Tempo and Rhythm in Cassandra’s Dream Song


In previous posts on Ferneyhough’s music, I describe my approach to his complex rhythms. It is worth noting again that his music is not pulse based; rather, the measure is considered a “domain of a certain energy quotient”.

In Cassandra’s Dream Song we are presented with freedom from measures, time signatures, or metronome markings. The Italian indications often refer to character more than actual speed: lento analitico, grazioso e rubato, molto rigoroso. So how fast do we play it? I can give no answers, but hopefully my ideas can give a clue as to what may work for you.

If you carefully sketch the rhythm of a passage, the spatial relationships become apparent. Here is a very old sketch I did of line 6. I attempted to make measures out of the gestures – an idea I later abandoned in favor of pure spatiality:

Rhythmic sketch line 6

Old rhythmic sketch line 6

Personally, I find this line is often performed too fast. I am guilty of this as well. Who doesn’t get excited by those closely-written, many-beamed tuplets at the end? But if you look carefully, I believe there is a compositional reason for those multi-beams. The beginning of the line has a sort of quarter-note feel to it. Under the first heavy arrow (indicating ritardando),  the eigth-note becomes the rhythmical basis of movement (see, I try to avoid the word “pulse”, but maybe I am being too pedantic). By the A-natural things have slowed way down: lento molto con forza! (Composer’s exclamation point). That is one very long note, relatively speaking. By this time, like a compositional microscope, the rhythmical basis has magnified to the level of the 16th note. And then there is another ritardando! (The heavy arrow). It is as if we are being drawn even further through the lens of this microscope, experiencing progressively smaller units of the beat as time proceeds. Finally, we come down to the “atomic” level of the piece. It is an amazing ending.

After analyzing several lines like this, I abandoned the idea of imposing measures and transferred  the sketches to graph paper in order to see the accuracy of spacing as clearly as possible. Here is an example of line 4:

Ferneyhough_B

Rhythmic graph line 4

 

I did all this work not only to have a chance of playing the rhythms accurately, but as a crucial step in deciding: how fast? You have to find which notes are really the fastest (sometimes not the ones that look the fastest), and go from there. How fast you play will be an individual decision. I am not convinced there is a global metronome marking that works for the entire piece, but maybe someone else has another opinion. I do think the flow should be consistent within an individual line – with close attention if there are indications of change.

In this entry, I present these sketches so that if you are interested in the piece, you can have a go at it yourself. The rest of the sketches are too large and lightly written to scan well. Please don’t ask me to scan or photograph the rest and post them (and not every line has been analyzed). However, I am happy to show them in person.

 

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Tips for Complex Rhythms à la Ferneyhough’s Superscriptio


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?

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Seminar with Brian Ferneyhough 25 March, 2009


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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