Learning difficult music

May 17

Why bother?

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 soprano, Charlotte Mundy.

Why bother with microtonal music?

I ask myself this question often, especially when I should be practicing microtonal music. I complain, ‘it takes soooo much work to learn, the myriad obscure symbols people use to notate it are confusing, and the human voice, prone as it is to pitch inconsistency, cannot possibly be the best tool for rendering infinitesimally precise systems of tuning. So why am I sitting inside on a beautiful spring afternoon singing along to a midi rendering?!?!’

But then Ekmeles gets together for rehearsal, somehow we manage to produce some precise, just-tuned chords, and suddenly I remember:

Because it’s literal magic, that’s why.

A couple weeks ago we got our first chance to sing with the electronic part for Christopher Trapani’s brand new piece, End Words, and we kept breaking down in fits of giggles. OK, partly that was because we were hearing each others’ voices unexpectedly coming out of speakers mounted on the walls around us – talking, humming, singing – as if our invisible dopplegangers were popping in and out of the room at will. But also, the harmonies we were immersed in, based on the harmonic series and rendered perfectly via digitally-tuned recordings, are utterly disarming. I can’t help but feel a little off-balance and giddy when I’m immersed in them.

Come to our show next Saturday, May 20, at the DiMenna Center to hear (and feel!) what I mean. Along with the world premiere of End Words, we’ll perform two other works that have awesome electronic tracks and gorgeous vocal writing – Zosha Di Castri’s The Animal After Whom Others are Named and Joanna Bailie’s Harmonizing – and Courtney Bryan’s kinetic, exciting A Time For Everything. Hope to see you there!

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:


alerting yourself to the dynamic markings:


highlighting the general 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.

Feb 13

Changing gears

Above: Aaron Cassidy's "I, purples, spat blood, laugh of beautiful lips" Below: Ken Ueno's "Shiroi Ishi"

Above: Aaron Cassidy’s “I, purples, spat blood, laugh of beautiful lips”
Below: Ken Ueno’s “Shiroi Ishi”

As singers of contemporary music, we are called upon to sing in many styles, and with many different vocal qualities. Working with the former is simply a matter of learning the proper aesthetic and idiom for each piece of music, or section of a piece, as it may be. Performing with a different vocal quality is a matter of physiology and muscular training, and can really throw a wrench into the works.

Rehearsing for our January 24th concert, I quickly realized I would need to use a lighter vocal mechanism for the long sustained lines of the second tenor part in Ken Ueno’s gorgeous “Shiroi Ishi” (it’s officially gorgeous, ask the New York Times). Since this was vocally the most challenging work on the program, I thought of it as my technical default for the rest of the show, centering my vocalizing and practicing around the technique required for the piece, and placing the other works on the show as much into the same space as possible.

On a wide-ranging program, however, it’s not always possible to stay within the confines of one vocal quality. I happened to have programmed Aaron Cassidy’s “I, purples, spat blood, laugh of beautiful lips” on the same show, and get this, before the Ueno. I am occasionally my own worst enemy. Luckily we had made the time to run the full program in order in rehearsal, so I was prepared for the big gear shift from Cassidy into Ben Johnston, and finally to the long long lines of “Shiroi Ishi”. Balancing programmatic and performative concerns is a never-ending process, especially as singers of new music.

Jan 13

Ben Johnston

This Thursday, we’ll be singing a program of music by living American composers at Roulette. I’m especially excited to be presenting a few short pieces by Ben Johnston, a composer whose music fits our mission of performing music that would otherwise go unperformed. Despite being earlier works in Ben Johnston’s exploration of just intonation, both his I’m goin’ away and Rose present special difficulties to the performer. In rejecting the equal tempered tuning of the piano as an acoustical falsehood, Johnston expands both the consonances and dissonances available. The 3-limit consonances of 3:2 perfect fifths, and 5-limit consonances of 5:4 major and 6:5 minor thirds are familiar to the ear of a seasoned choral performer, but Johnston’s systematic exploration of pitch space requires a specificity and fidelity to exact intonation that eclipses most music. To complicate matters, both of the works we will be performing include 7-limit intervals, including the 7:4 or ‘natural’ minor seventh, and the septimal 7:6 third. Whereas tuning compromises are made quickly and in passing in most music—especially unaccompanied vocal music—Johnston has accounted for every pitch relationship and every adjustment to be made. It’s a dramatic raising of the stakes, requiring a new kind of precision from performers who need to sing or play not just an F, but the F. In this way, Ben Johnston is a most uncompromising composer, a composer of absolutes. You can hear a sample of his vocal writing below in his Sonnets of Desolation, sung by the Swingle Singers.

Oct 12

Workshopping: Week 2

We’re coming to the end of our individual workshops with composer Thanasis Deligiannis, who is writing a new work for us for our October 13th performance at Issue Project Room.

After working with Thanasis one-on-one, we’re now starting to join up into duos and trios to see how our parts will fit together. The soundworld of the piece is very dynamic, and we’re working with Thanasis to bring out every little filigree and detail of our parts. As a former classical singer, he has a vocal ability that most composers do not. However, having not studied for years, he now simply adapts his technique fully to whatever project is at hand, rather than maintaing a stable classical core sound like we full-time classical singers must. We’re working on adapting our sounds to fit this very specific aesthetic which he’s devised, shouting and crooning, sounding like reversed tape or doppler effects. The alignment of our parts is often totally visual in its representation, leaving us to shape the specific rhythms and interactions of our lines in these workshops, and develop the piece far beyond the page, with Thanasis’s guidance. It’s an interesting mixture of rote teaching and notation, with most of the timbre and articulation details being communicated verbally, and the pitches left to the page. We’re looking forward to joining all together to work tutti soon!

Apr 12

The hazards of pitch reference

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.

Apr 12

Nono in extremis

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.

Nov 11

Tuning – Vertical vs. Horizontal

I was talking with Sasha Zamler-Carhart, director of Ascoli Ensemble, about the ways that our ensembles approach tuning. Ekmeles’s approach to tuning Gesualdo in 31-note equal temperament is a mostly harmonically focused – 31ET being a keyboard temperament -and is about aiming for pure verticalities. Sasha’s group, specializing in Medieval music, and often reading from original manuscript parts, approaches tuning in an entirely linear sense. Of course they make sure they begin lines and cadence together, but reading from parts and singing in Pythagorean tuning – which is beautifully melodic, but only harmonically satisfying for major seconds fourths and fifths – has led them to consider tuning in this way.

Our most recent project, the premiere of Randy Gibson‘s “Circular Trance“, was an almost totally vertical experience. Scored for an array of sine wave drones in addition to the seven singers required, the piece’s complex just intonation tuning system requires us to constantly listen vertically, and to subsume our voices into the tuning of the drone. Perhaps the most linearly conceived work that I’ve ever performed is the first movement of Johannes Schöllhorn‘s “Madrigali a Dio”. The pitches for the singers are graphically specified on a 3 line staff representing the full compass of the voice, so that the pitches are only determined relatively within each voice, and are free to interact with the other voices at any interval, tempered or otherwise.

Despite these extreme examples I think I do my best work tuning diagonally, imagining both the melodic contour of my own individual part, and the way it will interact with the other parts as they go along. In reality, tuning with an ensemble of voices is a constant game of listening and subtle adjustments. Rules and approaches to tuning are a jumping-off point and a reference; but in practice, the voice is both a producer of an infinite continuum of pitch, and fallibly organic.

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?

May 11

Irrational meters

I was going to write a blog post about what are called “irrational meters” (time signatures with denominators that are not powers of 2) – then I re-read a fantastic post by Helen Bledsoe, flutist for MusikFabrik (among others), and realized I should just link to her! She very lucidly explains the mathematical workings of Ferneyhough-style rhythm, complete with “irrational meters”, which really pose very little additional challenge, if you know how to interpret them.

The most basic point to remember about these meters is that the denominator, just like in more familiar time signatures, indicates the number of notes it will take to fill a whole note. 4/8 indicates 4 of something it takes 8 of to fill a whole note (namely eighth notes). A denominator of 5 would indicate that quarter note quintuplets are the basic unit of the bar, and the numerator, as in familiar time signatures, indicates the number of units in the bar. Thus, 3/5 would be a bar of 3 quarter note quintuplets! Of course, you can, instead, treat these changes of denominator as metric modulations and tempo changes – but I’ll leave some of the specifics to Ms. Bledsoe’s lucid explanations!

Head on over to her blog, Flutin’ High, for the full post!