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.

improvisation practice


Some musings on current and future collaborations:

Yesterday I discovered a new sound on my bass flute. It is high-pitched and horrible and usually something that I try to avoid. But like some things, under magnification or extreme pressure, it can yield a diamond-like beauty.

I discovered this sound during my first session with composer Javier Vázquez, who is composing a duo for flute and percussion to be premiered with Dirk Rothbrust (probably via video) in June. In our session, I attempted to imaginatively sonify different urban environments – the area around Cologne Cathedral, train station and the Rhine. To be honest, the Rhine kinda scares the crap out of me. Its volume is way too much for the narrow channel it flows through. It flows so fast that in the past, after barge crashes, some containers never get found. They are driven into the river bottom by the current, I guess. Imagine not being able to find something the size of an 18-wheeler. Anyway, this is what I was thinking about during the improvisation and made that horrible but potentially useful sound.

Another collaboration that has evoked new sounds has been with the composer Tomasz Prasqual, who is writing a duo for flute and Moog synthesizer to be performed with Uli Löffler in May 2022. We have had many Zoom sessions in which while improvising I get so lost in the sound that afterwards, I have no recollection of what I just played. This probably happens to many of us who do this :). Tomasz and I have both have Moogs (mine is a VST) and it has been great getting to know a new instrument. Really, really looking forward to this piece.

I opened a can or worms with Georges Aperghis, when I told him I wanted a piccolo piece and liked the works of Edward Lear. Now I have to figure out how to sing higher than anyone wants to hear me, and recite the most bizarre text with a kind of straight face (well, straight enough to keep playing the piccolo). I am wondering about “The Dong“, its phallic implications and allusions to interracial love (after all, what else are the Jumbly Girls with their blue skin and green hair?). Hopefully, the premiere will go ahead as planned in Darmstadt this summer.

Title still from Guy Maddin’s “Stump the Guesser”

Many years ago, I approached filmmaker Guy Maddin and asked him if he would make a silent film for us at Musikfabrik, loosely or closely based on themes from Daniil Kharms‘ life and works. He agreed and with the support of the Acht Brücken Festival in May, we will perform (again, online) two commissioned works by Nina Šenk and Anthony Cheung to the film “Stump the Guesser”. Although I haven’t collaborated with the composers, I am chuffed (as the English would say) that a spark of one of my ideas lead to a working relationship with this awesome filmmaker!

I have been trying my own hand at putting music to film, and am pleased to announce that last Fall I won a social media challenge for my film trailer to the (then) new Star Wars film. (Made with many flute sounds!) While researching film music for this challenge, I was appalled by the musical lack of experimentation in mainstream sci-fi. To those already in the field, I am sure this is a “known bug”. But seriously, people are projecting orchestral sounds from the 18th and 19th centuries on to scenes which should be taking place in future centuries! Where is the imagination in that? Of course there are many cool exceptions, but it’s time to move on, people.

Last but not least, next week I am doing a remake of Ole Hübner’s “This place” for solo flute and layered video. Normally I don’t like pieces that deconstruct or make use of direct citation, but Ole has really rocked Dufay’s Nuper rosarum flores, and I am majorly challenged with gnarly bass flute harmonics, multiphonics and circular breathing. What more could a flutist want?

improvisation pet peeves practice


“Music is Love” – Anthony Braxton

Lately I have been more interested in creating and producing sounds than words. It has been difficult to distill my experiences of the last season in to words, so I have not been blogging. Over this blastedly hot summer “vacation”, I decided to take only Anthony Braxton’s Composition no. 133 with me to practice. Having re-visited Stockhausen’s PARADIES in May, I was eager to work on a piece that has a similar concept, that of given material in strophes where the performer has a certain amount of freedom to shape the material. Braxton’s piece allows for much more freedom than Stockhausen’s, but does not include an electronic track. But then I thought, why should it not include an electronic backing? And the thought snowballed.

There are not enough really excellent pieces for flute and fixed media, in my opinion, and even fewer that include improvisation or some sort of freedom for the performer. It seems that a lot of really experiment-oriented composers are writing for live electronics and processing. Which is really cool! But for those of us performers who want an easy set-up of solo work, some speakers and a microphone that we can play in simple venues such as clubs or art galleries where there are no technicians and only a small budget, I for one would welcome some really good new works for fixed media that include some sort of side-stepping from the fixed-composed tradition.

I’ll tell you why I think this departure from fixed composition is important at this point in time. Almost every piece that I hear for flute and fixed media is using the same flute sounds (and in some cases, electronic sounds) that have been around since the 1980s! It is time to find some different sounds. No wonder composers seem more interested in live processing flute sounds. But I don’t want the world to give up on fixed media yet because of the practicalities mentioned above, and its potential awesomeness!

I have several unhatched plans to remedy this situation which include collaboration with several artists willing to include improvisation or elements thereof in their pieces. I have been working on creating compositions of my own (not for Braxton’s piece though, I have decided to leave that alone). The learning curve has been quite steep but I am loving delving in to the world of sampling, granulation, processing, etc. So back to creating sounds instead of words 🙂

Photo credit: Hans Peter Schaefer