Learning “I, purples, spat blood, laugh of beautiful lips”

Aaron Cassidy’s I, purples, spat blood, laugh of beautiful lips (henceforth I, purples) intrigued me from the second I saw the notation. As a man who sings contemporary music, my repertoire is limited compared to the high soprano’s. An especial gap in repertoire was in the category of complexist scores – excepting Ferneyhough’s Shadowtime, which is a less-than-practical undertaking to put together. (A lovely exception is Liza Lim’s Chang-O, which was a delight to give the US Premiere of.) So I was very pleased to see in Cassidy’s piece a new kind of notation for the voice, as part of a coherent and new musical idea. It would be a few months before I would really get working on the score – nothing like a deadline to make you dig in! As the most complex score I had yet worked with, I, purples demanded a kind of rigorous procedural approach in learning. There was to be no hacking through the score at the piano – for one, there aren’t any notes on the page!

Through years of working on difficult scores I’ve tried many different approaches, but one aspect of my method is always consistent: decoupling aspects of the score for the purposes of learning. This idea is especially useful when the work itself, like many pieces by Ferneyhough and composers of the “Second Modernity,” decouples aspects of traditional performance techniques. Below, I will outline the general sketch of the procedure that I have found most useful, followed by the specific work I did in learning I, purples.

  1. Deal with the text. If it’s in a foreign language, translate it and write out the IPA, if you need to. Be able to fluently speak it.
  2. Speak the text in the notated rhythms.
  3. Speak the text with notated rhythm and dynamics.
  4. Speak the text with notated rhythm, dynamics, and articulations.
  5. Learn the notes out of time
  6. Put it all together

At each step, it is often useful to prioritize the new information. For example, step 3 could also include practicing just the text and dynamics, adding in the rhythm later; step 4 could involve speaking the text in rhythm with articulations, ignoring the dynamics, etc. What follows is a more specific outline of my method for learning I, purples.

  1. Text – translation was not an issue since the piece contains all the translations I need. The cross-cut texts made it difficult to see what word (and even language) a phoneme belonged to, so I wrote the IPA into the score. I then practiced speaking/intoning the text in a rough semblance of the the notated proportions.
  2. Rhythm – I looked for polyrhythms that were solvable by a least common multiple method (something I’ll write about in an upcoming post on rhythm), and learned the general feel of those. (The first bar, for example, is a 5:3 polyrhythm.) This way I could practice pure ratio relationships, and know where things fall at a reasonable speed before they become too fast to be comprehensible. I then programmed the whole thing into Sibelius to learn by rote, section by section, beginning as I am wont to do with the end, assuming the beginning gets extra attention all the time anyways. Starting at less than half tempo, I gradually worked my way up to 75% of tempo in each section.
  3. Dynamics – I then removed the difficulty of the rhythmic aspect of the work to focus on the dynamic contour paired with the text and a rough approximation of the rhythmic structure. Knowing what syllables are louder, and the shape of each word or phonetic cluster dynamically helped to define the gesture. Later in my work on dynamics, I continued to practice with the rhythm track from the computer, gradually moving from slower tempos upward.
  4. Articulations – I had been gradually adding in the contour of the gesture-defined notes, and now added those to an otherwise steadily intoned pitch. I added accents, staccatti, mordents, breathy and scratchy voice et al. Always, as before starting slow and speeding up gradually, occasionally stopping to take the gesture out of time to define its shape and characteristics more specifically, still working with the computer rhythm track.
  5. Notes (In this case, the patch) – The notes for I, purples come via an earbud and a Max/MSP patch which generates a randomly changing glissando. The first time I practiced with the patch I thought I was going to have to cancel the performance, or at least fake it. By the end of the day I was much more confident. It’s an odd skill of listening, but I found it helpful to start off define the ranges of the voice rather small, and practice at a low tempo, and expand from there. A general lesson emerges at this point: simplify and reduce the principle demanded of you as far as you can without corrupting the gestalt, then move step by step towards the goal.
  6. Back to basics – for a few checkups, I went back to my computer track of the rhythm and just spoke along to ensure I hadn’t slipped too far away from accuracy in my internalizing of the gesture.

Add to the density of the page the fact that you have to be reacting live to a different pitch glissando each time, and you have to be very close to memorized. I will experiment in the future with mnemonic page markings such as color-coded dynamics, but usually find that adding more information to a page like this would be distracting. On the other hand, a simple device like a colored highlight could engender an automatic reaction during performance, ensuring recognition of a certain parameter that might otherwise go unperformed.

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  1. Thanks for this fascinating insight into performing Aaron’s music – I’ve heard Carl Rosman sing I, purples a couple of times, and always been amazed at how he manages it!

    • Thanks! I’ve only heard and seen recordings of Carl perform it, but he really does it wonderfully, doesn’t he? I find it interesting to compare our performances with a view to the essential identity of the work. I couldn’t anticipate, just from the score, what would remain the same and what would differ radically in each of our multiple performances.

  2. As a performer of I, purples, could I ask you for some pointers on how to approach it as a listener interested in analysing and appreciating it? Thanks!

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