A Music Cognition Experiment Revisited Ten Years Later

Handshape and Orientation in the Expressive Gestures of the Conductor’s Left Hand

It’s been nearly ten years since I submitted my senior thesis for the Music Cognition major at Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music. At the time, I was interested in becoming a conductor. From my training as a conductor with Fred Ockwell and Victor Yampolsky, I learned that the right hand is strict in terms of showing the beat pattern of the music. In contrast, the left hand is much freer. In addition to indicating cues, entrances, articulation, and timbre, it may be used to correct balancing and intonation issues. Given this greater degree of freedom, how do conductors learn to use their left hand? From my observation of experienced conductors, it seemed that each conductor has a small repertoire of expressive gestures in his/her left (i.e. non-dominant) hand. This observation led me to the next question: Do conductors share expressive gestures in common? If so, do these expressive gestures adhere to a basic set of rules and features?

Around the time that I first began thinking about these questions, I was enrolled in an independent study with Dr. Richard Ashley. Aware of my interest in conducting, he recommended Penny Boyes Braem and Thüring Bräm’s article “A Pilot Study of the Expressive Gestures Used by Classical Orchestra Conductors” (2000). In this groundbreaking study, Boyes Braem and Bräm examine video samples of many different conductors and find that conductors share a basic “repertoire of non-dominant hand gestures” (151). Further, these gestures consistently make use of a small set of handshapes:

BoyesBraemBrämPg132Excited by Boyes Braem and Bräm’s findings, I decided to set up my own experiment to test their limited set of handshapes. More specifically, my aim was to find out if by altering the handshape of a given gesture, this would affect the gesture’s intended meaning. Also, what would happen if I changed the gesture’s orientation (i.e. which direction the palm is facing)? As I put it at the time, the experiment’s goal was to investigate whether handshape or orientation is the “meaning-bearing component” of expressive gestures–whether a change in handshape or orientation is more likely to affect the gesture’s meaning.

In my study, participating musicians (23 in total) were given a specific musical context (e.g., decrescendo, pay attention, play out, fix the intonation, hacking sound, sustain the sound) and asked to rate an experimentally altered expressive gesture on how well it conveyed the given context. (A high score meant that the gesture conveyed the given context.) In addition to the gesture’s handshape, I also manipulated its orientation. I found that handshape changes resulted in the lowest scores, thereby determining that the handshape is the most important component in terms of a gesture’s ability to convey the intended meaning. I also confirmed the basic set of handshapes found by Boyes Braem and Bräm, comparing it with handshapes that I created using the American Sign Language finger spelling alphabet. In conclusion, I found that handshape is the component most likely to influence a gesture’s meaning.

See here for a link to the abstract of my Music Cognition senior thesis “Handshape and Orientation in the Expressive Gesture of the Musical Conductor’s Nondominant Hand.”

Myth, Revolution, and Nationalism in Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle

On March 17, 2016, I presented the guest lecture “Myth, Revolution, and Nationalism in Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle” at Gustavus Adolphus College in Saint Peter, MN. The abstract of the guest lecture is as follows:

In addition to discussing current Wagner singers and conductors, this lecture examines three themes that are central for understanding Wagner’s Ring cycle: myth, revolution, and nationalism. Along with considering Wagner’s different source materials (Norse and German mythology and ancient Greek tragedy), I look at how Wagner uses these materials to comment on nineteenth-century sociopolitical realities. After drawing attention to the contradictory aspects of Wagner’s revolutionary thinking, I elaborate on how this thinking shaped his conception of the Ring cycle and opera in general. Finally, I discuss how Wagner’s expression of nationalistic ideas was initially bound up with his revolutionary hopes but that these ideas later led him to support Kaiser Wilhelm I and the new German Reich. I will focus on the Prelude of Rheingold and excerpts from Die Walküre. All are welcome, and no prior music experience is required.

See here for a link to the Gustavus announcement.

My Top 5 List of Favorite Works to Teach in Music Humanities

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Music Humanities is part of Columbia College’s innovative Core Curriculum, a set of courses required of all undergraduates. (Above: Panoramic view of Columbia University, Morningside Campus)

1. Schubert’s “Erlking”

Nothing beats bringing out the different voices and character roles in Schubert’s setting of “Erlking,”  as well as finding examples of word painting (“wiegen und tanzen,” “Gewalt”). I like to begin with a dramatic reading of the Goethe text, and then listen to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s 1968 recording with Gerald Moore (see the 1999 DG reissue of Schubert: Goethe Lieder).

Looking for a new angle? Try juxtaposing Schubert’s “Erlking” with Carl Loewe’s “Herr Oluf,” a setting of a text by Herder that introduces the erlking’s daughter (who is just as sinister as – or even more so than – her father). The story is as follows: Herr Oluf is off riding his horse on the night before his wedding when he encounters the erlking’s daughter, who promises him wealth and a good time if he will dance with her. Herr Oluf refuses and, as a result, the erlking’s daughter curses him. The next morning, when Herr Oluf’s bride-to-be looks for him, she finds him dead. Need a recording? Listen to Thomas Quasthoff (see his Romantic Songbook on DG), who brings out the (initially) playful character of the erlking’s daughter along with her snarly voice and the fateful curse.

2. Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique

In my humble opinion, teaching this piece is all about finding the right recording. None compares to Michael Tilson Thomas’s 1998 recording with the San Francisco Symphony (on the RCA label).

Symphonie fantastique (SF) is about much more than just opium-induced dreams and autobiographical details (Harriet Smithson). Rather, it is an attempt to create a sonic depiction of the grotesque, a concept that Berlioz borrows from Victor Hugo (see the preface to the latter’s 1827 play Cromwell). The grotesque is the opposite of the beautiful, and refers to the horrible, shocking, and comically ridiculous aspects of life and nature. In terms of music, this meant taking existing conventional forms (sonata, ternary form) and distorting them and juxtaposing them in new shocking ways. It also meant depicting nightmarish scenes of the supernatural. (For more on Berlioz and the grotesque, see Francesca Mary Brittan’s 2007 dissertation, especially pgs. 193-200.)

Berlioz’s SF is also an early example of a composer responding to urban experience, more specifically of living in Paris during the early 1800s. The idea of art as a response to urban experience  has been explored at length by Anselm Gerhard (see his Urbanization of Opera: Music Theater in Paris in the Nineteenth Century), but he does not discuss symphonic music. Just as much as the grand operas of this time period, Berlioz’s SF seems to capture the “stress and confusion of life in a large city” (Gerhard). Movements like “A Ball” and “Procession to the Scaffold” depict enormous crowd scenes in which the individual loses his or her identity. “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath” recreates the urban experience of sensory overload and startling juxtapositions of sound.

3. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 (Pastoral)

In his Pastoral Symphony, Beethoven creates his own sonic universe in which human beings are in harmony with nature (even if this harmony is briefly challenged by the thunderstorm of mvt. 4). The Sixth Symphony is also a perfect way to introduce other examples of composers depicting scenes of nature (Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Haydn’s The Seasons, Debussy’s La Mer, and Respighi’s Pines of Rome).

When I teach this piece, I like to challenge Beethoven’s statement that the Sixth Symphony was “more an expression of feeling than painting” (mehr Ausdruck der Empfindung als Malerei). As David Wyn Jones (1996) points out, when Beethoven began composing this piece in 1803, critics were attacking music with explicit programmatic content and imagery. Anticipating such criticism, Beethoven attempted to draw attention away from the examples of tone-painting in his music (e.g., the bird calls in mvt. 2 and the thunderstorm in mvt. 4). In keeping with writers such as Johann Jacob Engel who argued that music’s power resides in its ability to convey feelings rather than depict actual images or events, Beethoven claimed that his symphony was conveying the feeling of well-being associated with country life and not depicting the countryside itself. Yet if we compare Beethoven’s symphony with examples from Haydn’s oratorios (The Creation and The Seasons), which were enormously popular at this time, we see that Beethoven’s audience was very likely to hear examples of tone-painting in his symphony.

I like to teach this piece with the 2001 DVD of Claudio Abbado conducting the Berlin Philharmonic at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Rome. Looking for just an audio recording? Try Harnoncourt’s 1991 Teldec recording with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.

4. Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro

In Marriage of Figaro, Mozart and Da Ponte create a series of farcical situations that even outdo the movies of Billy Wilder (see for example the latter’s 1959 film Some Like It Hot). By definition, a farce is a series of improbable situations, each one in turn leading to scenarios that are even more comic and absurd. A perfect example is the Trio from Act 1, scene 7 (“Cosa sento”). In the immediately preceding recitative, Cherubino is forced to hide after the Count walks in on him and Susanna. The Count, who has been making advances to Susanna, in turn hides when Basilio enters. Eavesdropping on Susanna and Basilio, the Count jumps out from his hiding spot when Basilio describes how Cherubino has been flirting with the Countess. During the course of the trio, the Count discovers the hiding Cherubino and, thinking that Cherubino and Susanna are having an affair, accuses Susanna and women in general of having no morals. The momentum of this series of improbable events is intensified by Mozart’s music. Mozart casts the trio in a sonata-like form in which each of the three characters has his or her own theme. Especially humorous is how the musical form seems to break down when the Count discovers Cherubino, as if the form cannot contain the Count’s anger. Throughout the scene, the action moves forward, only pausing to reflect on the Count and Basilio’s statement that “all women are the same” (Così fan tutte).

For a dramatically convincing reading of this scene, see the 2006 Salzburg production by the director Claus Guth. Claus Guth adds a fifth character to the scene, a Cupid figure who manipulates the other characters and propels the momentum of the farce forward. For an audio recording, look no further than René Jacobs’ 2004 recording with Simon Keenlyside (the Count), Patrizia Ciofi (Susanna), Lorenzo Regazzo (Figaro), Angelika Kirchschlager (Cherubino), and the Concerto Köln.

5. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, mvt. 1

In addition to drawing attention to the ritornello form (the alternation of refrain-like sections with contrasting episodes), I like to teach this piece in terms of the following narrative. J.S. Bach had two sides, a fun-loving Italianate side and a dark, brooding German one. In the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, the Italianate side manifests itself in the strong rhythmic drive and the use of a secular genre, the concerto grosso, which contrasts a small group of soloists (the concertino) with the orchestra (the ripieno). The German side is evident in the motivic and thematic consistency between the ritornello and solo sections, especially the frequent appearance of the descending fourth motif. In reality, the Italianate and German aspects of Bach’s music are two sides of the same coin. That is, the two sides cannot be separated. This is particularly evident in the cadenza, which is unusual for featuring an instrument (the harpsichord) normally associated with the continuo. The cadenza presents a thick web of the descending fourth motif, yet it also displays a great deal of rhythmic variety and conveys the impression of improvisation and spontaneity.

My favorite recording is Jordi Savall with Fabio Biondi (violin), Pierre Hantaï (harpsichord), and Le Concert des Nations. An equally impressive recording is Trevor Pinnock’s with the English Concert. No harpsichordist will ever surpass Pinnock’s cadenza in terms of virtuosity and sheer rabidness.