Electronic Music, Tape vs. Live Electronics, Click Tracks. Q and A

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[Taken with permission from an interview with Cássia Carrascoza Bomfim, in preparation for her doctoral dissertation]

Do you feel a lot of difference between playing works with a pre-recorded tape and computer processing in real time (Max/msp)?

Both ways present various issues of playing with a microphone. With a tape piece, I am concerned that the live sound mixes with the electronics. With computer processing, I have the additional concern to make sure I play in a way that my signal will be processed, which sometimes compromises variation in dynamics and articulation. For example while playing Nono’s Risonanze erranti with Musikfabrik, there is a measure where the piccolo is marked ppppp. However, if I play that dynamic as written, the signalisation will not register. If one has a standing microphone, then it is possible to play around with the distance between you and the microphone, but if you have a clip or contact microphone, this is not possible.
A pre-recorded tape piece may have the advantage of technological simplicity, and if it is well conceived, then it provides either freedom to allow asynchronicity or good cues (acoustic as well as notated) that facilitate synchronicity, and does not constrain the performer in terms of sound color and dynamic. A great fun, technologically simple piece I have played is David Dramm’s Thrash and Variations for Flute and Boom Box, where I just walk on stage with a portable CD player, and off I go! With real time processing, I feel artistically more free in terms of spontaneity of tempo, but have more worries because there are more things that can go wrong, i.e. program crash, more cables that can be defective, midi cables or an interface that can be defective. I don’t do the electronics myself and rely completely on my technician partner. So yes, I do feel differences.

In relation to your feelings of time and tempo, could you point out the differences between the two genres?

This is very dependant on the piece. Of course, there are tape pieces that offer you absolutely no freedom in terms of time, and in some cases I welcome a click track to help the coordination. There are some bars of Michel van der Aa‘s Rekindle that were challenging for me. This wonderful piece is cleverly done so you don’t generally need a click track, but there were a few bars at the end where there the flutist is only playing long notes and there is nothing going on in the tape part to give you a sense of pulse, so you really have to rely on your inner metronome to stay together. A piece like Stockhausen’s Paradies has an unmovable and inflexible tape part, but a click track is unnecessary because much freedom is given to the performer in terms of the tempo. (There is theoretically also freedom with the dynamics, but since the tape does not offer dynamic differences, the player is rarely given an opportunity to play really softly.)
With live processing pieces, there is sometimes freedom of timing, sometimes not. For example, Saariaho’s Noa Noa gives the performer, by means of a foot pedal, the means to choose timing. However, the samples and effects that are triggered have their own programmed time, so if you rush, the sample or effect will not play out, or if you are too slow, there is an unmusical gap. (This piece may also be played without foot pedal, with the sound engineer following the score and triggering the samples.)

Premiere of Ole Hübner's "this place"

Premiere of Ole Hübner’s “this place”

Could you tell more about your experiences with click tracks?

With ensemble pieces, we often discuss if we should all have a click track or just the conductor (or if chamber music, just one of us). Not everybody translates the pulse of the click the same, some play more on the beat, others after, and we always argue about what kind of sound we should have for the first beat of the measure (high, low?) because depending on the tessatura of your instrument, it could make a big difference. So sometimes it’s more satisfying to play as chamber music, without a click track. A click also has to be well done and have helpful cues to alert us that we are coming up to a tutti or a new section or tempo change. Another issue is the division of the beat, or whether a beat is subdivided or not. We once played a piece that required a click track, but the click was extremely unhelpful because for the tutti sections, all divisions, even 32nd note triplets, were clicked! Such minutae is annoying rather than helpful since with a flurry of clicks, you can actually lose the sense of pulse. In general, it really depends on the individual piece and the quality of the click track, whether we decide to all have a click or follow someone with the click.
As a soloist I am happy to play with a click if it really helps. Recently I premiered Ole Hübner’s this place for solo bass flute, several layers of video and audio together (watch on YouTube here). When playing a coordinated sound track, a click is extremely helpful. The question for us was from where to run the click track, to send it from the computer to my headphones via cable, wireless, or for me to play it from my own device? For simplicity’s sake, I played it from my own device, just giving a cue for the start so my click and the recordings would be together. This can be risky though, if the starting cue is not together.

With real time processing there are other factors to consider when using a click track. Sometimes there is a latency of the signal processing. Then I hope the effects and the acoustics hide any imperfections of synchronicity.

If you are lucky, you get the click track in time to practice with it, especially if there are these sort of compensations that have to be made. In our experience, if you have a click track, it is really important to practice with it and not spontaneously rely on it in concert.

Do you think as rule, that you are more free (in the time sense) playing with processing in real time than with a pre-recorded tape?

For me the only time I feel completely free from questions of time is during improvisation. This can be a lot of fun with live electronics, but also effective with tape as in the last movement of Nono’s Das Atmende Klarsein. Whether I feel free depends more on the composition and the composer’s conception (and notation) of time than the technology itself.

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Tongue Trippin’ in Munich 3 – a Quetzalcoatlus Dances

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Rehearsal photo of Zungenspitzentanz from Luzifers Tanz. Photo A. Ackermann

When you perform a theatrical piece like Stockhausen’s Zungenspitzentanz for the first time, you may have that need of, just, please, one more rehearsal, one more run-through, just so I don’t mess this up!  Immediately after that first performance you may still want to ask: Could I just try that again? Now?

At least that was how it was with me. I have performed this piece before, but this was the first time with orchestra and conductor – an entirely different animal, I can assure you. The afternoon before the first performance I lay in my hotel room in complete disbelief and denial that tonight was the night. Perhaps because it took so much force to pull myself together, I managed to keep myself together.

I want to mention a few things that helped me to manage and keep my nerve during this project.

One was filming myself daily. This may sound strange, but watching myself helped me get used to the idea that this is what people see when they look at me. It doesn’t mean that I liked what I saw, I am super critical when it comes to myself. However, watching seemed to de-mystify things. I know my brow-ridge looks too harsh and Neanderthal-like from a certain angle, I know that this move shows the tendons in my neck like a turkey, and so on. For me it was less about accepting and loving yourself, as the self-help books say, and more about getting used to yourself and getting over yourself. I seem to remember a Zen saying that goes something like: “To know yourself is to forget yourself”.

Something else that helped was balance exercises. Several years ago I discovered this while taking a yoga class. If I can do balance poses, in a class or at home, and really focus on them, I find I am less distracted by nerves. Good balance gives you physical confidence. There is probably some scientific literature out there on the subject, someday I will research it. This leads me to my next item:

The Quetzalcoatlus effect. My musical preparations have been accompanied by intensive research into Mesozoic reptiles and dinosaurs. My son demands a story about them daily, and the more he learns, the more he wants to hear about them. So after watching this 10 minute video about Pterosaurs and their incredible brains wired for flight, quick maneuvering and, again, balance, I faced my relatively meager human abilities. But we have better instincts that we realize, if we can get out of their way. When I started to feel uptight during this project, I would think of the Quetzalcoatlus, ungainly on the ground, huge as a giraffe, weighing hundreds of pounds. Yet that sucker could fly!

With flutist Natalie Schwaabe after the concert.

So to recap the two performances in Munich: During the first one, it took me about three minutes to settle in, but I think considering my mental state it went very well. For the second one, I was much more relaxed and focused, but the conductor went much faster! Nontuplets at a quarter-note = 80 are challenging enough, but it felt like he was approaching 90 that evening, so there was less accuracy to be sure.  The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra was great! To top that off, they were all so nice! Nor was I the only soloist that evening: Michael Leibundgut sang Luzifer and Marco Blaauw rocked on the trumpet. Both were an inspiration and a pleasure to hear.

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Tongue Trippen’ in Munich 2

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If I were to write my memoirs,  I would refer to this summer as the Siberian Summer. It is astonishingly cold here in Munich; however, our tiny hotel room accommodates us well, and we keep each other warm. On stage, with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra,  the spotlights blaze and the astonishing playing,  especially from the brass section, generates its own heat.

My first rehearsal was a sectional with groups 9 and 10 from Stockhausen’s Luzifers Tanz – piccolo, euphoniums, tubas, synthesizer and percussion. I had expected it to be a disaster as far as playing together goes, and so it was. We had no staging rehearsals, nor purely musical ones, so everything had to be put together on the spot. How was I to turn around in circles and stay with the conductor, especially in the sections with ritardandi and fermati? Monitors were also not realistic. I made some comprimises by not going full circle for at least one of the sections. We also spent a bit of time puzzling over a tempo discrepency in bar 933 between the full score and the solo and chamber music versions. Along with Kathinka, we decided that the solo version of the tempo was correct.

The next rehearsal was with full brass and percussion. When I say full, I do mean full! I never thought I would need amplification while playing piccolo,  but I am now very grateful.

The first tutti rehearsal went better than I expected.  I have come to terms with the fact that we will not achieve 100 % ensemble togetherness (that would require an additional rehearsal phase), so I focus on sounding as good as possible and making the movements as well as possible.

Will write more,  probably when I have my laptop again.  This thumb typing drives me nuts!

Brass and percussion for Zungenzpspitzentanz

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