Negotiating Ambiguity: Dynamic Structure in Schoenberg Songs

Conference poster

Hawes, V. 2015. Negotiating Ambiguity: Dynamic Structure in Schoenberg Songs.
AuthorsHawes, V.
TypeConference poster

Schoenberg’s Das Buch der Hängenden Gärten (1909) has been the subject of many analytical treatments. Work has focused on the relationship between words and music and on the (a)tonal language. Underpinning both of these historically/philosophically important themes is the ambiguous structure of the songs. Developing an understanding of structure is one way in which a framework is provided for learning music preparation for performance.
How do performers negotiate ambiguous structure in the learning process? Which musical features are important in making decisions about structure? How does a performer’s understanding of structure change through exposure? How could understanding structure as dynamic contribute to strategies for performing?

The aim here is to present empirical evidence for structure as a dynamic process in two of Schoenberg’s songs, examining reasons behind perception of different structural patterns. This evidence forms the basis for conclusions that could help performers negotiate ambiguous structure in practice and develop effective personal interpretations of the songs.

Three empirical studies were carried out. First, a longitudinal case study involving a singer learning and performing Songs IV and V from Das Buch der Hängenden Gärten. The singer’s evolving understanding of the structures of the songs was tracked through score marking and interviews. Second, a group of participants divided the score of Song IV into sections, with one group (n=13) listening to a recording and another group (n=13) silently studying the score before dividing it a second time. Questionnaire data was gathered about the importance of different musical features when making decisions about structure and climax. Third, a larger group of participants (n=60) divided and answered questions about Song V. In this experiment, all participants saw the score and then heard the song.

In the case study, the singer’s understanding of structure became more detailed as her familiarity with the songs increased. Different categories of sections were identified according to function: rehearsing and preparation (e.g., difficulty, relationship with pianist) and then for expression (e.g., ‘shaping’ the vocal line for performance). Different musical features defined different structural change points at different stages of the process. An increase in complexity in structural understanding was also shown in the group studies. The variety of different structural patterns identified increased after exposure to the aural stimulus, as did the relative importance of different musical features, indicating different functions for different musical features commensurate with existing work on performance cues.

Structure in these songs is dynamic, subject to the same interpretative processes as expression in performance. Ongoing exposure to the visual (score) and aural (recording) stimulus changed performers’ perception of structure, specifically in response to function. Awareness, early in the learning and preparation process, of the way different musical features shape different perceptions of structure may help performers negotiate creative and personal interpretations of structure. Moreover, listening to existing performances early in the learning process does not restrict the possibilities for developing a personal interpretation of structure. Exposure to the heard music increases the number of possible interpretations of structure in these songs.

Performance; structure; analysis; interpretation; atonality

KeywordsPerformance; structure; analysis; interpretation; atonality
ConferenceInternational Symposium on Performance Science
Related URL
Publication process dates
Deposited12 Apr 2016
Accepted27 Mar 2015
Output statusPublished
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