Tips for Complex Rhythms à la Ferneyhough’s Superscriptio

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Below is some advice for works by composers (such as Brian Ferneyhough) who use complex rhythms not based on pulse-centered activity. I spoke with Mr. Ferneyhough about this subject and he was very clear that in his music, the measure is a “domain of a certain energy quotient” not related to a pulse.

In other words, a measure can be interpreted as an “area of activity”. The level of activity can easily be reckoned using the starting tempo. From there we can calculate the length of any measure or individual note through simple mathematics.

So if the rhythm cannot be felt as a pulse, one can at least memorize the speed in which it is supposed to happen. Surprisingly, it’s sometimes much slower than one thinks!

Ferneyhough’s Superscriptio for solo piccolo is a good example. The basic tempo is an eighth-note at 56. This means a whole note in 4/4 equals 7, because there are 8 eighth notes in a 4/4 bar, and 8 divided by 56 = 7.

From this number 7 you can deduce all the “odd” time signatures that are not based on divisions of the eighth note. An eighth note quintuplet (or a “1/10” bar) will equal 70 because there are 10 quintuplets in a 4/4 bar (7 x 10 = 70). To find the length of a 3/10 bar you would divide 70 by 3. If you have a 5/10 bar you would divide 70 by 5. An eighth note triplet (or a “1/12” bar) will equal 84 because there are 12 triplets in a 4/4 bar (7 x 12 = 84). To find the length of a 3/12 bar you would divide 84 by 3, and to find the length of a 5/12 bar you would divide 84 by 5.

What if the compound rhythms are stacked on top of each other, as in Ferneyhough’s other works? This is an imaginary example:
Let’s imagine as in Superscriptio the starting tempo is an eighth-note at 56. The last six 16ths (at the end of the bar) roughly equal two 16th-note triplets at 64. The nine 32nds under the 9:5 are roughly equal to three sets of 32nd triplets going at 116.

It could have been notated thus (among other possibilities):

Here’s the math:
From above we know that a 1/10 bar equals 70.
A 4/10 bar will equal 17.5 (70 divided by 4 = 17.5).
Each 11-tuplet will be 192.5 (17.5 x 11 = 192.5).
There are 6 of these 11-tuplets at the end. If we think of them as two 16th-note triplets, divide 192.5 by 3 = ca. 64

5 of those 11-tuplets equals 38.5 (192.5 divided by 5 = 38.5).
In the 9:5, if you think of the 9-tuplets as 3 sets of 32nd triplets, those triplets go at ca. 116 (38.5 x 3 = 115.5)

A click track will ensure accuracy without a doubt. However, if you opt for another approach, try the following: memorize the speed of each bar by practicing related bars together. Keeping Superscriptio as an example, you can practice all the bars based on “1/12” while keeping the metronome at tempo 84. (Yes, you will be jumping from measure to measure, or page to page.) Then do the same for all the “1/10” bars, then “1/8” etc. You are not trying to achieve musical continuity yet, this is just an exercise to help relate all the bars with this tempo, and to keep them consistent. When you finally put the piece together, your “internal conductor” will hopefully have a kinesthetic memory of the pulse of each measure and make the tempo changes accordingly.

Also see my post Seminar with Brian Ferneyhough.
Other thoughts?


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.