Wednesday, January 29, 2014

1, 2, 1-2-3-4!

Let me start by recycling one of my own jokes--but it's ok, because you haven't heard it before. Chatting with a music critic friend of mine, I made the remark that the difference between chamber and orchestral music is that in chamber music the ensemble is tighter: the players are usually within a sixteenth note of one another. He thought that quite funny.

I haven't done a post on scientific research into music in a while and I notice that Norman Lebrecht has something up about some new research into chamber music ensemble playing. The first link he has is to the abstract of the research. It is worth quoting, just for the flavor:
Control of relative timing is critical in ensemble music performance. We hypothesize that players respond to and correct asynchronies in tone onsets that arise from fluctuations in their individual tempos. We propose a first-order linear phase correction model and demonstrate that optimal performance that minimizes asynchrony variance predicts a specific value for the correction gain. In two separate case studies, two internationally recognized string quartets repeatedly performed a short excerpt from the fourth movement of Haydn's quartet Op. 74 no. 1, with intentional, but unrehearsed, expressive variations in timing. Time series analysis of successive tone onset asynchronies was used to estimate correction gains for all pairs of players. On average, both quartets exhibited near-optimal gain. However, individual gains revealed contrasting patterns of adjustment between some pairs of players. In one quartet, the first violinist exhibited less adjustment to the others compared with their adjustment to her. In the second quartet, the levels of correction by the first violinist matched those exhibited by the others. These correction patterns may be seen as reflecting contrasting strategies of first-violin-led autocracy versus democracy. The time series approach we propose affords a sensitive method for investigating subtle contrasts in music ensemble synchronization.
I love the devil-may-care synthesis of the latest in pseudo-Marxist cultural theory with scientific jargon. On the one hand, "asynchrony variance", (which I think might refer to when the guys aren't quite together) and on the other, "first-violin-led autocracy"! À bas le roi! Down with the hegemony of the first violin!

Ok, let's let the BBC explain all this to us.
A team from the Royal Academy of Music and the University of Birmingham found that analysing how individual musicians vary their timing to follow the rest of the group can indicate a hierarchy.
They say it shows some quartets have a clear leader to ensure perfect harmony.
However, in other "democratic" quartets the musicians all follow each other, playing an equal role.
I can see it all now: the Dean's office calls over to the folks in the science building. "Hey, you've got that big machine that goes 'beep' just sitting idle for most of next week? Why don't you do something cool with it? I understand string quartets are kind of cool right now, why don't you do something with them? And if you can blend in just a touch of class-warfare, so much the better!"

The article gives a bit more detail here:
In one of the quartets, they found that three of the musicians were constantly having to speed up or slow down to stay in sync. However, the fourth player did not budge, letting the others adjust to her.
"The first violin was quite clearly providing a leadership," explained Prof Wing.
"She wasn't correcting to the timing of the other players - the other players were correcting much more to her."
However, in the other quartet, all of the members altered their timing equally, suggesting a more democratic arrangement.
Prof Wing said: "There was no distinction between the first violin and the other players - they were all making equal corrections to each other."
OK, so it is also possible that the first violin in the first group was just having an off day and that is why the others had to keep adjusting to her. As for "all of the members altered their timing equally" in the other group, sorry, I would have to see the evidence before I believed that.

Let me explain how chamber music works. There are a host of musical and historic factors involved that create a context within which each performing quartet works. For example, the first violin part was often, especially in the 18th century, the most virtuosic which meant that the other three instruments had to play an accompanying role. Not all the time, but often enough.  But there are lots of passages where the second violin or the viola or the cello might have the most important musical line and therefore be the controlling voice. It is give and take according to musical context. I recall rehearsing with the marvellous violinist Paul Kling on one occasion when he said "I wait for you, why can't you wait for me?" Right!! Chamber music is always give and take between all the instruments based on the musical context.

This is obvious to musicians and probably quite evident to audiences as well, whether they are consciously aware of it or not. I particularly enjoyed this summing-up comment from the BBC article:
Adrian Bradbury, a co-author from the Royal Academy of Music in London, said: 'Live interaction between musicians on stage is often the most electrifying element of a performance, but remains one of the least well understood.
Uh-huh. "Least well understood" by whom? Just scientists, I suspect. What I notice as a common factor in all these scientific investigations is that they remain quite oblivious to the basic musical context. And let's not miss the delightfully clumsy ideology revealed in the headline:

Hidden hierarchy in string quartets revealed

You see, until we can dissect it with the big machine that goes 'beep', there is no truth. Isn't it interesting how science is just like Gnosticism, believing that until their lab-coat-clad priests reveal the Truth to us, all is hidden. Science: draining the magic from music with big machines that go 'beep'.

Let's end appropriately with the movement from the Haydn quartet that they used for the study: Op. 74, no. 1, fourth movement. I can't find just that movement on YouTube, so this is the complete quartet. The last movement, vivace, starts at the 17:15 mark:


Rickard Dahl said...

Another attempt to try to scientifically explain topics that don't need a scientific explanation because there is also an aesthetic explanation that works very well. Why don't the scientists work on problems that actually need solving? Their signal processing methods could be instead focused on something else, even in the area of music, better digital piano sound for instance. And besides they seem to be a bit ideologically driven in their research as you said. It seems as if much of the academic world is focusing on some sort of pseudo-science. A major example of this is gender research, which gets a lot of funding eventhough it's fundamentally flawed. It's after all feministically driven (i.e. based on a faulty ideologically) and tries to put all the blame for everything bad that has ever happened in history on a whole gender (men). It ignores facts and reality (such as the many forms of misandry society uses).

Bridge said...

No offense, but both you and BBC are misrepresenting the study. It's actually quite boring and doesn't really reveal anything or make any claims. It's only in the discussion that the pseudo-Marxism as you call it surfaces, and even then it doesn't go beyond an analogy. In the actual study, which they seemed to have forgotten, they actually made it quite clear that who the leader was depended entirely on the context and they acknowledged that the excerpt they used was highly biased in favor of the first violin. Still, it is interesting to note that one of the quartets seemed to not favor any instrument. Whether that is due to psychological factors or it has a simple explanation is hard to say, and they don't actually say anything. They even made an interesting observation with a viola and violin playing a duet where the violin was designated the leader (and had the more important part) and yet they adjusted to each other equally. In my opinion, the whole pecking order business is just some bad journalism, and while the people who conducted the experiment seem to be slightly biased toward the idea that groups have some kind of leader the professor as far as I can tell was being quote mined in the article. In fact, I would say the study revealed the "hidden truth" that ensembles don't exhibit any inherently hierarchical behavior, if anybody believed that they did. However, that's just my interpretation of it, just as the "Marxist" angle is how the researchers interpreted it and to a much greater extent the BBC reporter, but the actual study itself doesn't comment on it one way or another. As far as I can tell it's a pretty neutral study, and while it isn't exactly earth-shattering I don't think it is as uninteresting as you say. For example, they observed the greatest gains from the cello, which you would think would be sort of the rhythmic anchor for the quartet, right? I don't really have any way of authenticating that fact for now so I guess we should wait and see what the academic consensus will be.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think we have to give points to Bridge here as he (or she) found the link to the pdf of the actual study, which I didn't see when I wrote the post. Now, looking it over, I see that it is far more intricate, detailed and mathematical than a lot of the other ones I have critiqued. So sure, I am willing to accept that the study was quote-mined for something juicy by the BBC reporter and that the study itself is fairly neutral.

Can I still kick around the BBC, though?

Bridge said...

Yeah, go nuts. :D