Berio Sequenza, some musings and links

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Several days until I record the Berio Sequenza no. 1. This winter break has been very stressful. I was with my family in St. Petersburg. Family can be stressful, my son is at a difficult age, I myself am at a difficult age. Russia is stressful. It was so cold that it has taken my skin and lips days to recover. But now back in the saddle of my bicycle in the temperate zone of Northwestern Europe, I have hit my stride.

I am allowing myself a luxury. Next week there are plenty of pieces to prepare, old and new, but I decided to forget about them and devote my practice time to concentrate on Berio.

The main reason is that my body feels soooo much better when I keep my practice time to only a few hours a day. This is how I want to feel during the recording. So I warm up, play Bach for sound, articulation, style and focus. (Watch Pahud’s video:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yUxY7tagf0g where he gives his ideas on playing with focus. I practice like this with either one or two movements of Bach. I don’t recommend learning new pieces like this, but with pieces you know well, it is a great lesson.) Then Berio. Then for the rest of the day I do my Helen stuff, read, hang out with family, watch dumb and smart stuff on Youtube, study Jazz. This is luxury, as I have said. No rehearsals or teaching this early in the year.

This time around I thought I would re-visit Gazzeloni’s recording. Just because. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4SVeJhagG1I)

It reminds me of a conversation I had with Camilla Hoitenga about new scores and recordings. You receive a new score along with a recording by the person for whom the piece was written. So you dutifully sit with the score and listen, but so much doesn’t correspond. So how do you prepare, follow the score or the recorded performance? You assume the player worked closely with the composer, and the composer is happy with the recording otherwise s/he wouldn’t have sent it to you. Even though I am sure I have been that player/dedicatee, I still don’t have an algorithm to navigate this situation.

Since Gazzeloni’s recording is very much of its own time, I doesn’t spin me into a crisis. I find it very revealing though. I won’t end up following his tempi, but there are quite a few turns of phrasing that inspire me to think differently.

About the tempo. I was talking to another local flutist who had worked with Berio on the Sequenza. He told me Berio complained that most players “play it too f(*&^ing fast!”. Well, I have news for you, Sr. Berio. You wrote it too f(*&^ing fast. Funny that the new edition doesn’t even adjust the metronome marking.

I have also enjoyed watching Paula Robison speak on the subject. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=irY1kHq_F3g) In the last section, she points out possibilities that Berio allows (one namely being a slower tempo). I was also interested to hear about how she connects the Sequenza to the works of Samuel Beckett. Through Berio’s electronic piece, Thema (Omaggio a Joyce), I was aware of the James Joyce connection, and Beckett does make sense. Through playing Rebecca Saunders music, I am quite familiar with some of Becketts’ texts. So another inspiration has surfaced 🙂

One big influence on Berio that I think really should be mentioned is that of the musicians around him, namely, his wife at the time, Cathy Berberian, for whom he wrote the third Sequenza.  Her theatricality, her agility, never cease to inspire me. Only recently did I come to know she composed herself. Here is an example of her graphic score, Stripsody (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XHUQFGhXHCw).

I love her recording of the vocal Sequenza too, but I just came across a recent recording of the Sequenza no. 3 for voice by a young singer, Laura Catrani that fascinates me. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E0TTd2roL6s). I can’t aspire to this type of recording, but it does give me food for thought.

imagesI am unashamedly playing from the old edition. Being a creature born myself in mid-20th century, I am hoping the good people of Universal Edition will forgive me. The old version has been in my memory for about 20 years now. But I do own the new addition, and am finding it more useful than ever this time around to answer questions about timing. For an interesting discussion of the two versions you can read Berio’s Sequenzas: Essays on Performance, Composition and Analysis, Chapter one by Cynthia Folio and Alexander Brinkman.

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Atonal Intonation in Light of Berio’s Sequenzas

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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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Writing Harmonics for Flute – when is a harmonic not a harmonic?

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Harmonics are great! I love playing them, but I want to mention several common mistakes composers make when using them for flute. Here is the most prevalent – writing harmonics that are too low:

The same is true for piccolo too.

Another issue,  I will call it a misuse rather than a mistake, is writing quiet harmonics in the upper half of the 3rd octave up to the 4th octave. I suspect when composers write high quiet harmonics, they are imagining a sort of color that a violin harmonic can produce in that register: thin, ethereal, a bit breathy, maybe just slightly (and only slightly) out-of-tune. Or perhaps they might believe that a high quiet harmonic is easier to produce than a high quiet regular note. Well, folks, it doesn’t work like that. To get the upper partials on a flute, you have to blow like hell if you want to produce notes with more than 4 ledger lines above the staff. (Someday I will make a funny video on the subject for your amusement.)

Now if you have done this as a composer, you are in good company. Berio did it in the Sequenza. Generations of flutists have tossed around different solutions, alternate fingerings, whistle tones, anything to avoid playing a real harmonic fingering!

Wolfgang Rihm has done this too. Here are two examples from Nach-Schrift. Once again, the Bb. The D proceeding it works well as a G harmonic.

The following G# harmonic is borderline because it starts loudly, then one can change to the normal fingering. The G after that is also borderline.  You can see that my predecessor overblew it as a C, but for me that would be too flat.

If you have read this far in order to get a hard-and-fast rule, I must disappoint you.  I think the 4-ledger-line rule (as seen in the high G above) is a good guideline for my abilities, but there might be other opinions out there. Just please be aware that very high, quiet harmonics on the flute can not match the delicacy of a violin. An experienced player can indeed match such a sound, but will do so not by overblowing a resistant lower partial, but by using a fingering that adds ventilation and reduces resistance.

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