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Reuven Tsur

Metaphor and Figure-Ground Relationship:
Comparisons from Poetry, Music, and the Visual Arts

This page contains the graphic figures and the files of the music excerpts discussed in Reuven Tsur's paper.
You may listen to the excerpts discussed in this paper, by clicking on their icons. You may download these sound files (make sure you download both the page and the sound files; then open the page with your browser). Please, first scroll through all the options.

The gestalt notion "figure-ground phenomenon" refers to the characteristic organization of perception into a figure that 'stands out' against an undifferentiated background. What is figural at any one moment depends on patterns of sensory stimulation and on the momentary interests of the perceiver. Figure-ground relationship is an important element of the way we organise reality in our awareness, including works of art. Poets may rely on our habitual figure-ground organisations in extra-linguistic reality to exploit our flexibility in shifting attention from one aspect to another so as to achieve certain poetic effects by inducing us to reverse the habitual figure-ground relationships. This flexibility has precedent in music and the visual arts. Works by Escher, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Dickinson, Sidney, Shelley, Beckett and Alterman are examined.

Keywords: gestalt; metaphor; figure-ground; Emily Dickinson; P. B. Shelley; Sir Philip Sidney; Bach; Mozart; Beethoven; M. C. Escher; Samuel Beckett; Nathan Alterman;

                                            a                                                                    b
Figure 1a. You can either see as figure a black goblet standing in front of a white ground, or you can see two white faces, looking at each other, in front of a black ground. b. Four Ku Klux Klansmen looking down a well

                  a                                              b

        Figure 2

        Figure 3

         a                         b                             c

        Figure 4

    Figure 5. Escher: Liberation

Figure 6. Escher: Woodcut II, strip 3.

For a brilliant demonstration of the principles of "Proximity " and "Area" in the auditory mode listen to one of Al Bregman's experiment demos (scroll to the bottom of Bregman's explanation page and press "Play" for the sound file). The sequence used in the demonstration consists of three high and three low tones, alternating high and low tones. When the cycle is played slowly, one can clearly hear the alternation of high and low tones. When it is played fast, one experiences two streams of sound, one formed of high tones, the other of low ones, each with its own melody, as if two instruments, a high and a low one, were playing along together. When the sequence is played fast, the tones are in greater proximity, occupy a smaller area in the "auditory space". The Law of Proximity works here in two ways. In the fast sequence the tones are "nearer" together in time than in the slow one; and the higher tones are "nearer" to each other in pitch than to the lower ones. Consequently, they organise themselves into two segregated but concurrent figures, each in its own register.

of Example
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Sound file 01
Sound file 01

Music Excerpt 1
Listen to an excerpt from Menuet I from Bach's Unaccompanied Violin Partita No. 3 in E major. (Alas, the violin's higher notes may be offensive to the ear on a computer's internal speaker).

Menuet I

Music Excerpt 2
Listen to an excerpt from Fuga alla breve from Bach's Unaccompanied Violin Sonata No. 3 in C major.

Fuga alla breve

Music Excerpt 3
Listen to an excerpt from Menuett from Bach's Unaccompanied Cello Suite No. 2 in D minor.


Music Excerpt 4
Listen to Alfred Brendel's performance of excerpt 4 (a), and Dubravka Tomashevich's performance (b).
Brendel1 Dubravka1
        a                  b

Figure 7. The first two bars of the triplets in the Don Giovanni trio.

Figure 8. The first four bars of the triplets in the Moonlight Sonata

Music Excerpt 5.
Listen to the Don Giovanni trio in Klemperer's recording (a). Listen to the triplets at the beginning of the same when the midrange is overemphasized (b). Listen to a piano extract of the triplets alone, played by Mira Gal (c).
DonGiovanni DGEqu PianoExtract
           a                    b                c

Music Excerpt 6
Listen to Alfred Brendel's performance of excerpt 6 (a), and Dubravka Tomashevich's performance (b).
Brendel2 Dubravka2
        a                   b

Figure 9. The envelope plot of music excerpt 6 in Brendel's performance

Figure 10. The envelope plot of music excerpt 6 in Tomashevich's performance

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Original file name: Figure-ground in poetry - converted on Saturday, 19 September 1998, 15:58

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