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: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EVN4dShaZWk.)

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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.

 

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Notating New Sounds – Rewrite?


I love it when a composer takes the flute in hand and explores its sounds while writing for flute. It shows more dedication and curiosity than just looking up techniques in a book (not to disparage the good books about writing for flute).  Sometimes, it can produce an original sound, but sometimes it re-invents the wheel. Which is fine, but the wheel may come with a new symbol and complicated instructions. I have seen this cause frustration, esp. when the instructions are lengthy and not in your language. Once you reach understanding: “ah ha, so it is ____(fill in known technique)” it may be easy to adjust to a new notation. If not, then I am faced with the question, do I spend time re-notating, or visually re-adjusting to the score? This is something I will come back to.

In no way do I wish to discourage composers from exploring flute sounds themselves. However, be aware that today there are not only books, but a rash of flutist composers out there who have spent decades thinking about how to write new sounds in ways that flutists can easily understand. So if you really want to delve into the world of new sounds, check out these composers and their written scores: (Feel free to add to this list in the comments, but please keep it to composers who use extended sounds.)

It might interest you to look at the late flute works of Karlheinz Stockhausen. Thanks to his collaborator, Kathinka Pasveer, everything is 100 % playable and extremely well notated. Xi, Flautina and Kathinka’s Gesang are several examples of pieces with well-notated techniques.

You will see that even among flutist composers there is no standardization of extended techniques. However if you study them, you get a feel for what is accepted and what the players are used to reading. So take your pick; if the player has questions, you can always refer back to the piece or composer from which you took the notation.

Now, about re-writing, or rather, re-notating. When the question comes whether to spend my time re-notating or to spend time learning a tricky or non-intuitive (for me) notation, I almost always choose to re-notate. This might be to more easily read the notation of an extended technique, microtones, or rhythm, etc. Please note this is a last-resort solution. I am already comfortable with many variations of key-click, tongue pizz, air sound, and multiphonic notations. However, when the score presents a real visual problem for me, I decide to re-notate. This has the following advantages:

  • I get to know the music really well away from the instrument
  • While practicing, I can easily and more directly process the composer’s intent (i.e. the music)
  • In concert, I feel more secure. When under pressure, there is enough extraneous sensory information and certainly there are enough extraneous emotions to deal with. If you are not playing from memory, the score is your anchor. It has to be solid.

In the olden days, copying scores was one way students learned music. There is a lot to be said for this method, but I don’t recommend subjecting 21st century ensemble players to it. Solo pieces are different matter. However, if your piece is being work-shopped along with six other pieces in the course of one day, your piece will stand out, but not in the way you hoped :)

 

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Effective Use (or not) of percussive sounds


I have already written a lot on the subject of percussive sounds, but here I would like to add a few subtleties of usage.

We will be performing Grisey’s Talea soon, and preparing the score, I am struck by how fantastic the piece is, yet how awkwardly some of the percussive effects are used. My goal is not to fault Grisey, but since there are composers who may emulate him (and why not? he was a wonderful composer!), I want to smooth the way. It seems to me Grisey and many other composers have a misconception of what these effects can actually achieve.

A tongue or lip pizzicato does not add volume to a note (especially in an ensemble context), and is never louder than an ordinario note played at the same volume. It is a misconception to think that starting a note with a pizz will intensify its initial volume. A really forceful accent with the airstream, or with the langue sorté, will do the job better. In a solo work, a pizz will give a satisfying pop, and is an effective way to vary articulation. This pop is produced by closing off the resonance of chest cavity and most of the flute tube (since there is minimal air traveling down it), and is not compensated by the meager resonance inside the mouth.There is no air stream to project the sound. This is why I am frustrated by the following passages, where if I play a true pizz, I get a lessening of volume and intensity – just the opposite of what is musically called for:

This next sample shows a similar volume difficulty with the tongue ram at the end of a crescendo on the downbeat of 26, along with the difficulty of switching quickly from closed embouchure position to open in the two bars after 26. And I have to ask, who the hell is going to hear those key clicks? This is why they fall so often into my “why bother” category of techniques. Great use of pizzicato here, though.

Why am I bothering with such small things? The musical intentions of the composer are clear, and one can easily perform the gesture with alternatives.  However, students of flute and composition are getting younger and younger. Our youth ensemble is tackling repertoire I never dreamed of when I was in my teens. They may not have the experience to immediately grasp what is needed musically. They will, at first, take the score literally, thus getting frustrated. If their teacher is also inexperienced, there will be a double frustration and the trust between composer (alive or dead) and performer damaged.

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Summer in the Back Seat


This summer has been wild. I’ve had no proper vacation, yet have had a lot of quality family time. Musically it’s been rich, but as far as teaching, I have given up my job at the Conservatory of Bremen. Although it is not a financial blow, it will make my musical life poorer indeed.

I imagine I would have time to devote to students and to build up a good studio when I reach my 60′s. However, 65 is the age of compulsory retirement in Germany (and many other countries). It’s just not fair. If I live out my given life-span, I would have about 20 good years to give and devote to my students. Although I will continue to teach privately, coach and give masterclasses, regular teaching will have to take a back seat, for now at least.

This summer has also been filled with large theater projects, where music may often take a back seat. Seen in a positive light, music becomes just one facet that makes up theatrical life. But it is astonishing how one has to often struggle in order to give the musical facet any substance. I sometimes believe that being a dead composer is the most difficult job in the world. Heaven forbid if you have taken the trouble to print specific directions for staging, costume and lighting. They will be ignored and trampled upon by future generations.

It doesn’t do to be critical though, poor J.S. Bach would likely cringe at my interpretation of his Sonatas. Life goes on.

I will finish with a contradictory thought I can’t get rid of. It seems to me that Contemporary Music is undergoing an institutionalization and a marginalization at the same time. (This is in spite of the critical acclaim that followed Stockhausen’s works at Lincoln Center and the Munich Biennale this summer. However, I stress, it wasn’t the music that drew such media attention.)

Institutionalization is likely a natural progression, it has happened to some extent with “regular” Classical Music and Jazz. By institutionalization of Contemporary Music, I refer to the number of Ensembles and Ensemble Academies that have sprung up, and the specialized Masters Degrees that are available. These are wonderful things!

just what are we broadcasting to the universe?

Marginalization is relative and less easy to define, but I can name a few trends. One is less air-time on radio. Another is academic. It is astonishing how few top contemporary players have top teaching jobs, and I mean full professorships and not just adjunct, assistant, whatever. Sophie Cherrier and Mario Caroli are wonderful exceptions. But what about Robert Dick, who is an amazing teacher? And if the trend continues, I believe that upon retirement, Harrie Starreveld will be replaced in Amsterdam with an orchestral player, not with a premiere contemporary ensemble player and soloist as he is.

Feel free to argue with me on these points, they reflect my rather limited experiences.

 

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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.

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Extended Techniques – a Do It Yourself Handout


Here is a 14 page booklet I put together on how to do the basics of some extended techniques:

  • Harmonics
  • Multiphonics
  • Singing and Playing
  • Whistle Tones
  • Percussive Effects
  • Circular Breathing
  • List of Studies for Further Practice
  • Selected Repertoire for unaccompanied flute

Here is the link. You may pass it on but please give credit where it is due. Any further suggestions are welcome.

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Contemporary Music: Where’s the Music?


Funny how memories work. I am left with the lingering conviction, no doubt untrue, that the esthetic of Arnold Schönberg and the Second Viennese School was motivated by peevishness. Not that I was there to remember, but it is the sense I got from student reading and listening to hip lecturers. (For example, I enjoyed Brand and Hailey’s “Constructive Dissonance“, despite the 2 star rating on Amazon). It probably has to do with my own peevishness, and talent for turning fantasies into mis-remembered memories.

“Not the damned Waldstein again!”

Picture a circle of super intelligent youths, coming of age in a time when well-to-do educated folks actually made music together at social gatherings. We disenfranchised musicians can look back with nostalgia on this, but the Viennese version probably got on their nerves. I can understand their thirst for something more intelligent than the harmonic language of Sunday’s salon pieces, and for something genuine, unlike the popular faux-Bohemianism of Gustav Klimt’s circle.  If you are easily irritated (peevish), such a thing can make you want to set the world on fire. And they did.

OK, that was way simplified. Better informed and better working minds than mine have pondered and written about the evolution of the Second Viennese School. My point is to look at now. The biggest question that I ask myself in my ensemble work as a “contemporary” musician is this: Where is the music?

Schönberg may have been seeking artistic and intellectual integrity in music, but I want to know WTF happened to music itself? Yes, I am peevish and here’s why: Music seems the least important aspect to almost every project we do. If it’s a theater project, the visual aspect must take precedence (and be sensational, damn the score!). If it is multi media, the technology takes precedence. If it is “purely” musical, it must be set to a theme that draws audience members in, regardless of quality. (How else do pieces like Henri Pousseur’s  La Seconde Apothéose de Rameau get programmed?)

One benefit of all this is that contemporary classical music is reaching a wider audience. But are we marketing it to death and losing sight of the search for something genuine and meaningful? When I finished my formal musical studies I had a limited number of choices. Contemporary music was one of the least remunerative, but I felt it fit my Geist, somehow. I felt I understood the drive of 20th century composers such as Schönberg and Boulez to find a new language that satisfied both the intellect and the aesthetic. (Not that I put myself on the same level as them!)

Nice weather we’re having, did you enjoy the concert?

Somehow, I feel we have lost sight of this, and I wonder if we are facing the death of contemporary music as we know it. Because as musicians, when you focus on the banalities of market theory, embrace bourgeois  Sunday salon mentality, there is a danger of ignoring  the actual music, ignoring the basic precepts of artistic integrity (be genuine, don’t compare yourself to others). These things will die if not nourished. Even if art music doesn’t immediately expire, it will suffer the indignity of being back where it started. A musical revolving door.

 Rewind, look at Schönberg’s Vienna. Salons, forced small talk, social, artistic and economic comparison of others in a bourgeois setting. I don’t want it. I want the music back.

Revolution sucks. Evolution rocks.

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Polyrthythms IV – Practicing Tempo Modulation


This is a continuation of my previous post, where I use Taffanel/Gaubert’s Exercises Journaliers no. 1 to practice polyrhythms. Check that out before trying these! It will give you the correct placement in the measure for 4:3 and 4:5, which I have not notated here.

In these exercises, the metronome stays the same but the player has to change gears. I like to use this as an articulation exercise. You can shift from single tonguing to double tonguing as the tempo changes (but the metronome doesn’t). It keeps you on your toes.

Set your metronome to a 3-beat pattern. The suggested tempo is a quarter note=45 but you can start slower if it helps. You’ll need to start on the third beat for this to come out right. I love the fact that this pattern gives you an added rest for breathing!

The following variation puts the polyrhythm first. If you are doing this as an articulation exercise, it is good to start with double tonguing and then go to single tonging. I find this shift to slower tonguing more challenging.

Here is another variation going against a 5-beat pattern. Set your metronome to reflect that, at quarter note=75 (or slower if that helps). For this to come out right, start on the second beat. (This pattern gives you an eighth note for breathing, hooray!)

And here, a variation starting with the polyrhythm.

I hope these exercises will be of some use. Please post a comment if you have questions. I have had various comments regarding the notation of these exercises. There are more detailed ways of notating them but I find the notation above gets the concept across. In the end, you don’t need the notes to perform the exercises. My goal in this was to use melodic material to develop a sense of rhythmic phrasing.

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Polyrhythm III Exercise with Taffanel/Gaubert


Here is the third of my posts on rhythm. You can read the first post here and the second here. I wouldn’t proceed here unless you can perform the exercises of these previous posts.

What I like about using Taffanel/Gaubert no. 1 from Exercices Journaliers is that it is a melodic study. In my first post, I emphasize the need for rhythmical phrasing, and the goal of playing rhythmically and not mechanically. One way of developing this, I think, is to develop your own strong, steady sense of pulse. This is something different from practicing with a metronome. If you test and develop your sense of pulse against the metronome’s ticking, it will grow stronger.

If you take the basic 4-beat pattern of TG no. 1 and set your metronome to a 3-beat pattern at tempo 45, it could fit together like this:

And if you take the basic 4-beat pattern and set your metronome to a 5-beat pattern at tempo 75, it could fit together like this:

You may have noticed that in both examples the 16ths are the same speed, only the metronome setting is different.

An interesting way to practice Taffanel Gaubert nos. 1 and 2 is to first play with the metronome at a quarter note = 120. Play a number of patterns until you feel comfortable with the speed, then continue but change the metronome to a quarter note = 45 and play the 4:3 pattern. When you feel comfortable with that, change the metronome to a quarter note = 75 and play the 4:5 pattern.
This is a wonderful way of practicing groove!

In my next post, I will use these same sort of exercises to practice tempo modulation.

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