Intrepid soprano Christie Finn has written a lovely blog post about her relationship to absolute pitch and the tuning fork, specifically in our work on the upcoming Quando Stanno Morendo. I can verify both the chopstick difficulties and the tuning fork bruise.
As always, Tim Rutherford-Johnson of The Rambler comes through with the goods. Another example of his perceptive and brilliant writing on music is up at NewMusicBox: an essay on the continuing influence of Cage’s 4’33”, including discussion of Ekmeles favorites Aaron Cassidy and Peter Ablinger. He also touches on the Catskills setting of the seminal work’s premiere, critical—I think—to understanding what the piece is all about.
Read the full post over at NewMusicBox.
Preparing our upcoming performance of Nono’s “Quando stanno morendo” has been, as the piece is, a study in extremes. The work’s glacial tempi (down to quarter = 30) destroy the listener’s (and often the performer’s) sense of meter and time. If that weren’t enough, these tempos are coupled with a system of numbered fermatas wherein each digit indicates the duration of the note in quarter notes. This means even a sixteenth note quintuplet at quarter = 40, with a ‘5’ fermata, would last more than 7 seconds. This dilation of time has the paradoxical effect of heightening the intensity of its passing. Placing a note on the third triplet eighth of a beat in quarter = 120 is a simple matter of feel. Placing the same note at quarter = 40 puts the whole process under a magnifying glass. Any discrepancy between performers is thrown into relief.
The singers dealing with these broad tempos are also grappling with extremely wide ranging parts, marked pppp and quieter. Aside from these technical considerations, there is a deep political and emotional background to the work, which was written during the onset of martial law in Poland. These extreme emotions of both the context in which the piece was created, and the texts it sets are balanced by a dynamic restraint. With the difficult registers and dynamics bordering on silence, Nono very literally evokes the stifled voices of political dissidents.
This is a piece that on one hand appears simple, often consisting a single line shared between voices, or chords moving in rhythmic unison. These voices however, may be projected through a 10 speaker array, rotating around the audience both clockwise every 10 seconds, and counterclockwise every 7 seconds with 2 seconds of delay. The cellist plays only open strings in one large section of the work. These however, are open strings on one of three cellos string with 4 identical strings and tuned to 4 near-unison tones, played with two bows simultaneously. These amazing juxtapositions of simplicity and complexity, of technical virtuosity and emotional directness, are what allowed Nono to go to such extremes and still create a balanced and coherent masterpiece.
This post is part of a series directed at composers writing for the voice. Something about vocal music feels inherently different from instrumental music; this can be daunting for a composer familiar only with instrumental writing. These posts are intended to be signposts pointing to notational standards and techniques which will allow composers to be as communicative and clear as possible in their writing for singers.
The ability to deliver a text is what sets the voice apart from instruments. There are, of course, occasions on which a more instrumental vocal line is desirable and extremely effective; but when it is at all possible, I prefer to work with words. Text serves as an important cue for musical and vocal interpretation, and can be an immediate way of understanding an otherwise unfamiliar musical style or affect. A text should always be clearly credited as to its source and printed in its entirety somewhere in the score, so that it can be studied and understood away from the music.
Even if it is outside a composer’s aesthetic or intent to use an actual text or even any real words, indicating which vowels or consonants the singers should use can provide an opening for an emotional and interpretive connection to the music. For this reason I would recommend all composers to become familiar with the International Phonetic Alphabet, known as IPA. It is a system which can notate in varying degrees of specificity the sounds of any language, real or imagined.
A fantastical virtuoso use of IPA can be seen in Ligeti’s Aventures and Nouvelles Aventures, for which the composer devised an entire artificial language, notated in great detail. It is of course not necessary to go to these lengths to make use of IPA. It can be used as part of a traditional text to describe a segmentation of words, as in Berio’s A-Ronne, where the text “Aleph is my end” is split between two hocketing singers, one performing only the vowel sounds and one performing only the consonant sounds. Stockhausen uses IPA in Am Himmel wandre ich… to write out nonsense syllables like [tɛgədɛgə] as well as to indicate a kind of echo of a word in the text (often colored by Stockhausen’s German accent!): the word ‘universe’ is echoed by [huhihø], the text ‘of having’ is echoed by [ɔ ɛ ɪ].
IPA is an incredibly flexible and communicative system which can be applied to many ends and aesthetics, and these examples I’ve given only scratch the surface of what is possible. I look forward to seeing how composers of vocal music continue to develop its musical use.