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Gestures And Fragments

Jonathan Bernard (University of Washington), Chair

Interpreting Harmony through Gesture in the Chromatic Music of Anton Webern

John Heilig (Indiana University)


Much of the analytical discourse concerning harmony in Anton Webern’s chromatic music has focused on the consistency of the intervallic content expressed vertically and horizontally within a particular work, while often leaving a critical interpretive question unaddressed: what is it that compels us to hear multiple pitches as a single harmonious sound in this music, which freely employs consonance and dissonance? Or, more briefly, how do we as listeners and performers decide which simultaneous sounds belong together?

In this paper, I show that Webern’s compositions demonstrate a consistent use of particular harmonic intervals—major sevenths and minor ninths—within sonic contexts which heavily promote the fusion of different sounds into singular percepts through synchronous onsets and offsets; high degrees of similarity in timbre, dynamics, and articulation; and parallel changes in sound qualities (including pitch and intensity). Following this, I argue that these intervals are employed with the intent to fuse not only sounds, but also their sources, which can be heard as briefly coalescing into expressive unities through the performance of musical gestures. 

To capture this experience, I develop an analytical method that directly builds upon the work of Alfred Cramer, who has argued that these intervals were critical to the harmonic vocabulary of Webern’s early compositions because they strongly promote the experience of fusion between sound objects. My analyses shift the focus towards the potential for specific sound sources to be heard as fused, by considering instances in which recognizable melodic gestures are expressed through multiple synchronized sounds/sound sources. 

Supplementary Material(s)

Textural Gestures in the Music of Edgard Varèse

Daniel Moreira de Sousa (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro)


A striking feature of the music of Edgard Varèse is the emphasis assigned to timbre and rhythm, resulting in complex sound masses. Varèse’s compositional processes have been associated with a spatial framework and visual imagery as a metaphorical description of his music. Nevertheless, Jonathan W. Bernard (1981) introduces a series of Varèse's compositional techniques which reveals these as not simple metaphorical thoughts, but actual Varèse’s practical procedures to organize pitches in the register. These organizations may be implemented in various ways by placing pitches in time, with a specific timbre and articulation. Each of those realizations underlies the design of a textural configuration. A textural configuration may be understood as the organization of n simultaneous sounding components into m textural layers, which may be described by an integer partition in such a way that each integer stands for a textural layer and its value depicts the number of sounding components therein (Gentil-Nunes 2009). In this paper, I discuss some recurrent textural gestures in the music of Varèse, considering their relation with pitch, time, and timbre in a spatial perspective. One of Varèse’s most recurrent textural gestures concerns the various articulations of sounding masses (blocks) by the successive superposition of sustaining notes. Thus, a block with n notes may use any partition of n, by considering the cumulative superimposition of their constituent parts. Finally, the analytical tools I introduce in this paper enable accessing all spatial arrangements of these layers to discuss both gradual constructions and dilutions of blocks.

Kurtág’s Fragmentary Forms: Incompletion and Unity in op.7 and op. 28

Matthew Sandahl (The Graduate Center, CUNY)


There is an aesthetic dichotomy at work in the music of György Kurtág. On the one hand, fragmentation and incompletion play a role in his musical processes. However, one also detects integrating pressures in his work. I provide analyses that are motivated by these competing forces, suggesting that they be seen as complementary rather than mutually opposed ideals. My strategy is to provide multiple readings of the same work, each of which is incomplete on its own but related to the others at a higher level of abstraction.

I analyze the soprano line in Death, III from The Sayings of Péter Bornemisza, first in terms of a nearly-symmetrical succession of pitch intervals, and later in terms of a compound interval cycle. Each reading accounts for all but one note of the line. The piano accompaniment provides these missing notes but in a manner that undermines the patterns established by the soprano line. I show how all of these partial readings might be subsumed into a further analysis involving transpositional combination.

In Officium breve, movement III, I tease out the tensions between tonal and post-tonal musical processes. The piece nearly supports a tonal-prolongational reading, but this reading is undermined by dissonant minor ninths at the final cadence. I take up these dissonances as the basis for a post-tonal reading. By relating multiple incomplete analyses by means of their respective failures, I suggest that in Kurtág’s music notions of incompletion and unity are in dialectical relation to one another.

Supplementary Material(s)