Richard Kurth

Professor

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Graduate Student Supervision

Doctoral Student Supervision (Jan 2008 - May 2019)
Performing complexity : theorizing performer agency in complexist music (2019)

This thesis explores performer agency in complexist music (often called “new complexity”). Rather than dwelling on compositional aspects, it examines the multivalent network of relationships between the score, the performer, and their performance. This focus situates the thesis at the confluence of multiple intersecting lines of inquiry into complexism as a musical phenomenon and also positions it within the broader field of performance studies. Chapter 1 surveys and contrasts definitions of complexism offered by Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf and Richard Toop. Both engage with the underlying conceptual elements of complexism rather than surface-level concerns and provide a framework and terminology for discussing aspects of complexist performance. Chapter 2 examines approaches to instrumental writing (“radically idiomatic instrumentalism”) and notational practices that emphasize the means of sonic production (“prescriptive notation”) common in complexist music. Taken together, these qualitatively change the nature of performance in contrast to common practice era music and other contemporary aesthetics. Some aspects of complexist performance practice and ethics are also considered. Chapter 3 develops the core ideas of the thesis. It draws on complexity researcher Paul Cilliers and literary theorist Umberto Eco to formulate a nested paradigm—the “complexist performance system” and its “performance nexus”—through which the web of agencies and inter-agent relationships can be examined. The defining aspect of this system is the observation that the performer is multivalently situated in relation to and actively embodies aspects of the composer and work agencies during performance (“multiple agency”). Chapter 4 uses this framework to examine pieces for solo clarinet by Joan Arnau Pàmies, Aaron Cassidy, Richard Barrett, and Timothy McCormack. Special attention is paid to the ways in which conceptual and material structures shape performer agency. Chapter 5 focuses on a performer’s evolving familiarity with a complexist work as a contextualizing pressure during performance. This topic is explored through reflections on the author’s performance history and interpretational practice with Ray Evanoff’s Narratives for solo E-flat clarinet. Chapter 6 concludes the thesis by reflecting on possible future work in the field, and an appendix provides a repertoire list of complexist pieces for solo clarinet and for mixed ensemble including clarinet.

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Contour reduction algorithms : a theory of pitch and duration hierarchies for post-tonal music (2009)

This dissertation takes work on contour by Robert Morris as a point of departure and develops a set of contour reduction algorithms, called "window algorithms." These involve the notion of a hypothetical window or frame of a specific width (i.e. number of events) through which the contour succession in a given melody is experienced temporally (much like the way a landscape is experienced visually through the side window of a moving automobile or train. Certain normative principles relevant to windows of various widths are devised and represented with the help of symbolic logic and flowcharts. Reiterative application of the window algorithms on a melody to "prune" pitches at a series of successive levels, introduces notions of melodic contour hierarchy that are explored in various ways throughout the dissertation. The application of the algorithms is demonstrated on a variety of 20th century musical excerpts reflecting a wide range of melodic archetypes, thereby enabling observation of the behavior of the algorithms in different musical contexts. Phenomenological and cognitive implications of the algorithms are discussed from the perspective of a listener implementing the algorithm on the fly. An analysis focusing on the Hauptstimmen in the first movement of Schoenberg’s Third String Quartet explores how intervallic features of the reduced contours can form the basis for a tonal-formal reading of the movement. The possibility of extending the theory to the duration domain is also introduced; following a preliminary analysis involving instrumental gestures from the opening of Webern’s Variations for Orchestra, and a discussion of analytical, conceptual, and methodological inconsistencies arising from the application of the algorithms on duration contours, an alternative approach that attaches appropriate durations to (reduced) pitch contours is developed, examined, and advocated. The relationships and interactions between the pitch and duration contours in Berio’s Sequenza I are examined in the light of the proposed theory.

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Master's Student Supervision (2010 - 2018)
Graduate Recitals (2016)

No abstract available.

Hearing meter from different angles : interactive vocal meter and hypermeter in selected songs and their covers (2016)

A vocal melody is a setting of poetry to musical rhythms and pitches. The poetry and the musical melody have distinct accentuation patterns, yet as musicians we too often only analyse the musical events of a vocal melody in order to determine its rhythmic structure and meter, while ignoring the meter of the poetic text. This thesis examines how the meter of the poetic text interacts with the meter of the musical melody to inform our overall perception of the vocal melody’s meter. Through comparison of popular songs with cover versions that adopt a different meter, it investigates how the same poetic meter interacts with different musical meters, and studies the resulting effects on vocal meter and hypermeter. The methodology can be applied to a wide range of popular music genres, so each chapter examines an original song and cover versions representing different genres.The first chapter establishes the new methodology developed in this thesis. The concepts of poetic meter, melodic meter, and the resulting “interactive vocal meter” are introduced and applied in the analysis of three versions of Hank Williams’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” This chapter also explores some novel ways in which we can interpret syncopations and hypermeter. Interactive vocal meter is further explored in chapter 2 through the analysis of two versions of the Beatles’ “I’ll Be Back.” The change in meter, from the 6/8 of the demo to the 4/4 of the single, offers a fascinating opportunity to study the rhetorical and musical impact of subtle changes in accentuation. The complex phrase structure of “I’ll Be Back” also introduces interesting issues and questions regarding our perception of hypermeter. The third chapter focuses on Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” Holiday’s transformations of the poem’s unusual metric contours provide a vivid demonstration of her uniquely eloquent idiom. The vocal metric interpretation of “Strange Fruit” challenges the view that beats 1 and 3 are always strongly accentuated beats in 4/4 measures. This chapter also explores issues of rhythmic and metric transcription in connection with Lori Burn’s recent study of Tori Amos’s cover of the song.

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A schenkerian approach to text-music relations in selected lieder by Robert Schumann (2013)

This is an analytical and interpretive study of selected songs by Robert Schumann. In it, I showcase some of the possible ways that concepts in Schenkerian analysis can reveal interesting, hidden, or new text-music relations. These relations, in turn, allow for new and imaginative interpretative possibilities. I demonstrate how specific Schenkerian analytical findings resonate with structures, imagery, and meaning in the poetic text of seven songs.Three songs are presented as individual case studies and each exemplify how a musical structure can take on the status of musical metaphor for a feature in the text. In “Sängers Trost” (Op. 127, no. 1), I show how tension and release in the poetry correspond to rising and falling linear progressions and that a motive introduced in the accompaniment is transformed at the vocal highpoint. In “Frühlingslust” (Op. 125, no. 2), I show how the binary opposition between freedom and imprisonment—respectively represented by a butterfly and love in the text—is dramatized in the song’s tonic-dominant polarity, and how voice-leading techniques (superposition, cover tone, and register transfer) characterize the butterfly’s carefree flight. In “Die Meerfee” (Op. 15, no. 3), I investigate how an exotic chromatic voice-exchange, within what is revealed to be a dramatic elaboration of a middleground neighbour note figure, captures the wonder and confusion experienced by a young boy who witnesses a sea fairy.In a chapter on the Vier Husarenlieder Op. 117, I discuss how the four songs in the collection cohere poetically and musically. A reaching-down gesture (Untergreifung) in “Der Husar!” provides access to a solemn facet of the Hussar’s personality and contrasts with his cultivated bravura. In “Der leidige Frieden,” an octave transfer of 2 ̂/V embodies the role-reversal between the Hussar and his saber. I discuss how the Hussar’s conflation of civilian and military life relates to the song’s formal organization in “Den grünen Zeigern.” Lastly, I show how the transference of the Urlinie from the voice to the accompaniment resonates with the image in the text of the Hussar galloping away on horseback.

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Pentachordal configurations in two late works by Leoš Janáček (2013)

Modern research on the work of Leoš Janáček is often focused on elements that are explored in Janáček’s own theoretical writing: techniques of text-setting, speech rhythm, organicism, and narration. This scholarly preponderance is important, because it brings Janáček’s own work in music theory to the fore, but it has also become prohibitive because Janáček’s theories have drawn scholars’ attention away from more focused, detailed analysis of his music.This study represents a refocusing of the analytical lens. In it I examine the pitch materials of two of Janáček’s works from the 1920s: the first movement of String Quartet no. 1 and an aria from Z Mrtveho Domu (From the House of the Dead). My examinations show that Janáček, in addition to being in the vanguard of developments in text-setting and speech rhythm, was also innovative in his deployment of pitch collections and his manipulation of standard tonal procedures. Indeed, my examination aims to show that Janáček’s use of pitch collections itself represents a skillful manipulation of tonality. By isolating and reflecting on the properties of particular intervals and groups of intervals, Janáček is able to craft his own unique brand of tonality that eschews many of the characteristics and hierarchies of standard practice.In the quartet we see Janáček developing motivic material based on a pentachord formed by the motives of the opening bars. This pentachord and its intervallic subsets have interesting properties which Janáček then illustrates through the motives’ deployment in the movement. The tonal allusions in the piece are all drawn from triadic relationships contained in the pentachord and its derivations. In the opera aria Janáček utilizes pentatonicism to establish a juxtaposition of semitones and perfect fifths – the only two intervals that can generate the totality of twelve-tone pitch space. Because both of these intervals generate pitch spaces which utilize all of the twelve pitch classes, they share a unique isomorphism which emerges from Janáček’s deployment of pentatonic pitch collections and which is explored here from both analytical and theoretical perspectives.

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