Friday, March 03, 2006

Fun with Hemiolas, Part 3

Piano Sonata in Bb, D. 960, Third movement: Scherzo
Franz Schubert
Bb Major, 3/4 time
Trio (in Bb minor)

I'm not happy with the way this post came out. Although it describes an engaging example, it doesn't follow through in a convincing way to a clear point. Please help me by posting your own thoughts on the D. 960 Trio in the "Comments" section.


If there were a "Guide to Creating Hemiolas," it would be very short:

1. Put prominent musical events where you want the downbeats of your hemiola meter to fall.

2. Don't put prominent musical events on the downbeats of the underlying meter, except where they're also downbeats of your hemiola meter.

The logic behind Rule #2 is obvious: if the notated meter is going to retreat to the perceptual background, then presumably it can't be privileged over the hemiola meter by things we actually hear.

The Trio of Schubert's Piano Sonata in Bb, D. 960, flagrantly violates Rule #2. Left-hand quarter notes, marked fzp, fall on underlying 3/4 downbeats which aren't also 2/4 hemiola downbeats. But it's possible to not hear these fzp's as ruining the hemiola. The left hand also includes staccato, non-fzp quarter notes, which fall on weak beats (in both 3/4 and the hemiola 2/4); these notes give the impression of having been delayed a beat, so that they're out of sync with the chords in the right hand. By analogy, the fzp notes also come to sound like delayed, weak-beat events in the hemiola meter.

If we take out the non-fzp quarter notes, then the fzp notes stop sounding like hemiola-meter syncopations and start sounding more like explicit 3/4 downbeats in the foreground:


Even in the real D. 960 Trio, it's possible for the fzp's to become explicit 3/4 foreground downbeats that break the hemiola. This happens when the Trio is played in a loping, swinging way. As explicit, foreground downbeats, the fzp's become heavy, like reference books dropped on the floor; they remain tolerable at all only because they're syncopations on the level of hypermeter (i.e., they fall on "weak downbeats").

I think the Trio sounds much better when it rushes along, hushed and subterranean, in a kind of angry stage whisper. This requires the right hand's rhythm to be played with snap and verve, bringing the hemiola meter to life: BMMM BMMM bup-bup-BMMM BMMM bup-bup-BMMM BMMM... The fzp's then become cross-accents against the right-hand rhythm, in an almost Jamaican way. (This is a bit of fictional characterization--I unfortunately know almost nothing about Jamaican music.) A fast tempo is crucial to making this happen.

But even if the fzp's sound like syncopations and don't push the 3/4 meter to the foreground, the fzp's and the underlying 3/4 meter might still have something to do with each other. We hear the fzp's; we experience the underlying 3/4 meter in some sense; the fzp's are simultaneous with 3/4 downbeats. Can we describe some experience that includes both?

Back in "Fun with Hemiolas, Part 1," I offered this phenomenology of hemiolas in general:

Instead of the usual two-level relationship between rhythm and meter:

- Rhythmic events are defined as
- Metric events (downbeat, onbeat, offbeat, etc.)

a hemiola creates a three-level structure:

- Rhythmic events are defined as
- Hemiola metric events (downbeat, onbeat, offbeat, etc.) are defined as
- Underlying metric events (downbeat, onbeat, offbeat, etc.)

In the D. 960 Trio, the fzp quarter notes are accentuated in their capacity as rhythmic events. Their identity as syncopations comes from the top two levels of the three-level structure: they are accentuated rhythmic events defined as hemiola-meter weak beats.

Within this model, the experience that I have of the fzp's vis-a-vis 3/4 is actually simple to describe: in addition to serving as hemiola-meter weak beats, the fzp's "skip over a level" and get defined as underlying 3/4 downbeats. That is, the accentuated, intrusive fzp's pass their accentuation on to the downbeats of the 3/4 meter, a meter that nonetheless stays in the background of my awareness.

This last statement contains a big dose of self-contradiction: things that are accentuated generally don't remain "background" or "underlying." But this contradiction describes exactly how the fzp's sound to me. The best metaphor I can think of is some neurotic impulse which gives me a jolt but which my conscious mind rejects. Each fzp's status as a hemiola-meter syncopation (cemented by its analogy to the preceding left-hand quarter note) serves as a cover, a rationalization, for this jolt.

This metaphor takes the 3/4 meter from the innocuous pictorial "background" to the more menacing "neurotic unconscious." The creepy sound of the D. 960 Trio did a lot to inspire this rhetorical move. In any event, the metaphor illuminates one aspect of experience which could play a role in lots of musical analyses: Being accentuated or salient is not necessarily the same thing as being up-front and conscious.