In Germany, there are as yet no PhD programs in music theory. The study of musicology takes place in universities, but music theory as a major is only taught at conservatories, and far more as a craft than as a humanistic discipline. Graduates usually become teaching assistants in the final semesters or right after graduation, and career paths afterwards can be highly divergent. This was my experience as well: after six wonderful and rich years of studying piano and music theory, I happily accepted the position of educational director with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. My task was to provide the Leipzig audience with a satisfying program of family, school, and kindergarten concerts, workshops, talks etc. Sometimes I wore the hat of an administrator, but just as often I was involved with the orchestra’s repertoire, exploring analytical and interpretative possibilities of the works they were performing: some of my fondest memories are of discussing Beethoven’s 8th with Herbert Blomstedt as well as exploring Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust with Daniel Harding. These experiences sparked my keen interest in the study of musical form.
After nearly two years, I was honored to leave perhaps one of the most traditional orchestras for one of the most extraordinary: the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, which is entirely owned and governed by its musicians. As shareholders, they debate and vote on all financial and artistic decisions. Their philosophy of allowing and cultivating disagreements or dissonances in order to achieve results as a high-performance team enables a unique work attitude, reflected by their Beethoven cycle with Paavo Järvi. The mission of The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen is directly linked to their education program. The orchestra is housed in a comprehensive school building in a very diverse neighborhood, and the simple idea of sharing space as “flatmates” has led to remarkably durable relationships among musicians, students, parents and neighbors. My time in Bremen showed me something of the myriad ways in which the interaction of performer and audience can be shaped and intensified.
When I designed educational concerts, I regarded them as a kind of experiment that involved priming my listeners and adapting musical works as a kind of stimulus, even when this took the form of monumental opera performances of up to 600 people with diverse backgrounds and skills. These experiences furnished the starting point for my current research at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt, the only one of the Max Planck Society’s over 80 non-profit research institutions with a music department. The MPIEA is unusual for hosting an interdisciplinary community of music scholars, literary scholars and linguists, psychologists and neuroscientists, all of whom share a common interest in the question “Who likes what and why?”
For someone like me, fascinated by the role of musical form, the interdisciplinary ambience of the MPIEA offers an ideal work environment. It allows me to call on a wide range of methodologies and expertise in order to answer some questions that intrigue me: How is form is perceived by composers, performers, and listeners, and how has it been understood in the past? I am particularly interested in the mysterious relationship of Formenlehre to the listening experience. As musicians, we sense that performers possess (and use?) a vast store of implicit, practical knowledge concerning the importance of a global structure when it comes to performance and interpretation. Yet as an hypothesis, this conviction remains largely experimentally unsupported. My research attempts to relate 18th-21st century accounts of form to contemporary empirical studies, asking to what extent do theoretical concepts of form overlap with real-time listening experience or performing? Are there categories of individual strategies towards an understanding of musical form?
As an example, let us consider Pierre Boulez’s strategy for quickly learning his short piano piece 2 from Douze Notations:
Boulez, one notes, adopts a traditional, rather static, spatially-oriented approach in discussing the form of his piece. What I find more interesting is his dynamic concept of form: the metaphor of a bike ride could even be regarded as a simplified version of his own compositional process, which he called prolifération. But these two listening strategies are complementary: each offers an indispensable mode of insight. Indeed, structural or architectonic and dynamic or concatenationist categories may well serve completely different, incommensurable ends. My project studies how certain listeners develop a preference for one or the other means of experiencing musical form. And perhaps, along the way, we may find support for the hypothesis of listener sensitivity to large-scale musical structures.
Lea Fink is researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt, Germany. She holds graduate degrees in Piano and Music Theory from the University for Music and Drama Rostock, complementing her studies in Boston and Vienna. Before coming to Frankfurt, she was head of education and outreach with the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig and the director of the Future Lab of The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen. Her research is motivated by her experiences in the “field” and focuses on perception and understanding of musical form in Western music theory and from an empirical point of view.