Preparation for Expression

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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:


Atonal Intonation in Light of Berio’s Sequenzas

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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.



A Slap in the Face of Public Taste: Russian Futurist Manifesto of 1912

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Arthur Lourié, one of the leading Futurist composers.

On December 29, 2012, the Pushkinskaya 10 GEZ 21 in St. Petersburg celebrated 100 years of Russian Futurism.The concert, featuring Sergei Oskolkov performing piano works by Arthur Lourié, piqued my interest in this movement. Since I didn’t find an online translation of this movement’s 1912 manifesto that convinced me, here is my own. Many, many thanks to my husband, who helped me. How this all relates to my own experiences will be part of another post. I’ve pasted the original Russian below.

A Slap in the Face of Public Taste
To our readers – an Unprecedented Unexpected First.
We alone are the face of our Time. The horn of time is trumpeting through our lingual arts.
The past constricts us. Academia and Pushkin make less sense than hieroglyphics. Dump Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, etc., etc. overboard the ship of Modernity.
Those who don’t forget their first love won’t recognize their last.
Who would trustingly turn their last love to Balmont’s perfumed lechery? Does it reflect the vigorous spirit of today?
What coward would fear to tear the paper armor from the warrior Bryusov’s black tuxedo? Or does it shine with unknown beauties?
Wash your hands that have touched the filthy slime of books written by countless Leonid Andreyevs.
All those Maxim Gorkys, Kuprins, Bloks, Sologubs, Remisovs, Averchenkos, Chornys, Kuzmins, Bunins, etc. need only a dacha on the river. Thus fate rewards tailors.
From the heights of skyscrapers we look down on their sorry asses!
We order the reverence of poets’ rights:
  1. To enlarge the scope of the poet’s vocabulary with fabricated and derivative words. (word-novelty)
  2. To insurmountable hatred for the language existing before their time
  3. To wrench with horror from their proud brows the Wreath of cheap fame you have made from bathhouse switches
  4. To stand on the rock of the word “we” amidst seas of boos and outrage.
And if your filthy stigmas of “common sense” and “good taste” are still present in our verses, they nevertheless glimmer with the first heat-flashes of the Newly Approaching Beauty of the Word – sufficient and valuable unto itself.


Пощёчина общественному вкусу

Читающим наше Новое Первое Неожиданное.
Только мы — лицо нашего Времени. Рог времени трубит нами в словесном искусстве.
Прошлое тесно. Академия и Пушкин непонятнее гиероглифов. Бросить Пушкина, Достоевского, Толстого и проч. и проч. с парохода Современности.
Кто не забудет своей первой любви, не узнает последней.
Кто же, доверчивый, обратит последнюю Любовь к парфюмерному блуду Бальмонта? В ней ли отражение мужественной души сегодняшнего дня? Кто же, трусливый, устрашится стащить бумажные латы с чёрного фрака воина Брюсова? Или на них зори неведомых красот?
Вымойте ваши руки, прикасавшиеся к грязной слизи книг, написанных этими бесчисленными Леонидами Андреевыми
Всем этим Максимам Горьким, Куприным, Блокам, Сологубам, Аверченко, Чёрным, Кузминым, Буниным и проч. и проч. — нужна лишь дача на реке. Такую награду даёт судьба портным.
С высоты небоскрёбов мы взираем на их ничтожество!
Мы приказываем чтить права поэтов:
1. На увеличение словаря  в  е г о  о б ъ ё м е  произвольными и производными словами (Слово-новшество).
2. На непреодолимую ненависть к существовавшему до них языку.
3. С ужасом отстранять от гордого чела своего из банных веников сделанный вами Венок грошовой славы.
4. Стоять на глыбе слова «мы» среди моря свиста и негодования.
И если пока ещё и в наших строках остались грязные клейма ваших «здравого смысла» и «хорошего вкуса», то всё же на них уже трепещут впервые зарницы Новой Грядущей Красоты Самоценного (самовитого) Слова.