Feb 13

Changing gears

Above: Aaron Cassidy's "I, purples, spat blood, laugh of beautiful lips" Below: Ken Ueno's "Shiroi Ishi"

Above: Aaron Cassidy’s “I, purples, spat blood, laugh of beautiful lips”
Below: Ken Ueno’s “Shiroi Ishi”

As singers of contemporary music, we are called upon to sing in many styles, and with many different vocal qualities. Working with the former is simply a matter of learning the proper aesthetic and idiom for each piece of music, or section of a piece, as it may be. Performing with a different vocal quality is a matter of physiology and muscular training, and can really throw a wrench into the works.

Rehearsing for our January 24th concert, I quickly realized I would need to use a lighter vocal mechanism for the long sustained lines of the second tenor part in Ken Ueno’s gorgeous “Shiroi Ishi” (it’s officially gorgeous, ask the New York Times). Since this was vocally the most challenging work on the program, I thought of it as my technical default for the rest of the show, centering my vocalizing and practicing around the technique required for the piece, and placing the other works on the show as much into the same space as possible.

On a wide-ranging program, however, it’s not always possible to stay within the confines of one vocal quality. I happened to have programmed Aaron Cassidy’s “I, purples, spat blood, laugh of beautiful lips” on the same show, and get this, before the Ueno. I am occasionally my own worst enemy. Luckily we had made the time to run the full program in order in rehearsal, so I was prepared for the big gear shift from Cassidy into Ben Johnston, and finally to the long long lines of “Shiroi Ishi”. Balancing programmatic and performative concerns is a never-ending process, especially as singers of new music.

Jan 13

Aaron Cassidy – Experimental Composer

I’m very excited to have another chance to sing Aaron Cassidy‘s wonderful I, purples, spat blood, laugh of beautiful lips at our upcoming concert this January 24th at Roulette.

If you don’t know his work, I think the piece is an excellent introduction! Here it speaks (and shouts and burbles) for itself, in my performance from the very first Ekmeles concert.

Aaron Cassidy – I, purples, spat blood, laugh of beautiful lips from Ekmeles on Vimeo.

After that, you might also be interested to read his paper, I am an experimental composer , now available on his website.

And would be remiss if I didn’t post the incredible JACK Quartet‘s inspiring performance of Cassidy’s Second String Quartet, which is referenced in the above paper.

Oct 11

The new continuo?

Ekmeles is currently preparing a performance of several of Gesualdo’s madrigals, applying a tuning that is a combination of historical fact and conjecture – Vicentino’s 31-note division of the octave. There is a surfeit of forgotten theories of the tuning of musical instruments and performances, including many that were likely never used in performance. Nicola Vicentino (1511-1575) went a step further than many theorists, actually building and designing instruments capable of producing the scalar divisions he proposed mathematically. He devised the archiorgano, and the archicembalo, respectively an organ and a harpsichord capable of playing 31 (roughly) equal divisions of the octave, allowing free modulation through the keys in a mean-tone tuning, and application of the ancient Greek enharmonic genus. Scipione Stella, a composer at Gesualdo’s court, made a copy of the archicembalo – thus our historical conjecture.

Vicentino himself was a madrigalist, though it is recorded that his enharmonic vocal works were never performed without the harmonic support of a player at the archicembalo. This idea of needing continuo in the context of difficult intonation reminded me of the place singers of contemporary music often find ourselves – ears attached to computer synthesized tracks of our pitches. As readers of the blog will know, I am an advocate for making use of all technological tools possible in the course of learning difficult music. What I am interested in exploring is performing with these computer crutches. Of course, in some cases (like Martin Iddon‘s commission for Ekmeles, Hamadryads, or Aaron Cassidy‘s I, purples, spat blood, laugh of beautiful lips) the in-ear pitch component of the piece is a considered and integral part of the piece.

But what about when the composer hasn’t asked that a pitch track be used, and precise intonation is just too difficult, whether because of short rehearsal time, vocal considerations, or extremely small divisions of the octave? Is performing with a pitch track in our ears just cheating or is it the new continuo? Is the vitality and authenticity of a performance threatened by adherence to a mechanical version of the work which, by literally blocking the ears, supersedes the natural interaction of the performers? Thanks are due to a 16th-century Italian composer for raising these very modern questions – but more importantly, what do you think?

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.

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.

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.