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Getting to the heart of virtuosity

Interdisciplinary study explores how technique and emotion contribute to great music
October 25, 2010
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By Russ Cooper
Source: Concordia Journal

It may be easy to measure some purely technical abilities of a virtuoso performer. Accuracy in pitch, the ability to perform two parts simultaneously, or rhythmic precision can all be deduced from data. But measuring the emotion integral to a moving performance? Not so easy.

Understanding how the technical and the emotional facets are connected is another question altogether. It’s one that Concordia Specialized Individual Program PhD candidate Anna Szpilberg is trying to answer in her interdisciplinary research.

She is investigating how the aesthetic elements (the in-the-moment artistic interpretations of timing, tone, emotion, etc.) in the stirring performances of virtuosic musical performers can be related to some of the quantifiable aspects of their playing.

“Defining a musical ‘signature’ or ‘fingerprint’ is difficult because we can’t scientifically measure fundamental aesthetic elements,” says Szpilberg, a classical pianist and part-time faculty member in the Music Department. “But it’s impossible to separate them from the experience of hearing music.”

While many psychological quantitative studies have been performed on talent and judgment in musical performance, the connection between thought and emotion in virtuosic performances has not come under such close examination.

Szpilberg is using sound editing software to closely compare 270 recordings of master pianists. She is looking primarily at iconic Russian pianist Vladimir Horowitz, an artist well known for his virtuosic technical ability and unique talent for stirring emotion.

By comparing short corresponding segments of different Horowitz recordings of the same composition, she is concentrating on the minute variations in timing between them. She’s found that identical passages might be elongated by milliseconds as a result of improvisation, but the overall length often remains the same.

Can artistry be measured? From left, Music Professor Mark Corwin, doctoral candidate Anna Szpilberg and Psychology Professor Norman Segalowitz, on the screen behind them, a harmonic mapping of a Vladimir Horowitz performance. | Photo by Concordia University
Can artistry be measured? From left, Music Professor Mark Corwin, doctoral candidate Anna Szpilberg and Psychology Professor Norman Segalowitz, on the screen behind them, a harmonic mapping of a Vladimir Horowitz performance. | Photo by Concordia University

This, says her co-supervisor Psychology Professor Norman Segalowitz, exemplifies the link between precision and improvisation (in this case, specific to Horowitz) that is important in recognizing the effect on the audience.

“How can there be both consistency and variability at the same time? The answer may be that there is consistency within the patterning that makes up for the creative variability,” he says. “Anna’s research is exploring how that creative variability reveals itself in a virtuoso’s performance and what features of consistency in that creative variability can be associated with the artist’s performing signature.”

Szpilberg also noticed how tiny interpretational differences in timing, volume, tone and emphasis on different notes help to create an overall effect particular to Horowitz. For example, she’s noticed that Horowitz can very delicately develop subtle melodic threads – ‘inner voices’ of notes through shifting chords – that aren’t apparent on the sheet music.

“An artist such as Horowitz has an idea of how a piece should sound, but then makes spontaneous personal decisions about how to interpret the piece. That’s why it’s so hard to pinpoint what makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up,” Szpilberg says, relating a 1986 Horowitz performance in Moscow in which an audience member is seen with a tear rolling down his cheek.

Music Professor Mark Corwin, Szpilberg’s other co-supervisor, is also intrigued by the elements that have so far remained intangible. “Just because the information delivered to the audience is not quantifiable, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist,” he says.

Both co-supervisors agree her job now is to explain these distinctions in terms that psychologists can grasp and apply in their scientific research, and “that will aid them in realizing things aren’t always black and white, but there are shades in between,” says Corwin.

“A major problem here for psychologists interested in the aesthetics of performance is sometimes not even knowing what research questions to ask,” says Segalowitz. “The work that Anna is doing may not fully answer the question of what makes art beautiful. But, at the very least, we can be sure it will contribute to an understanding of how a virtuoso musician is able to consistently move listeners.”

Watch a clip of the 1986 Horowitz performance:



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