Thursday, December 17, 2009

Extended Techniques, Blessing or Abomination?

I am astonished by the occasional vitriol I encounter from some prominent flutists when it comes to extended techniques such as multiphonics, circular breathing and so on. They chant the same nonsense: "bad for your embouchure", "waste of time", "don't be one of those players". After over 20 years of experience with these techniques as a player and teacher, I am convinced of their benefit to traditional playing. But that's not what I want to post about. I would like to approach this question from another angle.

Some years ago in an active network forum a very prominent flutist remarked that flutists who can circular breathe belong to a certain class of players whose time would have been better spent working on learning to play properly. I won't delve into the implications here. It made me livid. I spent 11 weeks in 1992 learning to circular breathe, did that hinder me from playing properly? How idiotic! This person has somewhat recanted this initial statement, but the shadow of stigma still applies in some circles.

Now I have 5 years experience teaching at the conservatory level, and I've begun to understand this attitude. I won't say I sympathize, but I understand it enough to offer some insights which I hope will help students, teachers and composers. There are two issues, as I see it.

The first is a basic misunderstanding. Here is an illustration - this semester I had a student who was swamped with student ensemble compositions and several 20th century repertoire pieces. After this period, she came to me with an 18th century work. The sound was bad, no focus, articulation stuck, breathing shallow. She had tied herself into knots because of the difficulty of the contemporary works, which included circular breathing, microtonality and switching to alto and bass flutes. A typical teacher's reaction would be "OK, see what that stuff does to you? No more!" But folks, the music itself is not at fault, it was the student's attitude toward it that stressed her and put her practice into panic mode, causing physical problems that set her way back.

That can happen with any repertoire. It can happen when you first learn to play the piccolo. Good and balanced practice on the piccolo can help and enrich your flute playing, as can good and balanced practice of extended techniques. Managing the airstream and angle for piccolo playing is also an extention of flute technique. Exercising the same management for multiphonics is not such an "out-there" thing.

It wasn't for nothing that Aurèle Nicolet always said: "You must play Baroque music every day, you must play Bach every day!" If you practice extended techniques as a true extension of good practice out of good flute technique, you won't fall back, or at least if you do, the recovery time will be very quick.

However, there is another aggravating element, which leads me to the second point, the disparity between composing and performing. Student composers don't necessarily need endless years of training to write very complicated music. Student instrumentalists and singers need decades of training before they acheive the level it takes to play a complicated piece it took a student composer only one semester to write. I've put this rather crudely but you get what I mean. Since being a composer-performer is not really encouraged by the conservatory system, this artistic link has been severed. Our only hope is diplomacy! Communication of the issues of difficulty is very important. Encouraging an us-versus-them attitude will make the situation for both worse.

When a flute student is first exposed to contemporary techniques at the conservatory level, it is likely s/he will be overwhelmed because that first exposure may be a standard repertoire piece written for a professional [think of all the works written for Pierre-Yves Artaud, Robert Aitken, Roberto Fabricciani and so on], or written by a student or faculty composer who assumes that level as the norm. The student is frustrated, the teacher, if inexperienced, is also frustrated and there's another black mark against contemporary music. The earlier good, measured, positive exposure to extended techniques, the better.

Why Augmented Scales Kick Butt

Because of the seemingly innocuous combination of half-steps and minor thirds!
It's one of those symmetrical scales that I just love, although I know nature abhors perfect symmetry, and true beauty (like those lovely Japanese gardens) operates on the principle of slight asymmetry. But for composers, symmetry in the context of tonality is very useful when you don't want the pull of a tonal center. It frees you up to think of other ways to pull in the audience.

Most of us flutists know some symmetrical scales:
1) Chromatic = half steps repeated
2) Whole Tone = whole steps repeated

Then you may know, especially if you have studied Jazz:
3) Octatonic (a.k.a. Diminished) = either repeating half step/whole step or whole step/half step

And the subject of this blog entry:
4) Augmented scales = either repeating half step/minor third or minor third/half step

You find these scales in music by Dutilleux, Gaubert and if I'm not mistaken Jolivet. That minor third makes things sound sort of "harmonic minor-ey", pentatonic or bluesy, depending on the context.

But my point is not that they just sound cool, they kick butt because they are seriously challenging to play smoothly! Why?
1) The half steps go naturally quicker than the minor thirds
2) The scales with A#/Bb also have F#/Gb, so you can't use the Bb thumb with good conscience!

Just try them out!
(3 pages, pdf)

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Nono: a Bass Flutist Prepares

Working on das atmende klarsein has provoked a bit of a crisis. Not that I can't handle a piece for solo bass flute, small choir and live electronics. I eat that stuff for breakfast. Well, ok, I usually wait until after breakfast....

The crisis comes from several directions. One is historical. You wouldn't think a contemporary music person like me would be faced with issues of historical performance practice, but it happens all the time. Styles change, techniques change, instruments are built differently, all with the rapidity of less than one generation. And I'm not even thinking about the electronic components!

I did not really like the piece at first. Take the first movement for flute: at first listening it is nothing more than a grab-bag of (now cliche) flute sounds: airy, elephantine honks on a piece of metal plumbing along with the rattling of ill-fitted keywork. A real 1980's museum piece. How on earth does one mould these sounds into something that can say something today? Was there even a "something" that needed to be moulded? My guess was yes. I have noticed a direct correlation: the more obscure something sounds you can bet the more heavy the philisophical component lurking behind the work. And it turns out I was right. At least that is somewhere to start! Research!

There is no lack of information regarding the background of this piece. The score is sold with a DVD for didactic purposes. OK. I'm undyingly grateful and informed. However, the audience will not have the benefit of this DVD, they may not even bother to read the program notes. I need to present something that sounds convincing without a brief lecture on the philosophical texts of Plato, Hölderlin and Rilke. Is it just me, or am I strange in thinking one should be able to enjoy music on a purely sensual level?

That is crisis No. 1 in a nutshell. Crisis No. 2 is this: I'm having to eat my words. All my composer spanking has, in a way, come back as a great kick in the behind. Ok, some of you may be sniggering about that. Go ahead. You see, Nono was one of those great composers who really, really worked in close tandem with the performer. This is what I'm always encouraging composers to do while telling them not to do this, not to do that, to be precise in notating what the player can do. Well it seems to me in this respect Nono was so successful that I see in the score what Roberto Fabbriciani could play, and in fact, I don't know really what Nono himself wanted. I can only infer it by gathering background information on this piece and working with those who knew him. (So you see, oral tradition still plays a great role!) That is a grey area I can deal with, as I am experienced in interpreting and improvising. But it is an example of where I wish the notation were a little, hmm, less precise and more open to variations of articulation, dynamics and sound color. As a matter of fact, I don't feel as if I am playing a piece by Nono at all sometimes. Of course the overall concept of the piece is his, but when it comes to the flute part I feel less like I'm crawling into the skin of the composer and more like I'm crawling into the skin of Roberto Fabbriciani. Please note, I mean absolutely no disrespect here for the man!

However, Fabbriciani says in the DVD that the score is a point of departure for interpreters. Whew! The role of the bass flute is also explained: it represents a nostalgia for the future, as the choir represents a nostalgia for the past. I wonder if it is the same esthetic as his work for violin, tape and electronics, La Nostalgica-Futura? In any case I found this a useful concept. Nostalgia for the future also goes through it's fashion, from Star Trek to Sun Ra's cult film Space is the Place. The trick is to present sounds, phrasing and so on that sound fresh and forward-looking in today's world.

I was reminded of a passage from Stanislavski's book An Actor Prepares. The actor was to interpret the role of the hero who was a misogynist. The difficulty was, the piece was a light comedy, not a tragedy. What is funny about a misogyny? Analysing the role, the actor discovers that the hero does not really hate women, he only wants to project that image. That gives lots of scope for irony and self-deprecation. The parallel here is that I am reminded again not to take the written score at face value, but to find in it the voice I want to project.

Was I successful? Well, depends on who you ask. After the concert I was pleased to hear from some that they enjoyed the piece on a purely musical level, not knowing Nono's music. Approval from the non-cognoscenti, so to speak. However, one Famous Flutist remarked that it was impressive, but had nothing to do with actual flute playing. I was dissapointed that was how it came across, as if intonation, long-ass phrases and extreme control of the direction of airstream have nothing to do with flute playing. Although maybe it was a compliment in that the technical processes were well hidden enough so that at least something came out?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Flute Multiphonics - Q&A for composers

Q: Should I write in the fingerings for multiphonics?
A: Yes. It saves time. It saves misunderstandings. Books go out of print, so please avoid naming multiphonics by number. I know writing or drawing in multiphonics can be a pain. If you have many of them and want to save time and ink, you could write the multiphonics with fingerings in your performance instructions so you need not repeat the fingerings in the score.

Q: How should I notate the fingering?
A: Robert Dick has the most intuitive system, it is just a template of the layout of the flute's keys. Carin Levine and Pierre Yves Artaud don't draw the trill keys but refer to them with the letters "A" and "B". A flutist unfamiliar with these books (esp. if they get out of print) won't know what to do. If you need a template, you may use the jpg below (taken from Robert Dick's Flying Lessons):

There is also a cheap downloadable font for Sibelius, Finale and text editors available here. I haven't tried this out myself, so I don't know how easy it is to use, but I like the results.

Q: Which multiphonic resource should I use?
A: At the time of this writing, I would most highly recommend Robert Dick's The Other Flute and Carin Levine's The Techniques of Flute Playing. Do not use Bruno Bartolozzi's New Sounds for Woodwinds.

Unless you are a flutist yourself, I would not advise using The Virtual Flutist. When a resource shows every single pitch that can be produced by a certain fingering, it doesn't necessarily follow that a multiphonic can be created from these pitches. Try it with a live player before trusting a theoretical projection of the flute's acoustic response.

Q: Can I just notate the main note and leave the multiphonic up to the player?
A: Sure! Be aware though that on the lowest notes only harmonic multiphonics are possible. In layman's terms, multiphonics are made possible by venting the tube at a certain location which causes the note to split. Low notes need the long tube of the flute. If we vent a key, we shorten the tube: therefore no low note. In short, the best range for "free" multiphonics is the middle register and up to the flute's 3rd octave B-flat. At least that is the most comfortable for me.

Q: Can you trill a multiphonic?
A: Depends. Almost all have the possibility to do at least a timbral trill. Check with your local flutist.

Q: Can you fluttertongue a multiphonic?
A: Yes. Some very close multiphonics are actually easier with fluttertongue. This is assuming however, that the flutist can fluttertongue. It's not always a given.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

To Honk or Not to Honk: Low notes

Some flutists have a naturally rich low register. For others, high notes come more naturally. Some are blessed with the ease of both. I was a weakey one in the low register for years. The flip side of that was that I could play high and quietly with more ease than many others.

What to do about weakness in the low register? I've compiled some advice and exercises that I give to my students (and myself!) over the years.

First of all, make sure your flute is not leaking.

There are two aspects:
1. General weakness = unwanted decrescendo as you descend
2. Forte attacks. Sometimes you may have a good sound down low, but when you are asked to play a short loud note, or start a passage on a low loud note, it doesn't respond.

For no. 2, forte attacks, Michel Debost gives some great advice in his book The Simple Flute:
*"Finger Tonguing" = a faint percussion of the finger closest to the desired note. Not to be confused with key slaps.
*Play on the middle breath, not a big inhalation
*Hold back and give the sound a very small amount of time so that you hear it
*Let air come through the nose if necessary, so the air speed is not too fast out of the mouth. This will prevent the note from cracking

And from Robert Dick:
*Drop the belly. A trick from brass players, it keeps the center of gravity low

From Peter Lloyd:
*Blow towards the chest

If you can bring all this advice into play, that will start you off. If you really want to generally strengthen your lower register and gain control over all dynamics, you have to make a serious commitment. Have patience, it may take time to develop. It might take months or years before you are really happy with it. But isn't life a work in progress anyway?

Moyse, Moyse, Moyse, souplesse des sons graves from de la Sonorite (page 10 in my edition). It helps, but only if you really, really do it, and like physical exercise, it pays to play it every day instead of a lot one day and then nothing for a week.

Another exercise I call "Swimming". There's almost nothing to it: just take a low note, say D. Take a good but not huge breath and play the note mezzo forte until the breath is done (but don't squeeze out). Breath in normally, don't hurry. Repeat this process about 10 times. Why is it swimming? While you are playing the note, you can imagine you are under water and moving forward through sound. You go where there is the most resonance. You really listen, small hisses in the sound, unevenness, a sudden opening, whatever. Let them happen. Just go forward, and when you need a breath, surface like a dolphin and get a breath, then go back in.
You'll notice by the 10th time probably that the sound has opened up.

You can also make an exercise from the Berio Sequenza. Almost every lesson I give on this piece ends up being a lesson in articulation, especially for the low register. Take the opening gesture, or any low articulated passage in the piece and do the following.
*play legato with focused, not forced, sound. The throat should be open, but not too stretched. Too stretched will interfere with articulation that's coming up in the next step.
*play with "Ha" articulation. Move the belly, but not too exaggerated. Think more of activating it (and dropping it) rather than jiggling it
*now use the tongue, only as an opening valve, not a sledge hammer. Keep in mind Debost's comments above.

Then there is the phenomenon of the disappearing low register. Players who don't normally have problems with low notes encounter this like a bad hair day, there seems to be no explanation. You can wake up and they're just not there!
*Check your flute, maybe it's leaking. Maybe there's a cigarette paper stuck on a pad.
*Gently, gently wipe your lips with a clean tissue. There might be a build-up of dry skin on the lips.
*Some people swear that this happens when there is a drop in atmospheric pressure. Is it about to rain? Maybe that's your excuse.
Any other advice or observations? I'd like to hear them.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Composing for Students (Conservatory Level)

I was asked by a composer what pitfalls there might be for writing an ensemble piece for a local conservatory. Since we both had copies Carin Levine's Techniques of Flute Playing, I took that as my basis and made the following remarks.

I will preface these remarks with an important note. If you are composing for students or young people, please go easy on the extended techniques: use them sparingly! Some rough guidelines: stick to one technique per musical phrase, and give the player enough time to set up an unusual fingering or to move the flute to a covered embouchure position.

2.1 The fourth octave
for a student piece, please don't use extended passages above D4. Non-harmful 4th octave technique takes time to develop. Isolated notes up to E4 are OK for students.

2.2 Fluttertongue
seems like a normal technique but watch out - many Asian students can't do it. And the distinction between glottal and tongue production - *in an ensemble situation* - falls into the category of DON'T BOTHER. You won't necessarily hear the distinction if there are others playing, and most young players can only do either one or the other anyway.

2.3 Harmonics
Very good for students!
2.3.1 Double Harmonics
Also good. It's good to have the fundamental note (fingered one) notated as in the Pagh-Paan and Richard examples. Beware that higher partials are difficult to produce and control dynamically.

2.4 Whistle Tones
Good for students, but may be difficult for them at first. Easiest to use them in an atmospheric, undefined way, with the fundamental tone notated, as in Carin's examples. As you probably know, these are very quiet sounds.

2.4.1 Special Whistle Tones
Difficult for most beginners. These are the ones with the teeth and covered embouchure hole that need time to set up. Just for the record, Sciarrino notates them incorrectly. When you cover the embouchure hole, the pitch you produce is a m. 7th below. The Sciarrino example p. 17 does not produce the pitches notated.

2.5 Jet Whistle
OK for students - give them time to set up the embouchure; inexperienced/uncoordinated players can chip their teeth if they try to get into covered embouchure position too fast. Once in this position though, you can write quick passages. Please also give time for getting back into normal playing position. As a general rule, when writing for inexperienced players, set up all "covered embouchure" techniques as if they were actual instrument changes - leaving a bit of time on either side.

2.6 Trumpet Embouchure
I'd avoid in student pieces, although I personally am fond of this technique. It does mess with the circulation in your lips and you can't get back to normal playing right away, and if you are too eager, it can cause temporary damage.

2.7 Singing and Playing
Good for students. But as you may already know, produces more of an "effect" than a true polyphony. As to where to notate the voice line: if it is simple, use the same staff as the flute - if more complicated (or separate dynamics) - use two lines (vocal line on bottom).

2.8 Multiphonics
Good for students - there are a whole bunch of "beginner" ones that are not too difficult. I'd check with a real flutist for these, or maybe you know them already. Otherwise, follow Carin's chart with regards to stability and dynamics, but take away a few degrees of stability and mentally take the dynamic notch down too - an inexperienced player may not have as much success as notated in the chart. Also take care of the surrounding dynamics in an ensemble situation. The flutist has to be able to hear his/herself well enough to produce these sounds accurately. Also since the student has to learn new fingerings, it is better to use them in slower passages.

3.1 Pizzicato
Good for students to learn. Beware that in an ensemble situation, the difference between a tongue pizz produced on the lips and a tongue pizz produced on the palate is negligable. Most students will be able to do one better than the other anyway. Therefore, in order for them to be heard, it's good to give them freedom to do what they can produce most effectively.

3.2 Key Clicks
In an ensemble situation, these fall into the DON'T BOTHER category. I almost always have to end up adding a tongue or lip pizz to make them effective (this is a good combination anyway, more percussive). In ascending first octave passages, one lifts up keys instead of putting them down so there is no natural percussive effect. You can hit an auxilliary key - but in a rapid passage this is awkward.

3.3 Tongue Ram
Ok for students. Give them lots of time to set up, although once set up, you can write fast passages. See comments to Jet Whistle 2.5

4. Vibratos
All ok - beware the different kinds can be very subtle - you may not hear the differences between them (for example, normal heavy vibrato and smorzato) if there's other stuff going on.

5. Air sounds
OK for students. Although it seems like an airy sound would be the easiest thing in the world to produce, it takes time to control a mix of sound and air that will project. Not all young players can do loud air sounds immediately.

Also, please note the following since I don't think Carin makes the distinction:
Be sure to specify if you want these sounds:

* produced in playing position (so the air goes across the flute and produces a pitch that corresponds with the fingers), or
* produced inside the flute: i.e., if you want the flutist to cover the embouchure hole and produce a kind of unpitched "white noise". Here the pitch will not *necessarily* correspond with the fingers. However, if you change fingerings, you will get color and vague pitch changes. This technique is also effective when changing vowel sounds in the mouth.

In an ensemble situation, please avoid the notational use of empty note heads, especially if rhythm is important. This makes it difficult to distinguish quarter notes from half notes.

6. Circular breathing
It takes a long time to master - would avoid in a student piece unless the student is already learning it.

7. Trills
all Ok, I'd just follow what Carin says.

8. Glissandi
Beware with embouchure glissando: the lowest notes have less flexibility. You can get better results from about E1 and upwards.
Otherwise, follow Carin's guidelines.

9. Microtonality
OK - rapid passages will take lots of time to learn though.

Bass Flute ins and outs - for composers

Here's some collected advice on how to compose for the bass flute.

For both composers and performers:
To check out solo repertoire you can refer to my repertoire list - scroll to the list of works with piccolo/alto and bass flute. You can also listen to my playing Boulez' Dialogue de l'Ombre Double arranged for bass flute.

Please realize that the bass flute is not a true bass instrument. It won't honk unless you amplify it or use its third octave. Both can be very effective, but I often wonder why composers don't take advantage of the beautiful acoustic sound of the instrument's first octave more often. What it lacks in carrying power, it makes up for in soulfulness.

When composing extended techniques - some are very effective! All the percussive tricks like tongue or lip pizzicati and tongue rams work very well in the first octave. Be aware though that they too can get lost in an ensemble situation, especially if you have percussion or bass clarinet also doing slaps. It's difficult to match the dynamic impact of a good bass clarinetist doing slaps.

Key clicks - as with the C flute - fall under my category of "why bother" techniques. I almost always find I need to supplement the key sound with a tongue or lip pizz. They can be effective though if not much else is going on. And please (this is almost a no-brainer, but I have to repeat it all the time) when you write a fast passage, bear in mind that you'll only get key noises on the notes that require you to ADD a finger. Logically, descending passages work better than ascending.

Multiphonics work on the bass flute - fingering charts can be found in Carin Levine's book The Techniques of Flute Playing vol. 2. Basically, you can use most C-flute multiphonics that don't require half-holes. Again, though, there are acoustical considerations. Quiet dynamics, please! with the exception of high overblown harmonics. Multiphonics can be tricky on the bass flute, so don't be disapointed with an airy, unstable result. If that's the effect you wish to create - all the better! To seek a stable, dynamically viable multiphonic, work with the individual player. Each player will have his/her own set of multiphonics which come easier.
It's less of an issue nowadays, but beware that some cheap instruments are still being made without trill keys - so multiphonics using trill keys will not work on them.

Whistle tones work well but are difficult to control. Sweeping through the overtone spectrum on a fingered low note can be effective. Again - as you all probably know - this is easier for the player when it's just an atmospheric effect. Longer notes please! Or if they need to be short, it's best to have a free or undefined rhythm as the response time may vary.

Air/aeolian sounds. This is a great, if perhaps overdone, effect on the bass flute. Toshio Hosokawa uses it often in his ensemble works to good effect. Beware though that young or inexperienced players will need some time to develop when it comes to producing louder dynamics.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Attention All Radiohead Fans: Here's a music video

This is my oldest friend singing and playing Exit Music. The video is his too.
Get your hankies out.

p.s. not flute related. whew :-)

Early Summer

Hey Folks,
it's been awhile, but now that I have re-couped from early summer projects it's time for a retrospective.

June 18th was a busy day. In preparation for an article for Pan, I visited the Hochschule here in Cologne. What a creepy place! Lovely naked concrete 80's architecture. Anyway, that aside, had a very interesting 3 hours with Prof. Robert Winn and his students. He gave many salient points that I will need to sift through before airing them to the British flute-loving public. And sorry, I'm not at liberty to give anything away before publication!

Later that day I pedaled over to Cologne's Loft - which as some of you may know is the venue for improvised music. God Bless Hans-Martin Müller for founding it!

My duo partner Alexei Lapin (Lyosha) from St. Petersburg had just arrived and we were ready for his German debut. For the concert I rounded
up Melvyn Poore, tuba -

Matthias Schubert, sax

and at the last minute Roger Turner, drums.

I got roped into playing as well for the second set. We had a small audience, but all in all it wasn't bad. There were also some good moments. And if we get the recording mastered well, we just might be able to put it out on CD.

June 20 I arranged for Llyosha to do a jam/recording session at the musikFabrik with Frank Gratkowski sax/clarinet and Sebastian Gramss bass. I think those guys played very well together, and I learned a lot.

June 26-27 I headed up to Hannover to record at the EMI Emil Berliner Studios. Jüri Reinvere had arranged for us to record his Requiem for flute, 4 male voices and female voice-over. We met the singers who flew straight in from Tallinn to the rehearsal. I was treated with a flood of Estonian words, and temporarily even learned to count in Estonian. It's all long-gone the way all my short-term learning goes.

June 29 I went north again, this time to Münster to do the German premiere of this Requiem. This was shown with film footage of Estonia from before the wars. We played in the Apostelkirche, quite nice but with acoustics too-churchy for this piece. It went OK, but the audience (a bigger turnout than I expected) response was underwhelming. Too bad, I like this piece. One we got the notation sorted out (subject for another blog entry) it went very fine - excellent writing for flute. The combination with male voices is very soulful.

July 2-3 was busy with rehearsals for Royaumont with musikFabrik. Also with film. Very tricky stuff that needs to be coordinated with click-track. These are all new works by Michael Jarrell, Martin Matalon and Paul Cendo. Am looking forward to August in Royamount with lovely food and the beautiful Cistercian chapel where we will play. These Cistercian cathedrals and churches are my absolute favorite, no peeing putties or horrible bleeding cross paintings, just light, light, more light and beautiful stonework.

July 5 was my solo concert which took place in an absolute sauna of light, speaking of.....
After the first two works it didn't go too badly. The concert got off to such a bad start - and I think I have the answer (also another blog subject). In short, I ignored my physical well-being again. On the whole, the turnout was better than I expected, the organizer was happy, and the whole thing will be available for purchase/download in the Fall. More on that later.

Now coming up:
July 15 in St. Petersburg at the GEZ with Llosha and Nikolai Rubanov, sax. I've been humbled though and am a bit shy now of this improv stuff. I've heard so many really good people recently that I'm inspired and ashamed (of my own piddling attempts) at the same time.

Then it's family time! There will be 2 sets of grandparents for my little boy to drool on. We are all looking forward to it. Maybe I'll even have time to blog.....

Monday, June 15, 2009

Double Double Tongue

Working on the Berio Sequenza, I've been trying to figure out ways to double tongue faster. Theoretically, I presume, one should be able to double tongue exactly twice as fast as one can single tongue. [1x ST = 2x DT] So if I can single tongue 16th notes at mm.=120, why can't I double tongue 32nd notes at the same speed? It works sometimes, but only for a short burst of time.

Here's how I'm working to prolong it: practice double tonguing as fast as possible independent from the beat - not trying to fit two or for or however many on a certain note. It's kind of like how you try to get vibrato to sound smooth, not sounding like 4 or 5 to a beat but just natural. Try it with the tongue!

Take Taffanel/Gaubert e.j. no. 4
I'll play the ascending line slurred, then descending with double tonguing as fast as possible independent of the beat, but keeping the fingers in time. Usually I start with tempo mm.=100 then work up. Then I will switch, ascend with double tonguing, then descend legato.

Going back and forth between fast articulation and legato gives a good rest for the tongue, and it's a good way to focus on the tempo again. (For some reason, my brain can turn off when articulating fast!) When I feel confident, I will try articulating ascending and descending.

One thing that helps: with the tongue moving so fast, it really does interfere with the airstream. Therefore, you really need a steady support from the abdominal muscles - it actually helps when keep them firm and moving in and up when exhaling.

Berio uses this technique of double tonguing as fast as possible in his woodwind quintet also - so it's good preparation for his other works!

Photo: Arthur Sassa/AFP-Getty Images File

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Thought for the Day

Here's the caption in bigger letters:
The planet is asleep and it's the fault of musicians
who are untrue to themselves. - Sun Ra

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Preview of Solo Concerts June 29th and July 5th

Here I am just keeping tabs on myself again. I'm into the home stretch of preparations for my first solo concerts (not solo appearances, by the way) after the birth of Nikolai, Sept. 14, 2008.

Now is the time to appreciate all the energy that goes into the preparation of a solo flute concert. Just being able to play the pieces is enough work (could spend a lifetime on that....). But I need to get in physical shape. I know the pieces, and my lips are in shape but as I ran through a few pieces today I realized I need more strength. That is going to be the hard work. Then there is the publicity, photos, program notes.... (sigh...)

Lactation takes some of your energy away. And recovery from a c-section, major abdominal surgery, takes its time. (I don't know why anyone would elect to have one, if not medically necessary. You are in pain for much longer than a normal labor - not at the time perhaps, but afterwards when you need to be working and up and about. No fun for flutists!) So in addition to my lackadaisical yoga routine, my occasional walking and biking I need to get my butt moving.

So enough whinging. Here's what's on:

June 29th, the German premiere of Jüri Reinvere's Requiem for solo flute, 6 voices and video. This 50 - minute work will be performed during the week celebrating Estonian Culture in Münster, Germany.
The concert will be at 20.00 hours at the Apostelkirche. The work is, how shall I describe, "post Sciarrino". Many lovely quiet sounds, very poetic. I really enjoyed working with the composer, making some discoveries and clarifying some elements of extended techniques. However, the composer, and Richard Craig (who did the World Premiere) and I are still scratching our heads over how to notate the last movement. Notation remains the bug-bear and bane of contemporary music.

next, July 5th in Cologne at the Altes Pfandhaus at 19.15
Program will be moderated by local radio celebrity Michael Struck-Schloen, and is the final in the series "unvorhergehört" - a soloist series initiated by local composer Marcus Antonius Wesselmann. Actually, this program will be more of a mix of "unvorhergehört" (not heard before) and "1000 Mal vorhergehört" (heard 1000 times before). I think that will make it fun, though:

Debussy - Syrinx
Varese - Density 21.5
Jüri Reinvere - opposite of thought from Requiem
Marcus Antonius Wesselmann - Solo no. 1
Toru Takemitsu - Voice
Robert Dick - "Electric Blues" from Flying Lessons
Improvisation - title will either be für Enno or That Cat Don't Sit

Monday, May 18, 2009

Fast or Schnell

On May 9th 2009 I gave a small workshop in Wulfrath, Germany for amateurs on finger technique. I thought I'd put the link to the PDF hand-out here, although it is also on my website.

Have a look, in English or auf deutsch, and let me know what you think!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Syrinx - who is playing whom?

Peter Paul Rubens- Pan & Syrinx (Staatliche Museum, Kassel)

A thought occurred to me today while playing and listening to several recordings of Debussy's Syrinx. Most likely, it was not an original thought. We all learn the story this of piece: its role as incidental music in Gabriel Mourey's Psyche, and the story of Pan. This half-goat, half-man pursues the nymph Syrinx, who, at the water's edge, in order to escape her pursuer, is transformed into a water-reed. Pan then transforms a bundle of these reeds into a flute, whereupon he plays his dying lament.

Mostly I hear flutists (and program-note writers) describe this piece in terms of Pan. It's Pan's song, Pan's longing, and Pan's dying. But is it really? Is Syrinx only a bundle of reeds? Does she have a voice of her own, and if so, what does she sing?

A short digression:
Please understand I am not trying to interpret this piece in terms of sexual politics or present some sort of feminist's viewpoint. I got to thinking about Syrinx when trying out different spectrums of sound in order to produce color changes. Why did I get hung up on this? Well, I'll divulge another pet peeve I have: flutists who make "color changes" only by adding air to the sound, thinking that an airy, unfocused sound is sufficient for a difference in color. Sometimes it is. I've heard it in Debussy, I've heard it in slow movements of Bach, and on many other occasions. It is soo boring if one only uses this trick. Sometimes some air in the sound (or complete air) is musically appropriate. But if that is your only choice of "color change" then please try out something else: work with different harmonic components in the sound. One way this can be done is by changing the vowel sound inside the mouth.

Anyway, back on topic - experimenting with color changes led to thoughts of transformation. Then I thought "hey!, that's not Pan, that's Syrinx!" She's the one who morphs.

That led to other aspects of Syrinx' role: flight, and, like Pan, longing. Not the sexual longing which is associated with Pan, but perhaps a longing for freedom of corporal constraints, or longing for unity with the elements. You can add on your own interpretation here. Please note I am not denying the element of sexual longing in this work - it is certainly there.

There are probably other elements of Syrinx' role I've not thought of yet.

When I thought about the subject of flight, that led me to think about the rhythm. Peter Lloyd tells of his lessons with Caratge in Paris on this piece. After Lloyd's first run-through of Syrinx, Caratge sent him home with his tail between his legs, admonishing him to "play with a metronome!" When Lloyd came back having done so, only then was Caratge ready to begin working on the piece musically. Peter-Lukas Graf also lays emphasis on attention to the rhythm. He points out that this is not "free music" it is "freely-composed music" (having neither conventional form nor tonality). Because the rhythms for that time-period were rather complex, it is all the more necessary to make clear contrasts of duplets (16th or 8th notes) and triplets.

And what about rubato? Absolutely! It's part of the fright and flight that I imagine the nymph Syrinx experienced. Fleeing, then slowing down to peek from behind a tree to see if Pan has lost her trail, then fleeing again. Much of this yearning forward and holding back is already composed into the piece, so if one adds to it, one must understand the framework wherein it occurs.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Intonation IV: Our Partner in Crime

By Partner in Crime I mean our most common collaborator in the traditional repertoire: the piano (or harpsichord). Here is some information I've gleaned from reading Fundamentals of Musical Acoustics by Arthur H. Benade (standing left in photo, playing homemade flute). To know the acoustical properties of the piano is to be able to deal with its intonational quirks. The burden of this lies with us, the flutists. The piano is not able to adjust to our intonational quirks.

Pianos and harpsichords have what are called inharmonic partials as opposed to a flute's regular harmonic partials.

A flute sound will be comprised of its fundamental and its more weakly-heard upper partials: an octave (2 x the frequency of the fundamental), 12th (3 x the frequency of the fundamental), octave again (4 x the frequency), and so on. Everything is all laid out and predictable. What an orderly instrument!

Pianos and harpsichords have inharmonic partials due to string stiffness and effects of the sound board. Their partials are spread, that is, the first partial will be slightly more than 2 x the fundamental. This is important for us to know: given the same note, the upper partials of a piano have a higher frequency (are sharper) than the flute's. Just how sharp these partials are will depend on the quality of piano: an expensive concert grand will have less deviation - an upright with a too-short sound board will have more deviation.

Here is an example of a typical deviation for a decent instrument, based on the frequency of C4=261.63hz
Fundamental Flute:261.63 Piano:261.63
2nd partial Flute: 523.26 Piano:523.51
3rd partial Flute:784.89 Piano:785.91
etc. You can see that the higher you go, the farther apart the frequencies will be between the two instruments.

The piano's "spread" inharmonic spectrum explains why its attack sounds sharper (higher in pitch) than its immediate decay. Initially a great number of partials are excited, including the higher ones that display spread inharmonicity. As the sound dies away, we are left with the lower few partials, which are more or less "normal", that is, less inharmonic.

What else does this inharmonicity mean for us flutists?

I need to back up and explain another acoustical lesson from Benade. Sometimes, there is a difference between matching a pitch between alternately presented sounds and simultaneous sounds (p. 268). Why? Because sometimes the ear is matching overall pitch rather than frequency. What?

Overall pitch is what the ears interpret, given any sound with a harmonic spectrum. We infer the fundamental from that sound. That fundamental, which we infer from its upper partials, may not actually match the frequency of the fundamental. (Really! It's a case of the mind inferring its own reality. Maybe like an optical illusion?)

How does that affect a flutist who plays the same note in alteration with a piano? Given the example above for C=261.63 hz, and "assuming the first six partials [only the first 3 listed here] to be equally important in determining the pitch, one finds that the normal [flute] tone must have its pitch raised about 4 cents...if the two are to agree when presented alternately." (p. 318)

He gives a further example on page 323:
"Suppose for example that a flutist plays a mezzo-forte G4, maintaining it accurately in tune with the G4 produced by a single harpsichord string (whose inharmonicity is very similar to that of the strings we have been discussing all along). The flute is sounded steadily, and the corresponding harpsichord key is struck repetitively at the rate of about 2 per second, so that the tone is restored quickly after each dying away. (...)If, however, the harpsichordist sounds one more note after the flutist has shut off his well-tuned tone, this last note sounds a trifle sharp to our ears..."

Well, I beg to differ... the harpsichordist will not sound sharp: the flutist will sound flat!

There are a couple of other things that are interesting to know about the piano.
On page 319 Benade describes what he calls "the piano tuner's octave". Octaves on the piano are not completely pure, it seems. They are also tuned a few cents too wide. Funny, I would have thought that would be the one interval that could have a 2/1 ratio (the upper note having exactly 2 x the frequency of the lower). But, if you think about that spread inharmonicity, it does make sense.

Furthermore, not even unisons are pure on pianos! (p. 334) This is what blew me away. Most piano notes are produced by multiple strings, which may have as many as 1 - 8 cents difference between them. This is deliberately done to enhance the decay time.

Given the shimmering effect of de-tuned unisons, together with the spread inharmonicity of each individual string, the piano creates a vibrant, pulsing sound. This is one reason I think it doesn't make sense to play non-vibrato with piano. Of course, there are musical contexts where non-vibrato is appropriate. However, as a general rule, I think the flute should go with the piano's flow of vibrations!
Photo credit: AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Practice Motto: Amongst Our Weaponry Are....

Surprise, fear, ruthless efficiency and a fanatical devotion to the--- wait a minute ----- that's not my practice motto, that's The Spanish Inquisition skit from Monty Python!

Hmm, well, surprise and fear do come into play now and then. It's the term ruthless efficiency that's been running through my head recently. Ruthlessness seems to be the rule, given minimal practice time these days in which to prepare for May's difficult ensemble concert and July's solo concert. It's a tough juggle, my husband is working almost round-the-clock to make a deadline, and my 7-month-old son could care less about my piddling artistic/flutey problems. So practice moments need to be cunningly snatched. Linked with my policy of brutal honesty, which involves keeping the tuner by my side, I seem to have a very pugnacious attitude in the practice room these days. It's a place where "no one expects the Spanish Inquisition!" But guess what? It's paying off!

I will share some of my weaponry that inflicts ruthless efficiency:
  • a daily task list and
  • a projected schedule of when I will practice each piece

Since it is impossible to practice every piece every day, I take what is difficult from each piece and work it into my daily practice. Some things on my list now are: the multiphonics found in Berio Sequenza and Takemitsu Voice, double tonguing as fast as possible....

The projected schedule is something I make when it seems there are too many pieces and too little time. I start from the first day and project up to the concert day(s). I figure out how much practice each piece will need, and assign one or more pieces to practice in detail each day. That way, I don't have to worry about practicing each piece every day. It keeps me from panicking, and importantly, from procrastinating. If it's my day to practice that difficult trio I was dreading, just do it. Put the other pieces aside - the items on the daily task list will keep me up-to-date, in shape and on top of them.

I do seem to be making headway, and watching Monty Python for a laugh now and then does help!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Intonation I : Flutonation

Practicing intonation, I've noticed a few funny quirks of mine which I know are shared by many other flutists, so I think it is worthwhile confessing and hanging them out to dry.
(By the way, barring any live musicians I can scare up to do my nerdy exercises, my partner in intonation practice is my Korg OT-12. It's a bit chunky and pricey, but it offers decent range of sound output. It is also recommended by orchestral piccoloists for its good registration of high pitches.)

But first I need to get another pet peeve off my chest: flutonation. It's the natural intonation of the flute. I often hear it when a flutist is playing a solo piece without accompaniment, esp. a contemporary (atonal) piece that they think doesn't need to be in tune. Oh boy....eyes rolling.....
I admit that I have flutonation in spades: C# too sharp, low and mid Eb too flat, but the high Eb too sharp. This is why I hate hearing it in other players :-)

Now for those other quirks:
When tuning unisons, I notice I tend to tune just a few cents sharp. I realized why after awhile: when perfectly in tune with my OT-12, the sound of the OT-12 disappears completely! The harmonic structures are so interlocked that they are indistinguishable. If I'm a little sharp though, I can still hear the tuner. And in my quest to always listen, to play so I can hear my partner (even if mechanical), I play so that both can be heard. Funny, huh? A case where overdoing one aspect can mess you up in another area. Sort of opposite the way pitch rises in orchestra - where you play sharp so you can hear yourself.

Another thing is octaves. I can tune vertical octaves without any silliness, but melodic (horizontal) octaves are another story. They are almost always too wide. I don't know why, maybe I have played the flute too long and have a severe case of octave flutonation. Then there is picctonation. I hear octaves on the piccolo too narrow. That's probably because I like to play with the cork rather close to the embouchure hole - but still, I should know better. I really have to re-train my ears with a fixed pitch instrument or my korg. I've developed some exercises for octaves with my korg that involve listening, not looking at the blinking lights.

In general, I've got several exercises for tuning with a tuner that involve listening to combination tones, complete with explanations. They are no longer publicly on my site because I am considering publication, but- if someone is really interested I can send them pdf.

Intonation II: "Gimme That Ol' Time Religion"

Here's a still from the TV broadcast of us playing Henza's Requiem
in the Cathedral of Cologne, April 2009

Our latest concert presented quite a challenge! The Cathedral of Cologne has an evening temperature (this time of year) of 15.3˚ C (59.4˚ F). That was with spotlights and extra spots from the television crew.

As we bundled up to play Hans Werner Henza's Requiem, we took great care in tuning. Actually, it wasn't too bad, all things considered.

Here's what we had to consider:

From one equal-tempered semitone to the next there is a 6% increase in frequency.

A 10˚C change in temperature is equal to a 2% change in pitch frequency. That's a whole third of a semitone!
[From "The Musician's Guide to Acoustics" by Murray Campbell, p. 201]

The Cathedral air was not a whole 10 degrees below room temperature (22˚C) but it was enough to make things really tricky.

So what was it like playing in one of the world's tallest cathedrals? The acoustics of the choir area (on the east end, behind the altar) are not bad. The choir of Cologne Cathedral, measured between the piers, holds the distinction of having the largest height to width ratio of any Medieval church, 3.6:1. [info from Wiki] The whole cathedral is so large and so high that it is almost like playing outdoors, you don't get that "churchy" acoustic. The nave is 43.35 meters high (144.22 feet) - the 4th highest in the world. Only when you stop playing, do you hear a long, long, decay of the sound.

When I stepped into the interior of the Cathedral for the first time in the summer of 1995 I almost cried, it was that moving and impressive. I am used to tall buildings, I've even been up the Sears tower in Chicago, but being inside such a vast structure is awe-inspiring. Imagine the impression it made on the pre-modern psyche!

Back to our intonation question:
How to stay on top of these extreme situations, hot or cold?
*keep flexible by practicing note bends - both ways. I find this absolutely crucial in piccolo playing.
*know alternate fingerings
*know the tendencies of other instruments under these extremes (strings go sharp in the cold, not like us!)

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Intonation III : the Spectre of Spectralism

Some days ago I got the score for G. F. Haas' new work „ … wie Stille brannte das Licht“. (What is it with German-speaking composers and their titles with elipses?). It got me thinking about how different composers notate microtonality. I like what Haas has done, it is explicit in placing the note within a frame of reference.

The notated C quarter-sharp in bar 241 is the 11th partial of G, and the A-flat in bar 245 is the 21st partial of E-flat (along with the indication that you are in a perfect fifth with the clarinet). I like having this kind of information in the score, but if he had notated the exact deviation in cents, that would have been even more helpful. This is easy enough to find out in Wiki

That 11th partial should a C# 49 cents flat, and the 21st partial should be an A-flat 29 cents flat. Like I said, easy enough for find out, but it would have been nice if the composer had provided this information.

We haven't had rehearsal yet, so I can't say how this will sound or how easy this will be to hear. [ed. read my follow up at the bottom of this post]
So now the question arises: How does one practice this stuff?

First of all, I get my tuner. Trying the A-flat first, I make sure that our Eb's are in tune. Then I play an A-flat ca. 29 cents flat. Then I keep that tone while putting the sound on to Eb and I hear a Bb combination tone. This is a clue that I am on the right track, or within the correct overtone spectrum. Your combination tone (it may be a true difference tone or not, depending on the timbre and register of instrument) should lie in close relationship to the fundamental - say an octave, fifth or major third (which is the 5th partial, you don't want to go much farther than that). Put in simpler terms, it should be part of the major triad formed by the fundamental.

Now to try the C# against the G. Again I tune the G's, then test my C3 so the needle goes about 49 cents flat, then put the sound on G. My difference tone is B natural this time, still close enough (a major third - the 5th partial) in relation to G to be correct.

Again, I have no idea how this will work in the context of the piece, or if it will be heard. But now I know, theoretically, how much adjustment is "correct".

Whether this works in context or not, I love working with combination tones. Scientists are still not in agreement as to what they are - but it is a wonderful example of how our brains work - how they "fill in the blanks" of the overtone spectrum. I wonder if this is the same phenomenon that allows transistor radios to work? Only the upper partials are projected, the brain fills in the rest.

Also, I've noticed that I'm one of those people who can read things like this, hence my spelling problems, most likely. (Thanks to my like-minded Uncle T for this text):
fi yuo cna raed tihs, yuo hvae a sgtrane mnid too
Cna yuo raed tihs? Olny 55 plepoe out of 100 can.
i cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid, aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervti sy, it dseno't mtaetr in waht oerdr the ltteres in a wrod are, the olny iproamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whotuit a pboerlm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Azanmig huh? yaeh and I awlyas tghuhot slpeling was ipmorantt!

[Follow-up added May 5, 2009]
The passage in question was acually not so difficult to hear! You are a part of this "lump" of sounds that are related to the fundamental. It is tricky that he has two harmonic spectrums going at once: those of G and E-flat.

When considering dynamics in this piece we realized that there was a lot more going on than just playing loudly or softly. It helped to think of crescendo/decrescendo passages as adding/subtracting harmonics to your individual sound rather than just making the sound louder or softer. This made for a much more interesting color. Also, the very quiet passages must be played with focus and good attack. Even the quietest notes need some harmonics in the sound, none of this fluffy airy stuff! It just didn't match the color system.

I do admit the 11th partial gave me the most trouble in this piece. Tricky to hear! It must be 49 cents flat. I must make some exercises.

Speaking of which, I asked the composer and my colleagues how one can study and practice this music. The answer is always the same, learn the overtone series, horizontally, note by note, by ear. How can one do this? Programming a synthesizer seems to be the most popular idea. However you do it, once the sounds are in your head, you have to find a way to play them (of course, in a comfortable range of your instrument. I'm thinking middle octave) by using a combination of alternate fingerings and lip bending. Another project for me!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Seminar with Brian Ferneyhough 25 March, 2009

Almost didn't get out of bed that day. I was under the weather, and a warm blanket, but I managed to hop on the train to Amsterdam in time for Ferneyhough's seminar on his flute pieces, which was organized by Joel Bons (artistic director of the Nieuw Ensemble) and Harrie Starreveld.

Harrie kicked off by playing a bit of Mnemosyne for bass flute and tape (or- and this I'd forgotten - 9 live players. I'd just love to be part of that someday!). He discussed how he learned and practiced the piece. Nowadays, you can put the notes into the computer and play them back, at all speeds. This would function as a kind of mnemonic learning device for the rhythm, but only an additional device, you would still need a click track to stay together with the tape. Ferneyhough highly recommends using a click track. Some players have tried without and not succeeded. The problem with getting out of sync with the tape is that the harmonies, which play a crucial role, will be all wrong.

Harrie played a recording of a computer realization of one bar to show how one could slow it down to learn the rhythms mnemonically


....a computer-like rendering with literal-minded exactitude is not the point of this piece (or any of Ferneyhough's music). Each of the three lines of the solo part has its own character. Indeed, that is one reason they are notated on separate staves. There is a play of interruptive polyphony between them. He also went on to say that his music is considered complex because conservatory training in rhythm is only basic. The focus in ear training is on interval recognition, rather than rhythmic recognition.

How does the human element come into play in this piece? One way: the performer is observing him/herself learn. There are the 3 textures/voices, the performer has to choose which one is primary at a given time. However, he cautioned against mere approximation: approximation is the negative side of interpretation.

Harrie remarked that the end result sounds very flexible. This led Ferneyhough to remark that when you hear a performance of Beethoven, you don't hear a reading of the score: you hear a translation of tradition. The vernacular of music is evident in Beethoven, it is not in contemporary music.

To me, personally, this is an added human element to a performance of his music. This contemporary vernacular is yet-to-be defined, and seeking it is part of the creative process. Maybe this is also what he means by the performer observing his/herself learn?

Next our student Daisuke played Cassandra's Dream Song. One part of the opening passage was the best Ferneyhough had heard it to date. Way to go Daisuke! The opening strophe Ferneyhough described thus: the first half is "effort rhythm" then "precise rhythm". It is a building up of energies, a somatic crescendo, then releasing. This is to engage the body from the very first moment of the piece. The flute as an extension of the body is how he thinks of this piece.

I didn't know that the original idea was to improvise the order of the strophes during performance. However, Ferneyhough has gotten away from this idea. One has to find a way to intersect the two pages and create chains of continuity.

He touched on several of the techniques, the different vibrati/smorzato, and the section with voice. A male flutist should, ideally, sing falsetto. If not possible, you need to add the beating effect, as this passage should sound like two weaving sine waves. He is not sure if the fingering of the multiphonic with the high F# is a good one. He didn't have an open-holed flute to work with, so was wondering if someone would come up with a better fingering.
While discussing notation at one point he said: you don't choose notation, it chooses you.

Then a brave lady [must find out name, anyone?] played Superscriptio. This turns out to be not the first piece with irrational meters (1/10, 3/12). It was first done by Henry Cowell, then by Dieter Schnebel in the 1950's.

He admits that the opening page and a half is cruel. However, that is not the intention. This piece opens his entire Carceri cycle: a single instrument - high and very light. The opening section is not meant to be "musical" - rather, it is coming to terms with ways of contrapuntal thinking. Later on, the material becomes "musical". Harrie commented that the opening is however quite melodic, like a children's ditty. He even performed it as such for a radio broadcast.

The next section needs attention to the speed of articulated passages. They are at uncomfortable speeds, sometimes slower than expected. This is important, otherwise one can get carried away and go with the vertige, but then it ends up sounding like any other contemporary piccolo piece.

There is a famous passage in this piece with repeated C's that are notated differently, but performed at the same speed. This is because he has several systems running simultaneously. When things like this happen, OK. Even if his system comes up with something tonal like a reference to a major triad: so be it. The performer needs to be aware when this happening, but doesn't need to show it to the audience.

Further, he explained the meaning of the title "Superscriptio". It's part of an emblem (usually found in collections called emblem books). This was a 16th century form of learned entertainment - a combination of texts and images . Above the image a short motto (lemma, inscriptio [superscriptio - because it is above] ) is scratched or handwritten introducing the theme or subject, which is symbolically bodied in the picture itself (icon, pictura); the picture is then described and elucidated by an epigram ( subscriptio ) or short prose text.

Here is an example of two French emblems

This is not a complete reporting of my notes from the seminar, only some of the things I was able to jot down while also taking photos!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Robert Dick, 22 March 2009

Left to right: Charlotte, Johanna, Nozomi, Robert, Wan, Kanae
Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending, albeit briefly, Robert's masterclass in Wuppertal, Germany. It was great to see him! The last time I saw him, he was walking out on a concert I gave at the BAM in New York! Not because of me though. Our group was playing very loud minimalistic music, not his (or my) cup of tea. At least I got to wear earplugs. Since then, we've both become parents, so we had a good exchange on the joys and difficulties of juggling children and career. We're both "older" parents, and are on our own as far as having no near relatives or live-in help to give us a hand.

Be that as it may, I got a good dose of inspiration. He began Sunday morning chatting about singing and playing, and the importance of singing in general. There's nothing like it to get you listening. He said that if he were to teach a beginner, he would start with singing. This resonates with what I have been thinking these years, esp. after having studied in India. There, one learns to sing or use the voice first, even in training to be a percussionist! I think we are a strange musical culture, that puts some object into a kid's hand and says, now make music out of it! Someday, I must put my India notes on blog.
Anyhow, back to Robert.

5 of our (Harrie Starreveld's and my) students, past and present, took part. I was very impressed with what Robert had to say about Mozart and Kuhlau. This was the first time I had heard him coach the classical and romantic repertoire; his keen musicality and vivid imagination made for very good lessons.

We did touch on learning harmonic multiphonics, in the context of Fukushima's Mei. This applies to Berio Sequenza as well. [The 1st days of the masterclass went into extended techniques in detail - I unfortunately missed them.] When it comes to the harmonic multiphonics that are found in these two pieces, it pays to put in some serious time in studying them before learning the piece. You don't learn the sonority in the piece, just like you don't learn the D major scale by playing Mozart!

He described it thus: by not practicing the sonorities first and just hoping they come in the concert - it is as if you walk down to the sea and just happen to reach in the water and pick out the exact fish you wanted!

How to go about preparing harmonic multiphonics:
Practice octaves, fifths, and fourths - in that order.
With octaves, it is easiest to begin where the flute has a short tube: C2 - C3. then work your way down.
With fifths and fourths, begin where the flute is longest, low C or B and work your way up.
Suggested practice time devoted to this: 15 min each day.

The benefit of this is not only to learn these sonorities, but to make the lips fit. If it's worth doing, it's worth doing well. This is the practice pathway up the mountain!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

How To Get Pregnant - Even If....

Even if you are a man! There's a man behind this idea - sax player Ned Rothenberg, to be exact. He described his practicing as "getting pregnant" creatively. Here is the article where he mentions it.

I really admire his improvisations. He must spend a lot of the time pregnant! His CD "Amulet" with Tuvan singer Sainkho Namchulak is something else.

I drew great inspiration from it when preparing for my trip to Tuva in 2004. It was my first solo appearance only improvising, and I was happy that it was in a far and distant land. Although I don't think the concert went well, it was a very fruitful time for me - I really practiced a lot to prepare for it and took some practice notes which I use to this day. Someday I'll post about my adventures in Tuva!

Although from time to time it is part of my job, I just hate being an assembly - line flutist. Piece gets on the stand, practiced, performed, basta. Next. And so on. Although I learn pieces fairly quickly, I really don't like to. It's one thing I really can't stand about the contemporary music business. I'm also at a point in my life where I really enjoy contemplation, it would be great to spend time on my instrument pondering different interpretations of Bach, or any great composer for that matter. Or deepening my understanding of tone production and discovering new sounds. But often it's monkey-work. By that, I mean spending time churning through pages littered with excessive black dots, my trusty metronome by my side, starting half-speed and inching ever upwards.

My ideal is that I have enough time to live with a piece of music, or for it to become a part of me. This is also why I like practicing. I remember my school days in Amsterdam, practicing in my then-boyfriend's attic. He would tell me: why do you practice so much? you don't really need to! Well, I was getting pregnant. I get full of the music and then and only then am I ready to fling it out.

Lucky for us (flutists)! We now have modern "classics". I have lived with the Berio Sequenza ca. 15 years, Ferneyhough's Carceri for 12 years, Varese Density 21.5 for 10 (learned that one late!). My next solo concert (5 July) I hope to make a mostly "classical" one, along with two new pieces by younger composers. What luxury! Now to juggle time for practice, rehearsals, teaching, cuddling (baby and husband), household stuff and blogging. Dang it, I wish I had a maid, now that would really be luxury....

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Wannabe Yogi - and some breathing ideas

I am writing this in honor of my lapse in yoga practice. Once I confess this sin, I can go and sin no more - that is, get back into my practice. Don't know what happened, I was ill at the end of Feb. and since then the dark, grey days of late winter have left me unmotivated for movement.

Why is yoga practice so important? I have enough to do, cuddling my boy, practicing flute, teaching and rehearsing. Why? Because I feel like a dog's breakfast if I don't. Or like a rusted-out car.

I have a great teacher, we've been working privately for the past 6 years. At first we did Ashtanga, then more mixed with Hatha and Universal Yoga. I think she deserves a separate blog entry for the future.

When I was in school, I had wonderful flute teachers. Since graduating, I joked that my Alexander Technique teacher was my best flute teacher, and she was for those three years after school. Now, I think my yoga teacher is my best flute teacher, although she says for my Ayurvedic type (Vata), flute playing is not the healthiest activity for me.

After all these years, I should know something by now about my body and how to use it to breathe and play the flute. Abdominal breathing helps - pranayama (breathing exercise) helps too. These are calming, expanding concepts. I also love Michel Debost's ideas from The Simple Flute about expansion and retention.

Sometimes, however, I find that Uddiyana Bhanda works. That's what all flute teachers tell you never to do! It's the diaphragm lock - you inhale while drawing the abdomen in and expanding the ribcage. This gives you a rush of energy in your upper body. No, I don't play like that, but if I need a kick, this is what I do. Peter Lukas Graf's 2nd breathing exercise in Check Up for Flutists partially uses this concept - although he doesn't use the yogic terms.

Speaking of diaphragm! I learned through Lea Pearson's book Body Mapping for Flutists that the concept of breathing through, or using, the diaphragm is pointless. You cannot control it or feel it directly, as its movement is regulated by the abdominal muscles.

These are the muscles you need to control: these in turn are connected to the long, long muscles psoas major, (if I remember correctly), which are connected to the outer edge of the diaphragm and run all the way down to the legs! That's why it's important to keep excess tension out of the legs, it really can inhibit the movement of the diaphragm.
More research is needed on my part, so I'll stop here. I thought I'd pass this on though, because it really makes sense to me anatomically.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Value of Time II

Here's a run-down of what I'm up to practice-wise. Not interesting reading for sensation seekers. Sorry. But now and then I need to keep tabs on the household stuff.
Yes, having a 6-month-old bundle of joy does compromise one's practice time, especially if one is also working. So I've been very vigilant about keeping time and here's what it comes out to:

  • 4 min. Tai Chi hand exercises
  • 8 min. Harmonic and Trill warm up
  • 8 min. Scales/ Taffanel Gaubert
  • 10 min. Scales with articulation and excerpts with articulation*
  • 8 min. Tone, dynamic and vibrato exercises from PL Graf's Check Up
  • 4 min. movement of Bach Sonata
That's a total of 42 min. just basic maintenance! Plus goofing around, sipping tea, messing with the tuner/metronome, stretching, looking for pencil = 8 min. So the whole " maintenance and warm up" lasts 50 min.! Hmmm. Well, I think I'll stick with this for now, plus I plan on adding 15 min. of Moyse next week when I have fewer rehearsals. To explain: I am having to build up after a hiatus since September. I have been playing regularly since October; however, need to be in Solo Recital Form within a couple of months, and the above regime with added Moyse is what it will take. Then there are the pieces to practice.....

* I include some repertoire in my warm up - esp. with articulation. There was a time (1996, to be exact) that I warmed up on Berio's Sequenza. Yes, I was that fit (and nuts!). Otherwise, it could be Mendelssohn's Scherzo or Carnival of the Animals. Today it was Zappa's Echidna's Arf (for the 5-tuplets) and Black Page no. 1 (for the 11-tuplets)!

It seems I can't leave the house until I'm sure my tongue is in working order, and that my articulation is clean. Sort of like having clean socks and underwear, you should always be prepared! There are people who won't leave the house unless their shirt is ironed, or their shoes are spiffy, I'm not that picky.....

Some of you may also wonder why I do scales before tone studies. That was Peter Lloyd's idea and I find it really works for me. Get playing first, get things working first, then to concentrated exercise on tone.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Bottom of the Food Chain

Wondering why I haven't posted recently? This is where I have been all week! At the bottom of the food chain! OK, maybe I exaggerate. Maybe more like a pawn on the chessboard of pieces where composers, conductors, organizers, managers are the big players. We play what sells, and ideas sell, beautiful packaging sells, regardless of the quality that is inside.

I've worked with more living composers than you can shake a stick at. In today's European Contemporary Music Scene, a handful of lucky composers are the stars, not the ensemble or orchestral musicians who play their music. These chosen few (composers) are promoted by organizers of festivals and the big publishing companies (who act as their agents as well). If you have a performance scheduled and receive a dud or embarrassing piece from one of them, or a piece that comes too late and is impossible to play: tough luck. It is your job to get it done and make it sound good. Cancelling a piece is politically incorrect, or would cause a scandal. The programs have been printed. The VIPs have been invited. The deals have been made. Money has changed hands. You are the sissy if you complain or can't pull it off. Besides, you have a family to feed, and can't afford to forgo your share of the money (minuscule as it may be).

A question was posed recently on the Flute List: does one have a moral obligation to fulfill a composer's intentions? I'd like to turn it around. Does a composer have similar moral obligations? Heck, does he even have a professional obligation when it comes to fulfilling a commission? It would seem not. More often than not, we find ourselves in a situation where a quality rendering of the premiere piece is severely compromised: too late, not for the instrumentation specified, unreadable manuscript, or unexplained, unclear notation. [I'm not talking about student workshops, I'm talking about well known composers who (even sadder) have teaching positions and are influencing the young generation.] Do we still pay the commission fee under such circumstances? Yes. We're nice, we're professionals, we're capable. We're pioneers, we can take anything anyone throws at us. Ahem.

Still, I'm a big fan of composers, even tardy ones. I support contemporary music and all its endeavours: big, small, loud, quiet, beautiful, ugly, complex, minimalistic. For all my b--ing I am happy to be doing what I am. So now I will speak of me/us/performers and our obligations, moral or otherwise to the composer's intentions.

I'll confine myself to 20th century and later composers - earlier music is another whole can of worms. I'll be honest. There are a few composers whom I dread to play. I see them coming up on a program and think: "well, I'll just go get my strait-jacket." These are the ones that require slavish following of their notation, no deviations allowed. Dang. I got into contemporary music because I consider myself a bit of a deviant. If I wanted to slavishly follow someone I could make a heck of a lot more money in an orchestra somewhere. [OK, I know it's not that bad in most orchestras! But you have to be darned lucky.]

Here's an example, though, of where this somewhat adolescent attitude of mine proved to be misplaced. I used to consider Karlheinz Stockhausen one of these dreaded composers. Working with him closely on the premiere of his Rotary Quintet gave me another perspective.

For the premiere of this work he wanted to underscore the difference between male and female (This quintet is part of his Licht cycle). So he asked us to reflect this gender difference in our concert-wear. With some trepidation, and gentle respect, I objected on the grounds that as a musician, I don't consider my gender, and my native English also reflects no differences of gender. To my utter astonishment, he readily conceded, in a very gentlemanly fashion.

Rehearsal, 1997. Left to right: A. Wesly, K. Stockhausen, me,
J. Babinec, P. Veale, N. Janssen (sitting)

Now I am starting preparations for the flute solo Paradies from Klang, which we plan to premiere in its (all 21 hours) entirety. This has me looking back on those days 12 years ago. Stockhausen is no longer around to gently concede to my cultural baggage, so I will not have the chance to thwart his intentions in person, but would I want to? It would just seem disrespectful at this point. Besides, I look back on my objections of 12 years ago and find them a bit silly. Americans are so gung-ho gender blind, but I don't think females do any better there than in Europe. In Europe it feels more realistic: nobody tries to pretend that men and women are alike.

My point is: I'd think twice now before trying to turn a composer's intention around. My objections may be parochial and egocentric, and have nothing to do with the real quality of the music. The composer's intentions might also be parochial and egocentric, but, well, it's their piece. If I want to express something else, I'll write my own piece.