From a Measure to a Masterpiece: Unmasking the Great Composers
Q&A Interview with Andrew Aziz
3/5/2021 • Reading Time: 7min
About Andrew Aziz
Andrew Aziz (b. 1985) serves as associate professor of music theory at San Diego State University, with formative musical training at Juilliard School and Manhattan School of Music Pre-College; bachelor's degree from Brown University (magna cum laude); and Ph.D. in music theory from the Eastman School of Music. Prior to his position at SDSU, he served in visiting capacities at Brown University, Rhode Island College, and Florida State University.
Andrew has published on a variety of composers of the common practice era (ranging from Mozart to Ravel) in the journals Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy-Online, Music Analysis, Music Theory and Analysis, Music Theory Online, and Sonus; on these topics and others, he has presented at over twenty-five regional, national, and international conferences.
To start, please tell us about your formative years. How did your interest in music theory evolve from your early performance activities from such a young age?
I began playing piano at 3; the first musical experience I ever had was playing the "Jeopardy" theme on a toy telephone; my dad was clever enough to map them onto the upright piano keys, and from that point on, I was hooked. I was sensitized to the correspondence between pitch notes and names, which led to the development of absolute pitch. I taught myself how to read music, and was playing relatively mature pieces by age 6 (Mozart K. 545), and even more difficult ones a year later (Beethoven "Tempest" sonata/i, and Chopin "Black Key" Etude). I entered the Juilliard Pre-College Division at age 8, where I took my first music theory class; I transferred to MSM Preparatory Division a year later to study with my most influential piano teacher, Philip Kawin, where I had proceeded to place out of most of their theory classes. When I entered college, I realized that I was far more interested in analyzing and synthesizing the score and the aural stream, and less concerned with perfecting it pianistically. While my theory acumen had indirectly facilitated my learning of works for years, I realized by my junior year that I got far more satisfaction out of analytical detective work -- if I cracked a piece theoretically, I considered it "learned." This mindset led me to pursue graduate studies in music theory, and I earned my Ph.D. from Eastman in 2013, my current position at San Diego State in 2016, and tenure in 2019.
Teaching and lecturing a class is a form of performance, at least to me. Are there any aspects of your role as a professor that are “performance-like”?
I, along with many of my peers, consider analysis to be a mode of hearing. I also consider analysis to be a performance unto itself--one that is perhaps not heard, but an interpretation is an interpretation, no less. And, vice versa: a performance is an analysis; a performance that does commit to a hearing is, well, an unconvincing (and one that does is likely theoretically informed); so, the elements are reciprocal. My teaching is both about the music, and also about thinking logically writ large; musical language has access to both linguistic metaphors and molecular metaphors. An effective music-theoretic interpretation will draw non-musical considerations to personify a musical idea, as one often does when performing.
How has an in-depth understanding of music theory helped at the piano?
I don't have regular performance opportunities anymore, but when I was younger, I'd routinely learn 15 news pieces per year for juries. Now, that manifests in my being able to "size-up" music through analysis. This question, I think, is more productively addressed by discussing my ability to absorb something I've never seen and figure out how it works theoretically; this was the engine behind my learning it for performance anyway, since playing it was secondary to understanding what was happening. (As a result, I was able to internalize entire oeuvres such as the Beethoven sonata set from a young age.)
Teaching theory involves numerous variables. A lecture component, a listening component, an exercise component, aural & written skills, etc, etc. I can only imagine how difficult it is to work through material “virtually”: How have you approached working with your students given the current pandemic?
Admittedly, teaching during the pandemic terrified me -- the idea that I was losing the performance component of the classroom, which provides the necessary energy for teaching (especially a subject that students often bemoan, or view as something they need to "get through")! I like my classes to be interactive: not just them listening to me speak, or them executing perfunctory and prescriptive exercises, but instead, I aim to capture the "how"s and "why"s of what they listen to, play, and study, no matter what repertoire (concert music, commercial music, popular music, etc.) I had to learn to use the technology to my advantage. Normally a "low-tech" person, I found myself using learning management systems (Canvas) and an iPad in ways I never considered pre-pandemic in order to maintain an interactive, and in fact, entertaining feel. My model for teaching is inspired by Victor Borge's ability to weave consistent moments of levity with a virtuosic performance. Over the past year, I have been able to achieve something resembling the in-person feel, using the technology to efficiently toggle between the different aspects of the class - lecturing, listening, questioning, analyzing, and writing.
The following questions concentrate on Andrew’s research, which deals with modeling the phenomenology of form in the common practice. The research focuses on Debussy and Ravel, but also features articles on composers throughout the common practice.
One article (2015, in Music Theory Online) deals with Chopin's formal evolution from the early works, through the concertos, to the late piano sonatas, exploring the maturation of the secondary theme area -- what listeners identify as the lyrical ("cantilena") theme.
It is always fascinating to study how a composer's work evolves, from "early" to "late" & everything in between. Throughout his work, Chopin is very much structurally influenced by classic form, which in almost all cases contrasts a first & secondary theme. What are some characteristics that differentiate an "early" versus 'late" secondary theme? Perhaps you might help us by citing examples from his literature.
For example, we find in an early sonata, Op. 4, a distinct absence of secondary theme (and modulation) in the opening exposition, which is defiantly "un"-Classical. This trend is broken in the concertos, which employ the theme--and in fact, they are arguably the most recognizable and memorable excerpts from these works (of course, Chopin is known for his flowing lyrical melodies!). By the late sonatas (e.g., Op. 35), we not only find a prominently tuneful secondary theme but, that the primary theme is notably absent in the works' recapitulations. From early works to late works, it's hard to imagine that these were all written by the same person over a twenty-year span, but 13,000 words later, I complete the picture.
For further reading: The Evolution of Chopin’s Sonata Forms: Excavating the Second Theme Group
Aziz, Andrew. 2015. "The Evolution of Chopin's Sonata Forms: Excavating the Second Theme Group" Music Theory Online 21/4.
Another article (2020, in Music Theory and Analysis) explores transcendental musical passages in Beethoven, with the "Hammerklavier" as a centerpiece. Between certain themes, the music escapes to a zone that eludes formal progress, and, instead, enters a dream state.
You discuss the concept of "dream state", specifically as it relates to Beethoven's Hammerklavier sonata. Please explain to us briefly what this term means in the context of your research. Perhaps you might clarify with other examples from the literature?
Indeed. In the context of my research, I am particularly interested in how Beethoven fills the space between thematic areas of the "transition" and "secondary theme." In most high Classical works, these thematic areas are virtually adjacent, with very little, if any "filler" material that separates themes. In Beethoven's late style, I argue--in with support from musicological literature--a sense of thematic between-ness, whereby the music escapes the forward-looking thematic realm in favor of a transcendental, static, dream-like, stopping the passage of formal time. -- The manipulation of formal time is a centerpiece to my other works as well, specifically Ravel's with usage of the octatonic collection in piano works such as Jeux d'eau, and in Gaspard de la nuit, "Ondine" and "Scarbo." The octatonic is uniquely structured to supply the listener with a hypnotic trance, which effectively obscures the music's thematic trajectory.
Another article is based on Andrew’s dissertation which investigates the passage of formal time in Debussy and Ravel. In Debussy, themes are often arranged in a non-linear way--whereby one theme is interrupted, only to resume at a later, non-contiguous point. In Ravel, certain passages serve a thematic "etch-a-sketch"--a musical recalculation of sorts--where the music becomes lost and confused, only for the themes to reestablish their position within the form.
In my experience, "non-linear logic" often implies a sense of improvisation. What are your thoughts on this? What specific works of these two composers have you performed, or studied, &, From a practical perspective, do you think these aspects of their music make it difficult to deliver a cohesive performance?
It certainly can imply a sense of improvisation. As discussed in "Temporal Disruptions," the octatonic flourishes are often the most virtuosic passages in the works (and, that is largely what motivated me to dedicate nearly a decade of my life studying them). Of course, composition is so often an archived improvisation, but the passages I discuss are particularly "improvisational," not owing to any particular formal schema in those moments.
I've performed at least one of the works in all of these articles; "Hammerklavier" twice (and "Archduke," "Waldstein" in that manuscript), Chopin's Piano Concerto no. 1 and Cello Sonata, Debussy’s L'isle Joyeuse, and Ravel's Jeux d'eau and “Ondine”. All of my performances predate the publication of these writings, but the writings articulate my intuitions of these works. No doubt that the particulars of these works present unique technical and musical challenges. Music theory and analysis serves a performer best by contextualizing these segments of music so cohesion is possible--of course, starting off with a cohesive analysis! But, performance is really a mode of analysis, so it is necessary to grapple with these timeless passages before performing them. My work provides a pathway to such an understanding.
Who is your favorite legendary pianist & why?
Horowitz for his unique blend of virtuosity, precision, and versatility; he'll rival other pianists' efforts on their best composers.
About Maryam Raya
Maryam Raya is an internationally acclaimed and award-winning concert pianist based in New York. Praised for her “Dynamic Stage Presence” by the Union of Excellence, Maryam has performed recitals worldwide, in countries including England, Spain, France, Italy, China, Estonia, Latvia, Finland, and Dubai and has performed at renowned venues across the United States including multiple appearances at New York’s Carnegie Hall, The Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, The National Opera Center, multiple international embassies, among others.
Described as a “Complete Artist of the 21st Century” by Info Music France, she has been featured in countless international art, fashion, and music magazines across Europe as well as American news outlets such as CBS news. With an extensive and diverse repertoire, including numerous solo programs and over thirty concerti for piano and orchestra, Maryam is passionate about bringing classical music to younger audiences through her captivating performances and lectures.