October, 2011

Oct 11

What does this sound like to you?

I recently had the experience of excitedly playing a recording of an avant-garde vocal work to someone, only to have her response completely dampen my enthusiasm. “… That sounds pretty sexy,” she said, and I suddenly realized the entire sonic content of the piece – despite its decidedly unsexy subject matter – could give the impression that the singers were performing an act generally deemed unsuitable for the concert hall. Similarly, a piece that I once thought was a study in oro-pharyngeal articulations was revealed to me as a nasty incidence of sleep apnea.

At first, wanting to defend my enjoyment of this music, I thought of these comments as merely literal minded, but my attitude has grown more sympathetic. I attempt an accepting and open viewpoint when it comes to hearing new sounds. Still, hearing a trusted colleague or friend laugh at something I play her has helped me to realize it’s possible that I’ve closed myself off from certain reactions to music by insisting that I take every sound as a very serious one.

My initial frustration has gradually turned to a kind of happy acceptance, as I realize that the baggage that allows my new favorite avant-garde recording to sound obscene or silly is the same cultural and human filter that can make someone deeply connect with a musical performance, no matter the sonic vocabulary. Besides, what harm does it do if someone in the audience blushes or giggles at heaving breaths or uvular trills? When it comes to audience response, I side with Cage: I prefer laughter to tears.

Oct 11

The new continuo?

Ekmeles is currently preparing a performance of several of Gesualdo’s madrigals, applying a tuning that is a combination of historical fact and conjecture – Vicentino’s 31-note division of the octave. There is a surfeit of forgotten theories of the tuning of musical instruments and performances, including many that were likely never used in performance.¬†Nicola Vicentino (1511-1575) went a step further than many theorists, actually building and designing instruments capable of producing the scalar divisions he proposed mathematically. He devised the archiorgano, and the archicembalo, respectively an organ and a harpsichord capable of playing 31 (roughly) equal divisions of the octave, allowing free modulation through the keys in a mean-tone tuning, and application of the ancient Greek enharmonic genus. Scipione Stella, a composer at Gesualdo’s court, made a copy of the archicembalo – thus our historical conjecture.

Vicentino himself was a madrigalist, though it is recorded that his enharmonic vocal works were never performed without the harmonic support of a player at the archicembalo. This idea of needing continuo in the context of difficult intonation reminded me of the place singers of contemporary music often find ourselves – ears attached to computer synthesized tracks of our pitches. As readers of the blog will know, I am an advocate for making use of all technological tools possible in the course of learning difficult music. What I am interested in exploring is performing with these computer crutches. Of course, in some cases (like Martin Iddon‘s commission for Ekmeles, Hamadryads, or Aaron Cassidy‘s I, purples, spat blood, laugh of beautiful lips) the in-ear pitch component of the piece is a considered and integral part of the piece.

But what about when the composer hasn’t asked that a pitch track be used, and precise intonation is just too difficult, whether because of short rehearsal time, vocal considerations, or extremely small divisions of the octave? Is performing with a pitch track in our ears just cheating or is it the new continuo? Is the vitality and authenticity of a performance threatened by adherence to a mechanical version of the work which, by literally blocking the ears, supersedes the natural interaction of the performers? Thanks are due to a 16th-century Italian composer for raising these very modern questions – but more importantly, what do you think?

Oct 11

Circular Trance

Music at First presents the world premiere of a concert length work in just intonation for 7 voices and sine wave drones by Randy Gibson

  • Randy Gibson – Circular Trance Surrounding the Second Pillar¬†with The Highest Seventh Primal Cirrus, The Utmost Fundamental, and The Ekmeles Ending from Apparitions of The Four Pillars

personnel for concert

Oct 11

Hilliard Ensemble + overtone singing

Thanks to Ken Ueno, you can hear a beautiful combination of a few of my favorite things! (So they’re not Tuvan. But it’s still pretty fun!)