Seminar with Brian Ferneyhough 25 March, 2009

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Almost didn’t get out of bed that day. I was under the weather, and a warm blanket, but I managed to hop on the train to Amsterdam in time for Ferneyhough’s seminar on his flute pieces, which was organized by Joel Bons (artistic director of the Nieuw Ensemble) and Harrie Starreveld.

Harrie kicked off by playing a bit of Mnemosyne for bass flute and tape (or- and this I’d forgotten – 9 live players. I’d just love to be part of that someday!). He discussed how he learned and practiced the piece. Nowadays, you can put the notes into the computer and play them back, at all speeds. This would function as a kind of mnemonic learning device for the rhythm, but only an additional device, you would still need a click track to stay together with the tape. Ferneyhough highly recommends using a click track. Some players have tried without and not succeeded. The problem with getting out of sync with the tape is that the harmonies, which play a crucial role, will be all wrong.

Harrie played a recording of a computer realization of one bar to show how one could slow it down to learn the rhythms mnemonically

BUT…

….a computer-like rendering with literal-minded exactitude is not the point of this piece (or any of Ferneyhough’s music). Each of the three lines of the solo part has its own character. Indeed, that is one reason they are notated on separate staves. There is a play of interruptive polyphony between them. He also went on to say that his music is consideredcomplex because conservatory training in rhythm is only basic. The focus in ear training is on interval recognition, rather than rhythmic recognition.How does the human element come into play in this piece? One way: the performer is observing him/herself learn. There are the 3 textures/voices, the performer has to choose which one is primary at a given time. However, he cautioned against mere approximation: approximation is the negative side of interpretation.Harrie remarked that the end result sounds very flexible. This led Ferneyhough to remark that when you hear a performance of Beethoven, you don’t hear a reading of the score: you hear a translation of tradition. The vernacular of music is evident in Beethoven, it is not in contemporary music.

To me, personally, this is an added human element to a performance of his music. This contemporary vernacular is yet-to-be defined, and seeking it is part of the creative process. Maybe this is also what he means by the performer observing his/herself learn?

Next our student Daisuke played Cassandra’s Dream Song. One part of the opening passage was the best Ferneyhough had heard it to date. Way to go Daisuke! The opening strophe Ferneyhough described thus: the first half is “effort rhythm” then “precise rhythm”. It is a building up of energies, a somatic crescendo, then releasing. This is to engage the body from the very first moment of the piece. The flute as an extension of the body is how he thinks of this piece.

I didn’t know that the original idea was to improvise the order of the strophes during performance. However, Ferneyhough has gotten away from this idea. One has to find a way to intersect the two pages and create chains of continuity.

He touched on several of the techniques, the different vibrati/smorzato, and the section with voice. A male flutist should, ideally, sing falsetto. If not possible, you need to add the beating effect, as this passage should sound like two weaving sine waves. He is not sure if the fingering of the multiphonic with the high F# is a good one. He didn’t have an open-holed flute to work with, so was wondering if someone would come up with a better fingering.
While discussing notation at one point he said: you don’t choose notation, it chooses you.

Then a brave lady [must find out name, anyone?] played Superscriptio. This turns out to be not the first piece with irrational meters (1/10, 3/12). It was first done by Henry Cowell, then by Dieter Schnebel in the 1950’s. (See also my post on irrational meters.)

He admits that the opening page and a half is cruel. However, that is not the intention. This piece opens his entire Carceri cycle: a single instrument – high and very light. The opening section is not meant to be “musical” – rather, it is coming to terms with ways of contrapuntal thinking. Later on, the material becomes “musical”. Harrie commented that the opening is however quite melodic, like a children’s ditty. He even performed it as such for a radio broadcast.

The next section needs attention to the speed of articulated passages. They are at uncomfortable speeds, sometimes slower than expected. This is important, otherwise one can get carried away and go with the vertige, but then it ends up sounding like any other contemporary piccolo piece.

There is a famous passage in this piece with repeated C’s that are notated differently, but performed at the same speed. This is because he has several systems running simultaneously. When things like this happen, OK. Even if his system comes up with something tonal like a reference to a major triad: so be it. The performer needs to be aware when this happening, but doesn’t need to show it to the audience.

Further, he explained the meaning of the title “Superscriptio”. It’s part of an emblem (usually found in collections called emblem books). This was a 16th century form of learned entertainment – a combination of texts and images . Above the image a short motto (lemma, inscriptio [superscriptio – because it is above] ) is scratched or handwritten introducing the theme or subject, which is symbolically bodied in the picture itself (icon, pictura); the picture is then described and elucidated by an epigram ( subscriptio ) or short prose text.


Here is an example of two French emblems


This is not a complete reporting of my notes from the seminar, only some of the things I was able to jot down while also taking photos!
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Robert Dick, 22 March 2009

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Left to right: Charlotte, Johanna, Nozomi, Robert, Wan, Kanae

Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending, albeit briefly, Robert’s masterclass in Wuppertal, Germany. It was great to see him! The last time I saw him, he was walking out on a concert I gave at the BAM in New York! Not because of me though. Our group was playing very loud minimalistic music, not his (or my) cup of tea. At least I got to wear earplugs. Since then, we’ve both become parents, so we had a good exchange on the joys and difficulties of juggling children and career. We’re both “older” parents, and are on our own as far as having no near relatives or live-in help to give us a hand.

Be that as it may, I got a good dose of inspiration. He began Sunday morning chatting about singing and playing, and the importance of singing in general. There’s nothing like it to get you listening. He said that if he were to teach a beginner, he would start with singing. This resonates with what I have been thinking these years, esp. after having studied in India. There, one learns to sing or use the voice first, even in training to be a percussionist! I think we are a strange musical culture, that puts some object into a kid’s hand and says, now make music out of it! Someday, I must put my India notes on blog.
Anyhow, back to Robert.

5 of our (Harrie Starreveld’s and my) students, past and present, took part. I was very impressed with what Robert had to say about Mozart and Kuhlau. This was the first time I had heard him coach the classical and romantic repertoire; his keen musicality and vivid imagination made for very good lessons.

We did touch on learning harmonic multiphonics, in the context of Fukushima’s Mei. This applies to Berio Sequenza as well. [The 1st days of the masterclass went into extended techniques in detail – I unfortunately missed them.] When it comes to the harmonic multiphonics that are found in these two pieces, it pays to put in some serious time in studying them before learning the piece. You don’t learn the sonority in the piece, just like you don’t learn the D major scale by playing Mozart!

He described it thus: by not practicing the sonorities first and just hoping they come in the concert – it is as if you walk down to the sea and just happen to reach in the water and pick out the exact fish you wanted!

How to go about preparing harmonic multiphonics:
Practice octaves, fifths, and fourths – in that order.
With octaves, it is easiest to begin where the flute has a short tube: C2 – C3. then work your way down.
With fifths and fourths, begin where the flute is longest, low C or B and work your way up.
Suggested practice time devoted to this: 15 min each day.

The benefit of this is not only to learn these sonorities, but to make the lips fit. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. This is the practice pathway up the mountain!

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Notes from Patricia Morris, Oxford ’06

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A few posts back, I suggested the guideline “the ears are more intelligent than the lips”. Now I’m reading my masterclass notes from Patricia Morris (Oxford, 2006). I noticed one of her points: “Your lips learn from your ears”. Exactly! She put it more succinctly.

Her class on piccolo playing was full of these great ideas. Her experience with Feldenkreis made things all the more intereting. The piccolo can be hard on the body!

  • In general, try placing the piccolo higher on the lower lip than the flute, and keep it turned out.
  • Tensing your shoulders is like jumping in water and hoping you’ll swim! If you untense your shoulders, you will improve without having practiced.
  • The key to playing piccolo in the top register: increase the air speed without blowing more. You can keep the air speed fast by: 1) making the embouchure hole smaller and 2)putting more pressure behind the embouchure.
  • You don’t need to practice hours and hours on the piccolo. Thoughtful, sensible transferrence of flute technique to piccolo every day regularly instead.
  • Ascending crescendos: build sound up at bottom, then let it alone. High notes are naturally loud.
  • For low notes, you need to be able to lift the top of the lip. It helps to use the inside of the top lip, instead of having the top lip always rammed down. Don’t let bottom lip drop. To apply this to the low register: think of starting low notes from lifted upper lip.
  • Practice Moyse Tone Development through Interpretation on the piccolo.


Her recommendations about taking the repeats in the Vivaldi Concerto at auditions:
You may ask if they want the repeats. If you are shy about asking, repeat the 1st section, then immediately play the ornamented version of the 2nd half.

I wish I could attend more of her classes! Years ago I bought her Piccolo Practice Book, but gave it away. Pretty silly, but I hope whoever has it is getting a lot of use.

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