Sunday, May 13, 2012

"Mickey-Mousing" and Madrigalism

For the ancient Greeks, mimesis or imitation, was fundamental to art, which was always believed to imitate nature in some way. Music is the art form which seems most remote from nature as musical notes do not directly denote something. But they can certainly connote a lot. "Mickey Mousing" is one extreme example. In this technique, used widely in cartoon animations which explains the origin of the term, the physical actions of the characters are directly imitated in the music. Here is an example:

A different kind of example would be a Royal Navy warship coming on screen, accompanied by strains of "Rule Britannia".

That connection does not depend on direct imitation, of course, but rather on conventional association and knowledge of the words to the song. In the 16th century the composers of madrigals developed a number of techniques to highlight and amplify the text in the musical setting. One of the most famous madrigals exemplifying these techniques (and a hugely popular piece at the time) is Jacques Arcadelt's Il bianco e dolce cigno ("The white and gentle swan").

To our ears, the effect is rather mild, accustomed as we are to far more extreme harmonies, but Arcadelt sets the word "piangendo" ("weeping"), heard at the 14 to 15 second mark, to an E flat harmony, outside the 'key' of F major. A more striking example is the lute song by John Dowland, "Come again, sweet love doth now invite."

Each verse ends with a repeated refrain in which both the lute (guitar in this performance) and voice ascend, alternating with one another. The voice leaps by fourths while the lute moves up by step. The words give away the meaning: "To see, to hear, to touch, to kiss, to die---with thee again, in sweetest sympathy." In the Renaissance, a bawdy time, both Italian and English were redolent with slang and metaphor. "To die" represented sexual release and the repeated refrain represents it rather well in music. This example, therefore, combines two kinds of representation or madrigalism: the conventional association of 'death' with sexual release in the text and the imitation of this in the music.

By way of contrast, Wagner's Prelude to Tristan is an extended attempt to represent ever-increasing sexual tension without release:

It does this by complex chromaticism and avoidance of cadence. I've talked about the importance of the cadence before. In music with functional harmony, the cadence serves the function of releasing the tension accumulated during the previous phrase or section of the piece. It does this by stating the dominant, the source of musical tension, followed by the tonic, the place of rest and completion. In the 18th century there was usually some sort of cadence every 16 measures or so. Wagner uses this harmonic convention to create a musical structure in which the cadence is always implied, but always avoided. The ways to do this are by extending the dominant and instead of resolving it into the tonic, moving instead to a tonic substitute. This is known as a 'deceptive' cadence and it has a long provenance. Wagner's claim to fame is his extension of these techniques to huge lengths of time and their use to made the drama manifest.

Well, we have come a long way from Popeye!

UPDATE: I forgot to mention the news item that originally gave me the idea for this post. In the Globe and Mail there is a story about a new Canadian opera by Abigail Richardson, commissioned for young audiences on a short story by Roch Carrier, "The Hockey Sweater". The first paragraph provides us with yet another example of mimesis in music:
To perform her most recent piece of music, Ontario composer Abigail Richardson will rely on the strings, the brass and the organ, as well as a pile of ceramic tiles. The tiles, just the regular kitchen-bathroom variety, make a sharp noise when scraped against each other, rather like a skate blade cutting across ice, and that is exactly the sound Richardson needs.
Imitation of the exact sound of an activity in the real world--a musical 'sound effect'.

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