Friday, November 8, 2019

Attentive Listening and the Fatigue Factor

Every now and then I am reminded that I have been falling behind in keeping up with Stephen Malinowski and his innovative approach to creating animated visualizations of music that augment a recorded performance with a “video track.” On this site I wrote about his work most recently in July of 2016, when he had completed visualizations of the preludes and fugues in the first book of Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier. Malinowski has never shied away from major challenges, and my first encounter with his work took place back when I was writing for and I viewed the video he had created in honor of the 100th anniversary of the first performance of the ballet “The Rite of Spring,” for which Igor Stravinsky had provided the music.

The final measures of Beethoven’s “Große Fuge” (Artaria first edition, from IMSLP, public domain)

At the end of last month I learned of his latest “anniversary” project. In honor of next year’s celebration of Ludwig van Beethoven’s 250th birthday, Malinowski has created visualizations of all of that composer’s music for string quartet, working with recordings made by the Alexander String Quartet. The entire collection has its own playlist on YouTube.

Last month San Francisco Performances got the celebration off to an early start with a recital by the Calidore String Quartet in which Beethoven’s Opus 130 quartet in B-flat major was played in its original version, concluding with the “Große Fuge,” which would later be published separately as Opus 133 and replaced by a shorter concluding movement for Opus 130. As a result, Beethoven’s quartets are already on my mind; and I was curious as to how visualization might relate to the impressions of the Calidore performance I had documented.

Those who read my account of that performance know that I felt it necessary to address the problem of fatigue. From a mathematical point of view, the “information content” of the original version of Opus 130 is impressively high, quite possibly noticeably higher than any previously composed music. Whether or not one appreciates such a mathematical argument, the subjective consequence is that, when it comes to processing the auditory stimuli, mind has a lot on its plate. Indeed, there may well be more than most minds can handle, meaning that, before the performance has concluded, some (many?) of those minds have begun to “tune out” due to that fatigue factor.

At that particular recital, my own mind had already sustained quite a workout from the performance of of Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken III/32 quartet in C major, whose final movement is a fugue with four subjects (or, as H. C. Robbins Landon preferred to call it, a double fugue with two countersubjects). Haydn clearly believed in challenging both performers and listeners; and, since Beethoven’s experiences with Haydn as a pupil did not go particularly well, it is understandable that the pupil would have an ongoing need to one-up the teacher! Beethoven was still scratching that itch late in life; and the original version of Opus 130 remains one of the most imposing challenges in the repertoire for both performers and listeners.

I was thus curious about whether my own personal battle with fatigue would arise while viewing Malinowski’s visual interpretation of this music. My guess is that he may have wondered the same. In the playlist he created, Opus 133 follows the Cavatina (fifth) movement of Opus 130, as Beethoven had originally planned; and the “replacement” Finale is the next item. In other words listening to the published version of Opus 130 requires “manual intervention” between the fifth and sixth movements.

I should probably note, by way of context, that I have been following recordings with scores ever since I was in high school. Just about every music course I took as an undergraduate or a graduate student involve score-following in one context or another. Indeed, much later in life, when I attended a pre-concert talk that Steve Reich gave at the University of California, Los Angeles about his “New York Counterpoint,” he concluded by playing a recording while setting out the score for those of us in the audience to follow. It was only after I began to write about music on this site that I realized that paying too much attention to marks on score pages might distract from the experience of listening itself, and these days I only consult scores after a performance has taken place.

To some extent watching a Malinowski visualization is an alternative to score following. He clearly understands the information content of the score; but, on the basis of my past experiences with his videos, I would say that his visualizations have more to do with auditory impressions than with the marks on paper beyond the performance itself. On the other hand, the score is not ignored entirely. Thus, when the instrumental voices cross over each other in Beethoven’s score, one sees that crossing in the unfolding images. Similarly, he introduces a “splash” image to represent notated pizzicato playing.

Nevertheless, the overall images themselves and the ways in which those images unfold tend to have more to do with auditory impressions, rather than with the marks on paper behind the performance itself. Thus, the visualization reflects rhetorical interpretations that escalate the performance above merely getting all the notes right. It is through that attention to rhetoric that one appreciates a view of “music being made,” rather than “notes being interpreted.” One might think that this would lead to greater “information overload” than what comes with listening in a concert setting. However, as one settles into the “image vocabulary,” that risk of mind having to process too much seems to have been diminished.

This may be due, in part, to the variation of the “image vocabulary” as one advances through the movements. Thus, in my own situation, I no longer faced fatigue during the Cavatina. Indeed, I was more immersed in its uniquely sensuous rhetoric than I usually am when listening to this music in recital or on recording. Mind you, I do not think that Malinowski was deliberately going after sensuous images; but the visualization brought to the foreground the devices through which the subjective nature of that music flourished. (On the other hand I have to confess to some disagreement over foreground-background decisions; but those involve picking nits that would distract from the significance of the visualization technique itself.)

My conclusion (at least where this repertoire is concerned) is that, when there is more coming through the “auditory channel” than mind can handle, adding another medium to the mix may be beneficial!

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