Wing Lau

Featured WiMT: Wing Lau

“We have multiple personae that constitute many sides of ourselves. These personae are distinctive, but they are essentially all ‘you.’ For partners and companions, you want to choose those that bring out your happiest sides,” my friend advised. For me, music theory is one of those partners.

My musical training began as a pianist. When I was young, I did not care about music or about practicing the piano. (But practicing could still be appealing when you practice hands-separately, as a good pianist would, while holding a comic book with the resting hand.) It was my high-school piano teacher who exposed me to the world of thinking about music. When working on the rhythmically intricate opening of Beethoven’s op. 14, no. 2, she would ask, “what do you highlight? The onset of the right-hand motive or the downbeat?” I decided to highlight both (as subtly as a twelve-year-old could) so that the left-hand entries were even more out-of-place. When I got impatient holding a long note in a folk-inspired adagio by Bartók, she would ask me to listen to the note as if it was the sound of the blowing wind in a rural village. Now I realize, she was encouraging her students to interpret with rationale and subjectivity—a performer’s analysis. As an M.M. piano performance major, more interpretive puzzles were presented to me as the complexity of my repertoire grew. What constitutes an artistic performance? Why couldn’t I see eye-to-eye with my duet partner on the emotional quality of the same passage, and why was it difficult for us to articulate our underlying reasons? In order to piece all these together, further study in music theory was inevitable.

My fascination with rhythm and meter since that lesson on Beethoven op. 14, no. 2 continues to drive my research. At Oregon, I was introduced to the vast scholarship on metrical dissonances and the expressive intersection of poetic and musical meters in Stephen Rodgers’ seminar. I was particularly drawn to the metrical dissonances generated by a few measures of notated meter changes in German songs as a response to the poetic rhythm and textual meaning. For example, while both Schubert and Brahms might suggest a recitative style in their songs, they do so differently: Schubert often inserts a common-time signature but obscures the metrical accents by phenomenal and structural accents while Brahms alternates between different time signatures and underlines the metrical accents. I also found that metrical projection in songs by Schumann and Brahms are usually clear until the meter changes. Therefore, the effect of the new meter depends on the strength and the duration of the perceived antimetrical events and its magnitude depends on the time listener takes to reinterpret the prevailing meter retrospectively. For example, if the retrospective reinterpretation happens instantaneously, the listener could sense a sudden change of tempo which often highlights textual changes or repetition; if the reinterpretation takes a slightly longer time, one could sense a rhetorical lengthening which invites close listeners to dwell in a musical moment just passed. Although some of these meter changes could have gone undetected without the score, I believe that such notational strategies are for the listeners as much as the performers.

Tempo is often a pointer to emotional attributes, and David Epstein has suggested that surface rhythm is a part of the complex gestalt that projects tempo. Recently, I have been comparing the degree of contrasts between different kinds of meter changes (whether it is changing from one duple meter to another or changing between a duple and a triple meter) by comparing the resultant surface rhythms. I find that some kinds of meter changes are more drastic than the others, and Brahms has explored them to highlight different degrees of textual changes.

As a pianist, I was often told that an artistic performance does not emphasize every note and harmony. Naturally, voice-leading graphs became my other obsession as a music theory student. I was delighted that Jack Boss let me write a history of music theory term paper on performance after a few lectures on Schenker. What piqued my interest was Nicholas Cook’s discussion of “rhetorical” (or “romantic”) and “structuralist” (or “modernist”) performance styles as products of historical contingency. Incidentally, the pianist Artur Schnabel, who was active around the turn of the twentieth century, represents both styles: his occasional faltering and mobile tempo are the hallmarks of the rhetorical style, but his obsession with phrase length and his pseudo-Schenkerian way of streamlining melodic lines shows a structuralist tendency. This stylistic mixture marks him an early modernist pianist, as critics have also observed. (His opening of the second movement of Beethoven’s op. 90 is an example of this):

I have my reservations about Schnabel’s teaching and recordings, but his interpretations offer a way to slip analytical thinking into performance (albeit sometimes forced), whether it is a priori prescription or a posteriori evaluation. (I have been trying out Schnabel’s way of faltering and streamlining in my playing when technical demands are not an issue—they usually are! Feedback is positive—so far. I am increasingly certain that analytical thinking can play a role in an expressive performance.)

Despite Schnabel’s reputation as a performer who serves the composer, I am skeptical about whether his interpretation reflects the composer’s intent, especially when his reasoning appears presumptuous or inconsistent. As Nicholas Epley suggests, people tend to reason egocentrically about other’s thoughts using their own beliefs as an inductive guide. I hypothesize that some of Schnabel’ claims about the composer’s hidden intention are his own conscious and unconscious subjectivities. Perhaps his effort to make his findings heard is a deliberate strategy to differentiate himself from his idiosyncratic contemporaries.

As a theory instructor, I strive to invite my students into the exciting world of rhythm and meter and to relate theory with performance. I am grateful to people who helped me discover my passion and provided support along the way: my encouraging mentors at the University of Oregon, my caring colleagues here at the University of Arkansas, and all my piano teachers who inspired me not to just play the notes on the page.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWing Lau is an instructor of music theory at the University of Arkansas. She holds a Ph.D. in music theory from the University of Oregon and a M.M. in piano performance from Indiana University. Her research focuses on rhythm and meter, and the relationship between performance and analysis. She has published in Music Theory Online and has presented at different international and national music theory and performance conferences.