Categories
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.

Categories
memorization Stockhausen

Paradies Remembered

It’s been over a month since the marathon premiere of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Klang cycle. I have been wanting to share the experience here, but I survived the project with too many mixed feelings. However if I don’t get it out, my blogging energy may get permanently clogged. Also, Robert Bigio, the editor of Flute (the journal of the British Flute Society) has entrusted me with another project: a feature on Kathinka Pasveer. So it’s time to get my thoughts in order.

Paradies is an 18-minute work for solo flute with electronics (8-channel tape). It must be played eyes closed, from memory, while wearing a specific shade of pink (HKS31, it’s called in the German textile industry). A shirt in this color, worn with white pants and shoes, is also acceptable. The piece does not require movement on stage or any sort of choreography.

I have performed this piece 12 times between April 24 and May 29, 2010, and will perform it again in November in England.

Most of the questions that come my way have to do with how I managed to memorize the work. It is nowhere near as daunting as one might think because:
1) The piece uses the same series of 24 pitches over and over, mostly in sequence and only occasionally in easily recognizable variations. Analysis of this work is a no-brainer.
2) The player is involved in the compositional process.

To begin, I must explain that the work has 24 strophes. Each of these strophes has two parts:
1) a ritornello in which a melody is given but the dynamics, speed and articulation are decided by the player (this is the “involved in the compositional process” part)
2) a composed insert. The composed parts are called inserts because they may be inserted at any point during the ritornello. (Theoretically. This piece is fraught with unwritten rules, and the insertion of the composed insert must follow certain guidelines not given in the score.)

I began work on the piece after New Year’s 2010, so had just over 4 months preparation time. There was no way for me to memorize the piece from the outset, since the ritornelli needed to be worked out and played for Kathinka. I didn’t want to write anything onto hard disk only to have to erase it later. What I did memorize from the beginning was the structure of the piece. That in retrospect was a good idea. By the way, the ritornelli’s dynamics, speed and articulation should be worked out rather than improvized. Whether you write them out or not is up to you. If your memory is at all visual or photographic, as mine partially is, I recommend writing.

I also realized the sooner I had a good version of the ritornelli, the sooner I could begin memorizing them. So my first order of business was writing the ritornelli. During the first rehearsal with Kathinka (January 25th), I ended up having to erase about two-thirds of what I had written, having trespassed many of the unwritten rules. By the time of the next rehearsal with Kathinka, on April 1st, we had a version that we could both be happy with and I could start the memory work in ernest. At that point it was not difficult. The ritornelli had been worked on for so long that memorizing them came easily, and the structure and the composed inserts had already been memorized.

I hope readers were not expecting a full discorse on how one memorizes music. For most of us it is an individual combination of visual, analytical and kinesthetic elements. For me, it is perhaps
Visual = 10%
Analytical = 10%
Kinesthetic (muscle memory)= 80%

Some of my tricks included
1) Setting a time schedule by working backwards from the date of the performance. Divide and conquer. Don’t try to memorize all at once but set a certain amount for a certain time period.
2) Going through the piece without the flute in hand or the music in front of me. This I often did in the dark before going to sleep.
3) Procrastinating as much as legally possible in order to have the peace of mind required for clear intellectual work. This means taxes didn’t get filed, Spring cleaning waited until Summer. Sort of the buy now, pay later strategy. If you can afford it, it does work.

Photos: Melvyn Poore and Liz Hirst