Sunday, February 24, 2013

Playing With Expectations (Part Three)

My previous blog on this topic (part two) just scratched the surface in exploring ways in which Beethoven plays with listener expectations in his Piano Sonata No. 21 ("Waldstein;" op. 53). If examining this aspect of the "Waldstein" interests you, I recommend listening to the rest of the first movement several times if possible (video of this with scrolling score embedded at the end of today's blog entry), trying to identify places in which something unexpected occurs.

However, if you have the entire movement memorized, perhaps nothing would come as a surprise; you would presumably be expecting everything that occurs!

Or would you?

I discuss the "Waldstein" sonata every year when I teach musical form, and every time I hear it, I am delighted/excited/amazed, and yes, even surprised, when we reach the recapitulation. Without getting too specific,1 Beethoven does some absolutely outrageous things during the recapitulation, and even though I know what's coming, it doesn't temper my visceral reaction of surprise when they happen.

Why is that?

It could be because I am slow of mind, incapable of remembering what's coming next. I won't deny this, but, even if true, I think there may be another explanation as well, and it has to do with dropping a heavy object on my toe last summer.

Here's what happened: I was helping one of my kids assemble an office chair in his room, and an extremely heavy part (the pneumatic gas cylinder, which is central metal post upon which the chair rests) fell about four feet onto my foot. I remember that the pain was about as extreme as anything I had ever felt, but I don't remember the pain itself. Put another way, I remember that something really painful happened, and I remember the cause, but I cannot recreate the visceral quality of the experience itself, unless I were to drop something heavy on my toe again. I do not plan on doing this, although life being what it is, I'm sure something similar will occur at some point in the future… :(

Here's another analogy, this time involving no pain: There are some roller-coasters that I have ridden so many times that I know in advance what to expect, and yet they thrill me every time.

Remembering an emotional response is not the same as experiencing it.  When I hear the first movement of the "Waldstein" sonata, I know what is coming next. I also know that in previous hearings I was astonished at various points in the piece by the ways in which Beethoven plays with our expectations, but this knowledge does not prevent my experiencing a similar level of astonishment — I can't believe he just did that! AGAIN!every time I hear this composition.

This strikes me as one measure of a work's greatness; it can astonish, surprise, delight, or otherwise move you every time you hear it, even if you know what is coming next.

For composers, this is extremely valuable information! If we find ways to engage our listeners and play with their expectations, there's a chance our music will continue to have a similar effect on people for a very long time to come.

If you'd like to listen to the entire first movement of the "Waldstein" sonata, here's a video with scrolling score:

1. I often ask students to identify the various unexpected/surprising things that occur during the recapitulation of this sonata, which is why I am not being more specific about what they are. I don't want to give too much away in this blog entry, because I would like students to discover these wonderful moments for themselves.


Evan Smith said...

Oh I remember the days of studying the Waldstein in theory class...It's strange I can now be writing about it of my own accord.

I've heard you use the analogy with the pain before and was immediately struck by it. Such a clever way to prove a point and so true of composition.

In class we often talk about finding ways to do the unexpected so that our listeners ears do not get retire from the experience, but it seems Beethoven thought of this on a whole other level.

Of course it would be foolish to go overboard and constantly do the unexpected. As a listener, I often want things to go when I hear them going. But what is so smart about the Waldstein is exactly as you said, it surprises you every time.

It is so hard to pinpoint exactly how he does this. I'm sure you could analyze it and find out the harmonic progression that throws the ear for a loop, but I don't think it CAN be analyzed how you rae surprised EVERY time.

What is the difference between what Beethoven has done, and what some other composer has done in inputting something unexpected into their score?

I think it is not so much the "point of unexpected" itself, but the juxiposition of this with everything else. How long has it been since something unexpected happens? What happens right before and after it? How much do we expect it to go somewhere else? Have you already done the same material going where we expect, and have now altered that?

So many questions...So few can be answered by a deceased composer...

Aaron Good said...

It's interesting to think about the separation between one's intellectual knowledge of a piece of music and the emotional/musical impact that it has. Does one influence the other? Are we inclined to like pieces more after we "understand them" intellectually? Do those musical goose-bump moments happen because of how a composer plays with the intellectual aspects like form and harmony? Or is it all related to something else? Would a person who has no knowledge of form be as surprised and excited by Beethoven's ingenuity as a seasoned musician? All interesting questions.

On a slightly tangential topic, I feel as though Beethoven's "elements of surprise" stem from that fact that he was working within the rigid structure of large scale classical forms. Any departure from such a predetermined course would seem novel. By comparison, I feel as though it is much harder to create "unexpected" music today as the bounds of what people expect are so loose. Is it possible that we are experiencing an inflation of unexpectedness? In that for something to seem new and unexpected it needs to be so much more different from what came before than in Beethoven's day when modulating to a different key in the recapitulation was considered big news.

I don't really have any answers to these questions. Just thought I'd through it out there.

Michelle said...

Last year, when we studied Waldstein in theory, Lindsey and Tim in my studio (Dr. Volk's) were both playing the sonata. I cannot even begin to count the number of times I heard Waldstein that semester, but every time we got to the recapitulation I found it absolutely hilarious; I kept expected it to end, and each time it failed to I was surprised again! I have the same reaction each time I listen to Ives' Variations on "America" for organ; despite having heard this piece many many times, upon each listening I hear some new and humourous element that I absolutely never expected. Being new to the composition game, making use of the unexpected has been something that I've struggled with, but with each piece it becomes a little easier. Repeating the same motive exactly five or six times seemed like such an obvious thing to do at first, but now I realize that by shaking it up a little, I have a better chance of keeping a listener interested. That's one of the reasons that I have appreciate the format of 3100 classes: gaining feedback from other students has been instrumental in my understanding of the power of the unexpected.

Shawn Bennett said...

Whether it be because he is my Trombone playing counterpart, because he's the hero of our time, or perhaps because he's so slick with his words - I agree with Aaron. To me? the Waldstein doesn't sound "unexpected." It just sounds absolutely delightful, and emotionally stimulating. As Michelle says, the recapitulation makes me laugh every time, and I cannot help but have that moment of "ahhhhhh" when the varied repetition of the second (or third, OR fourth... the theme that is very homorhythmic) theme comes in. However, to me this is not what makes a piece of music "unexpected.
When Chris Tonelli stands in front of a crowd and utters nonsense syllables for half an hour, that is unexpected (to the point of insanity). When Messaien uses additive rhythms, that is unexpected. Even when Berlioz uses the familiar "Dies Irae" from Gregorian Chant in his Symphonie Fantastique, even that I find is unexpected.
To me, Beethoven's variation and use of what appear to be non-related themes is done so seamlessly and so flawlessly, that it seems almost logical. Its the mark of a good composer, I would have to say. But unexpected? I think not.

Evan Harte said...

It's really cool that the Waldstein sonata has the same effect on you every time you hear it. There are very few pieces that do this for me, one of them being Philip Glass's 8th symphony, first movement. Though, for me, it is like you said. Once I get to know a piece well and know what's coming next, I lose the emotional connection that I had when surprised by the unexpected in my first couple of listens.

Robert Godin said...

As a composer, how would you know which plays on expectation would work? How do we make them last for generations? Clearly this has some period expectations but can there ever be universal expectations? Obviously everyone reacts differently but what expectations would reach the most people? Obviously not any kind of answer here, just though I'd share some questions.

Luke said...

I think playing with expectations is an interesting aspect of composing that I tend to not think about much in my own compositions, but am always aware of when listening to any and all other music. I find it perplexing when looking at my iTunes play counts and the fact that I keeps track of music that I have listened to hundreds of times over the past few months. I have "memorized" recordings and continue to listen to them, and they still surprise me when something happens unexpectedly. I think that this is one of the more attractive aspects of classical music, and all music in general, the fact that we crave to listen to it over and over until we know what is coming at every turn, but still want to take the musical journey. We are hard wired to expect V to go to I in tonal music, and when it resolves to say VI, it still doesn't sound "done" which is remarkable that we can fill in the information in fractions of a second and know that eventually it will come to a close - we will finally be musically satisfied. Or maybe not, we might listen to the piece a hundred more times to experience that violation of our expectations over and over again.

Kelly Perchard said...

This is a topic that comes up often in class, and I am still trying to master. With only one project left, there are still a few ways I can "play with expectation". I think playing with expectation can be a personal choice, as some people like to recognize what they are about to hear instead of being surprised. I however, think it can be a very clever way of incorporating whole other levels of meaning to a piece. For example, I'm playing a piece called "jazzy" by Aaron Copland as part of my jury rep, and there is a very obvious play on expectations at the very end which comes off as comical to the listener. Around the end of the piece, the beginning reappears exactly as it had before but then the piece abruptly ends. This kind of play on expectation happens several other times in the piece and also creates a sense of comedy throughout. Playing with expectations can evoke other moods as well, but all in all is a great compositional technique. I am currently tweaking my final project so a little more of this will be incorporated.

Josh Penney said...

It's interesting to think about the difference between what we know about a piece, and how we react to it. It's something I've never really thought about but when I listen to the repertoire I play, say Colors for Trombone by Bert Appermont. If I hear a recording of Joe Alessi playing it, I will get goose bumps every time he plays rehearsal R (I think) because of the incredible build of sound leading to the most involved and violent part. I know it's coming every time, but it's always interesting. I guess I always knew that expectation can have the effect of gratification, but never considered the value that it can have opposed to taking that gratification away when playing with the unexpected. It can be just as powerful, or more powerful.

Timothy Brennan said...

Great post Dr. Ross! I remember in Intro to Composition one of the points you repeatedly stressed to us was to try to vary each repetition of a musical motive or idea, so that the idea never becomes stale or stagnant. In other words, you were telling us to play with the listener's expectations, as this is what keeps the listener engaged and interested. This has resonated with me since then, and it has become one of my priorities when composing. I think it's fun to surprise the listener with unexpected colours, textures or ideas. Just recently, after the Gower Band performed by band piece at the Kiwanis Festival, a woman came up to me after the performance and said that the climax of piece completely took her by surprise and that she was startled (in a good way) by the sudden chaos and drama in that section. I was extremely humbled to know that my music had resonated with her in this way. I find sometimes that playing with expectations can be difficult though, especially when trying not to deviate too far from the main musical material and not taking the music on a completely different path. This is something I am constantly working on as a developing composer.