The Role of Analysis

The Role of Analysis

Yesterday, a friend and colleague posed the following question to a group of composers: “How important do you feel analysis of your work is for its performance?” As someone who has given this issue a great deal of thought, I was happy to weigh in with my opinions; I’m hoping that NewMusicBox readers might have different takes on this issue and will share their thoughts in the comments section.

Personally, I believe that analysis is essential in that it helps performers to differentiate between essential compositional details and those areas where they can take liberties. I want each person who takes the time to engage with my works to forge their own path through the music and to create a unique interpretation. The challenge is that music notation can be an insufficient guide in directing them towards the aspects of the score that lend themselves to subtle deviations from the notes on the page. For example, some microtonal areas of my pieces must be exactly tuned in order to create a specific harmony with its subtle colorations, while I design other similarly notated passages in order to express a deviation from the equal tempered norm without expecting that the resulting harmonies will be precisely realized. Generally, a cursory analysis of the speed of the gestures along with their relative frequency and relationship to the surrounding material suffices to help distinguish between gestures that require exactitude from those that allow for more variance.

I also am wholly convinced of the stupidity of composers when it comes to our own works. When we create new pieces, we need to focus on microscopic details as we select the little black dots that best convey our grand emotional aspirations. This myopic approach ideally allows us to construct compositions in which all parts relate beautifully to the whole while expressing something greater than the sum of these constituent elements. No matter how carefully we consider all of the specific components of our compositions, once these little worlds leave our desks other people will invariably discover relationships that had eluded our initial understanding. In less successful works, our carefully hidden ciphers will be orphaned by a lack of interest in unveiling their underlying design. In more successful works, the efficacy of the whole will far surpass the sum of the systems on which it is based. In either instance, the ability of the final product to convey its own message functionally obliterates the intent of the composer. The music speaks for itself.

To me, the best collaborations are with those performers who learn enough about my music to create their own unique interpretation. As I compose a new work, I generally hold a single performance in my head, and I hope that the premiere will convey that vision. After the premiere, I hope that performers will be able to express their own thoughts about the piece, within the framework of my composition. I treasure those moments when I feel that a work that I created can be a vehicle for communicating someone else’s inner life. I believe that effective analysis is the best path for determining how best to remain true to the composition itself while creating a new work of art through each performance.

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3 thoughts on “The Role of Analysis

  1. David Froom

    When I was a graduate student in Los Angeles in the 70s, Jan DeGaetani and Gilbert Kalish came to perform “Book of the Hanging Garden” at the Schoenberg Institute (at that time, it was on the campus of USC). There was an open session for discussion the afternoon. During the session, someone asked Kalish if he analyzed the music he played. He said: “No, not really. I just look at it the way in a kind of performers way.” He then gave, as an example, the way he approached one of the “Hanging Garden” songs (whichever one happened to be open on the piano rack). He played the opening motive, and then showed how it was developed through the first dozen or so measures, connecting the prominent musical ideas (and most of the secondary ones) to this motive, explaining the transformations. It took him all of about 1 minute. Then he said: “and so on, like that.”

    It was an extraordinarily lucid analysis, and I understood two things immediately: performers can be intimidated by the notion of what advanced theorists call “analysis”; and performers who have questing minds and want to understand how to play musically often understand far more about the music than we imagine. I also understood why it was that I had always been so drawn to Kalish’s performing, why it sound so “intelligent” to me.

  2. Nourie


    Our aesthetic experience of the sound of a violin depends on its tone, which in turn depends on the wood it is made of. So we can’t separate “wood” from our enjoyment, they are fundamentally connected. But it does not follow that we must know what kind of wood this is to appreciate the tone because knowledge of this information is separate from the fact of it being true. It matters that the violin is made from quality material, and it matters that our ears can appreciate the result of this. Whether we know what the material is, is irrelevant. Another analogy: we might decide that to appreciate the tone of a flute on a deeper level if we put the sound through a spectrum analyser so we know what overtones it is made up of. This is all theory which is directly connected to what we are hearing. But does it deepen our aesthetic appreciation, or make us more open to musical expression? Of course not! It gives us something extra, outside of these things. Music theory is technical data about what we are hearing, as is the specifications of our hi-fi. It is connected to, but nevertheless exists outside of, the aesthetic experience. If a composer chooses to communicate something via the understanding of this data, they too are communicating outside of musical aesthetics, and, as I have pointed out, this information exists in the score even if the corresponding sounds do not. All of which is fair enough, we can “add” to music this way, just as we might add words to the experience. But I think there has to be a separation made between musical expression, which only occurs through listening, and an extra musical information which is nonetheless directly connected to the music, but accessible independently of it.

    You are mistaken in your belief that an understanding of the latter amounts to a deepening of the former. You are actually widening your experience outside of musical expression, as you would do if you went to see an opera, which also includes visual and verbal elements. Take away theory, and your ears can still be fully alert to what it references.

    To sum up: the meaning of music is not defined by music theory. The score and the theoretical stuff are simply a set of boundaries. These boundaries can be broken to very powerful effect. If meaning was defined by them, the effect would be the equivalent of using nonsensical words. It would be pointless gibberish.

    1. Terence O'Grady

      Although I certainly agree that “the meaning of music is not defined by music theory,” I’m not sure that I find your analogies of investigating the wood of the violin or the spectrum analysis of a flute tone completely convincing. To imply that musical analysis is similarly peripheral to the aesthetic experience does not seem quite fair. To be sure, some musical analyses can be arcane in the extreme, revealing little or nothing about how a composition was put together or providing any information about things that could conceivably be heard by the average listener and, therefore, may not contribute much to the aesthetic experience for many people. (And of course that’s not why many of these analyses are undertaken in the first place.)

      On the other hand,the sort of analysis that Mr. Kalish is described as having undertaken can hardly be thought of as in any way peripheral to the aesthetic experience. It almost certainly results in drawing the performer’s (or listener’s) attention to details and relationships that might otherwise have gone unnoticed or unappreciated. It is hard for me to imagine that such an activity would not enrich the performer’s (or listener’s) aesthetic experience.


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