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?