the same formal pattern as Mozart's 

which has the same pattern as Schumann's

it is basically a cyclic motion, or perhaps can be thought of as a kind of (simple) harmonic motion (in a physics sense). Its form is
There is a starting point. Something adds to complement it and then there is a letting-go. It is a caress. Seen like that, the experience of Schumann's frantic accompaniment perhaps make more sense - he's going at it hammer-and-tongs, whilst Mozart is still teasing! Both are having a good time!

But is there more we can say beyond allusions to a sexual undercurrent in these works? I would hope so. I think (with Kant and Gadamer) that our senses are always in the midst of a kind of game with the world and the other people in it. It's the game that interests me. Changes to artistic style depend not just on the sensibility of artists, but on the social conditions within which art is produced. Schumann lived in a time where  a more open expression of love was acceptable. It is the mentality of the world in the classical period that meant that Mozart wouldn't really have considered doing the same thing: it wouldn't have been recognised. 

So maybe that's one level of game the senses play: a game of social acceptability. But there are deeper levels to this game. Because social acceptability depends on deep prediction and insight into the strategies and senses of others. Here things change: we acquire new strategies and sensibilities throughout history (and lose old ones). In this game, as its complexity increases, the paradoxes of rationality lead to new norms of behaviour and expression.

Where are we now? An infinitely complex game of strategies upon strategies, and bewildering possibilities for expression? Where might that lead? What's next? What's fundamental? 

I think there are fundamental things which unite forms of expression over history. But understanding why those fundamental things get expressed in different ways and how they change may be an important way of understanding where we are now.


dkernohan said...

Yes... good point. I suppose a "walking bass" in jazz or pop would be a great example of an interrupted wave building anticipation...

Mark William Johnson said...

Yes - I think so.. Interestingly with a walking base, I think there is a kind of harmonically ambiguous step-wise movement to the dominant (and sometimes it doesn't do what we expect). But despite it's ambiguity, it is rhythmically clear, unlike the Schumann example. But still reaching the V is the point of release, so the wave is still there.

You'll like this:
It's got walking bass and alberti, and everything else thrown in - great fun!