Nov 10

Elementary Training

Contemporary music is full of sundry rhythmic challenges. Before we even get there though, let’s make sure we are completely fluent in the rhythmic language of common practice music. My favorite workout for basic rhythmic exercises comes in Paul Hindemith’s perennial favorite Elementary Training for Musicians. If the title seems condescending, wait until you read what he has to say about singers!

“As for singers, nobody denies that most of them are launched on their careers not because they show any extraordinary musical talents, but because they happen to have good voices. On account of this advantage a singer is usally excused from any but the most primitive musical knowledge — knowledge such as could be acquired by any normal mind in a few weeks of intelligent effort.”

Ouch, Paul, ouch. The text takes you step by step from reading a simple series of vertical lines as regular pulses through the furthest traditional notational difficulties of Hindemith’s time. He even has a remarkable prescient turn in a page where he describes the derivation of what have been come to be known as “irrational meters”, with denominators other than powers of 2. But my favorite feature of the text is the way he forces a physical incorporation of the rhythmic concepts at hand with what he calls coordinated action. This consists of speaking the given rhythm while conducting with one hand, tapping it with the left hand while conducting with the right, tapping it with the foot while conducting, and every possible combination of limbs and rhythmic interactions.

A rhythmic exercise from "Elementary Training"

Try tapping, singing, conducting, etc. as prescribed

While a given exercise may be simple with only your dominant limbs in play, a simple redistribution of the material across your body can force a radical re-learning of the rhythmic concept at hand. The literal embodiment of rhythm in a deep and conscious way (not just toe-tapping) has a transformative effect.

Nov 10

Christian Bök – Eunoia

If you’ve heard Aaron Cassidy’s I, purples, spat blood, laugh of beautiful lips (which I wrote about learning in a previous post), you’ve heard (in fractured form) Christian Bök’s delicious ‘homophonic translation’ of Rimbaud’s “Voyelles.” It comes from his incredible book Eunoia, which you can hear read at PennSound, and read on your own in its entirety at the publisher’s website. Each of the book’s five main chapters uses only one vowel, and attempts to exhaust the lexicon of univocal words. The experience of hearing Bök’s poetry read aloud straddles the musical and linguistic.

Another current favorite of mine, several of Bök’s own performances of which you can find at the above link, is his “Motorized Razors.” Are poets really allowed to make these kind of sounds? (Isn’t that my job?) He also does a lovely rendition of his artistic Urvater Kurt Schwitters’s Ursonate.

Nov 10

Enno Poppe – Interzone

Here’s a nice little multilingual look at an incredible piece for video, vocal ensemble and instruments by Enno Poppe. The performances in these clips are with Exaudi and Ensemble Intercontemporain; Interzone is also available in a complete recording by Kairos that features Ensemble Mosaik with Die Neue Vocalsolisten. The omnipresent (and fabulous) Omar Ebrahim narrates both performances.

Nov 10

Knee Plays from Einstein on the Beach

Ekmeles joins an all-star group including impresario and tenor Nick Hallett, composer Eve Beglarian, and Ethel violinist Mary Rowell to perform excerpts from Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach. The Knee Plays are hypnotic and pulsing, archetypical early minimalism. Texts for the singers alternate between numbers and fixed-do solfège syllables.

Program also includes Tom Johnson’s An Hour for Piano. More info available on Issue Project Room’s page for the event.

ekmeles personnel for concert

Nov 10

Ear training texts

Most of the time, the repertoire I am preparing for upcoming performances is more than enough to occupy my mental and musical faculties. However, when work comes in fits and starts, and I find myself without a project for a moment, I practice my musicianship skills. I’ve found different texts useful for different tasks and goals and will give a short summary of my favorites below.

Modus Novus

This book by Lars Edlund is a classic of atonal, interval-based learning. It starts off with melodic exercises consisting entirely of seconds and fourths, then adding fifths, then thirds, and moving further on into more complex structures. In addition to the melodies written expressly for the text, the book includes many examples from the orchestral, chamber, and vocal repertoire. Preceding the melodic exercises, Edlund includes several 3- or 4-note examples of the most difficult intervallic combinations involving the new interval. I’ve found Modus Novus to be exceptionally good for working on troublesome intervals in a musical context.

Wege zur Neuen Musik

While not as substantial or encyclopedic in scope a book as Modus Novus, I find the exercises quite useful, and it is sold in low and high voice versions. The melodies tend to be a little more mechanical and sequential, but are good for getting intervals in your ear on their own. My favorite parts of the book are the two voice exercises (bring a friend!) and the large section of exclusively vocal excerpts from the repertoire, ranging from Berg and Schönberg to Feldman and Ligeti. Sometimes it just feels better to be singing real music while working on your musicianship!

Elementary Training for Musicians

Paul Hindemith’s perennial text is a kind of all-purpose torture device for the masochistic musician. I’ll write about its excellent rhythmic exercises in an upcoming post; for now I’ll focus on the pitch-based aspects of the text. Unlike the other two texts listed here, Hindemith focuses on tonal (or at least diatonic) sight-singing. The rhythmic aspects of his melodic exercises are always interesting, with lots of across-the-beat accents and sequences. If you need a tune-up on more melodic and tonal reading, this is a very useful text.

Of course, it’s often useful to take excerpts from the literature and turn them into vocalises and ear training exercises. I’m currently working on a piece by Luca Lombardi that isn’t too difficult, except for one wide ranging and angular melodic line on a single syllable. I’m writing it out into my notebook in various forms and transpositions to use as a vocalise while I get the intervals clearly in my ear.

Nov 10

Avant Garde Project

If you don’t yet know Avant Garde Project, you should! It’s a great resource for high quality transfers of LP recordings of classic 20th century music that are no longer available. A favorite of the moment:

The World of Harry Partch, featuring the man himself lending his intoning voice to a later version of Barstow.