The Music History and Theory Study Group Present:

John Lawrence

University of Chicago

Hearing Voices in Their Hands: Performing and Perceiving Polyphony

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Logan 801

Theorists agree that classical music is often composed of multiple simultaneous horizontal components, but not on what these components should be called, and how they should be defined or divided. This paper integrates three standard answers to this question—traditional music theory’s concept of the contrapuntal “voice,” music cognition’s concept of the auditory “stream,” and metaphor theory’s concept of the fictional “agent”—into a single perceptual model that accounts for their interdependence.

My model treats all of these concepts (and the concept of “texture” itself) not as material properties of a written score, but rather as modes of listener attention in response to features of a sounding performance. To demonstrate this, I examine recordings by pianists acclaimed for bringing out potential melodies in “inner voices” (Alfred Cortot, Josef Hofmann, Shura Cherkassky, etc.). I show that different performances of the same passage can project different numbers of voices, streams, and agents, and re-distribute pitches differently among these components. I analyze how these pianists achieve these different segmentations through inflections of dynamics and articulation. And I examine the aesthetic discourse that surrounded this art of re-segmentation during the so-called “golden age” of Romantic piano.

This redefinition of textural labels as perceptual responses to performances affirms the need for analysts to attend to the performance practices that their analyses implicitly assume. Dynamics and articulation are not just means of expressing conceptually prior pitch structures; rather, they are integral parts of how such structures are constituted in the first place.

 Special thanks to Siavash Sabetrohani for serving as respondent

Persons who believe they may require accommodations to participate fully in this event should contact the coordinator, Bradley Spiers at, in advance.

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