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: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EVN4dShaZWk.)

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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:

Ferneyhough_B

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.

 

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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.

 

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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 :-)

 

 

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Crowd-Source Question, What Are the Difficulties Performing Mircotonal Music?

This is a bit unusual for me, but I would like to informally survey performer’s thoughts on performing mircotonal music. Not thoughts about microtonal music in general, but the issues, problems, difficulties or joys of actually playing or singing the stuff. Which notations are best? Are the difficulties worth the acoustic result? Are the acoustic results hear-able, worth the effort?

I realize there are as many uses of microtonality as there are composers who use it, but if there are especially good or bad examples, I would be interested in knowing who and why.

 

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Notating New Sounds – Rewrite?

I love it when a composer takes the flute in hand and explores its sounds while writing for flute. It shows more dedication and curiosity than just looking up techniques in a book (not to disparage the good books about writing for flute).  Sometimes, it can produce an original sound, but sometimes it re-invents the wheel. Which is fine, but the wheel may come with a new symbol and complicated instructions. I have seen this cause frustration, esp. when the instructions are lengthy and not in your language. Once you reach understanding: “ah ha, so it is ____(fill in known technique)” it may be easy to adjust to a new notation. If not, then I am faced with the question, do I spend time re-notating, or visually re-adjusting to the score? This is something I will come back to.

In no way do I wish to discourage composers from exploring flute sounds themselves. However, be aware that today there are not only books, but a rash of flutist composers out there who have spent decades thinking about how to write new sounds in ways that flutists can easily understand. So if you really want to delve into the world of new sounds, check out these composers and their written scores: (Feel free to add to this list in the comments, but please keep it to composers who use extended sounds.)

It might interest you to look at the late flute works of Karlheinz Stockhausen. Thanks to his collaborator, Kathinka Pasveer, everything is 100 % playable and extremely well notated. Xi, Flautina and Kathinka’s Gesang are several examples of well-notated techniques.

You will see that even among flutist composers there is no standardization of extended techniques. However if you study them, you get a feel for what is accepted and what the players are used to reading. So take your pick; if the player has questions, you can always refer back to the piece or composer from which you took the notation.

Now, about re-writing, or rather, re-notating. When the question comes whether to spend my time re-notating or to spend time learning a tricky or non-intuitive (for me) notation, I almost always choose to re-notate. This might be to more easily read the notation of an extended technique, microtones, or rhythm, etc. Please note this is a last-resort solution. I am already comfortable with many variations of key-click, tongue pizz, air sound, and multiphonic notations. However, when the score presents a real visual problem for me, I decide to re-notate. This has the following advantages:

  • I get to know the music really well away from the instrument
  • While practicing, I can easily and more directly process the composer’s intent (i.e. the music)
  • In concert, I feel more secure. When under pressure, there is enough extraneous sensory information and certainly there are enough extraneous emotions to deal with. If you are not playing from memory, the score is your anchor. It has to be solid.

In the olden days, copying scores was one way students learned music. There is a lot to be said for this method, but I don’t recommend subjecting 21st century ensemble players to it. Solo pieces are different matter. However, if your piece is being work-shopped along with six other pieces in the course of one day, your piece will stand out, but not in the way you hoped :)

 

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Are intervals born of air or lips? Let the leopard decide.

On forums and in masterclasses there has been a lot of discussion about which element plays a more important role in producing intervals on the flute. Aside from the change of fingering, do we change more with the lips, with the air speed, or with air volume?

Take the fingering element out of the equation and try playing through the harmonic series on low C or D. How do you produce the upper partials?

The trend these days is to say the air makes the changes. Emily Beynon makes a good example and case for air speed:

In this (long) masterclass series, Phillipe Bernold has a student start the day on a rising dominant 7 chord. Here he suggests the most important thing to start the day is to wake up the air column. There should be a natural increase of both volume and speed of air as you ascend. The lips stay neutral. This is very important for legato.

Here is why I agree that the air, either volume or speed, rather than the lips should play the major role in interval moving. Please note I do not deny that the lips must remain flexible, and that exercises for suppleness also include playing intervals and harmonics (at least some of mine do).

As humans, which is more necessary for survival, fast reflexes of our breathing apparatus, or of our facial muscles? Imagine a pre-historic flutist out strolling, searching for good material to build the perfect bone or wood flute. She is set upon by a leopard. She screams and runs. The lightning-quick reflexes of that sharp intake of breath to make sound and to get enough oxygen for the muscles to run is what saves her life. Fast-talking a leopard has been a known fail.

A Cro Magnon Bone Kingma-System, gimme gimme!!

“A Cro Magnon Bone Kingma-System, gimme gimme!!”

So it is my unscientific opinion that the muscles controlling the breathing apparatus, including the diaphragm, have much quicker reflexes, thus can make quicker adjustments than the facial muscles used in the embouchure. Of course, we all know some fast talkers, but they are a scientific law unto themselves!

Wildlife disclaimer: when stalked by a predator in real life, do not act like a prey animal and run. You will be chased. And caught. Unless they are bees.

Photo: bigkitten.com

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Scale Practice – Superlocrian!

If you are a diligent scale and arpeggio practicer, you might get tired of the major-minor-chromatic (and seconds, thirds, fourths, etc) routine. I want to share my enthusiasm for my scale of choice this week: the Superlocrian. If you have studied jazz, it won’t be new to you. This scale goes my many names. I actually prefer the term Diminished-Whole Tone, because that is what it is (see below). According to the Wikipedia entry, other names for it are Altered, Dominant Whole-Tone and Locrian flat four.

First you take the melodic minor scale but don’t alter it coming down. (Yes, you are allowed to do that in jazz!) The modes of this scale are a gold mine for other jazz scales, but that will be another post.

DWT1a

Now, start on the 7th degree of the scale, and presto:DWTb

The first 4 notes are a diminished scale (alternating half and whole steps), the remaining notes form a whole tone scale. How cool is that? Plug this in to Taffanel-Gaubert no. 4 and you have a new flavor for your routine and scale games. There are a number of books for jazz flutists that may have other exercises, but I have not surveyed this literature yet. Any suggestions?

For more information on the web, especially about the chords that this scale generates, here are some links.

How to use the diminished whole tone scale by Pete Swiderski

Reverse engineering our dominant scales by Anton Schwartz (great graphics)

A diminished whole tone lick by Bob Hartig

 

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Inharmonicity of hearing

In a previous post on flutonation I admitted my tendency to play melodic octaves too wide. Re-reading Doris Geller‘s super book Praktische Intonationslehre  I realize this is a universal phenomenon, which she describes as the “inharmonicity of hearing” or perhaps “inharmonicity of the ear”. (original: Inharmonizität des Gehörs).

Doris Geller

Doris Geller

Here is my paraphrased translation of what she has to say (original German below):

The ear seems to naturally favor tones whose harmonics are spread, as those of a piano are. [Read about this in my previous blog entry here.] This preference is most strongly expressed when we hear successive tones: we find jumps of octaves, fifths, and fourths ideal when they are slightly wider than  justly tuned.

And not only these intervals! In a small-scale study she shows the range and average of what students and teachers considered to be an ideal-sounding melodic, linear interval (as opposed to a chordal, vertical interval) relative to equal temperment:geller

The vertical lines for each interval show the range in which the test subjects found the interval to be ideal. The short horizontal dashes (which may look more like a dots in this picture) through these lines show the average. The 0 line is the interval at equal temperment. The intervals are referred to by number (8= Octave), “kl.” means minor, “gr.” means major.

This really shows how subjective listening can be.  3rds, 6ths, 2nds and 7ths can bear a fairly wide range of variation: they are often context-dependent on their environment. It is no surprise that, out of context, listeners will find their own comfort zone.

I paraphrase from page 84:

The largest diversions at 5.6 cents are quite small, but this can add up. If for example you play these wide fifths or fourths in succession, the third note will produce an octave 8 cents too wide. A whole tone scale with these “ideal” seconds would produce and octave 30 cents too high! However, in solo playing, our pitch memory keeps us from making these mistakes, since temporary overall pitch relationships and the relation to the tonic of the key keep us in line.

Hopefully, when playing an unaccompanied, tonal solo piece, your intonational “snap to grid” function is checked!

Since we get more than the lion’s share of melodic roles, and we have a fantastic body of unaccompanied literature, the expressive and tasteful use of intonation is an important tool for flutists. I am fascinated by the possibilities, and the different practices of vertical (chordal) and linear (melodic) intonation. You will probably be hearing more from me about this as I continue to re-read. It is a pity that Ms. Geller’s book has not been translated into English.

—————————

original German from page 83:

Das Gehör scheint von Natur aus Klänge zu bevorzugen, deren Teiltöne als etwas gespreizt liegen, änlich wie es beim Klavierton der Fall ist. … Noch stärker äußert siche diese Vorliebe aber bei nacheinander erklingenden Tönen. Wir empfinden einen Oktav-, Quint- oder Quartsprung erst dann als ideal, wenn er im Vergleich zur reinen Stimmung etwas zu weit ist.

page 84:

Die Abweichungen sind mit maximal 5,6c zwar gering, doch können sie sich bei Aneinanderreihung in einer Richtung erheblich aufsummieren. Wenn man z.B. Quinte und Quarte in ihrer erweiterten Form in einer Richtung hintereinander spielt, gelangt man beim dritten Ton zu einer um 8c erweiterten Oktave. Und würde man eine Ganztonleiter ausschließlich aus “Idealsekunden” spielen, so wäre die Oktave am Schluß um 30c zu hoch! …In der Einstimmigkeit bewahrt unsunser Tonhöhengedächtnis vor derartigen Intonationsfehlern, denn auch die zeitlich übergreifenden Tonbeziehungen sowie die Beziehungen zum Grundton der gerade herrschenden Tonart werden zur Intonationskontrolle mit herangezogen.

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Unplugged Mind

Buy here from Leo Records. An international meeting in the Koln studio (Germany/Russia/USA/USA) produced fantastic results to the delight of all concerned. Frank Gratkowski – bass clarinet, Alexey Lapin – piano, Sebastian Gramss – bass, Helen Bledsoe – flute. This recording is a testimony to the fact how far spontaneous composing has travelled. All four musicians come from different cultures and backgrounds, yet they manage to create brilliant spontaneous compositions sacrificing their egos in favour of achieving a sensible whole.

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