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.