September, 2016


18
Sep 16

Benefits of Marginalia

As part of our 2016-2017 season we’re giving each of our core singers a turn at the helm of the blog. The below post below comes from our mezzo soprano, Elisa Sutherland.


I’m a firm believer that the best way to learn music is to write all over it. This is kind of a contentious issue among musicians – I know people who go into concerts with perfectly clean scores and play beautifully. I know other people that mark a few breaths, perhaps highlight their line if the score is especially crowded, but leave the majority of the page blank. I happen to be one of those people who writes in every beat, every interval, and usually gives myself encouraging words or phrases if the passage is particularly tricky.

I say this not without a certain amount of defensiveness. Occasionally I’ll stop myself in the middle of marking up a score, and notice that I’ve just been slashing quarter note beats over consecutive quarter notes, or I find I’ll have given myself every interval for an ascending C major scale. But even taking the time to mark in obvious things has value: for me, it’s a way of internalizing music by reinforcing the time signatures and tonality, among other things.

Marking your score can serve any number of purposes, whether it’s clearly defining specific points of coordination:

Coordination

alerting yourself to the dynamic markings:

Dynamics

highlighting the general ambiance:

Ambiance

or just occupying yourself during a boring rehearsal:

Boring rehearsal

But what I want to discuss in this blog post is marking music as a way of analyzing music. I think that contemporary solo music requires a higher level of initial interaction with the music on the part of the performer. We can’t rely on traditional harmonies, timbres, or gestures to intrinsically inform our artistic choices. Before we even begin rehearsals, we need to have some sort of idea about the rules that govern a particular piece’s sound world. I mark up my score not just to learn it but also to form my initial thoughts about a piece. It has been a particularly important aspect of my preparation for Ekmeles’ upcoming concert at Gettysburg College next Friday.

Charlotte Mundy and I will be performing Kaija Saariaho’s exquisite duet, From the Grammar of Dreams; five songs composed in 1988 with texts from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and also her poem “Paralytic” from her collection of poems, Ariel. A piece like this cannot be sight-read. Even if the notes are simple and the rhythms easily decipherable (they’re not), putting an a cappella duet together with a partner requires an incredible amount of independence: each singer must be responsible for her own part, as well as making sure she fits into the other singer’s part. There is no conductor to beat a time signature, or tell you when you’re singing the wrong notes – you have to constantly monitor yourself. And you can’t simply sing your part and hope it aligns with the music going on at the same time. You need to know what every moment sounds like before you even walk in the door to rehearse.

So I sat down and marked up my score with everything I thought might be helpful in putting this music together when Charlotte and I rehearse on Sunday.

Here’s the first line of the third movement:

Third movement

Compared to other movements, this one is relatively simple. The mezzo-soprano sings three different pitches, and the time signature is in a comfortable 4/4 with quarter note equaling an almost-too-slow 48 bpm – really simple stuff.

The first mark I make is to point out that the F natural I sing against the soprano’s A# in measure 1 is actually heard as a perfect 4th. I mark the half step for myself between the F natural and the F#, and back to the F natural, not because I don’t know what a half step looks like, but rather to draw attention to that particular contour, and this recurring motion by half-step that I suspect might become a central idea throughout this movement. Once again, I mark the interval between an F natural and an A# as a perfect 4th (damn those augmented thirds!), and I also draw a thick vertical line alerting myself to the fact that the soprano is moving as well: the first time in the piece that we move together. I mark a half step between my A# and B natural, the perfect 4th back down to an F#, and a half step back down to an F natural. At the same time, I also make sure to point out the initial tritone in measure 3 (soprano’s F natural vs. my B natural) that collapses to a minor second, and expands finally to a perfect fourth in the middle of the bar when the soprano takes over my B natural.

Writing this after the fact, I now want to pick up my pencil and go back and draw attention to the fact that in the second half of the third bar, the soprano falls a half step, I fall a half step, and then the soprano raises a half step, resulting in the same tritone that we began the measure with, except the voices are switched! Exciting stuff!

So already, just by marking up my music by myself in my apartment, without singing or rehearsing even a bit of this music with Charlotte, I have a pretty good idea of the structure of this movement, and what kinds of intervals and which pitches are going to play an important role.

Here’s the fourth line of that same movement:

Fourth line

Right away, we can see that half steps, F naturals, F#’s and B naturals abound, just as the first line hinted. But there’s another device at work: imitation between the voices, most obviously on the word “magnolia,” first sung by the soprano, then repeated note by note in the mezzo line, then appearing once again in the soprano line. It goes even further though: after singing “magnolia,” the soprano sings the same “of the” that the alto just sang in the first measure of that line (once again disguising that perfect fourth as an augmented third!), and which the alto repeats after they mimic the soprano’s “magnolia.” I went back to the first line, and discovered that Saariaho does a similar thing there: starting halfway through the second measure, the mezzo line is a note-for-note reproduction of the soprano line.

The final measure of the third line has the soprano and alto passing triplets and quintuplets back and forth, before settling on 16th note divisions. By marking every beat in every measure, even though it’s only in 4/4, we can easily come to the conclusion that nowhere in this line do the soprano and mezzo move at exactly the same time. This makes that synchronous jump in measure 2 all the more important!
When Charlotte and I perform this piece a week from today, we won’t be thinking about half steps, or disguised perfect fourths, or alternating triplets and quintuplets. We’ll be singing with a more macro view of the piece in mind: how the third movement contrasts with the second, and the fourth. Hopefully, we’ll have discussed the text, and have formed a collective opinion on why Saariaho chose to set these portions of Plath’s books. But by doing this detail work beforehand, I can trust that my deeper understanding of the mechanics of this piece will inform the artistic choices that I make in performance, instead of relying on Western classical tropes.


11
Sep 16

Disparate styles?

The program for our upcoming performance at Gettysburg College has been chosen with the aim of illustrating a broad range of styles, and combinations of the four voices we’ll be bringing (Charlotte Mundy, soprano; Elisa Sutherland, mezzo; Tomás Cruz, tenor; and me, baritone). While a potpourri of differences can be refreshing, I always find the commonalities lurking behind seemingly disparate elements to be more interesting.

I’d like to take as an example two of the quartets we’ll be featuring: Milton Babbitt’s Three Cultivated Choruses, and Ben Johnston’s Rose. At first glance, even the pairing of the composers seems as diametrically opposed as you could find. Johnston’s work has a regular rhythmic pulse, ringing consonant harmonies, scale-wise melodies, and traditional phrase shapes. Babbitt’s choruses, on the other hand, have complex aperiodic rhythms, rapidly changing harmonies, and fragmented melodic leaps.

Of course this is a terrible oversimplification and a simplistic view of both pieces.

Ben Johnston’s harmonic language results in clear, ringing chords, but it is built on a complex theoretical structure related to the composer’s formative work as assistant to the grandfather of American microtonality, Harry Partch. For a primer in Just Intonation, see our earlier post here. Johnston’s music is built on tuning relationships defined by the overtone series. To put it simply (or at least briefly), each prime number partial over a given fundamental gives us a new kind of interval. The 3rd partial supplies us with perfect fifths, the 5th partial with just major thirds, the 7th partial with the natural horn or barbershop seventh, and the 11th with a tritone a quarter step low. Johnston’s octet Sonnets of Desolation uses all eight voices singing in huge stacked chords using all of these overtones together, to create a rich and impressive sound. His earlier work Rose is in its own way a more radical theoretical exercise in tuning, despite sounding a bit like a folky Renaissance piece. It is entirely based around the 3rd and 7th partial, totally omitting the 5th, and thereby omitting any just minor or major thirds (6:5 and 5:4). In my correspondence with the composer he explained to me that the lack of 5th partial relationships in the piece was actually conceived as a kind of aesthetic rejoinder to fellow composer La Monte Young, who habitually employs far higher partial relationships than Johnston, but always skips the 5th. I find it funny that what was originally planned as a proof for the inviability of a certain harmonic approach actually shows it off quite beautifully.

Milton Babbitt’s Three Cultivated Choruses is an entirely different beast. While the harmonies fly by and are constantly changing, they are built from remarkably simple and repetitive structures in each voice. The very first thing we hear in the piece is the soprano singing an ascending Ab minor triad, and sure enough, both the soprano and mezzo sing nothing but arpeggiated triads throughout the rest of the movement. The first bass entrance is D3, E3, A2, echoing a traditional root position IV V I progression. The tenor and bass sing only this chord and its inversions throughout the first movement. Despite the extraordinarily traditional building blocks, Babbitt combines the lines to form a rich variety of harmonies, ranging from root position triads to astringent dissonances.

I think Babbitt and Johnston are in a way both ‘maximalist’ composers, when it comes to harmony. Johnston uses Just Intonation to seek out both perfect consonances and more intense dissonances, and Babbitt’s rigorous combinatorial approach leads to an incredible variety of harmonic possibilities. They are both musical explorers, seeking out new modes of expression, and working tirelessly on lifelong personal projects.


1
Sep 16

Ekmeles at Gettysburg College

3 Angels

Ekmeles travels to Gettysburg College for a residency, culminating in a concert performance featuring contemporary favorites for one to four voices.

  • John Cage – Four Solos for Voice (1988)
  • Kaija Saariaho – From the Grammar of Dreams (1988)
  • Milton Babbitt – Three Cultivated Choruses (1987)
  • Giacinto Scelsi – Le Grand Sanctuaire (1970)
  • Ben Johnston – Rose (1971)
  • Liza Lim – 3 Angels (2011)
  • James Tenney – Hey When I Sing These 4 Songs Hey Look What Happens (1971)
  • Vykintas Baltakas – Instruktionen zur Durchführung… (2007) U.S. Premiere

Ekmeles personnel for concert