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:

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.


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

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.

The Radiant, Gradient Way: Color Practice

No one can watch the inside of your mouth when you play the flute, thank goodness. However, when talking to students about color changes, an X-Ray machine might come in handy. You could demonstrate how the position of the tongue, the jaw, and so many things come into play when you change the sound of the flute from loud to soft, harsh to light, bright to dark. Using such words is usually the best we can do when trying to describe musical timbres. That can be tricky though, one flutist’s dark can be another’s bright. Words are not always sufficient.

Thank goodness for imagery. Here is a collection of ideas to help stimulate the aural imagination. I was inspired by Photo Shop’s gradient tool to make the following images.

Let’s take one note and see what kind of spectrum can be produced. I chose B natural because it is the Moyse thing to do, but choose a note that is good for you. The purpose is to take a full breath, play a single note while going from one aural extreme to another. What happens in the middle can be quite interesting, I find. You can also practice these exercises backwards.

Some people work well with color imagery, so an exercise like this might work:
Another exercise could be to imagine a trumpet-like sound, then go to the extreme of complete air noise. I thank Harrie Starreveld for this suggestion.

You can also consciously control the position of your tongue by producing different vowel sounds. For example thinking a deep, open O sound, to a rather closed I (think of the word “eye”). I spelled it “aye” in the example. In preparation for this, I like to sing the exercise first to get a feel for how the tongue moves and how it changes the harmonic components of the sound.

Peter Lukas Graf also has an interesting approach. He describes different categories of sounds starting with those that are rich in overtones, think of the opening of the second movement of Cesar Franck’s Sonata in A, to those that are poor in overtones, think of the opening of Debussy’s L’Apres Midi. Of course it is a simplification, the music of Franck and Debussy require a variety of colors, but these are the associations that stick. If such imagery is useful, here is an illustration:

Any other ideas?

Bring in the Clones

Read an interview by almost any famous flute teacher today from our Western culture and you will notice they share similar ideals. The development of a student’s individuality is given high priority. Their students are encouraged to find their own musical identities; they don’t want clones or sound-alikes.

Nor do I. But what I’m about to say will at first seem like a contradiction. I am aware that I am in a different position than the stellar players and teachers of our time. I don’t have a bunch of sycophants and wannabees trailing in my wake. Therefore, I can enjoy a bit of skepticism in the face of this idealistic individualism.

Peter Lloyd, with whom I studied for 4 years, shared this ideal, and took it to an extreme. Even when he was still playing (as he was when I studied with him 1988 – 1992), he would not play for us in lessons. He didn’t want us sounding like him. I asked him why not, since we came out of our lessons talking like him (joking, of course. He has a great posh accent.) His reply: “Good, you’re finally learning to speak properly!” This humor as well as his patience saved me, nurturing and bringing back to life what was left of me after my dismal undergraduate years. I have much thank him for. However, since I was so good at hiding my real problems, my playing still left much to be desired when I left Indiana. And I still didn’t have a clue who I was as a musician. I was too confused to even have a clear ideal of sound, I wanted to sound French, but with American verve, and English full-bodiedness. One thing was clear, I was sure I could find it by following the Contemporary Music path, not the Early Music or orchestral path. Perhaps I sympathized with late 20th century Modernism; it was striving to find itself as much as I was.

Harrie Starreveld

That path led to Amsterdam, where I studied flute with  Harrie Starreveld and classical South Indian music with Rafael Reina and Jahnavi Jayaprakash. Harrie does not have any particular philosophy regarding playing in lessons, but most of what I learned came from listening to him and playing with him, often in an apprentice-type situation with the Nieuw Ensemble. That is what it took for me. No one would even say that I sound at all like Harrie: I don’t, but I cannot stress how much this experience helped me to find my voice.

Four years after my studies with Harrie I went to India for two and a half weeks to work with Jahnavi Jayaprakash privately in Bangalore, and the scales seemed to fall from my eyes. I wondered if our Western musical education was not entirely bass-ackwards. Everything we learn seems to be from the top down, instead of the bottom up. In India, the idea that you can learn music by verbal explanation only and hope to develop a musical spirit in a vacuum of abstract ideas is ludicrous. That one can study without the rote learning which frees one technically and enables inspiration to soar – also ridiculous!

But rote learning is BAD, a well-known European flute teacher told me recently. I’m tending to disagree. Rote learning without any understanding at all is bad, but I think we tend to throw the baby out with the bath water.

Jahnavi Jayaprakash

Indian classical music education does not eschew the technical, analytical or theoretical, but as I understand, it comes when one has already mastered one’s voice or instrument. My teacher Jahnavi had her Doctorate from an Indian University in music and could explain the intricacies of each nuance of a Raga for Westerners like me. But that was not how she normally taught. Mastering music means learning the language of music and all its subtleties not only through the intellect, but through the ear and the heart, by method of imitation. It is a somatic as well as an intellectual process. The great diversity among South Indian flute players is a living testament to individuality despite the massive rote learning and imitative method of their studies.

This is not a “grass is greener” essay. I don’t think if I had learned the Indian way from the beginning it would have completely solved all my problems. I do enjoy analysis, and was good at theory, and was glad to learn it young. But I do wish I had had someone to sonically follow in my earliest years.

Teacher: “Could you play that more legato?”

Me, saying: “Oh, OK.”

Me, thinking: “huh, how? Wasn’t that legato?”

Having someone to just play for me might have avoided crisis and saved me a lot of time, but maybe I was destined to have such a long and hurdle-ridden path. For many young players today this from-the-top-down musical education is less of a problem, thanks to the proliferation of Suzuki teachers. I am speaking only on behalf of those like myself, who come from the traditional marching- or wind-band school education.

I do not want my students to slavishly follow me, and I certainly don’t wish my bad habits on them. However, I do play for them whenever possible, and expect them to strive to my standards, and higher. There is of course the danger that my students might superficially sound like me, but I am fully convinced they will get over it.

photo credits:
Dolly: Stephen Ferry/Getty Images
Harrie Starreveld and Jahnavi Jayaprakash, unknown

Contemporary Music : Express!

Classical Contemporary Music which is abstract, atonal or just plain impenetrable may demand something beyond the traditional idea of instrumantal expression we are taught as flutists (the use of vibrato, tonal colors, dynamics and so on). Here are some random tips on how to tap into other sources for musical ideas.

Studying works that are outside the tradition of virtuosity can help you to focus on producing expression and dramatic impact. Extreme minimalist music or graphically notated music, for example, is divorced from ideas of technical wizardry; therefore one has to concentrate on aspects of timing, bodily movement, manner of breathing, and concentration. The difficulty is to find a way of generating intensity and maintaining interest throughout a work that may be nothing but a series of bizarre noises. Some examples of this type of music are certain works by John Cage (solos from Song Books, the flute part to Concert for Piano, which can be played as a solo or in conjunction with other works by Cage), Earle Brown (December 1958) or Cornelius Cardew (Treatise). Finding expressive solutions to these scores is a good exercise for stretching your musical imagination. Having travelled to this strange land of extremes can give you great perspective upon return.

To capture the particular expressive and dramatic style of the composer, I often rely on a practice idea that I picked up from Robert Dick: Play a passage of the piece you are working on, then turn the music away from you and improvise a passage in the same style, using the same range, dynamic inflections, length of phrases, etc. Once you’ve put yourself through this creative process, go back to the written passage. I always find something fresh to consider – perhaps a new inflection, a different color progression, or maybe a new sense of rhythmic clarity.

When searching for expressive solutions, the world of the visual arts can sometimes provide interesting insights. Here is one example of how visits to museums helped me to solve an expressive problem: While working on the Berio Sequenza from memory I started to wonder, what does one actually do with the mind while performing? Some performers may have a photographic memory and are able to visualize the score during performance. Not having this ability, I needed something to focus on, to keep my visual area from being distracted by the audience. (Playing with your eyes closed is not a good option when trying to communicate).

I do see this as a problem of expression: from the point of stage choreography, playing solos from memory is a challenge for flutists. Pianists are in profile, violinists are also a bit angled so their f-holes are facing the audience. Even clarinetists can pretend to look down at their fingers. And unlike singers, we do not have total facial freedom, nor can we hide behind a mask of facial expression (the bottom half of our face being otherwise engaged). We also do not have the words to carry the expression. Since we face the audience directly, we need a special courage and a strong method of focus. Of course, you can focus on the “exit” sign at the back of the hall, but still, what are you doing with your mind? I don’t want to be thinking of the “exit” sign!

One tells children to “think up a story” as an aid to performance. However, that hardly seemed appropriate for a work such as the Sequenza, and could prove even more distracting than the audience. What helped in the end was to allow abstract images to form on their own, inspired and dependent on the sounds I produced during performance. This allowed me to concentrate on the actual sounds I was producing and not be distracted by any preconceived, representational, artificially imposed images or thoughts.

These images that I formed were inspired by visits to the Stedelijk and Van Gogh museums in Amsterdam, where I was living at the time. I was also able to think of a color scheme and progression that helped me through the opening of Franco Donatoni’s Midi, which can otherwise seem like a salad of endless noodles.

In yoga, the focus of your eyes is called drishti. Sometimes it is straight ahead, sometimes the tip of your nose, sometimes your belly button (not recommended for flutists!). Do whatever it takes to develop your own drishti. Be relaxed in the focus of your eyes, this will help you to concentrate.

Sounds of Silence

When a composer includes silence in a solo work, it cannot tossed off as a neutral medium for spacing out notes or phrases. One has to ask, is the silence an arrested motion, or is it a mere suspension of action? Determining the type of silence one wants to create is crucial.

This is why I often think of silence in as colorfully characteristic terms as possible:

  • the very tense, pregnant “Japanese” silence, a sumo wrestler poised for the lunge
  • the brief, contemplative silence that can fall between a “question” phrase and its “answer”
  • a peaceful, empty silence
  • the silence that covers “hidden action”, as a stream disappearing beneath the earth, only to resurface elsewhere
  • the conscious, present silence, in which the music stops and one expressly becomes aware of extraneous noises

The possibilities are numerous.

Another interesting interpretation of silence is to see it as YOUR turn now to listen to the audience. I read about this but can’t remember to whom this idea should be credited!

The type of silence you create will be determined not only by how you move, or how still you are, but how you breathe during the silence. It is interesting to see how Heinz Hollinger composed silences in his solo flute piece (t)aire(e) with specific durations and written directions such as “hold breath as long as possible”, “inhale slowly”, and “inhale imperceptibly”.

This kind of choreography plays an important role in interpretation, and not only during the silent parts! Allow me to make a negative example: Peter Lloyd likes to tell of a student of his who played the Berio Sequenza beautifully. However, the constant languid, swaying movements of the student distracted him, especially since such movements are appropriate only momentarily (if at all) in the Sequenza. This is an important lesson. While you are busy giving an audience a well thought out interpretation, make sure your body does not betray you by telling a conflicting story!