Distortion in the Listening Experience: Beethoven's Grosse Fuga

Matt Wuolle 1994

I have often seen commentators use the term "distortion" in descriptions of Beethoven's Grosse Fuge. Rarely have I read an account of what this might actually refer to or what its effect on the listener might be. This work initially presents acoustically clear thematic material, but then proceeds to establish conditions wherein linear structures are piled on top of each other in such a way as to challenge the listener's comprehension of these individual entities. This condition is one example of distortion; it forces us to listen differently, due to the fact that attention to multiple 'prominent lines' sacrifices deeper focus on individual temporal objects. If we listen to the resultant sound structure, we will tend to become more involved in listening to the pure sensuousness of intensity, texture, timbre, and register. This kind of global listening is often refered to as a 'wash of sound,' due to the effect of letting all the sound wash over you without listening discreetly or analytically to individual components. Far from being a condition of un-intellectual listening, this kind of listening necessitates its own intellectual challenges when rapidly juxtaposed with a detailed "sound-object" oriented focus. The construction of this music forces the listener into these diverse modes of listening, thus making the listener take a more active role in the musical experience.

Although perceptual distortions of this nature appear in many dense Fugues, especially in stretto sections, this work stands out due to the length of time that an extreme intensity level is maintained. The listener is presented with distortions of more than the typically brief time span of 1-3 measures -- sometimes durations of up to 15 bars appear (measures 79-93). This paper will demonstrate the conditions by which distortion is established in a single work and its impact on modes of listening in the "Overtura" through the first large fugue (measures 1-158).

Distortion is dependent upon some standard, a norm, clarity, or familiarity. In order for one to notice that something has been altered in an object or its representation, we must have something to measure it against. Since we live in time, we tend to compare new things that are presented to us to other "things" that came before them temporally. In the Grosse Fuge these things are what I will term "temporal objects." Temporal objects are those events in music which tend to form grouped units in time. For example, I will call the following entities from the beginning of this work temporal objects:

1. measures 1-10
2. measures 11-13 and 14-16
3. measures 17-21 (violin I)
4. measures 21-25 (viola, violin II, and violin I)
5. measures 22-30 beat 1, officially the "subject"
6. measures 30 beat 3 - 35 beat 1 (violin I), officially the "countersubject"

These are clear examples of temporal objects because they are set apart from one another by silence and cadence, and are timbrally, dynamically, registrally, rhythmically, and texturally differentiated. Although these objects may present problems to those who are culturally conditioned to define certain themes or melodies as being explicitly tonal, none of these objects present any problems in terms of acoustical clarity. In other words, whether we wish to accept these structures as melody or non-melody, they are clearly perceived individual structural objects as constructed by the composer. This is extremely important in order for the concept of distortion to have any significance in terms what is to follow. It is exactly because these items have been presented so meticulously that they are clearly remembered, and this is why they cause perceptual challenges when we hear 2-4 discreet linear temporal objects simultaneously. Our perception becomes confused due to the possibility of foregrounding any of the given objects: this is perceptual distortion that is a result of the way the work is built. The listener is forced to almost arbitrarily choose some kind of hierarchical ordering, only to be momentarily confronted with acoustical distractions which could easily force a change in perceptual foreground.

Consider the scenario from measures 30-35. The majority of the fugue countersubject is presented explicitly. It is prefaced by a pianissimo rendition of the subject and brief silence; it is rhythmically, dynamically, and gesturally differentiated from previous material, i.e., it is new material. These conditions and properties cause attention to be focused on this object over the already familiar subject which enters two beats later. Additionally, it contains the largest upward intervalic skip to the highest pitch heard thus far in the piece (an octave plus a diminished fifth from D to Ab). Distortion begins at measure 34 beat 3. Before we have even had a chance to completely hear the countersubject's 4 1/2 bar phrase, three factors distract us from its last 2 concluding beats. First, a transposed version of the countersubject itself tramples on our object, by throwing a 'C' right in next to the 'D.' Second, the subject simultaneously moves in position to 'Bb,' creating a momentary cluster of 'Bb' 'C' 'D.' This is a situation of acoustical ambiguity which threatens our ability to hear the line clearly. Third, the upward major-ninth leap from 'Bb' to 'C' is a much stronger perceptual stimulus than is the first violin's 'D,' which is part of a scaler descending line. It seems that it is more work to comprehend a large skip than it is to comprehend stepwise motion, i.e., it is the beginning of the countersubject that attracts our attention due to its energy, while the latter portion of it is less strained in gesture (it is the dissolution of energy). This is also reinforced by the resolution of the tritone halfway through the line, to 'G' in the upper register and 'Eb' in the lower.

Thus, with the conditions established as described, my attention seems to go immediately to the countersubject's second entry in the second violin. With additional listenings, I am only able to clearly hear the end of the original countersubject by intensively focusing on this line, which has the result of backgrounding the other lines. Importantly, this tiny area is directly followed by an area of relative clarity until the next entry of subject and countersubject which leads us into a more complex distorted section. The constant ebb and flow from relative clarity to various magnitudes of distortion is a unique factor in the relationship of composer and listener, the composer at times directly showing us what is important and at other times giving responsibility to the listener (of course the strength and interpretation of the performers is a factor as well).

In measures 38-46, both the subject and countersubject are simultaneously distorted. The subject is obfuscated via a dense rhythmic hocketing technique between violin II and cello, while the countersubject competes with a practically incomprehensible inversion of itself: sing this line! As if this were not enough, all of the individual lines are criss-crossing in perpetually changing relationships -- an orgy of raucous timbre and continuous rhythmic ardor.

Is the music in this section really about unobstructed hearing of our previously described "temporal objects" and permutations thereof? Or is it about the timbral maze in measure 41 that is created by the viola orbiting the cello and the first violin enclosing the second violin? No one misses the impact of these instruments all playing forte in rapidly varying registral/timbral disjunct areas. Whether one knows the cause of this sound or not, the effect is comprehensible when one thinks of just sound and simple metaphors used to describe it. For instance, a kaleidoscope or water rapids.

Another way to visualize this first large fugue is as a runners' relay race. Think of the subject and countersubject as different teams competing. The overlapping of one countersubject beginning and another ending is like the overlap that occurs when one runner hands the baton to the next runner. While one is taking off at full throttle, there is an overlap of the former slowing down and coming to rest. Each runner in the game runs differently, thus contributing to the effect of continuous variation in movement or morphology of movement. There will also be perceptual variations for the observer of this event. At times overlapping will occur in such a complex way that one cannot keep track of each individual's running pattern; at other times four runners may be running "neck in neck" allowing us to group their movement into one whole. The latter situation is easier to watch because our field of focus is in one place, although it may be more intense as we anticipate which runner will break ahead of the group. This analogy could be applied to measures 105-108 of the fugue.

While all the parts are running in rhythmic sync, the first violin seems to be pushing beyond the others into a screetching, wailing hyperspace. In this instance, the other parts are kept out of the registral space of this ascending line. Even its own low 'D' pedal seems to separate from the higher line, as a result of extreme timbral and registral difference. Extreme, concentrated, and clear; important conditions for comprehending the "climax" of this entire first fugue.

Many of the previously described perceptual and acoustical distortions are compounded even further when Beethoven runs two independent triplet passages against the gesturally extended, rhythmically compressed subject and temporally stretched countersubject (measures 82-89). In this instance, it is easier to focus on our old friends with a new hairstyle than it is to decipher the two wildcats who crashed the party when our attention was distracted.

These 'wildcat' triplet lines raise interesting issues about what the listener is ever expected to hear. I have listened to the first large section of this work perhaps 100 times (a guess) played by some 8 different string quartet groups, and yet I still find it extremely difficult to follow even one of these triplet lines through its beginning to its ending. In fact, the only effective way I have found of intimately familiarizing myself with such material is by playing and almost learning it on a musical instrument, or through repetitive listening to isolated short passages with the aid of our current electronic reproduction systems (namely, the compact disc player). When one isolates these lines, it becomes clear how the excitement and vigor they generate could act as a catalyst to the energy of the other players in the quartet. The sheer length, intervalic, and registral complexity of the 'wildcats' seem to constantly be attempting to derail our perception. It is the aural equivalent of speeded-up film imagery of a crazy spider weaving a web. If the line is that hard to follow, maybe we aren't supposed to be listening to it for all of its linear glory (although we can challenge ourselves to do so). Perhaps we could let it be what it is acoustically: noise. There is plenty of beautiful attack-transient noise produced when two string instruments are chugging along at a rapid pace playing forte and non-legato. Add to this the constantly changing intervalic relationships yielding perpetual vicissitudes in harmonic spectra, and the effect of timbral differences created by the sudden shifts of register in the lines. What we are really dealing with here is the texture that is created. We have our subject and countersubject accompanied by two continuously morphing acoustical phenomena, the sound almost randomly shifts between middleground, foreground, and background (not the Schenkerian terms, but the psychoacoustical conditions). It could be said that Beethoven has created an incredibly unique way of achieving a multifarious sound world among four heterogeneous instruments without even resorting to variegated dynamic markings or pizzicato plucked string effects. My point is that this section prompts us to listen in this way, as opposed to the way we listen when we are presented with just a single temporal object or a clearly defined hierarchy of objects. This music exposes us to the amazing possibilities of a multiplex, animated listening experience, while it also invites active participation in the composition of the listening experience. Music that features distortion challenges, strengthens, and refines our aural-perceptual skills, by making us re-define each listening adventure.

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