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.


01
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


26
Aug 16

Bach and Lang: Christmas and Passion

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 countertenor, Tim Keeler.



The Skaneateles Festival website lists our concert with The Knights on September 1st with the title “Passion, Past and Present.” This is a little confusing: both Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion and Bach’s cantata “Dazu ist erschienen” are ostensibly Christmas pieces. Bach composed BWV 40 for the day after Christmas in 1723. The text, while not always explicitly about the birth of Christ, includes lines like “the Lord appears as a servant and … is born as Comforter and Savior.” Hans Christian Andersen’s story about the little match girl is traditionally told around Christmas (it takes place on New Year’s Eve and the little match girl has visions of a “large, glorious Christmas-tree”). Labeling both works as “passion” compositions doesn’t really make sense.

“But Tim,” you protest, “David Lang included the word ‘passion’ in the title of his piece! So it must be connected to the passion of Christ!” Ah, yes, you’re right. Lang makes the connection explicit in the title of his work and in the program notes he includes with the score when he observes that “Andersen tells this story as a kind of parable, drawing a religious and moral equivalency between the suffering of the poor girl and the suffering of Jesus.” Lang subverts the typical Dickensian Christmas story of missed magnanimity by focusing on the suffering brought about by the avarice of others, thus foreshadowing the passion of Christ even as we celebrate his birth.

It is a little harder to reconcile BWV 40 with the passion label, but it is possible… and revealing. Most of the text for BWV 40 celebrates the coming of Christ and how his birth will forever rid humanity of suffering and sin. The text of the opening chorus can be translated as “For this the Son of God appeared, that he might destroy the works of the Devil.” In general, the cantata is very happy and expectant. There is only one time in the course of the work where any mention is made of exactly how the son of God might “destroy the works of the Devil.” This occurs during the sixth movement. The chorale text here reads “through the suffering of my Savior, [I] am borne away from you into the hall of rejoicing.” Bach sets the word “suffering” (“Leiden,” in German) with a perfectly timed deceptive cadence, thus highlighting the word, drawing attention to its significance, and giving the congregation (or audience!) time to reflect. It is the only moment of respite amid the otherwise jubilant work. December 26th isn’t necessarily the best day to think about the passion of Christ, but Bach here briefly acknowledges the rest of the story. The Christian belief in the forgiveness of sin and in eternal life hinges on the suffering of Jesus. Bach gently reminds us that it is not enough for Him to simply be born.

The text in Lang’s setting can be depressing and hopeless: “Rest soft, daughter. Where is your grave, daughter? Where is your tomb?” Unlike Jesus’ suffering, the suffering of the little match girl goes unnoticed. She dies for no one’s sins. What is more tragic: to suffer for a great purpose? or to suffer in anonymity? In Bach’s cantata, we celebrate the birth of Christ because we know his suffering will save mankind. In Lang’s composition, we acknowledge and lament the constant, everyday suffering of those around us, those we often forget, and those who are simply too much trouble. Combining these two “Christmas” works into one “Passion” concert highlights the incongruities inherent in our conceptions of human significance. David Lang states as much at the end of his notes, when he writes that “the suffering of the Little Match Girl has been substituted for Jesus’, (I hope) elevating her sorrow to a higher plane.”


18
Aug 16

Bach and Lang: Forces required

As part of our 2016-2017 season we’re giving each of our core singers a turn at the helm of the blog. The inaugural post below comes from our bass, Steven Hrycelak, and is about our September 1st performance at the Skaneateles Festival.


 

As we prepare to perform BWV 40 and David Lang’s the little match girl passion for the Skaneateles Festival, it took some thought to find a context in which to discuss both of these works.

But then it hit me: we are performing both of these works with just four singers. Why would we do this? What are the benefits and disadvantages of this approach, and what challenges do this one per part presentation offer compared to a larger ensemble approach?

Much has been made in recent years, with some very strong opinions expressed, about what forces should be used to perform Bach’s vocal works. The cantatas, as well as the Christmas Oratorio, B Minor Mass and other works, call for varying numbers of soloists in addition to choral parts and instrumental parts. Occasionally, sections of the chorus are marked as ripieno, or one voice per part, which implies a distinction between this subset of singers and a larger chorus. Often this is not marked, however, and many conductors choose to make more soloistic sections of choral movements into ripieno sections, to further this contrast between larger and smaller forces. There are also a considerable number of cantata performances, however, that only use four singers in total, with the same singers executing all of the solo and all of the choral parts. Taken to the extreme, there have been recent performances of works as grand as the St. Matthew Passion — which calls for double choir, SATB solos, and an Evangelist, a singer portraying Jesus, and several smaller roles — using only eight singers in total.

These reduced vocal forces can be thrilling, but require powerful and versatile singers, who can cut over an orchestra both in solo movements and in the often more heavily orchestrated choral movements. It is an exciting challenge as a performer, and one that demands a free, open throated approach to singing Bach, and a chamber music sensibility in the music making. I know we are all excited for this challenge, and the thrill of performing this great cantata with such fine instrumentalists.

What about the Lang, then? The piece was commissioned by Carnegie Hall for Theater of Voices, and performed with only four singers. However, I have performed this piece three times before–once with four singers and twice with a larger ensemble–and I know that the composer approves of both approaches. I have really enjoyed both as well.

The larger ensemble approach offers the possibility of a more blended sound, as the singers have reinforcements to help with breathing and sustaining the sometimes very taxing vocal lines. Someone from each vocal part is assigned some percussion instruments to play, and having other singers on each vocal line certainly takes some pressure off the percussionist (I was the bass percussionist for one of the ensemble performances I did and not the other, and I can assure you that the latter was much less stressful). The incredible sparseness of the score, however, means that ensemble has to be pretty perfect within each section, or it is very noticeable. There is a tricky section for the altos in the first movement where the word stress plays against the meter in a rather angular melody, and could be difficult to coordinate with a section.

Which brings us to the four singer version. It is very hard for the singers! The range demands are extreme, and some of the breath lines are very long. The section that jumps to mind is movement 13, in which soprano, tenor and bass are just sustaining very long whole notes for six pages, with no rests written in, so only quick catch breaths can be taken. And if that weren’t enough, the pitches of the bass part jump all over the place.

The alto line of this movement is a solo in which you hear the chattering of the little girl’s teeth as she is freezing to death. It is incredibly haunting writing, and I think that I ultimately prefer the fragility of the accompanying voices being one per part, and the labor that is required to make this happen. Having lots of singers on each part accompanying the alto soloist could allow for a more seamless background, but I think the struggle for the other singers to sustain these lines actually adds to the fragility, the quiet drama of this scene, and ultimately the tragedy of this work. For me, this is the high point of the piece, and the four singer version enhances the impact.

If you get to hear us do this piece, check out a choral recording after. I’m curious to hear reactions to these very different takes on this work.


The score to David Lang’s the little match girl passion used with permission by Red Poppy, LTD., administered exclusively worldwide by G. Schirmer, Inc.


10
Aug 16

Ekmeles sings David Lang and J.S. Bach

The little match girlEkmeles travels to the Skaneateles Festival, to perform David Lang’s 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning the little match girl passion, and is joined by orchestral collective The Knights to perform J.S. Bach’s Cantata 40, Darzu ist erschienen der Sohn Gottes. Several instrumental selections by Lang and Bach will be performed, including Brandenburg Concert No. 3, and Lang’s Light Moving.

 

  • David Lang – the little match girl passion (2008)
  • J.S. Bach – Darzu ist erschienen der Sohn Gottes BWV 40 (1723)

Ekmeles personnel for concert


27
Mar 16

Ekmeles and Instruments perform U.S. premieres

Ekmeles is joined by the Mivos Quartet, augmented by two extra players to form a sextet, as well as bass clarinetist Carlos Cordeiro, to perform the U.S. premieres of works by Stefano Gervasoni and Bernhard Lang.

 

  • Stefano Gervasoni – Dir – In Dir (2003-2004, 2011) U.S. Premiere
  • Bernhard Lang – Hermetica V – Fremde Sprachen (2011-2012) U.S. Premiere

Ekmeles personnel for concert

Ekmeles performs U.S. premieres with instruments is made possible in part with public funds from Creative Engagement, supported by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council and administered by Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.DCA_color_logo_300dpi


27
Mar 16

Ekmeles and Yarn/Wire perform Columbia Composers

Ekmeles joins powerhouse piano percussion quartet Yarn/Wire to perform new works by Columbia Composers at DiMenna Center.

  • Martin Hiendl – Testomania (2016)
  • Shih-Wei Lo – On the Fringe (2016)
  • Ashkan Behzadi – Till Still Again (2016)
  • William Dougherty – Eidos (2016)
  • Matthew Ricketts – Fälscherlieder (2016)

Ekmeles personnel for concert


05
Feb 16

An Evening of Luigi Nono

Ekmeles performs a program of works relating to Luigi Nono, featuring music by Italian composers as well as Nono’s aesthetic forebears in the Franco-Flemish school. The concert will feature works for up to eight voices, showcasing the virtuosity of the Ekmeles vocalists in a range from the highest soprano to basso profundo.

Nono’s own Sarà Dolce Tacere will be set in relief by a wide  range of styles. Giacinto Scelsi’s Tre Canti Sacri represents Italian music before Nono, while Salvatore Sciarrino’s 3 canti senza pietre is a striking example of the contemporary Italian scene. Medieval works by Josquin and Ockeghem, aesthetic forebears of the kind of compositional rigor characterizing Nono, will round out the program.

Following Ekmeles’s set, violinist Miranda Cuckson and sound artist Christopher Burns will perform Nono’s La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura, or “The nostalgic, utopian, future far-distance. Madrigal for a ‘wanderer” with Gidon Kremer, solo violin, 8 magnetic tapes and 8 to 10 music stands.” While the electronics are molded in real time, the violinist adds her singing voice to the polyphonic texture, as suggested in the composer’s markings. This duo’s recording, of the same title, was declared Best Recording of 2012 by the New York Times.

  • Salvatore Sciarrino – 3 canti senza pietre (1999)
  • Josquin des Prez – Mille Regretz (15th c.)
  • Josquin des Prez – Nymphes des Bois (15th c.)
  • Luigi Nono – Sarà dolce tacere (1960)
  • Johannes Ockeghem – Missa “Fors seulement” – Kyrie and Gloria (15th c.)
  • Giacinto Scelsi – Tre canti sacri (1958)

Ekmeles personnel for concert


06
Jan 16

Music on the Edge

The program is built around a range of modern interpretations and possibilities for the idea of the madrigal. In his In Dir, Stefano Gervasoni sets the tightly-constructed koan-like texts of medieval German mystic Angelus Silesius. Gervasoni uses the enigmatic texts as inspirations for a distinctive kind of text-painting that informs the structure of each movement. Salvatore Sciarrino’s L’alibi della parola leverages the composer’s unique language of skitters and sighs to create a space of wonder – of special interest is the pulsing of the second movement’s quasar. My Peccavi fateor is based on a few lines of music from an eponymous work by Michael Praetorius, and explores every possible combination of the six voices of our ensemble. Peter Ablinger’s Studien nach der Natur is a collection of ten canons, each of which is a clever imitation of the sounds of everyday life. Finally, Elliott Carter’s Mad Regales brings the composer’s vital rhythmic impetus to bear on a set of witty and strange texts by John Ashbery.

  • Stefano Gervasoni – In Dir (2003-2004)
  • Salvatore Sciarrino – L’alibi della parola
  • Jeffrey Gavett – Peccavi fateor (2015) (US Premiere)
  • Peter Ablinger – Studien nach der Natur (1997, 2002)
  • Elliott Carter – Mad Regales (2007)

Ekmeles personnel for concert