contemporary music intonation microtonality spectralism

Intonation III : the Spectre of Spectralism

Some days ago I got the score for G. F. Haas’ new work „ … wie Stille brannte das Licht“. (What is it with German-speaking composers and their titles with elipses?). It got me thinking about how different composers notate microtonality. I like what Haas has done, it is explicit in placing the note within a frame of reference.

The notated C quarter-sharp in bar 241 is the 11th partial of G, and the A-flat in bar 245 is the 21st partial of E-flat (along with the indication that you are in a perfect fifth with the clarinet). I like having this kind of information in the score, but if he had notated the exact deviation in cents, that would have been even more helpful. This is easy enough to find out in Wiki

That 11th partial should a C# 49 cents flat, and the 21st partial should be an A-flat 29 cents flat. Like I said, easy enough for find out, but it would have been nice if the composer had provided this information.

We haven’t had rehearsal yet, so I can’t say how this will sound or how easy this will be to hear. [ed. read my follow up at the bottom of this post]
So now the question arises: How does one practice this stuff?

First of all, I get my tuner. Trying the A-flat first, I make sure that our Eb’s are in tune. Then I play an A-flat ca. 29 cents flat. Then I keep that tone while putting the sound on to Eb and I hear a Bb combination tone. This is a clue that I am on the right track, or within the correct overtone spectrum. Your combination tone (it may be a true difference tone or not, depending on the timbre and register of instrument) should lie in close relationship to the fundamental – say an octave, fifth or major third (which is the 5th partial, you don’t want to go much farther than that). Put in simpler terms, it should be part of the major triad formed by the fundamental.

Now to try the C# against the G. Again I tune the G’s, then test my C3 so the needle goes about 49 cents flat, then put the sound on G. My difference tone is B natural this time, still close enough (a major third – the 5th partial) in relation to G to be correct.

Again, I have no idea how this will work in the context of the piece, or if it will be heard. But now I know, theoretically, how much adjustment is “correct”.

Whether this works in context or not, I love working with combination tones. Scientists are still not in agreement as to what they are – but it is a wonderful example of how our brains work – how they “fill in the blanks” of the overtone spectrum. I wonder if this is the same phenomenon that allows transistor radios to work? Only the upper partials are projected, the brain fills in the rest.

Also, I’ve noticed that I’m one of those people who can read things like this, hence my spelling problems, most likely. (Thanks to my like-minded Uncle T for this text):

fi yuo cna raed tihs, yuo hvae a sgtrane mnid too. Cna yuo raed tihs? Olny 55 plepoe out of 100 can.

[Follow-up added May 5, 2009]
The passage in question was actually not so difficult to hear! You are a part of this “lump” of sounds that are related to the fundamental. It is tricky that he has two harmonic spectrums going at once: those of G and E-flat.

When considering dynamics in this piece we realized that there was a lot more going on than just playing loudly or softly. It helped to think of crescendo/decrescendo passages as adding/subtracting harmonics to your individual sound rather than just making the sound louder or softer. This made for a much more interesting color. Also, the very quiet passages must be played with focus and good attack. Even the quietest notes need some harmonics in the sound, none of this fluffy airy stuff! It just didn’t match the color system.

I do admit the 11th partial gave me the most trouble in this piece. Tricky to hear! It must be 49 cents flat. I must make some exercises.

Speaking of which, I asked the composer and my colleagues how one can study and practice this music. The answer is always the same, learn the overtone series, horizontally, note by note, by ear. How can one do this? Programming a synthesizer seems to be the most popular idea. However you do it, once the sounds are in your head, you have to find a way to play them (of course, in a comfortable range of your instrument. I’m thinking middle octave) by using a combination of alternate fingerings and lip bending. Another project for me!

contemporary music Ferneyhough masterclass notes

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


….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!
Advice for Composers contemporary music sexism Stockhausen

Bottom of the Food Chain

Wondering why I haven’t posted recently? This is where I have been all week! At the bottom of the food chain! OK, maybe I exaggerate. Maybe more like a pawn on the chessboard of pieces where composers, conductors, organizers, managers are the big players. We play what sells, and ideas sell, beautiful packaging sells, regardless of the quality that is inside.

I’ve worked with more living composers than you can shake a stick at. In today’s European Contemporary Music Scene, a handful of lucky composers are the stars, not the ensemble or orchestral musicians who play their music. These chosen few (composers) are promoted by organizers of festivals and the big publishing companies (who act as their agents as well). If you have a performance scheduled and receive a dud or embarrassing piece from one of them, or a piece that comes too late and is impossible to play: tough luck. It is your job to get it done and make it sound good. Cancelling a piece is politically incorrect, or would cause a scandal. The programs have been printed. The VIPs have been invited. The deals have been made. Money has changed hands. You are the sissy if you complain or can’t pull it off. Besides, you have a family to feed, and can’t afford to forgo your share of the money (minuscule as it may be).

A question was posed recently on the Flute List: does one have a moral obligation to fulfill a composer’s intentions? I’d like to turn it around. Does a composer have similar moral obligations? Heck, does he even have a professional obligation when it comes to fulfilling a commission? It would seem not. More often than not, we find ourselves in a situation where a quality rendering of the premiere piece is severely compromised: too late, not for the instrumentation specified, unreadable manuscript, or unexplained, unclear notation. [I’m not talking about student workshops, I’m talking about well known composers who (even sadder) have teaching positions and are influencing the young generation.] Do we still pay the commission fee under such circumstances? Yes. We’re nice, we’re professionals, we’re capable. We’re pioneers, we can take anything anyone throws at us. Ahem.

Still, I’m a big fan of composers, even tardy ones. I support contemporary music and all its endeavours: big, small, loud, quiet, beautiful, ugly, complex, minimalistic. For all my b–ing I am happy to be doing what I am. So now I will speak of me/us/performers and our obligations, moral or otherwise to the composer’s intentions.

I’ll confine myself to 20th century and later composers – earlier music is another whole can of worms. I’ll be honest. There are a few composers whom I dread to play. I see them coming up on a program and think: “well, I’ll just go get my strait-jacket.” These are the ones that require slavish following of their notation, no deviations allowed. Dang. I got into contemporary music because I consider myself a bit of a deviant. If I wanted to slavishly follow someone I could make a heck of a lot more money in an orchestra somewhere. [OK, I know it’s not that bad in most orchestras! But you have to be darned lucky.]

Here’s an example, though, of where this somewhat adolescent attitude of mine proved to be misplaced. I used to consider Karlheinz Stockhausen one of these dreaded composers. Working with him closely on the premiere of his Rotary Quintet gave me another perspective.

For the premiere of this work he wanted to underscore the difference between male and female (This quintet is part of his Licht cycle). So he asked us to reflect this gender difference in our concert-wear. With some trepidation, and gentle respect, I objected on the grounds that as a musician, I don’t consider my gender, and my native English also reflects no differences of gender. To my utter astonishment, he readily conceded, in a very gentlemanly fashion.

Rehearsal, 1997. Left to right: A. Wesly, K. Stockhausen, me,
J. Babinec, P. Veale, N. Janssen (sitting)

Now I am starting preparations for the flute solo Paradies from Klang, which we plan to premiere in its (all 21 hours) entirety. This has me looking back on those days 12 years ago. Stockhausen is no longer around to gently concede to my cultural baggage, so I will not have the chance to thwart his intentions in person, but would I want to? It would just seem disrespectful at this point. Besides, I look back on my objections of 12 years ago and find them a bit silly. Americans are so gung-ho gender blind, but I don’t think females do any better there than in Europe. In Europe it feels more realistic: nobody tries to pretend that men and women are alike.

My point is: I’d think twice now before trying to turn a composer’s intention around. My objections may be parochial and egocentric, and have nothing to do with the real quality of the music. The composer’s intentions might also be parochial and egocentric, but, well, it’s their piece. If I want to express something else, I’ll write my own piece.