Monday, July 18, 2011

Analysis is Paralysis?

That used to be the byword among performers: don't analyse! "You will only make yourself wretched!" --that's a quote from the first of Britten's Songs from the Chinese. So let's talk about analysis a bit. Just yesterday I gave my composition student an assignment: analyze the Prelude and Fugue in C major from the Well-Tempered Clavier. He replied, "harmonic analysis"? Good place to start, I said. Analysis can be an interesting and creative endeavor. You look at a piece and say "what is going on here"? What is the composer up to and how is he or she doing it? One of the last analysis assignments I had in graduate school was to analyze Rothko Chapel by Morton Feldman. Here's the piece:

I don't recall now what I said about it, but I loved the challenge. In a sense, good analysis is nothing but heightened good listening. I remember asking someone who was playing annoying music loud on her computer in an office to turn it down and she replied "I'm listening to it!" I wanted to reply, "oh yeah? well write down the bass line for me"!

What I like about Feldman is the rhythmic space: he takes things slow. And the soft dynamic. I get tired of big, bombastic orchestral stuff pretty quickly because it is rarely worth the trouble. Here's an example.

But music like Rothko Chapel draws you in...

Perhaps, to understand it, you have to invent something. Take the harmony, for example: whatever is going on with the harmony here, and there certainly seems to be something, it isn't something you can put V7 - I underneath.

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