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 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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No More Tears – Breath as a Leit Motif

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For the past year, my colleagues and I have been working with a wonderful vocal coach, Martin Lindsay. His sessions are structured in a way that got me thinking. We start with light stretching and breathing exercises, just enough to activate the abdominal muscles and diaphragm. I won’t go into detail about what these exercises entail because I want to focus on the how not the what. The successful how is that these exercises become a leit motif throughout the session; we come back to them regularly, if only briefly. This is such a wonderful way to come back to basics, especially after a difficult passage where tension may have built up. For years I have been thinking of this but using it only haphazardly in my teaching and practice. Wouldn’t it make sense for all of us to use breath awareness as a leit motif on a more regular basis? Imagine how many physical and psychological injuries may be avoided!

I am reminded of a masterclass I attended some years ago given by a high profile flute teacher. The lesson started with a focused breathing session and an intelligent discussion of the breathing process. Then as the student played, she stumbled on a technical passage, over and over again. The teacher, instead of bringing her back to the relaxed and focused state she had at the beginning, continued to berate her for not being prepared. In the end, she was in tears, and I thought, what a shame! Perhaps she didn’t practice enough, but perhaps she didn’t practice well enough? Isn’t it also our job as teachers to address the issue of how to practice? Breathing awareness (whether you do actual exercises or not) should not be just an item on our checklist to be crossed off at the beginning of our session. We have to incorporate our awareness of good breathing in the literal sense of the word: to absorb it into our bodies. This will include repetition just as the development of a difficult passage, or the development of any good habit, will include repetition. To make any practice successful, whether musical, spiritual or the latest diet, it is not enough to just pay lip service. I pledge to make breathing awareness my leit motif.

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Composing Articulation for Winds – Tell Me What To Say

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Articulation

This is an imaginary passage I have composed that has annoying and confusing articulation marks.

If you are not a wind player, the fact that this is annoying may puzzle you. It’s like this: as a wind player, from the very beginning you receive strict instructions on the use of the tongue. If there is no slur mark over a note, you initiate the note with the tongue, if it is under a slur mark, you don’t. Simple as that, a digital, on – off situation. The passage above, as written, contains too many possibilities for easy reading. It involves guesswork, and that involves time. In some cases, a composer may want to leave the details of articulation up to the player, and that is fine. I enjoy 18th Century repertoire for this reason, and it is perhaps worthwhile for composers to familiarize themselves with what J. J.  Quantz has to say about the possibilities of articulation in his treatise “On Playing the Flute”.  (If for nothing else than to understand the weight of history that flutists bear.)

Time spent on interpretive decisions is interesting time. Time spent on guesswork is not.

This is the 21st Century, and when I see music that is exactly notated, I want to play it exactly and I want to know what it is I have to say, and how I should say it. Because that is what articulation is all about: how you pronounce your phrase. I want to think that the composer has put some thought into this, as I am putting some practice time into his or her piece.

And, dear composers, please don’t say about a slur: “oh, it’s just a phrase mark.” Really? I am a musician, I make phrases for a living. I don’t need to be told to make one. But I do need to know when to use my tongue and when to hold it. And please don’t just say “oh, play that legato.” It doesn’t answer my question because I can articulate legato as well as slur something legato. Which should I do?

So if I haven’t pissed you off yet and you really want to see the possibilities for articulating the above passage, here they are.

The first two staccato B-flats are probably meant to be played:

Articulation

 

but perhaps the composer meant:

Articulation

I would really like to be sure.

Now, the two E’s, the second one having a staccato, could be played:

Articulation

But did the composer mean: Articulationwell, maybe not, but how can I be sure? So I interrupt practice to contact him or her, or interrupt the rehearsal time to ask, or take time out of the rehearsal break in which I have twenty other things to get done.

Several years ago I was working intensely on solo improvisation. I kept a notebook with comments on segments I had recorded. The words “Say something, dammit!” were written in block notes at one point. When you listen to music, if it articulates nothing, it says nothing.

 

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