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.

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

Some Recent Silences

As always, Tim Rutherford-Johnson of The Rambler comes through with the goods. Another example of his perceptive and brilliant writing on music is up at NewMusicBox: an essay on the continuing influence of Cage’s 4’33”, including discussion of Ekmeles favorites Aaron Cassidy and Peter Ablinger. He also touches on the Catskills setting of the seminal work’s premiere, critical—I think—to understanding what the piece is all about.

Read the full post over at NewMusicBox.

Aug 11

The Rambler

One of my absolute favorite new music blogs is Tim Rutherford-Johnson’s “The Rambler”. Truly intelligent writing about contemporary music and the community surrounding it. The comments on his posts are a real goldmine, as his readership includes many eminent composers and performers; Ian Pace and Liza Lim both made recent appearances in discussions of complex music and the publishing business respectively.

Of especial interest to Americans – now that the service is available to us – might be his Spotify playlist of contemporary music, which are a great way of discovering new things!

Jul 11

Search Journal for New Music

Anyone interested at all in serious inquiry into the state of new music should be reading the Search Journal for New Music. At the moment I am especially taken with Stuart Paul Duncan’s essay “To Infinity and Beyond: A Reflection on Notation, 1980s Darmstadt, and Interpretational Approaches to the Music of New Complexity” which deals with similar topics as his essay “Re-Complexifying the Function(s) of Notation in the Music of Brian Ferneyhough and the ‘New Complexity,’” referenced in my previous post on complexity and failure.

Where else is one to find such treasures as in-depth analysis of Ferneyhough’s Carceri d’Invenzione III, or an article by Colin Holter, the description of which is best left to its title: “The Spiritual Construction of Tuning in American Experimental Music” ? If you have any other favorites, be sure to share them in the comments.