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.

Sep 12

Workshopping: Week 1

We’re just getting started workshopping a new piece for our October 13th performance at Issue Project Room (at Our Lady of Lebanon Cathedral). Composer Thanasis Deligiannis is meeting with the 5 singers for the project individually, to get to know our voices and personalities as he assembles the new work, Ignored Manuals.

Our first few meetings have involved the standard “what’s your range” discussions, but quickly moved into a more exciting creative process, with Thanasis singing to us fragments of the piece for us to imitate. Though we are moving towards a written score in the end, starting off with this kind of rote process affords us a kind of musical communication more focused on timbre and other subtle sonic details of vocal sound. In a way it reminds me of learning a language from tapes in the car; we’re beginning with pure sonic mimicry, and eventually getting to analysis and written communication.

Oh, and Thanasis’s isn’t the only voice that might be imitated…

Aug 12

Just Intonation in Renaissance Music

Just a little mid-Summer check-in here! We’ll be back on a more regular schedule as we come into our season in the Fall, which kicks off mid-October.

I’ve just been totally engrossed by Ross Duffin’s fantastic article about the theory and practice of Just intonation in Renaissance music. While Ekmeles has performed music explicitly written for and formulated to work in Just intonation, I’ve always been fascinated with quantifying the more intuitive method of tuning employed by choirs and vocal ensembles performing older music.

Before we get into the nuts and bolts, a few terminology refreshers: The octave is divided into 1200 cents, making each half-step in 12 note equal temperament 100 cents. Just intonation is more easily expressed in terms of frequency ratios, which will appear as a ratio between 1:1 and 2:1, expressing an interval smaller than an octave.

Anyone who’s performed in an ensemble knows the sound of a just perfect fifth, and its solid, grounded feeling due to the elimination of beating caused by overtone dissonances. It can be expressed as the ratio 3:2, or 702 cents, putting it 2 cents, or 2 100ths of a halfstep wider than the fifth on the piano. Just thirds, the major’s ratio 5:4, the minor’s 6:5, are slightly less intuitive to modern ears, as they are 386 cents and 316 cents respectively, deviating by 14 and 16 cents from the piano’s tempered thirds.  However, performers of Renaissance music are familiar with the sound of these mellower thirds. Why this discussion about applying Just intonation? Why not just sing these pure fifths and thirds and be done with it? The short answer: polyphony.

The long answer is dealt with beautifully in Duffin’s essay. Tuning purely homorhythmic vertical chords one after another is a simple matter, relatively speaking. When a composer writes notes that hold while other notes move, the moving notes have to tune to the held note (assuming the held note isn’t sliding around). This sometimes means pure fifths will have to be tuned downward from a held note that was tuned as, say, a pure major third. Now a third tuned above that lower note will be doubly low, and you can imagine how things go from there! Duffin deals with Renaissance theoretical puzzles in which the chains of intervals tend to push the pitch in one direction or another, and devises wonderfully musical solutions to the practical problems of keeping in tune.

As a practical example, Lassus’s Ave Regina coelorum is exceptional. If all the intervals were to be tuned justly, the pitch would droop by somewhat less than a quarter tone (43 cents) over the first 5 measures! This example is included in the text of Duffin’s essay, along with several possible tunings.

Below you can hear a synthesized version of this excerpt in a pure (and totally impractical, given the aforementioned drift) Just intonation tuning, followed by a different kind of mechanical solution, performed using an H-Pi Instruments keyboard. Incidentally, I use their exceptional Scordatura software for realizing microtonal scores. Below that video is a human performance of this beautiful piece which doesn’t drop a quarter tone – you can really hear them fighting that downward tendency though, when your ears are attuned to it!

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.

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.

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!

May 11

Equal Temperament

Equal temperament or ET is the current tuning framework for most Western music. It is a kind of acoustical compromise, compared with the pure mathematical relationships of just intonation (JI). No intervals are ‘true’ in the system, but the equality of half-steps allows for free modulation to any key, ensuring that each would be as viable as any other. Pitches which in JI would be derived from the lowest primes are generally the best approximated pitches in ET: perfect fifths (3/2 in JI) are 2 cents low in ET, major thirds (5/4) are 14c+, and minor (7/4) sevenths are 31c+. In JI, all pitches are related intervalically to a fundamental (1/1); in ET, pitches are derived as equal logarithmic subdivisions of an interval, most usually the octave. (An interesting exception in this case is the Bohlen-Pierce system, which divides a perfect 12th into 13 equal steps) Thus, instead of the simple ratios involved in JI, the size of each ET halfstep is derived from the twelveth root of 2. Any ET division of the octave can be reached this way. For example, a 24 note scale’s smallest interval can be derived from the twenty-fourth root of 2.

The ET system used in most Western music is 12 note ET, also called 12ET. However, since the early twentieth century (and with a few notable exceptions, hundreds of years before), composers have worked in other equal subidvisions of the octave. 24ET introduces the quarter tone, 36 the sixth tone, 48 the eighth tone, and 72 the twelfth tone. These are the most common divisions, though there are many musics, composers and cultures who use different divisions (Klaus Huber, for example, in his later works, uses 18ET, creating an equal tempered scale of third tones). 19ET has been used as a better compromise for true JI intervals in tonal music than 12ET, differentiating between sharps and flats as differently tuned. 31ET is a system which was approximated by instrument makers and theorists in Italy in the 16th century via a kind of mean-tone temperament. It allows for diatonic (white note) chromatic (accidentals both sharp and flat) and enharmonic (double sharps and flats) genera, extending the range of possible harmonies greatly. Ekmeles will be experimenting in 31ET tuning in the performance of Gesualdo madrigals this Fall, as historical records indicate that Scipone Stella, a composer in Gesualdo’s court, built replicas of Vicentino’s 31ET keyboard instruments.

Non-exhaustive list of composers using ET microtones

Charles Ives (24ET), Alois Hába (24ET, 36ET, 72ET) Julián Carillo (18ET, 24ET, 30ET, 36ET, 42ET, 48ET, 54ET, 60ET, 66ET, 12ET, 78ET, 84ET, 90ET, 96ET [if you don’t know him, you should really check him out!]). James Dillon, Brian Ferneyhough, Liza Lim, and many other second modern or complexist composers make liberal use of ET microtones.

Learning ET microtones

Without the aid of rote learning, ET microtones can be exceptionally difficult to find. Acoustically, further divisions of 12ET rarely become more consonant, with the exception of 11th partial relationships which lie only a few cents away from a quarter tone. I reccommend the use of computer models, and have made use of several. I have occasionally used simple software synths for learning quarter tones. I reprogrammed a fine-tuning knob built into the synth to instead move only in gradations of 50c, and altered the pitches by hand on the fly. This is useful for melodic work, but makes harmonic hearing of quarter tones impossible. OpenMusic is an IRCAM-developed program made for computer assisted composition. A companion program, microplayer, can handle up to 72ET playback in multiple channels. To hear the score of an ET microtonal piece, I can’t just sit down and play it at the piano, so I enter it into OpenMusic, and can hear a completely accurate version of it, harmonically and melodically. When you have a limited amount of time to rehearse with an ensemble for a difficult piece, practicing with a computer model can allow you to devote that rehearsal time to music making, and not to panicking over whether you’re singing the right notes.

Feb 11

Complexity and failure

“How joyous the notion that, try as we may, we cannot do other than fail and fail absolutely and that the task will remain always before us, like a meaning for our lives.” – Donald Barthelme ‘Nothing: A Preliminary Account’

The physical manifestation of the fear of failure is surely an element in the performative practice of complex music. Concentration on many levels of notation flying by at breakneck speed almost guarantees a slipup here and there. Is learning and performing a complex score really then a Sisyphean task? I would like to argue that complex scores require a redefinition of, or at least a reconsideration of the idea of failure in performance. A certain kind of failure is a necessary and aesthetically important part of all performance. The details of just how we fail and why are worth examining.

Firstly I would propose that the moral character of the performer is engaged by complex scores. Acknowledging the inevitability of failure does not absolve the performer from the responsibility to realize the score as faithfully as possible, using all the tools at his disposal. Likewise, if the composer intended for his work to be realized graphically or approached from a quasi-improvised angle, one would hope he would be clever enough to use notation which suggests as much, rather than the extremely detailed instructions we find in many complex scores.

The information density of complex scores represents in some ways not an evolution and continuation of notational practice, but a break which implies important performative consequences. The performer is transformed from an imperfect conduit for the composer’s ideal vision, into an integral and indispensible contributor to the work.

I recently read an article in Perspectives of New Music entitled “Re-Complexifying the Function(s) of Notation in the Music of Brian Ferneyhough and the ‘New Complexity,’” written by Stuart Paul Duncan. My writing here is in many ways a response to that article. It got me thinking about what the article refers to as the “High-Modernist” model of musical performance, and the break from that tradition that many complex scores represent. Some people take the progressive-historicist view that music notation, beginning at first as mere mnemonics, moving to a two line, four line, five line staff, specifying instrumentation, dynamics etc., moves along a straight line towards its goal, which is the ultimate specification of all parametric information. Certainly scores have become more and more prescriptive as time has gone on, but, as Duncan argues, not always for the same reasons. The “High-Modernist” model of notation and performance might be defined as a direct and absolutely prescriptive communication from the composer to the performer. The score is the work in an ideal form, towards which each performer strives; what is desired above all is accuracy and fidelity. With the increasing density of information communicated by complex scores, it’s easy to see how this kind of accuracy becomes more and more difficult, or even beyond the capacity of the performer, if not the instrument itself.

What to make then, of this extreme density of information? After all, if the composer is after such a complicated web of musical ideas, he could just as easily program it into a computer, rather than spend the time communicating it to us fallible human performers. Paradoxically, the completely prescriptive nature of complex scores involves the performers in a deeper way than a more traditional “High-Modernist” score might. In addition to the hours and hours of engagement with the score required by complexities of notation, rhythm, pitch, or other parametric information, which deepen the performer’s relationship to the work, the conflict between the various physical performative demands requires that the performer function as a kind of filter. If something really is “impossible” as written, whether because of context, or simply the performer’s human limitations, in some cases the performer simply must make a choice of what to do, and what not to do. Conflicting and competing physiological demands in the score can also create unstable and unpredictable sounds. Is this a kind of fakery that proves the illegitimacy of complex notation? I think not. Any human performance contains some artifact of that performer’s humanity; complex music highlights these artifacts, and elevates them, elevating thereby the performance to stand with the score as more of an equal. The late great Milton Babbitt wrote that his scores are indeed intended to be precisely realized and perceived by some ideal performer and ideal listener. In terms of information density, his scores are simpler than say, Ferneyhough’s, but certainly not simple. Does this mean that any imperfect performance (read: at a high enough resolution, absolutely every performance) of his music is a failure? Anyone who has had the joy to hear great interpreters perform his music knows that it most certainly is not. Surely, something about the involvement of actual human performers is necessary for the success of the musical enterprise, despite the fact that an objectively perfect performance which reflects in every way the notation is, depending on your view, either exceedingly rare, or totally impossible. A fascination with this failure and its subtleties is at the core of what we find appealing in any musical performance; the notational practice of complex scores only brings our attention to that failure’s inevitability.

I’ll leave the last word here to Cage: “Composing’s one thing, performing’s another, listening’s a third.”

Feb 11

Performing Cage

Performing the music of John Cage is always a liberating experience. Working towards our performance of Song Books tomorrow, February 12th, I’ve been looking forward to the surprises and the serendipitous moments of beauty that are sure to arise. The process of learning and rehearsing this music requires a removal of personal decisions and the gradual creation of boundaries and limits; this is a freeing and creatively inspiring undertaking.

The following were decided by chance operations: The length of the total program, the number of sectional divisions in the performance and their lengths, the selections I will be singing, in what order I will sing them, how much of them I will be singing, where I will be singing them and for how long, what styles of singing I will employ, and the electronic changes I will make during performance.

The score, like a 200 page block of marble, has been chiseled away, leaving a few heavily marked sheets that denote the performance specific to my time and place. Rigorous rehearsal on these specifics, and confidence in their validity (despite their randomness) is a lesson in working on any music. Certainly nobody would know if I just fudged it, and didn’t follow what the chance operations dictated, instead shaping the material in the moment. However, fidelity to the material and a deep reading of the score will yield a performance with the possibility of transcending my momentary whim, and presenting my humanity (and hopefully Cage’s) in an authentic way.

All this without even recalling the fact that four of my colleagues will be performing their own programs simultaneously, which we will hear for the first time in performance! We, like Cage’s beloved mushrooms, will put forth an overabundance, a generous artistic wastefulness.

“If you look at nature, for instance, it often seems to be wasteful, the number of spores produced by a mushroom in relation to the number that actually reproduce … I hope this shift from scarcity to abundance, from pinchpenny mental attitudes to courageous wastefulness, will continue to flourish.” – John Cage in conversation with Larry Austin 1968