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3.7 Speaking the Language of Transformation

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  • In the introductory modules, we learned to listen for what happens in a piece of music. In “Expository and Developmental,” we learned to distinguish between passages where a musical idea is established and those where it is put into action. In “Time’s Effect on the Material,” we learned to compare expository presentations of the same idea to measure if transformation has taken place. In the intermediate modules “Musical Identity” and “Building on Identity,” we have studied how these distinctions are made.

    The language of transformation brings us face to face with music’s abstraction. Transformations often have great expressive import. They can alter our time sense, making the music seem to progress very quickly or grind to a halt. They can create a maze of inter-connections, and involve us in the moment-to-moment enacting of a larger destiny. But there is no adequate way to translate them into words; they can never be reduced to a literal meaning. Words have meanings independent of context, but the language of transformation is completely context-dependent. We can pull a word out of a paragraph and know its definition, but what does it mean to extract a motive from a musical passage? Remove it from its context and its musical sense is lost.

    The speed of transformation also contributes to music’s abstraction. The faster and more abundant the transformations, the harder it is for our minds to keep pace. When the music develops rapidly, words fail; music’s non-verbal nature is enhanced.

    The last movement of Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet in d-minor, Opus 76, No. 1 introduces the following theme.

    In the excerpt that follows, Haydn constructs an elaborate thematic mosaic. The theme is spliced into constantly changing fragments: Within the first few seconds, the cello repeats the opening phrase, then lops off the head motive; the violin imitates this truncated version before moving on to a different pattern.

    Everything that happens can be explained in reference to the main theme. However, when listening to this passage in real time, it is simply not possible to put a name to every reminder of the theme as it goes by: The music is moving faster than our ability to articulate what is happening. We have little choice but to experience the music without verbal intrusion.

    Wolfgang Rihm’s String Quartet No. 4 opens with an aggressive theme, played in unison by the four strings.

    As in the Haydn, the excerpt that follows is filled with references to the theme: For instance, the head motive is played at a variety of speeds. The musical language and rhetoric are different and some of the alterations are more extreme, but the goal is the same: dynamic repetition. As in the Haydn, we can put a name to the various fragments: The head motive, for instance, is played at a variety of speeds. However, the music presents these transformations in a whirlwind that taxes our ability to keep up.

    “No change” is also part of the language of transformation. As we discussed in “Time’s Effect on the Material,” when an entire passage is recuperated exactly as it was before, it speaks to the music’s endurance and transcendence. If those literal returns occur in close succession, time has not had much chance to have an effect. However, if there is a lot of intervening music and the music still manages to come back unchanged, we will often attach great emotional significance to the return.

    In Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain, the patients at the tuberculosis clinic are presented with a dilemma: In order to heal, they must lie still; if they become active, their illness worsens. Those who take to bed find that time passes slowly; but, looking back, it seems to these patients as if time had rushed by, because their days were nearly empty. Conversely, those who defy their doctors’ orders find that time passes quickly; in retrospect, though, time seems to have passed more slowly, because their days were more full. Music that maintains identity is like the patients who stay in bed; music that transforms is like those who refuse to lie still.

    Thus, music illuminates the passage of time through the balance of literal and dynamic repetition, and the degree, quality, abundance and pacing of transformation. The great masterworks of the classical and modern eras generally defy doctors’ orders: They are alive with development.

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