Thursday, February 18, 2010

Tips for Complex Rhythms a la Ferneyhough's Superscriptio

Below is some advice for works by composers (such as Brian Ferneyhough) who use complex rhythms not based on pulse-centered activity. I spoke with Mr. Ferneyhough about this subject and he was very clear that in his music, the measure is a "domain of a certain energy quotient" not related to a pulse.

In other words, a measure can be interpreted as an "area of activity". The level of activity can easily be reckoned using the starting tempo. From there we can calculate the length of any measure or individual note through simple mathematics.

So if the rhythm cannot be felt as a pulse, one can at least memorize the speed in which it is supposed to happen. Surprisingly, it's sometimes much slower than one thinks!

Ferneyhough's Superscriptio for solo piccolo is a good example. The basic tempo is an eighth-note at 56. This means a whole note in 4/4 equals 7, because there are 8 eighth notes in a 4/4 bar, and 8 divided by 56 = 7.

From this number 7 you can deduce all the "odd" time signatures that are not based on divisions of the eighth note. An eighth note quintuplet (or a "1/10" bar) will equal 70 because there are 10 quintuplets in a 4/4 bar (7 x 10 = 70). To find the length of a 3/10 bar you would divide 70 by 3. If you have a 5/10 bar you would divide 70 by 5. An eighth note triplet (or a "1/12" bar) will equal 84 because there are 12 triplets in a 4/4 bar (7 x 12 = 84). To find the length of a 3/12 bar you would divide 84 by 3, and to find the length of a 5/12 bar you would divide 84 by 5.

What if the compound rhythms are stacked on top of each other, as in Ferneyhough's other works? This is an imaginary example:
Let's imagine as in Superscriptio the starting tempo is an eighth-note at 56. The last six 16ths (at the end of the bar) roughly equal two 16th-note triplets at 64. The nine 32nds under the 9:5 are roughly equal to three sets of 32nd triplets going at 116.

It could have been notated thus (among other possibilities):

Here's the math:
From above we know that a 1/10 bar equals 70.
A 4/10 bar will equal 17.5 (70 divided by 4 = 17.5).
Each 11-tuplet will be 192.5 (17.5 x 11 = 192.5).
There are 6 of these 11-tuplets at the end. If we think of them as two 16th-note triplets, divide 192.5 by 3 = ca. 64

5 of those 11-tuplets equals 38.5 (192.5 divided by 5 = 38.5).
In the 9:5, if you think of the 9-tuplets as 3 sets of 32nd triplets, those triplets go at ca. 116 (38.5 x 3 = 115.5)

A click track will ensure accuracy without a doubt. However, if you opt for another approach, try the following: memorize the speed of each bar by practicing related bars together. Keeping Superscriptio as an example, you can practice all the bars based on "1/12" while keeping the metronome at tempo 84. (Yes, you will be jumping from measure to measure, or page to page.) Then do the same for all the "1/10" bars, then "1/8" etc. You are not trying to achieve musical continuity yet, this is just an exercise to help relate all the bars with this tempo, and to keep them consistent. When you finally put the piece together, your "internal conductor" will hopefully have a kinesthetic memory of the pulse of each measure and make the tempo changes accordingly.

Also see my post Seminar with Brian Ferneyhough.
Other thoughts?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Trouble-shooting problems between composers and performers

There are several categories of potential trouble areas between composers and intstrumentalists:
1) Basic orchstration mistakes
2) Unfamiliarity (on either side) with a particular extended technique or effect
3) Unclear notation

What I am about to say may seem a bit didactic and Miss Mannerish, but really, it's common sense. And as you may gather, I've had enough bad experiences to know what works and what doesn't. I'm all ears for other ideas though.

Flutists, unless you are dealing with a composer/performer, you are the expert of your instrument and in a possible position to educate the composer. See your role as that of an educator, but use it with care because no one likes to feel patronised. To say simply "this is impossible" is very unproductive, even when it comes to a simple mistake such as a low C on the piccolo.

When faced with difficulty, the first step is to find an alternative. It is sometimes useful to take the initiative and suggest one yourself. As in all possible conflict situations, it is better to retain the "I" message rather than the "you" message. For example: I naively expect composers to know basic orchestration rules for flute and piccolo; therefore I am constantly disappointed. What to do? Some example suggestions: "could I take this low C up an octave? My standard piccolo only plays to low D." or "given the (lack of) time we have, I would much prefer to play this rapid 4th octave passage on the piccolo rather than on the flute." or "on this high C, I can achieve a much nicer pianissimo on the piccolo rather than on the flute." The composer will most likely get the idea.

Articulation of staccato notes is another difficulty I run into with composers (and even conductors). On the lowest notes, the flute has a long resonating tube, and this takes time to speak. Some head joint cuts are designed so this register speaks loudly and easily. One can always strive to do better, and there are many exercises for the improvement of this technique. However, if you run into serious trouble trying to match the length of notes with string instruments or electronic sounds, you do have an acoustical excuse. If you see an alternative, suggest it. If not, express your willingness to work on improvement, but show the composer the length of tube required to resonate (and thus the physical limitations).

Often, when puzzling over an extended technique, rather than say "this is impossible" or "I can't do this", it helps to ask what the composer actually wants acoustically. Is there another technique which you can do which would be just as or more effective? Or ask where s/he got the technique from. Was it from another player whom you could simply contact for advice? Was it from a book? Were acoustical considerations overlooked such as the difference between a B foot and a C foot, or the difference between any two flutes or flutists?

Most composers I have worked with are very open and eager to look for solutions together. I once experienced a misunderstanding in an ensemble piece where I was faced with a passage of rapid, high whistle tones (notated exactly so: "whistle tone") marked forte. The composer, Beat Furrer, actually wanted these sounds loud, which is an acoustical impossibility. He insisted, however, that the previous player had achieved this. I asked him what the previous player had actually done, then tried out a few things according to his description. It turned out that what he wanted were overblown harmonics with a lot of air, which in the context of this ensemble piece did give a whistling effect. So these effects were not whistle tones as I had learned them, nor as they appear in textbooks. I pointed this out to the composer, who did not take my point or make any "correction" in the part. As long as we had found the acoustic solution together, he was satisfied his notation had produced the results he wanted. What to do? In this case, I decided I had done my "duty" by pointing out a possible misunderstanding for the next flutist. To have taken "educator" role too far would have just meant getting into an argument (which I would have undertaken had this been a solo piece).

This is perhaps a long way of saying to my fellow flutists: let's work together with composers to encourage the following:

  • a more standardized notation for extended techniques
  • a good working score for the next performer who comes along!

Tips for composing and notating aeolian (air) sounds

Here are some tips on the use of air or aeolian sounds:
Be sure to specify if you want these sounds:
A. produced in playing position (so the air goes across the flute and produces a pitch that corresponds with the fingers), or
B. produced inside the flute: i.e., if you want the flutist to cover the embouchure hole and produce a kind of unpitched "white noise".

Sometimes I am asked to produce type "A" with the specification "no discernible pitch". This is nonsense: if a flutist blows across the flute they will always produce some sort of pitch. Even with no fingers down, you will get something in the neighborhood of C#. If you want unpitched noise, ask to flutist to blow into or inside the flute (cover the embouchure hole). In this position, the flutist can produce a range of unpitched sounds from bright (higher sounding white noise) to dark (lower sounding white noise) by changing the position of the tongue.

This leads to my next point: the use of different vowel sounds for color effects. This is most effective with the embouchure hole covered (type "B"). A good example is Hans Zender's Lo-Shu II. Vowel sounds are much less marked in normal playing position (type "A"), so be sure to take care in ensemble situations.

Some general thoughts about notation:
There are several notational traditions from the Artaud and Levine books concerning the notation of "aeolian" or "air" sounds which I would like to ask composers to avoid. When composing these sounds especially in a situation where rhythm is crucial (especially in an ensemble situation) please avoid the notation that uses empty note-heads:

This notation makes the distinction between a quarter note and a half note difficult. When a player is reading, this can be very annoying. It's good to have a different note shape, but be sure to fill in the note head in when needed so the player can read the rhythms easily:

An easy way to indicate a gradual change from normal sound to air is by using text with a dotted line:

or simply with a filled circle connected to an open circle by a dotted line:

Tips for composing singing and playing techniques

When writing for the flute and voice there are several things to take into consideration.

The first may be: where to notate the voice line?
For solo pieces: if you have an extended or complicated voice line it is customary and practical to use a separate staff below that of the flute line. On the other hand, for short simple passages, I prefer to have the voice pitches on the same line as the flute.

In the context of an ensemble piece, I would use the same guidelines as above, and please be sure to notate the voice line below the flute. As a general rule, it is best to leave free space above the staff for an ensemble player to mark in beats, que notes, or remarks from the conductor.

Another consideration is the distortion produced by the simultaneous use of the voice and flute. The use of the voice (as most of you know, I am sure) in conjunction with the flute greatly distorts not only the flute sound, but the voice line and any text that you may want to set. Because of this distortion, getting a true polyphony going can also be tricky if you have a complicated passage. In this case, if you want true polyphony, use two instruments. I prefer the use of the voice and flute as a coloristic element, rather than using it as an attempt to create polyphony.

If you want to set text that is understandable to the audience, it is not advisable to ask the flutist to play at the same time as speaking. A better technique would be to have the flutist speak or sing the words using the resonance of the flute only. Beware of text with nasal vowels, these produce no resonance on the flute.

Speaking or singing directly into the flute (with the embouchure hole completely closed) is another option. This of course produces a muffled effect; however, rapid key action will interrupt the muffling and create an acoustic "panning". This effect can be heard at the beginning of George Crumb's Voice of the Whale

Some examples of the most effective uses of flute and voice are Noa Noa by Kaija Saariaho for flute and live electronics, and Toru Takemitsu's Voice .

When using a vocal line with the alto flute, there is the option of transposing the vocal line or writing it at pitch. Personally, I prefer having the voice line transposed with the alto flute. Since I have only a relative sense of pitch, it makes sense for me to have the voice always referring to the alto flute pitch; although, if the flutist for whom you are writing has a strong sense of perfect pitch, it would be better to write the voice part at pitch.

Composers, Common Mistakes When Writing for Flute

Some common mistakes are:

  • Low C# to D# trill on flute
  • Harmonics in the first octave
  • Low C and C# on piccolo
  • Percussive effects in the second and third octave: key clicks, tongue or lip pizzicati, tongue ram. While these are not mistakes per se, they are not very effective outside the flute's first octave.

see also:
Writing for Students
Pet Peeves

Saturday, February 13, 2010

All music is an articulation exercise (or could be made into one)

In response to the question "How should I practice articulation?", I always answer "everything is an articulation exercise, or can be adapted into one". Spending more money on expensive Leduc editions will not help your tongue. Reading theories about where the optimal point of articulation is (behind the teeth, on the palate, between the lips) can give you ideas but not answers, since nobody seems to be in 100% agreement.

Since nobody can look into your mouth and tell you where to put your tongue, I'll repeat another truism: all articulation practice is tone practice. Your ears will tell you what works. Good articulation requires just as much awakening of the ears as the tongue.

"But I have an OK tone, it's just when I use my tongue for any amount of time it starts to sound bad!", you may answer.

"Good!" I say, "So the ears are switched on."
The short answer to this problem is that when you engage the tongue, the air behind it has to keep going despite a short interruption. Many players forget this and instead of increasing abdominal support to keep the energy behind the air stream they tighten the embouchure, or even worse, use the jaw to help the tongue! This is what causes fatigue and lack of control in long articulated passages.

It could also be the tongue is working too hard. My former teacher Bernard Goldberg used to admonish me be saying "you are only slicing air, not last week's bagels".

There are a few checkpoints: maybe the distance between the Du and Gu of double tonguing is too great. Some find it useful to shorten this distance by thinking the Du Gu action as having a vertical (up and down) dimension to it as opposed to just a back-and-forth motion.

How to establish efficiency? There are no shortcuts. I'll go out on a limb and say that if you seriously, seriously devote time to this aspect of playing, your body can't help but adopt the most efficient means possible - if you include your ears and brain in the process. The ears tell you when it's good and your brain tells you to stop, re-investigate when it's not good or when you're fatiguing yourself. This process will repeat itself a zillion times. Like any muscular activity we need diligent, consequent practice and patience to establish new habits.

Try the following with Mendelssohn's Scherzo, it's an adaptation of Aurèle Nicolet's method:

Break the solo into manageable passages (for example, the first passage could be the first 13 complete bars)
Play the passage slowly legato - each note focused and resonant
Play the passage slowly with ha ha articulation (no tongue!)
Play the passage with flutter tongue (either kind, throat or tongue)
Play the passage double tonguing every single written note (g,g,b-flat, b-flat,c,c,d,d,etc...)
Play the passage as written

You notice I try to avoid advice on placement and mechanics of the tongue, and mention of particular "schools" like the French School, which is supposedly the ace of articulation. That may well be, but listen to old recordings from the early 20th century English virtuosi, holy smokes, they could hold their own! Also, South Indian musicians, whose native Dravidian languages use retroflex sounds, where the tongue is actually pointed backwards, can move their tongues at lightning speed. Just listen to any mrdangam player doing the rhythmic solmization of konnakkol (that ta-ki-di-mi stuff)!

In a nutshell:
Ears are just as important as the tongue.
Remember the air produces the sound, not the tongue.
Invest wisely, get more on your return! In this case it means a long-term committment to intelligent practice.