Dec 10

John Cage – Song Books

Et tout cela m'est advenu par la faute de la musique.

An excerpt from Song Books

The 2011 Avant Music Festival presents an evening of John Cage featuring Ekmeles, pianist Vicky Chow, curator/pianist Randy Gibson, and trombonist William Lang.

Ekmeles performs Song Books, Cage’s inexhaustible grab bag of songs and theatre pieces, categorized by their relevance or irrelevance to the theme “We connect Satie to Thoreau.” Each singer freely chooses a program to fit the allotted time, and each performs independently of the another. Several of the programs will be chosen and organized entirely by chance operations.

ekmeles personnel for concert

Dec 10


Composer Karim Haddad’s Motets present a complex rhythmic language based on the medieval concept of prolation taken to a modern extreme. The notation is beautiful and evocative, but tremendously difficult to realize as a performer.

The original, complex notation for Haddad's motets

Conceptually lucid, impossible to perform (currently)

Realizing this (thanks Karim!), the composer has also presented a ‘quantized’ version of the score, translating the many layers of tuplets into their duration in milliseconds, then mapping this information onto the closest approximation afforded by 2-8 subdivisions per quarter note. The result can be extremely variegated series of tuplet subdivisions of a regular beat, requiring accurate placement of say, the final septuplet of one beat, and the final triplet of the following beat, as in the below example.

The human-readable quantized notation for Haddad's motets

Eminently readable and aurally identical

This notation, while immensely more familiar and readable, poses a unique challenge. It requires of the musicians the ability to switch subdivisions in some cases, every beat. This is not something that musicians are normally trained for; we are usually very good with duple and triple subdivisions of the beat and can fake our way through fives, and switching between them involves some grinding of gears. I wanted to train myself to instantly hear these higher-prime subdivisions in the same immediate way we hear duple and triple divisions.

I began by practicing each division on its own, putting on the metronome and simply subdividing, for example, an even five, ensuring that each attack was of equal length and unaccented. Of course 5s and 7s end up in groupings of 2 and 3, but I found it most useful to keep the subdivisions flexible, later improvising groupings with the metronome, exploring aspects of the subdivision. Then I would move between several subdivisions, alternating fives and fours, feeling the even pulse of each, and how they relate. After I felt more comfortable in each subdivision, I wanted a way to practice long strands of changing subdivisions like I knew I would find in the Motets. Using a favorite tool of practice and composition, random.org, I created a string of hundreds of random numbers between 2 and 8, presented in 4 columns. I put my trusty Dr. Beat on 4/4 and dove in, reading each number as a subdivision. It’s tedious work, but even a few sessions found me more confident in dealing with simple subdivisions of the beat. In a way, there’s no difference between triplets, sixteenth notes, and septuplets; they’re all periodic subdivisions, evenly filling the space between two pulses. There’s no special secret to learning them, only the familiarity that we have from years of duple/triple based music that has led us into rhythmic complacency and fear of the higher primes!

Dec 10

EXAUDI – Song Books

Fabulous UK vocal ensemble EXAUDI finally has some video online, and it’s of some of their work with John Cage’s Song Books. I love these pieces, and am very excited to mention that we’ll be performing a program of Song Books on the Avant Music Festival this coming February!