Thoughts on Improvisation: Confessions of Cardew and Tolstoy

In preparation for a masterclass at the St. Petersburg School of Improvisation, I have been re-reading Cornelius Cardew‘s Treatise Handbook and Towards an Ethic of Improvisation. So many of his words tie in to what has been going on in the background of my life: the press and forum debates over the recent Geneva Competition (two second prizes awarded, no first), my reading Nabokov’s Lectures on Russian Literature, and Tolstoy’s Confession.

Let’s start with the Geneva Competition debate of technical mastery vs. artistic mastery. I find this argument to be rather old hat, so didn’t contribute to the forum fury it unleashed. However, I was touched by how Cardew tied this matter in with eroticism (mention sex, and you immediately have my attention) and the heaviest question (according to Tolstoy) that plagues us: what is the point of life?

From Cardew’s Towards an Ethic of Improvisation:

Postulate that the true appreciation of music consists in emotional surrender, and the expression music-lover becomes graphically clear and literally true. Anyone familiar with the basis of much near-eastern music will require no further justification for the assertion that music is erotic. Nevertheless, decorum demands that the erotic aspect of music be approached with circumspection and indirectly. That technical mastery is of no intrinsic value in music (or love) should be clear to anyone with a knowledge of musical history. [...] Elaborate forms and a brilliant technique conceal a basic inhibition, a reluctance to directly express love, a fear of self-exposure. [...]

Love is a dimension like time, not some small thing that has to be made more interesting by elaborate preamble. The basic dream – of both love and music – is of a continuity, something that will live forever. The simplest practical attempt at realising this dream is the family. In music we try to eliminate time psychologically – to work in time in such a way that it loses its hold on us, relaxes its pressure. Quoting Wittgenstein again: “If by eternity is understood not endless temporal duration but timelessness, then he lives eternally who lives in the present”.

Eternity, infinity – here lies the connection to the everlasting question of Tolstoy, one that plagued him and drove him (and drives many others) to deep depression: “Why should I live, that is to say, what real, permanent result will come out of my illusory transitory life–what meaning has my finite existence in this infinite world?”

The question of connecting the finite to the infinite lies in the practices of religion, yoga and many other philosophies that lie outside my area of expertise. It raises the question of faith, a non-rational subject on which Tolstoy writes very sensitively and rationally. But what if we take Cardew’s suggestion, as quoted by Wittgenstein, by working within time and not viewing the eternal (infinite) as endless, but timeless. Improvised music, created on the spot, is eternally in the present. Cardew writes:

From a certain point of view improvisation is the highest mode of musical activity, for it is based on the acceptance of music’s fatal weakness and essential and most beautiful characteristic – its transcience. The desire always to be right is an ignoble taskmaster, as is the desire for immortality. The performance of any vital action brings us closer to death; if it didn’t it would lack vitality.

Arguable, but food for thought. For further reading, see also Sketches Towards a Performance of Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise by Alex South and Richard Craig.


Ligeti Piano Concerto, Practice Notes to Self

ligetiThe following are suggestions for practice in preparation for the flute and piccolo passages of (my favorite ensemble piece!) the Ligeti Piano Concerto. They are my own ideas, not authentic or especially original – except for one remark on the piccolo solo in the second movement that Ligeti gave me during the recording session with the ASKO Ensemble and Pierre-Laurent Aimard. I am also writing this for myself, should I lose my notes.

The harmonics in the first passage I finger an octave and a fifth below, mostly. The notes above G# I use special fingerings, not “real” harmonics. (See my entry When Is a Harmonic Not a Harmonic?) I give no fingerings for these notes, because they change from performance to performance, depending on the intonation of my colleagues and my own condition. In spite of the cross-rhythm going on, these passages should be played smoothly and evenly. I like to practice them like this:Ligeti_Piano1

The piccolo solo at “O”, though marked poco leggiero, should not be played staccato, the eighths should sound full. The lightness is in the rhythmic inflection.

In the second movement at “A”, Ligeti told me to forget the rests, the eighth notes should be longer than notated. I play this passage with very little vibrato, although this is a personal decision. Ligeti had no opinion on the matter. My goal is that the listener should not really know what instrument is playing – just some sort of haunting sound similar to the ocarinas that come in later. The harmonics at “M” I finger two octaves below. For the high A, I add the G# key, and for that high B at 2 bars before “N”,  I don’t play a harmonic – just use the normal fingering.

In the fourth movement after “Y” the texture becomes very complex due to several rhythmic layers. You have eighth-note triplet movement (always with displaced accents in groups of 2 or 3) and sixteenth-note movement (always in accented groups of 2 or 3). The base tempo is quarter-note = 138, so I like to play around shifting between regular triplets at this speed, then playing the sixteenth note passages that have accents in groups of 3 as triplets, but at tempo 184. For example, the second bar of “Y”, starting the third beat, would look like this in my exercise:


There are two clarifications to the part: 1)”DD”, the third note (A) should be a sixteenth-note. 2)There should be a rallentando from “EE”.

The fifth movement has That Lick at “C”. I find it useful to keep the C key down for the whole thing, even the beginning, since I have a B-foot. That works better than the gizmo-key in this situation, for me. I also leave out the trill key on the high B-flats, and use the following harmonics to facilitate fingering:


Our next performance of this piece with Ensemble Musikfabrik is February, 2015, so I am sure to find other bits to add to this. I’d be curious about other’s experience with this piece, so please feel free to comment.


Ligeti Hamburg Concerto (Horn Concerto)

I thought it would be a nice segue from my last post on the True Range of the Flute to a work that, great as it is, has serious issues regarding range. Composers, if you have overstepped the bounds of the flute’s range, you are in good company.

Gyorgi Ligeti is just about my favorite composer. However, the fourth movement of his Hamburg Concerto poses serious problems. The first flute, playing flute, not piccolo, has to contend with this, at tempo dotted-quarter = 120:

Hamburgisches Konzert - Flöte 1-24B

I have heard this played on flute, the 1st player just ignoring the octave indication. If I’m not mistaken, this was the solution on the recording that was made with Ligeti. I did not work with Ligeti on this piece, but have played under conductors who have experience with the piece. What I did was play this passage on piccolo, but that poses another problem later on since there is no time to change back to flute. Our solution was this: 1st player plays piccolo until “l”, leaving out low D-flats and E-flats (they are doubled anyway). Have the 2nd flute play “l” through “m” while 1st changes to flute, then 1st resumes playing at “m”.

Earlier on in this movement, the 1st player has the following passage. The Notes after “V” are possible, but when played on flute, it throws the dynamic balance of the ensemble totally off:

Hamburgisches Konzert - Flöte 1-2(1)3A

I solved it by changing to piccolo at “U”. The last time I played it, I thought “what the hey”, and just played from the beginning of the movement on piccolo (transposing the written part down an octave, of course). It makes for better dynamics at “T” (not that it is impossible on flute). The only note you have to leave out is the B in the third bar of “T”. I don’t present this as an authentic or brilliant solution, it was just a whim and the conductor went with it.

I hope this helps future flutists working on this cool piece (including myself, just so I remember what we did)! If you know of other solutions, I am all ears.


The True Range of the C Flute

Back in the USSR, when information was really suppressed, many people were hungry for the truth. Now governments hide the truth from us under a deluge of information. I think composers suffer from this deluge, but it is not a government conspiracy.

The true range of the concert C flute is a matter of public domain, published in text books, on the internet, and God knows where else as a cold, hard fact. It is neither a state secret nor rocket science. Yet why is it ignored?

Sometimes I can understand why. We often work with composers of electronic music who transfer their sound world into “scores” and leave the instrumentation up to us. There are also arrangers who don’t sweat the details of register, and tell me up-front that I am free to choose which size flute I want to use when. That’s cool.

But when that’s not the case, how to bring this issue out from under the deluge information? I considered several options. Swear words, Russell Brand revolutionary rhetoric, sexing-up – what can I do to get your attention?

Here is my first attempt. Download it here as a PDF, or view it here. Suggestions are welcome, but please keep it family-friendly.



Ghost Icebreaker

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Or order from Leo Records and browse their amazing catalogue.

Pioneer recording “Ghost Icebreaker” is the first to feature
flute and piano in free improvisation, alternating the playful
wizardry of classical flute and piano sounds with ghostly emanations
from the abyss. In seven vignettes, the decade-old duo of Helen
Bledsoe, flutist of Cologne’s Musikfabrik, and St. Petersburg pianist
Alexei Lapin weave a surreal tale of white oranges, the falling sky
and another man’s dusk.
Track listing:

  1.  Snow
  2. The Rising Star of the Falling Sky
  3. Settlement
  4. Ghost Icebreaker
  5. White Oranges
  6. December (One Man’s Day is Another Man’s Dusk)
  7. Into Thin Air


Ghost Icebreaker


My first CD, Ghost Icebreaker, is out! (And who knows, maybe my last!)

For the past ten years I have had the pleasure to collaborate with pianist Alexei Lapin. We have appeared on a number of CDs together (visit my CD shop), but this is the first I have produced, and the first where we play as a duo.

If I am not mistaken, this CD is also a first in that it contains solely original, non-Jazz improvisations for flute and piano. If I am wrong about that, I would love to know!

It will be available soon through Leo Records (LR704), but I have them in stock already. Click the “Buy Now” button to buy through PayPal.



Preparation for Expression

This summer, for better or worse, I find myself without paid work for a whole month, so I have flown off to St. Petersburg with my family to enjoy the last of the White Nights. With one week left, I spend my vacation practice mentally preparing that which I have to play from memory, and mulling over thoughts about what is actually involved in creating musical expression. Once again, I have no particular point in this entry, just an accumulation of thoughts.

One of my goals this summer is to read Constantin Stanislawski’s “An Actor Prepares” in the original Russian. It’s very slow going, which is good in a way, since sometimes I tend to read too fast and not retain things. Theatrical, artistic expression is a big topic (so far) in the book, but I am wondering whether it is worthwhile to draw parallels to musical expression.

AnactorpreparesPlaying a solo part has obvious parallels to playing a role in a theatrical work, but is it useful for musicians to really experience the emotions we are trying to convey, as an actor is encouraged to do? Stanislawski himself points out that experiencing the emotions is not enough. There has to be technical control over the use of one’s body and voice above and beyond feeling. I think that is the crux for musicians.

Here’s something that probably happens to most of us: I can really “go for it” in a high, ecstatic, fortissimo passage, passionate, all systems going full steam.  However, if I really do that, my heart will be racing, and my center of energy and balance will be too high. If there is a sudden dynamic shift, I am up a creek, breathless, heart thumping, out of focus. Even in the moment of passion, there has to be a part of yourself that stays sober and reminds you to stay down, open and be ready for what’s coming. That part, I guess, is our technique. It is the balance of that sober part to our ecstatic part that makes our practice and performance so exciting.

I remember one thing Robert Dick told me. In abstract contemporary music, we often can’t rely on the use of recognizable rhetoric, or the Affects we learn about in Early Music. Sometimes we can’t even rely on the expression of anything recognizably human e.g., sad, happy, sensuous, hideous. However, what the audience will recognize is energy. That is what we must aspire to conjure. It may be that your energy will not be interpreted as you intended. I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.

I’ll leave off by sharing a video with Barbara Hannigan, who talks about her preparation for the role of Alban Berg’s Lulu. Few of us have the luxury of this deep level of preparation, but I found her dedication very uplifting. (ed. – In case you don’t make it to the comments section, here is another recommended video with Stephen Fry discussing the visceral experience of opera:


Tempo and Rhythm in Cassandra’s Dream Song

In previous posts on Ferneyhough’s music, I describe my approach to his complex rhythms. It is worth noting again that his music is not pulse based; rather, the measure is considered a “domain of a certain energy quotient”.

In Cassandra’s Dream Song we are presented with freedom from measures, time signatures, or metronome markings. The Italian indications often refer to character more than actual speed: lento analitico, grazioso e rubato, molto rigoroso. So how fast do we play it? I can give no answers, but hopefully my ideas can give a clue as to what may work for you.

If you carefully sketch the rhythm of a passage, the spatial relationships become apparent. Here is a very old sketch I did of line 6. I attempted to make measures out of the gestures – an idea I later abandoned in favor of pure spatiality:

Rhythmic sketch line 6

Old rhythmic sketch line 6

Personally, I find this line is often performed too fast. I am guilty of this as well. Who doesn’t get excited by those closely-written, many-beamed tuplets at the end? But if you look carefully, I believe there is a compositional reason for those multi-beams. The beginning of the line has a sort of quarter-note feel to it. Under the first heavy arrow (indicating ritardando),  the eigth-note becomes the rhythmical basis of movement (see, I try to avoid the word “pulse”, but maybe I am being too pedantic). By the A-natural things have slowed way down: lento molto con forza! (Composer’s exclamation point). That is one very long note, relatively speaking. By this time, like a compositional microscope, the rhythmical basis has magnified to the level of the 16th note. And then there is another ritardando! (The heavy arrow). It is as if we are being drawn even further through the lens of this microscope, experiencing progressively smaller units of the beat as time proceeds. Finally, we come down to the “atomic” level of the piece. It is an amazing ending.

After analyzing several lines like this, I abandoned the idea of imposing measures and transferred  the sketches to graph paper in order to see the accuracy of spacing as clearly as possible. Here is an example of line 4:


Rhythmic graph line 4


I did all this work not only to have a chance of playing the rhythms accurately, but as a crucial step in deciding: how fast? You have to find which notes are really the fastest (sometimes not the ones that look the fastest), and go from there. How fast you play will be an individual decision. I am not convinced there is a global metronome marking that works for the entire piece, but maybe someone else has another opinion. I do think the flow should be consistent within an individual line – with close attention if there are indications of change.

In this entry, I present these sketches so that if you are interested in the piece, you can have a go at it yourself. The rest of the sketches are too large and lightly written to scan well. Please don’t ask me to scan or photograph the rest and post them (and not every line has been analyzed). However, I am happy to show them in person.



Atonal Intonation in Light of Berio’s Sequenzas

Luciano Berio‘s Sequenza no.1 for flute is one of my favorite pieces. I also love teaching it; it has so much to offer in terms of technique (especially articulation!), style and presentation. There is an unwritten book inside me about this work, but for now I would like to consider one aspect of the work that often gets ignored: Intonation.

This is one reason it is not my favorite piece to listen to. If you know me, you know I don’t have perfect pitch, or even flawless intonation. Nevertheless, neither you nor I can assume that a work without a traditional tonal center and without traditional harmonic relationships is devoid of centers and relationships entirely. I would argue that in this context, these matters require even more consideration. I’d like to address this generally and specifically, not as a how-to guide, but as food for thought in your own practicing.

In general, there are rules of thumb for atonal solo works. Here I quote Doris Geller’s “Praktische Intonationslehre“, page 117 (my translation):*

In free-tonal music there is also a hierarchy of intervals, the most important points of orientation being the prime intervals (octaves, fifths, fourths), especially when they form tones that draw attention to themselves. These could be, for example, long, held-out notes or notes that follow a rest.

Here she is referring to Debussy‘s Syrinx, and gives specific examples. However,  these words and her further advice to analyze goal notes, high points, low points, and melodic turning points can apply to all solo works. Edgar Varèse‘s Density 21.5 especially offers the same points of consideration.

Specifically for the Sequenza, I consider the soul of the work to be in the long, held-out notes. If you listen to the other Sequenzas of Berio,  you will hear this particular pattern of drawing the listener in. Often there are rapid, virtuosic passages punctuated by the stillness of a single note, where the quality of sound and the relationship to its environment are of utmost importance.

*In a previous entry, I write more about Doris Geller and the intonation of melodic intervals.



Perfection and Procrastination in Daily Practice

Recently I have spent most of my practice sessions “warming up” and playing exercises. The repertoire I am working on is singularly uninspiring, so this is mostly a maneuver in procrastination.

But it’s great: taking the time to do and re-do an exercise while focusing your awareness of what’s going on under your skin is never boring. Did I miss that high A? Yes, great, have to do it again. This time keep the air going. The high A takes care of itself. Missed the triplet arpeggio? Good, have to do it again, this time don’t loose connection to left arm. Damn, time to do repertoire….just one more exercise, though.

I remember Pat Morris, piccolo and Feldenkreis teacher, setting the shoulders of a student to rights. After the student played again she said, “see, you improved without having to practice!”  As followers of the Alexander Technique rightly point out, it is the opposite of “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”. Instead: “If at first you don’t succeed, never try again, at least not in the same way”. That is what I like to think what I am doing with my exercises. Sometimes I play without a mistake, but it is not perfection I am after.

In know, I know, I should carry this attitude into the repertoire-learning part of my practice. To comfort myself (and further procrastinate) I carry a book with me to practice sessions: Pedro de Alcantara’s “Indirect Procedures – a Musician’s Guide to the Alexander Technique”.

The objective of daily practice should be to cultivate the best possible use of the self on a general basis, and to apply it correctly on a specific basis …In other words, working on right living should take precedence over working on right playing.


 Patanjali (author of the Yoga Sutra) would probably agree, and he would have certainly something to say about my procrastination. Most wisdom traditions teach the concept of non-attachment (which I suck at). What often gets missed is that they also teach one to practice non-aversion (which I have a slightly better chance at). In the end, it might be the approach of the concert date which changes my attitude. So much for wisdom.

One last quote from Pedro de Alcantara:

I believe there are four separate but interrelated factors … in achieving truly free action: giving up trying, giving up judging, ridding yourself of hesitation and eagerness, and timing your actions precisely.

Here I have a chance in hell of making some sort of progress :-)