Last week I had the immense pleasure of going to the Aldeburgh Festival in Suffolk to interview the pianist Leon Fleisher in front of an audience. I was standing in for Antonio Damasio, who had been unable to fly trans-Atlantic because of a recent accident. Leon was already deemed one of the most significant pianists of his time as a young man in the 1960s, when he found himself afflicted by ‘musician’s cramp’, also known as focal dystonia, which made two fingers of his right hand curl up and refuse to accede to his demands. This condition left him unable to play two-handed for the best part of three decades, during which he taught, conducted, and performed the left-handed repertoire (mostly written for Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm in the First World War). Leon finally regained use of his right hand, and now performs two-handed – he had already played at the festival with his wife Katherine Jacobson Fleisher, and will shortly perform Bach and Brahms with the Signum Quartet. I said a little about Leon’s condition in my piece for the FT; Oliver Sacks says more in his book Musicophilia. It was a tremendous privilege to be able to talk with Leon before and during the event; I felt myself to be in the presence of someone who genuinely lived inside the music. Radio 3 are broadcasting several of the Aldeburgh events, including Leon’s performance with Signum. They also recorded an interview with Leon and me before the event, but I don’t know if it will ever see the light of day.
Here, however, is a piece about one of the other events, which I did not have a chance to mention in the FT. It also involves Signum, and appears in the July issue of Prospect.
There are two golden rules for an orchestra’, the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham is alleged to have said. ‘Start together and finish together. The public doesn’t give a damn what goes on in between.’ Beecham was prone to witty overstatement, but his remark fits an intuition that we are acutely sensitive to failures of synchronization in musical performance. ‘They were all over the place’ is the typical put-down of ensembles with sloppy timing.
But playing together in time is far from trivial. Even orchestral musicians watching a conductor have to be anticipating the beat if they’re not going to miss it, and the smaller ensembles for chamber music have no human metronome to follow. Besides, most music requires a variable metronome: a string quartet, just like a soloist, will slow down and speed up for expressive purposes. Who decides the rhythm and how to vary it, when there is no one obviously leading?
That’s a question being studied by psychologist Alan Wing and Satoshi Endo at Birmingham University, together with cellist Adrian Bradbury. At the Aldeburgh Festival in June, Wing will describe his experiments with the Signum Quartet, a German ensemble who are also performing at the festival. Signum have gamely agreed to be the guinea pigs for Wing’s studies of musical synchronization, the results of which he was still analysing as the festival’s opening loomed.
Wing’s interest in human timing and synchronization led only by degrees to music. Some years ago he investigated how rowers in the Cambridge Blues all pulled together, and he hints with tongue in cheek that those studies might have helped stem the long run of Oxford victories.
But rowing, with everyone striving to synchronize an identical and highly regular action, is easy compared with music. In a string quartet, each musician plays a different part, and yet they must all intermesh to create a single rhythmic pulse, albeit one that satisfies the elastic demands of musical expression. Who is following whom?
To find out, Wing tracked the movements of the Signum musicians using motion-capture video, which bounces infrared light off reflectors attached to their bows. Electronic pick-ups on the instruments then allowed him to follow the relationships between movement and sound for each player in turn, and to look for correlations between the players. Previous work, particularly on keyboardists (whose finger movements are easy to detect electronically), has shown that performers don’t keep to a strict tempo but vary the gaps between beats by perhaps a few milliseconds. Some of these variations are random, but some are intentional and repeatable from one performance to another. Such variations not only convey emotion but also, paradoxically, help the listener to discern the music’s pulse in the first place by slightly exaggerating its rhythmic patterns.
In string quartets, the performer who carries the melody – often the first violin – is usually deemed to be the leader. That, at least, is what the musicians will profess. But do their microscopic variations in timing bear that out – do the other players, for example, fall in step slightly behind the first violin? That’s what Wing’s results suggest. By using mathematical techniques analogous to those used to study periodic change in climate and animal populations, he analysed the timings of each player during a test passage from Haydn to figure out whether any one player’s rhythm depended on that of any other. It seems that the cello and viola form a tight-knit ‘rhythm section’, like the bass and drums of a rock band, which responded to but did not in turn affect what the first violin was doing.
Mindful of Beecham’s dictum, Wing also wondered just how ensembles begin a piece. How, and how well, do they all come in together? The lead player in a quartet will usually make an exaggerated movement of the bow or head to signal the first beat, but what exactly is it that the other players respond to? From video recordings, Wing created a virtual avatar of the first violinist, from which he could lop off the head or an arm to see how much it influenced the other players when they were guided by the on-screen image. As intuition suggests, the head and the right (bowing) arm were crucial, while the left (fingering) arm didn’t really matter. And the tempo adopted by the ensemble as the music proceeds from its outset seemed to be set by the energy of these initial gestures – how much the bow arm accelerates in preparing for the first stroke, say.
In a sense, this is an extreme example of the kind of “unspoken leadership” that has been studied in animal communities, for example in the question of how just a few honeybees with “privileged information” about the location of a good nest site can induce the rest of the swarm to follow them. It’s possible, then, that the ramifications extend beyond the togetherness of musicians: to that of dancers and acrobats, even to the socially cohesive group activities involved in agriculture and industry—in which some think music has its origins.