A question of musical proportion
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A question of musical proportion

What’s the relationship between maths and music? Albert Storace finds out during a recital by Tricia Dawn Williams.

Tricia Dawn Williams.

Tricia Dawn Williams.

Part of the first ever Science in the City festival, Tricia Dawn Williams last weekend performed a number of 20th-century piano works as part of a seminar underlying the close relationship between mathematics and music.

As a leading local exponent and performer of such music, this was not the first time Williams was performing such works. The novelty was the combination of performance with highly interesting information about various phases in the development of 20th-century music with a special emphasis on the mathematical aspects.

The speaker was Alastair Attard, who unfortunately forgot to introduce himself and to remind the audience to switch off mobile phones. The latter could have avoided annoying squealing of phones which the unrepentant among the audience allowed to happen at least three times.

Attard’s introduction referred to the earliest held statement regarding the relationship between maths and music, that provided by Pythagoras. Rhythm and pitch can be expressed numerically. Notation was developed later.

Later, referring further to tempo and changes of such leading to one maintained in beats of three, the waltz tempo, Williams performed the brief but sprightly Waltz by Ligeti.

When it came to 12-tone music, reference to Schönberg and his star pupil and follower Webern was inevitable. So-called dodecaphonic music became all the rage of the Second Vienna School, and a brief example of how this 12-note row is at the basis of such music was provided with the performance of Webern’s Kinderstück.

Expanding further into 12-note technique and the varied ways it can be used led to the performance of a very challenging work by Ruben Zahra. This highly charged music, so frequently and disturbingly tense and very complex rhythmically, is not surprisingly called Crisis. It found a worthy interpreter in the pianist, who tempered great concentration and strength with articulation.

As for Schönberg, his sometimes jumpy Six Little Piano Pieces were performed even if they predate his 12-note music technique. An exercise in contrasts between one miniature and another, the presence of tonality is very fleeting and distant.

Far more relaxing were Etudes V and VI by Philip Glass. These were performed with a determinedly steady and almost enchanting flow as examples of minimalist music.

The relation with maths here is that the basic essence of this kind of music is the hypnotic repetition of motifs and transformations are brought about by addition, subtraction and substitution of simple figures.

The event concluded with a performance of five of the seven Ideograms, Book I, by Pawlu Grech, the veteran composer and teacher who has been mentor to both Williams and Zahra. It was another challenging task to the pianist who revelled in the performance of these pieces as a form of research into sound as the basis of musical composition.

Performed continuously, these pieces are built upon an unorthodox notation system which permits a visual representation. The duration of various sounds is also often measured in seconds.

The performance went down very well with the audience who applauded both Williams and Grech, also present.

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