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

Jan 11

Tuplets and polyrhythms

A section of John Cage's "Living Room Music" which features quintuplets

How do I do this accurately at a slow tempo?

5 for 4 over a full bar of 4/4 at quarter=60? How do you do anything but fake that? All it takes is a little math! Slow tuplets can be a real killer, and if you try to perform them like you would an eighth note triplet (probably by feel), you’ll be all over the place. The least common multiple is your friend! In the case of our example (from John Cage’s Living Room Music, if you’re playing along at home), that would be 5×4 = 20. This number is the number of even pulses the bar is divided into that can accomodate both the quintuplet and the normal quarter note pulses. We could also have come to this from another angle: if the rules and standards of notation are preserved (tuplets over 3 beats need to have dots. Very few composers follow this standard; Carter does), tuplet notes will subdivide just like normal ones. This means a quintuplet quarter note split into 4 will yield 4 quintuplet sixteenth notes, just like its non-tupleted cousin will split into 4 normal sixteenths. Each normal quarter note in the bar could be divided into 5 quintuplet sixteenths. Either way we get there, 5×4 or 4×5 results in 20 quintuplet sixteenths, four of which add up to a quintuplet quarter. Knowing this, we can re-notate the rhythm as follows.

The quintuplets renotated

First the pulse, subdivided by accents, then written with ties

Now instead of a mysterious 5 floating somewhere in the bar we have attacks in relationship to the quarter note pulse, easily realized with a facility in subdivision. The purely mechanical accuracy of this method is, in many cases, only a first step; ideally, a tuplet like this should be realized without the syncopation accents implied by the re-notation. When you know exactly where each note lands in relation to the regular pulse of the piece, you can perform the tuplet smoothly, knowing proper points of reference throughout.

Any interaction of pulses can be rationalized in this manner – a more complicated example yielding a similar method: 5 for 3 over 3/32 in Aaron Cassidy’s I, purples, spat blood, laugh of beautiful lips. We can use our knowledge of the standards of tuplet notation to find how the pulses interact. First, we can imagine each iteration of the the 5 over 6 to have dots, which would make the first note of the quintuplet 9 pulses long, and the second note 6 pulses long. This 15 part division of the bar is in fact the LCM, allowing us to easily place the 32nd note every 5 pulses (15/3) and the 32nd note of the quintuplet on the 10th iteration of this pulse, leaving us with attacks on iterations 1, 6, 10 and 11 of a 3/32 measure hypothetically subdivided by 15 128th note quintuplets!

The same method can be used in the abstract to learn a polyrhythm. What does 5 over 3 in general sound like? Find the LCM (15), write out the digits 0 – 14 on a piece of paper, and circle every multiple of 3 and put a square around every multiple of 5. Following the numbers as a regular pulse, tap both hands at 0, the left at circled numbers and the right at numbers with a square. Voila, 5 over 3, mathematically done! Practice feeling each number as the ‘main pulse’, and each as the ‘cross rhythm’.

Two ways of feeling a 5:3 polyrhythm

Two ways of feeling a 5:3 polyrhythm

Generally, feeling the higher prime as a pulse will be easier, as it will feel subdivided by a lower prime. Take the above example: the 5/4 measure requires accurate placement of only triplets, while the 3/4 measure would require quintuplet level accuracy. An ability to shift between the two feels can help with accurate performances of polyrhythms and tuplets.

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!

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

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.

Oct 10

Learning “I, purples, spat blood, laugh of beautiful lips”

Aaron Cassidy’s I, purples, spat blood, laugh of beautiful lips (henceforth I, purples) intrigued me from the second I saw the notation. As a man who sings contemporary music, my repertoire is limited compared to the high soprano’s. An especial gap in repertoire was in the category of complexist scores – excepting Ferneyhough’s Shadowtime, which is a less-than-practical undertaking to put together. (A lovely exception is Liza Lim’s Chang-O, which was a delight to give the US Premiere of.) So I was very pleased to see in Cassidy’s piece a new kind of notation for the voice, as part of a coherent and new musical idea. It would be a few months before I would really get working on the score – nothing like a deadline to make you dig in! As the most complex score I had yet worked with, I, purples demanded a kind of rigorous procedural approach in learning. There was to be no hacking through the score at the piano – for one, there aren’t any notes on the page!

Through years of working on difficult scores I’ve tried many different approaches, but one aspect of my method is always consistent: decoupling aspects of the score for the purposes of learning. This idea is especially useful when the work itself, like many pieces by Ferneyhough and composers of the “Second Modernity,” decouples aspects of traditional performance techniques. Below, I will outline the general sketch of the procedure that I have found most useful, followed by the specific work I did in learning I, purples.

  1. Deal with the text. If it’s in a foreign language, translate it and write out the IPA, if you need to. Be able to fluently speak it.
  2. Speak the text in the notated rhythms.
  3. Speak the text with notated rhythm and dynamics.
  4. Speak the text with notated rhythm, dynamics, and articulations.
  5. Learn the notes out of time
  6. Put it all together

At each step, it is often useful to prioritize the new information. For example, step 3 could also include practicing just the text and dynamics, adding in the rhythm later; step 4 could involve speaking the text in rhythm with articulations, ignoring the dynamics, etc. What follows is a more specific outline of my method for learning I, purples.

  1. Text – translation was not an issue since the piece contains all the translations I need. The cross-cut texts made it difficult to see what word (and even language) a phoneme belonged to, so I wrote the IPA into the score. I then practiced speaking/intoning the text in a rough semblance of the the notated proportions.
  2. Rhythm – I looked for polyrhythms that were solvable by a least common multiple method (something I’ll write about in an upcoming post on rhythm), and learned the general feel of those. (The first bar, for example, is a 5:3 polyrhythm.) This way I could practice pure ratio relationships, and know where things fall at a reasonable speed before they become too fast to be comprehensible. I then programmed the whole thing into Sibelius to learn by rote, section by section, beginning as I am wont to do with the end, assuming the beginning gets extra attention all the time anyways. Starting at less than half tempo, I gradually worked my way up to 75% of tempo in each section.
  3. Dynamics – I then removed the difficulty of the rhythmic aspect of the work to focus on the dynamic contour paired with the text and a rough approximation of the rhythmic structure. Knowing what syllables are louder, and the shape of each word or phonetic cluster dynamically helped to define the gesture. Later in my work on dynamics, I continued to practice with the rhythm track from the computer, gradually moving from slower tempos upward.
  4. Articulations – I had been gradually adding in the contour of the gesture-defined notes, and now added those to an otherwise steadily intoned pitch. I added accents, staccatti, mordents, breathy and scratchy voice et al. Always, as before starting slow and speeding up gradually, occasionally stopping to take the gesture out of time to define its shape and characteristics more specifically, still working with the computer rhythm track.
  5. Notes (In this case, the patch) – The notes for I, purples come via an earbud and a Max/MSP patch which generates a randomly changing glissando. The first time I practiced with the patch I thought I was going to have to cancel the performance, or at least fake it. By the end of the day I was much more confident. It’s an odd skill of listening, but I found it helpful to start off define the ranges of the voice rather small, and practice at a low tempo, and expand from there. A general lesson emerges at this point: simplify and reduce the principle demanded of you as far as you can without corrupting the gestalt, then move step by step towards the goal.
  6. Back to basics – for a few checkups, I went back to my computer track of the rhythm and just spoke along to ensure I hadn’t slipped too far away from accuracy in my internalizing of the gesture.

Add to the density of the page the fact that you have to be reacting live to a different pitch glissando each time, and you have to be very close to memorized. I will experiment in the future with mnemonic page markings such as color-coded dynamics, but usually find that adding more information to a page like this would be distracting. On the other hand, a simple device like a colored highlight could engender an automatic reaction during performance, ensuring recognition of a certain parameter that might otherwise go unperformed.