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Aperghis contemporary music improvisation memorization pet peeves

Postlude to a Premiere

This is more of a public diary entry and notes-to-self than any sort of attempt to give tips or tools. Also, I attempt to sort out my thoughts of how things have changed in Darmstadt since the late 90s.

It’s been a few days since I premiered Georges Aperghis’ fascinating and wonderful The Dong with the Luminous Nose, and I am tired of mental postmortem self-criticisms that keep bubbling up into my consciousness. I need head-space for my next projects!

This piece really should be played from memory. The fact that my main achievement of the evening is I didn’t f-up the page turns with my page flipper is a testimony to that. And that the batteries didn’t run out. The list of why I didn’t play from memory is a long one – the final version of the piece was set 3 weeks before, and in that time period I had an opera to play, a family to have a kind of summer vacation with, and very time-consuming hobbies.

I was glad that there was a quality video recording, but am also happy that the recording is being removed from YouTube today, because although as a performance it was ok, I don’t want it to be the “definitive” version of the piece. Although that is a kind of joke. Little of the dramatic actions, voices, costume, that I did is actually in the score, so there never was and never will be a “definitive” version. There are no indications of how gestures are to be performed, the piece also has only two dynamic indications. For me, this is poses a very interesting interpretive situation, and has many parallels to my study and engagement with electronic music composition. Like electronic music, music that involves declamation of spoken text, a mixture of spoken text with instrumental sounds and dramatic gestures, cannot be prescribed with conventional musical notation. It puts performance, and not the written score, at its center. (Watch this documentary about Aperghis and musical theater if you want to know more about his esthetic.)

This situation for me was interesting because I gave the premiere in Darmstadt, where composition, composers and the “text” of music, i.e., the score, have historically been the focus of attention and resources. When I first attended in the 90s, I was struck by the hegemony of composers there, and their dominance, along with big-name festival organizers, in the whole contemporary music scene. There were very few composer-performers as role models in Darmstadt at that time (Markus Stockhausen was one exception), and the concept of composer-performer or improviser was neither thematized, promoted, nor rewarded. I was even advised there by a local composer to “stay away from the improv scene”, those players were really considered lame. This has changed, and I think this normalization is due to rapidly evolving technology and the emerging inclusiveness that is the result of successful activism and increased “woke-ness” by our cultural power structures.

As pointed out in Live Electronic Music, Composition, Performance, Study, our music history is written “from the perspective of the composer and rarely from that of the performer. Compositional outcomes have been the backbone of music historiography since it began in the 19th century”. This book examines questions of musical texts that are “nonexistent, incomplete, insufficiently precise or transmitted in a nontraditional format” from many perspectives (that of composer, performer, audio engineer to name a few). Historically, it makes sense that anything that leaves a paper trail (a score) will become a source for academics to pour over. We love artifacts. They provide a basis for taxonomies, give credibility, establish lineages, give credence to ideas. Since recording technology has developed, we have now another fixed source, that of recorded performances, over which to pour. This has “…opened up new perspectives, which have contributed to the revitalization of the performer’s role and the concept of music as performance.” I love this book!

Now is the time for composer/performers, improvisers, and those who work with media whose sounds cannot be codified/”textified” by a score, to assume more prominence in our Western music history and the power structures that determine our cultural life.

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Aperghis fourth octave humor piccolo practice technique

What is your Superpower?

Having a kid and playing modern board games where it is teamwork against the forces of chance or evil (not everyone for him/herself like in my day), it is easy to fall into this kind of thinking.

Because these days, everyone is special, right? No one is supposed to get left behind. Everybody has their own, special superpower. So what is my, personal, superpower? I am hoping I don’t have just one. However, for the time being, since I am spending a good amount of time each day on the piccolo, it is easy to imagine my superpower is that of playing high B’s and C’s. This is my special weapon, to produce blasts that measure over 100 decibels. Do I use it to combat evil? Well, maybe in my imagination only. But since this is not a game, it is my actual job to produce these notes, I have to deal with the situation in my own way. If I delude myself in order to produce what a composer writes, well, we all have to do whatever it takes, right?

The thing with superpowers is that they do not happen automatically, you have to train them, refine them and learn to engage them exactly when needed. ZAAP!! Bullseye!

In “The Dong with a Luminous Nose” by Georges Aperghis, on page 18 (of 21), after playing loads of low, airy sounds, singing and speaking, there are suddenly a few high C’s that pop up. And to boot, the piece ends on a high C. Now, high C’s are supposed to be my superpower, but they often fail me here in this context. Among the Jumbly Girls, the wail of the chimp and snipe, I forget that I have a lethal weapon in my hands. So my practice has to involve a lot of psychology. I have to remember to engage this power, to never lose sight of it. For this, microseconds help. Taking that microsecond in the leap to high C from the D below, not to say “Oh $§&”*”, but to say “Engage!” This takes practice (for me).

So I share this so you all can think about your own superpowers, hone them, and practice engaging them. See if it works for you.

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Aperghis piccolo practice sexism

The Dong

I have been meaning to keep an online account of my adventures with Georges Aperghis’ piccolo solo “The Dong with a Luminous Nose”, but it’s already three weeks before the performance and I haven’t written much. There are practical reasons for this – one is we ironed out the final version with cuts and tempo changes a few days ago. Only now do I have a sense of the piece as a whole and feel that I can do the real work.

Since he has heard and approved my recent draft recording, only now am I confident that my strategy for playing all the quarter tones, the types of vocalizations and interpretation of timings are ok. I find it really difficult to invest in the technical details of a piece unless I know the overall musical and compositional approach, because only by knowing this, do I know how to technically approach the piece.

Although I have heard and performed a number of Aperghis’ pieces before, the ARTE documentary from 2006 “the composer who reinvented musical theatre” gave me more insight.* Here is a quote that I like:

“…observing a performer in their day-to-day life, during rehearsals, over coffee, in their usual behavior, one sees their inner charm and from that point on, writing for them, to my mind, means believing them to be much stronger than they are, musically, I mean. So often, when the score arrives, they are happy yet anxious due to its difficulty. Because I feel they are capable of it, that’s the fault of love. I feel they can do anything, and they can, because they do, but at a price. “

Aperghis and I got to know each other personally while he was preparing to compose Intermezzi for Ensemble Musikfabrik. In our conversations, I mentioned that I enjoyed the nonsense texts of Edward Lear. “The Dong” is a text by Lear (his choice), and to my knowledge, this is the only work of Aperghis that really has a narrative. His other works seem much more abstract and cathartic.

I have also been thinking about music and text. A lot of text that goes into music these days is political or makes some kind of statement. Although I support this wave of awareness and wokeness, I still think there is a place for words in music as phonetic material with artistic, or dare I say it, entertainment value. If the text of this piece included the words “damn the patriarchy” or “Frauenpower forever” it would perhaps make me feel better about myself, giving me that warm, fuzzy feeling you get with acts of solidarity and “doing one’s bit”. But in the end, what bit is that? My performance would change no one’s social perspective. (And in Darmstadt, where the premiere is to be held, I would be preaching to the choir.) My bit would be better played out by volunteering in a homeless or refugee shelter, or helping people safely vote. This is not to say I don’t believe that certain forms of art are capable of promoting and instigating social change.

So I will perform and narrate Edward Lear’s text, with all its humor, overtly phallic symbolism** and allusions to interracial love. Why not? I might even perform it from the perspective of a Jumbly Girl.

Illustration by Edward Gorey

*I would share the link, but my automatic embedder is giving me grief.

**Ok maybe my mind is in the gutter.