Nicholas Cook

Objective expression: analysing phrase arching in recordings of Chopin's mazurkas (19/01/09)

Classical pianists tend to get faster and louder as they play into a musical phrase, and slower and softer as they emerge from it: this phenomenon of phrase arching has been seen as central to expressive performance. But has it always been so, or is phrase arching a strictly historical phenomenon? This paper traces phrase arching in recordings of two of Chopin's mazurkas (Opp. 17 No. 4 and 63 No. 3), using visual and quantitative methods of analysis developed at the AHRC Research Centre for the History and Analysis of Recorded Performance (CHARM). Elements of phrase arching can be traced back to the early part of the century, but for these mazurkas at least it appears that a new type of phrase arching emerged in the post-war period, in which tempo and dynamics were strongly coodinated both with one another and with composed phrasing. In addition to tracing the chronology of this phenomenon, I consider its cultural context and meaning, drawing links with modernist architecture and design as well as music theory. My claim is that modernist phrase arching transformed an earlier style of performance now seen as cluttered and overly personal into a streamlined style in tune with the machine aesthetic: expressivity was not eliminated, but regularised around the music's structure. In short, expression was transformed from subjective to objective.

Department of Computing, Goldsmiths College, University of London, New Cross, London, SE14 6NW

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