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
contemporary music pet peeves teaching

Too Many Flutists

The phrases “there are too many flutists today”, and “conservatories are producing too many flutists for too few jobs” may be true in a certain respect, but they really sadden me. And piss me off, if I really admit. It has been hard to put my finger on exactly why, but when a friend posted Seth Godin‘s “Toward abundant systems“, it helped me to put my thoughts in order.

Industrialism is based on scarcity. So is traditional college admissions. In fact, much of the world as we know it is based on hierarchies, limited shelf space, and resources that are difficult to share.

These are his opening words. He goes on to describe which systems thrive on abundance rather than scarcity (language, for example). Then he makes a convincing argument that we need to realize education as an abundant system too, rather than the scarce one that it is today.

He sees this realization as a cultural turning point. I would also like to see a turning point in our musical culture, and its education, as we realize that music, and in my personal argument, flute playing (and by implication earning a living as a flutist) as an abundant system. That means a turning away from the narrow training on offer at most music schools. I believe this narrowness is at the root of “too many flutists”, not the lack of orchestral jobs. Yes, there are too many flutists for too few orchestral jobs.

What lies behind this “too many flutists” statement is the arrogant implication that “in order to be a good flutist, you must win an orchestral audition”. This may be unconsciously arrogant, but nevertheless it is unsupportable. Even more perfidious are those individuals and institutions that attempt to capitalize on the scarcity of orchestral jobs by setting themselves as the elite arbiters of what is the right way or wrong way to play.

Being an orchestral player has a status in its own right. We should refuse to let scarcity define this status.

Yes, aspiring orchestral players need top trainers. But as I have written elsewhere, young players need more.

In closing, I paraphrase Godin’s words: if we can break [musical] education out of the scarcity mindset and instead focus on learning that happens despite status not because of it, then we can begin to shift many of the other power structures in our society.

A shift of power structures means a shift of resources, and that is definitely what the Arts need now!

Categories
improvisation pet peeves practice

Electro-Flute

“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