My discoveries of 2013

22 Dec

carlos kleiber

This is a small list of audio or video recordings of music that I’ve come across throughout the year, and that have made a significant impression on me. In some cases, these are piece that were new to me, but some of these – especially the video recordings – are particularly special performance of well-known works. These kinds of discoveries are one of my primary and most consistent musical motivators, and the list below represents pieces and performances that I’ve returned to many times throughout 2013. Enjoy!

Thielemann / Munich Philharmonic: Overture to Tanhauser

I’ve come to find out that this is a renown performance, although I did not know of it until a few months ago. It’s an extraordinarily powerful live performance, led by our greatest living interpreter of Wagner (as far as conductors go, I think). Thielemann is one of my favorite conductors; he takes a very honest approach, and shapes the performance very specifically.

Nikola Lutz: Robin Hoffmann’s An-Sprache

A mind-blowing performance of German composer Robin Hoffmann’s An-Sprache. This work is a wildly virtuosic and amazingly imaginative piece for body percussion. I have a secret ambition of performing this in the fall of 2014, but don’t tell anyone.

Gerard Pesson: Aggravations et final

I’ve grown very interested in Pesson’s music this year. He is doing something deeply personal and unique with a color palette founded in the techniques of Musique Concrete Instrumentale. I greatly look forward to leading his Rescousse this March!

Fritz Hauser: SCHRAFFUR

A beautiful work for solo gong and child percussionists. I find the intense focus of the children in this video moving and captivating.

Marc-Andre Hamelin: Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit

An incredible live performance of Ravel’s epic Gaspard by Hamelin. Taken from a recital in Moscow from April, 2013.

Carlos Kleiber / Concergebouw: Beethoven Sym. no. 7

Although I’ve revered this recording for years, it is an appropriate addition to this list, as it remains a deep source of personal inspiration. Kleiber is the “father of us all” (as Simon Rattle put it), and this is likely one of the greatest orchestral performances ever caught on film.

Marc-Andre Hamelin; Anteil’s jazz Sonata

A 90-second work by often under-appreciated American composer George Antheil, whose work shared many intersections with the Italian Futurists. This performance was an encore in a recent recital by Hamelin. The playing is spectacularly virtuosic!

Composition Competitions Compared

27 Nov

Polar_Music_Prize

I recently had a conversation with a friend about the Pulitzer Prize, mainly about the trends in aesthetic style of the finalists and whether or not the award remains valid. Although I’ve had many such conversations in the past, this one sparked me to do some research, and compile my findings in a way that would allow me to compare all the major composition awards I’m aware of, year-by-year.

I’ve assembled this data in a spreadsheet that I’ve shared with you below. First, here are the awards I’ve included, along with some basic information on each.

Pulitzer Prize in Music Composition: Any piece by a US composer may be entered with a $50 entry fee. The piece must have received it’s world premiere in the US during the year. A jury of professional musicians (the majority being composers) nominates the finalists, and the Pulitzer Board decides upon the winner. In 2004, the scope of the prize was greatly broadened to include all genres of music composition. Cash prize: $10,000.

Grawmeyer Award: Any piece by a composer of any nationality may be nominated by a professional musical organization or individual. Entry fee: $40. Composers cannot submit their own work. Cash prize: $100,000.

Rome Prize: Any composer who has received an undergraduate degree may apply. A jury selects finalists who must travel to New York for an interview round. Entry Fee: $30 for early submission or $60. Winners receive an 11-month fellowship at the American Academy in Rome and a $28,000 stipend.

Ernst von Siemens Music Prize: The award is for lifetime achievement in “serious” contemporary music. It is awarded to either a composer, performer, or an otherwise epochal figure. Cash Prize: 250,000 euros. NB: This article includes only the Siemens Music Prize, and not the Composer’s Prize, which is awarded for a single work by a younger composer.

Polar Music Prize: Anyone who is associated with the music industry may win. An award committee of professionals representing many different genres of music select the laureate from nominations made by various musical organizations (all European). Cash Prize: one million Swedish kronas (approx. $156,000 US).

Here is the spreadsheet, which includes all the winners for these prizes from 1980 to 2013 (non-composers are shown in blue):

composition awards

Noteworthy statistics:

  • Ligeti and Lutoslawski are the only composers to win the Grawmeyer Award, Siemens Music Prize, and the Polar Music Prize.
  • Ellen Taaft Zwillich was the first female to win the Pulitzer Prize.
  • Boulez and Saariaho are the only composers to win the Grawmeyer Award and the Polar music Prize (without yet winning the Siemens Award).
  • Kurtag is the only person to win the Grawmeyer and the Siemens Award (without yet winning the Polar Prize).
  • Elliott Carter and Leonard Bernstein are the only Americans to receive a Siemens Music Prize, and both won prior to 1990.
  • The Polar Music Prize – which recognizes the broadest array of genres, disciplines, and nationalities – is the only to recognize Iannis Xenakis and Karlheinz Stockhausen, who are two masters and legends of Avant-garde composition.
  • David Del Tredici is the only composer to win a Pulitze Prize, and then receive a Rome Prize later. Conversely, Kevin Puts, David Lang, and Aaron Jay Kernis all won the Rome Prize, and received Pulitzers later.

These are only a few of the most obvious conclusions to draw from the data present on the spreadsheet.

The total information suggests two things to me: 1) critical success and general recognition have a tendency to snowball over time, and 2) The composers who are recognized by disparate organizations/foundations (one in the US, and one in Europe, for example)  also stand as leaders in the field, and the ability of widely divergent musical sensibilities to recognize their achievements attests to this. Even so, some of the greatest iconoclasts of our time go largely unnoticed, a fact which highlights a truth about all of music history: composers who are truly ahead of their time take the longest to gain general acceptance in the community.

A Lineage of Great 20th Century Composers?

12 Nov

stockhausen

Robert Craft said that after Stravinsky we can no longer identify a lineage of truly great composers, as we readily can for several centuries past.

There are possible holes immediately evident in this statement, the most obvious of which is that we do not have enough distance from the 20th century to know which works and composers will stand as legendary beyond their time. However, I believe we 1) are able to identify masterworks without significant historical distance and 2) can identify a pale of great composers of the 20th century, given the appropriate criteria. So, I’ve decided to attempt to create my own list of the 20th Century’s greatest composers, as a thought-experiment for myself, and to elicit the outraged opinions of my colleagues.

Here are the criteria I’ve set:

  • iconoclastic: defined or popularized a new aesthetic
  • composed major works that have remained in the collective consciousness
  • compositions are objectively well-crafted
  • compositions stand as good music in hindsight, i.e. they don’t stand only on the trends of the time
  • compositions demonstrate a superior ear for various musical parameters (especially pitch material), and a special gift for narrative and imagination

I’ve allowed myself to identify up to two composers in every generation, and I’ve gone up to the “Baby Boomer” period.

Here is the list of composers, along with two of their most groundbreaking works:

Igor Stravinsky: 1882-1971

  • 1911  Petroushka
  • 1913 Rite of Spring

Edgar Varese: 1883-1965

  • 1921  Amerique
  • 1958  Poeme Electronique

Giancinto Scelsi: 1905-1988

  • 1959  Quattro pezzi su una nota sola
  • 1965  Anahit

Olivier Messiaen: 1908-1992

  • 1941  Quartet for the End of Time
  • 1969  La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ

Iannis Xenakis: 1922-2001

  • 1955  Metastasis
  • 1971  Persépolis

Karlheinz Stockhausen:  1928-2007

  • 1955  Gruppen
  • 1977-2003  Licht Cycle (7 operas)

Gerard Grisey: 1946-1998

  • 1976-1985 Les espaces acoustique (cycle of 6 works)

Salvatore Sciarrino: b. 1947

  • 1981  Introduzione all’Oscuro
  • 1984  Lohengrin

Please feel free to offer your thoughts, as my hope is that this post will generate a healthy discussion of the topic.

Metronomes for Mobile Devices: Android Edition

22 Sep

100 according to Maelzel, but this must be held applicable to only the first measures, for feeling also has its tempo and this cannot entirely be expressed in this figure.  – Beethoven, as related in Erich Leinsdorf’s The Composer’s Advocate


If you’re a musician with a smart phone, then you likely have a metronome app on your phone. If you’re like me, then you’ve abandoned other metronomes completely and use your metronome app every day. If you’ve read this blog at all, then you likely know that I use my metronome in fairly specific ways, many of which take advantage of functions extending beyond basic. There are metronome apps out there that are as feature-rich as the most souped-up (and ridiculously gigantic) Dr. Beat, for a small fraction of the price. With these things in mind, I have scoured the proverbial globe for the most functional and best-designed metronome app available, and I’d like to share my results with you.

Anyone who studied music performance seriously in the 90s or early 2000s will likely recognize this technological juggernaut:

I’m not clear on how a metronome that looks like an enormous control panel from the beginnings of the space race was still the best metronome on the market in 2000. Be that as it may, my long-term association with the DB-66 has shaped the way I practice irrevocably, and so I seek to find the a similar set of functions and user-friendliness in my metronome app.

I’ve tested nine of the most popular metronomes available on the Android operating system. I “scored” each metronome out of one hundred points. Those 100 points are prorated in the following way:

  • 25 points: the amount of features and information accessible on the main screen of the app
  • 25 points: user interface
  • 15 points: aesthetic design
  • 10 points: options for subdivision
  • 10 points: options for meters and accenting/muting various beats
  • 5 points: functionality/responsiveness of the “tap” feature
  • 5 points: quality of click sound(s)
  • 5 points: ease of tempo selection
  • misc points credited/debited for other considerations

Listed below is all of the metronomes I tested, in order of the score they received. Below the list, you will find detailed comments on each metronome, and how the scores break down by category.

  1. 91 points: Metronome: Tempo by Frozen Ape ($0.99)
  2. 87 points: Mobile Metronome Pro by Gabriel Simões ($1.50)
  3. 79 points: Drummer’s Metronome by Stefan Pledl (free)
  4. 74 points: Simple Metronome by Ethan Brown (free)
  5. 64 points: Beat Master byJumboWeb ($2.48)
  6. 64 points: Metronome Beats Pro by Stonekick ($2.09)
  7. 63 points: Metronome 2 by Flying Saucer Apps ($1.99)
  8. 53 points: ZyMi Metronome FREE by Raffaelle(free)
  9. 0 points: Advanced Metronome by MMolinam (free)

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ADVANCED METRONOME by MMolinam (free)

categories: n/a

TOTAL: 0/100

I acquired only the free version of this app, which has a scrolling ad banner at the top of it. The ad banner itself does not bother me; but when the banner scrolls, the metronomic click becomes erratic, making this app utterly useless. If the click was reliable, then it seems that this app would be very good. It incorporates many features and a solid user interface.

Hilariously, the first two user reviews for this in the Google Play store mention the problem of the unsteady click, but still award the app two stars. I guess a one star app would be just a blank screen.

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ZYMI METRONOME FREE by Raffealle (free)Screenshot_2013-10-03-13-02-25

- info on main screen: 18/25
– user interface: 15/25
– subdivision options: n/a
– aesthetic design: 10/15
– meter/beat options: 3/10
– “tap” function: 4/5
– click sounds: 5/5
– tempo selection: 2/5
– misc.: -4 (superfluous color choices)

TOTAL: 53/100

The ZyMi is a simple, feature-limited metronome that suffers from some design flaws. The buttons on either side (the left one is to tap the tempo, and the right one is to move the tempo by 1 bmp) are too slender, making it difficult to press consistently. The wheel in the middle allows the user to select disparate tempos quickly, but s/he must “rotate” the wheel in a very accurate circle, or it does not function properly.

To the ZyMi’s credit, I must mention that it does not have any flashing light to indicate the pulse. Every other metronome I tested has some kind of visual pulse element, although it is technically impossible for a click and a flash to happen simultaneously on the Android platform, so there is always a a small timing discrepancy between the two that can be very distracting.

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METRONOME 2 by Flying Saucer Apps

Screenshot_2013-10-03-13-01-40- info on main screen: 18/25
– user interface: 15/25
– subdivision options: 6/10
– aesthetic design: 7/15
– meter/beat options: 6/10
– “tap” function: 4/5
– click sounds: 5/5
– tempo selection: 5/5
– misc.: -3 (incorporates many useless meters, i.e. 16/4))

TOTAL: 63/100

Metronome 2 is a usable metronome with a few flaws that leave it behind the pack. There is a strange focus on unusually large meters: 14/4, 15/4, 16/4, etc. The user can select them as the meter, and there is also enough visual flashing spaces (the circles at the top of the screen) to account for these bars. I cannot conceive of these being useful.

The “glowing red” style of the text and symbols actually makes some things difficult to read (although not so difficult that I couldn’t read it).

Metronome 2 does some things well: the click sound is very strong and of a nice, sharp quality, and the tempos are easy to select because the user may skip by 10’s with little effort.

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METRONOME BEATS PRO by Stonekick

Screenshot_2013-10-03-13-01-25- info on main screen: 12/25
– user interface: 18/25
– subdivision options: n/a
– aesthetic design: 8/15
– meter/beat options: 5/10
– “tap” function: 1/5
– click sounds: 5/5
– tempo selection: 5/5
– misc.: 0

TOTAL: 64/100

The stand-out feature of Metronome Beats Pro is the tempo selection. One can change the tempo by +/- 1 or 5 with one button for each of these options, and there is a series of percentages for building up to performance tempo.

These are very attractive options, but the general layout of Metronome Beats Pro keeps it from being one of the leading apps. There is a “Settings” screen and a “Practice” screen, with many options existing on both screens. This leads to some confusion, as these two screen bear too many similarities. Metronome Beats Pro is also strangely devoid of subdivision options, considering that it is otherwise feature-rich.

Pointlessly, this app beeps when tapping a tempo, and the sound is delayed to the tapping. This makes tapping an even tempo more difficult than it ought to be.

An update that consolidates the “Settings” and “Practice” screens into one and address the few other quibbles could make Metronome Beats Pro a great app.

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BEAT MASTER by JumboWeb

Screenshot_2013-10-03-13-02-39- info on main screen: 22/25
– user interface: 10/25
– subdivision options: 9/10
– aesthetic design: 8/15
– meter/beat options: 7/10
– “tap” function: 1/5
– click sounds: 4/5
– tempo selection: 3/5
– misc.: 0

TOTAL: 64/100

The Beat Master is a digitized version of the ye olde Tama Rhythm Watch, which is itself a poorly designed rip-off of the aforementioned DB-66. Be that as it may, the Beat Master would certainly be one of the better metronome apps available, if it weren’t for a few disastrous design elements.

The small “wheels” at the top are very difficult to adjust because one must actually move his/her finger in a small circle. It would be considerably simpler to allow the user to more just up and down change these parameters, as is the case on many iOS apps.

The “Start/Tap” button at the bottom is oddly small, and difficult to hit consistently. I was unable to hit it once after three earnest attempts, and I have pretty good aim.

Like Metronome Beats Pro, the Beat Master could be a very fine app with a few user interface updates.

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SIMPLE METRONOME by Ethan Brown

Screenshot_2013-10-03-13-01-51- info on main screen: 15/25
– user interface: 20/25
– subdivision options: n/a
– aesthetic design: 13/15
– meter/beat options: 5/10
– “tap” function: 5/5
– click sounds: 3/5
– tempo selection: 5/5
– misc.: -2 (silly and useless click sounds)

TOTAL: 74/100

Simple Metronome is a solid app that, despite it’s limited features, delivers a user-friendly, functional experience. This is the best app for someone looking for a reliable click and an intuitive user-interface with little else.

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DRUMMER’S METRONOME by Stefan Pledl

Screenshot_2013-10-03-13-00-28- info on main screen: 20/25
– user interface: 22/25
– subdivision options: 9/10
– aesthetic design: 13/15
– meter/beat options: 6/10
– “tap” function: 4/5
– click sounds: 4/5
– tempo selection: 5/5
– misc.: -4 (many useless flashing colors)

TOTAL: 79/100

This is overall a very usable metronome with excellent subdivision and customization features. Sadly, the horrible emphasis on the pulse being represented with flashing colors detracts from the good . As mentioned before, a visual flash and an audible click cannot be exactly congruent on the Android platform, and this discrepancy is particularly distracting given Drummer’s Metronome’s vivid, multi-color visual flash.

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MOBILE METRONOME PRO by Gabriel Simões

Screenshot_2013-10-03-13-01-08- info on main screen: 23/25
– user interface: 25/25
– subdivision options: 9/10
– aesthetic design: 10/15
– meter/beat options; 5/10
– “tap” function: 5/5
– click sounds: 4/5
– tempo selection: 5/5
– misc.: 0

TOTAL: 87/100

Mobile Metronome Pro is one step behind first place, although the step is a sizable one. It’s a fantastic, intuitive metronome with a significant feature set. The layout is visual dry, but user-friendly, with many options admirably on the main screen. Like nearly all the other metronome I tested, Mobile Metronome Pro is lacking in options for accenting and muting individual beats, which is a must-have for me (as I like to practice with only the down beat playing, for example).

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METRONOME: TEMPO by Frozen Ape

Screenshot_2013-10-03-13-02-51 (1)- info on main screen: 24/25
– user interface: 22/25
– subdivision options: 8/10
– aesthetic design: 15/15
– meter/beat options; 10/10
– “tap” function: 2/5
– click sounds: 5/5
– tempo selection: 5/5
– misc.: 0

TOTAL: 91/100

Frozen Ape; Metronome: Tempo blows the other metronomes out of the water. The interface of the main screen offers the most features of any of the metronomes tested, and also boosts the most intuitive layout. The aesthetic design is immediately identified as more thoughtful and professional than the others, and this is the only metronome that has appropriate options for (un)accenting and muting all individual beats. If you are seeking a metronome that is at least as good as most feature-rich, store-bought metronomes, Metronome:Tempo is a great choice, and it costs less than one dollar.

Edited with BlogPad Pro

Ideas for developing tempo memory and inner pulse

17 Sep

It’s good, as the Stoics told us, to have tools that are simple to use and of a very limited number – so that we may locate and employ them on a moment’s notice.

- David Mamet, in On Directing Film

I’d like to share some thoughts and exercises to cultivate one’s sense of time and ability to recall tempos in the abstract (i.e. without a musical context). Although the exercises I present here are designed with the conductor in mind, I believe instrumentalists will be able to extend most of these concepts to their practice regiment, as well.

Throughout this post, I will present four exercises that are each intended to develop consistency of internal tempo and the ability to recall tempi based on common melodies concurrently. The approach I take in these exercises is based on the following statements being true (at least for me, personally):

  • It is more reliable to use one melody to recall numerous tempos that are multiples of the same base
  • conducting technique should be practiced dilligently while divorcced from an actual piece, just like practicing instrumental technique
  • One should practice conducting various tempi both with and without singing the corresponding melody in his/her head, because these are different experiences internally, and both are useful
  • A subdivided beat (into eighth notes, for example) and the note value of the subdivision conducted in an un-subdivided pattern (like 4/8 in the same eighth note pulse as the previous example) feel very different and should be practiced adjacent to one another to ensure consistency.
  • practicing consecutive metric modulations while the metronome remains at a steady pulse provides for the best and smoothest practice-to-rehearsal experience, and is deeply stimulating for one’s rhythmic sensibilities.

I would like to note that although I’ve attempted to design and notate these exercises in a somewhat precise manner, my hope is that readers will pull what concepts they find most stimulating from these and incorporate them into their own practice ideologies.

In case you’re curious, here is a list of what melodies I hear in my head to recall various tempi:

30 / 60 / 120: Stars and Stripes Forever – Sousa

36 / 72 / 144: Tchaikovsky Sym. No. 4, mvmt 1

40 / 80 / 160: I Could’ve Danced All Night (although, I use Economy of Wax by Australian composer Nicholas Vines often)

44 / 88: Tom Sawyer by Rush

45 / 90: Scheherezade, mvmt 2 – Rimsky-Korsakov

48 / 96: Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat, Ragtime

50 / 100: March from Berlioz’s Faust (or Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat, mvmt 2)

52 / 104: Stravinsky’s Octet for Winds, mvmt 1, allegro

54 / 108: Kiss by Prince

56 / 112: Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat, mvmt 1

58 / 116: Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice

66 / 132: Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess Overture

69 / 138: Stravinsky’s Petroushka, opening

76 / 152: Jennifer Higdon’s Zaka

This list demonstrates what I meant when I suggested that it’s best to use one melody for numerous tempi that are multiples of the same base. Not only does doing this simplify the task of memorizing the speed of these melodies, but it also creates a situation of great inter-connectivity, in which – for example – practicing conducting at 120 also means automatically practicing the 60 and 30 tempi, and vice versa.

Consider the first exercise below. An explanation follows:

Image

The top line represents what the conductor is beating (i.e. a 4/4 bar of quarter notes means simply beating a normal bar of 4/4). The bottom line is when the metronome is clicking. You’ll notice immediately that the metronome is clicking only on the downbeats. This is how I use the metronome almost exclusively during technique practice now (although I use a metronome clicking all the beats frequently when learning pieces). I find the down-beat only click to be the most under-used practice technique. My using this is a product of my background in percussion; this was a common technique employed while preparing orchestral audition excerpts. I have yet to encounter other conductors who do this, but I’ve found it invaluable. For me, practicing with a downbeat-only click allows for the most natural development of internal time-keeping because it forces the conductor to rely only on a rigorous internal counting mechanism. When practicing with a click on every beat, the process is often a series a constant micro-adjustments caused by noting where one’s beats are occurring relative to the clicks. This is why it is so common to hear someone say “make sure you are exactly with the metronome.” It is too easy to be floating along with a metronome click without being complete congruent, and thus getting only a fraction of the benefit. Needless to say, the standard metronome setting of clicking on all the beats has many obvious and good uses, but my preference is to use this downbeat-only method while practicing basic technique.

The first bar of exercise no. 1 contains only a metronome click on the downbeat and a preparatory gesture that is notated parenthetically. I’ve included this seemingly innocuous opening bar because it enforces the accuracy of one’s internally singing of the tempo-related melody. The conductor must hear the melody immediately after the first click; there is no opportunity to have the crutch of listening to multiple clicks before beginning the melody. This beginning procedure mimics – to some extant – the exactitude with which a conductor must produce these internal melodies in an actual rehearsal situation.

Also note the presence of eighth notes within a subdivided pattern and an un-subdivided pattern. This also leads back to a previous point: beating time subdivided into eighth notes (or any other value) feels much different than beating the same eighth notes in an un-subdivided pattern. To clarify further, I’m referencing the relationship between the subdivided 4/4 and the 4/8 in exercise no. 1. The tendency I’ve noticed in myself and some colleagues is for the subdivided 4/4 to be slightly too slow, and the 4/8 to be slightly too fast. Practicing these together (within the context of basic quarter-note patterns) will lead to greater unity between subdivided and un-subdivided conducting.

The conductor is asked to conduct both with and without hearing the melody in his/hr head in this exercise. I am not going to expound on why in great detail here, as I think that could be a whole other post unto itself, but I will write that I’ve found it useful to be able to do both of these in rehearsal and performance situations, and the ability to consciously switch between the two is paramount to me. Some readers will likely wonder why using these tempo-related melodies is necessary at all, considering that the conductor is meant to simply hear the piece s/he is conducting at the correct tempo, made possible by pain-staking preparation. This is absolutely true! But, much of the music that I and my new music-oriented colleagues conduct is often too abstract to suggest pulse. An even more fundamental reason to bother with these melodies is that conductors knowing tempos is one of the most basic parts of our “chops.” It’s akin to a violinist being highly proficient at scales: s/he might not actually play a scale in a given piece, but the ability to play scales makes the work in question easier nonetheless.

I’m not compelled to address what I understand to be the most basic concept covered in this exercise: maintaining tempo though differing subdivisions, dynamics, and general beating styles. The difficulty of general tempo maintenance is well-known and must be practiced at length.

Here is Exercise no. 2, which bears many similarities to no. 1, with a focus on metric modulation:

Image

This exercise employs some additional notational devices as compared to no. 1. I believe they are intuitive, but allow me to point out that there is sometimes a third rhythm floating above the conductor’s line; this represents what the conductor should subdivide in his/her internal counting to prepare the upcoming modulation. There are also the modulation indications themselves, which are easily recognizable and marked in green highlighter here.

The principle idea in exercise no. 2 is to practice metric modulations under a common metronomic pulse. Like no. 1. the click begins on only the downbeats, but is then forced into others places in bars by the metric modulations. This should illuminate the need for a line dedicated only to the metronome. I find that this method of practicing works only when I’m aware of where the metronome clicks will sound.

Aside from the usual practice benefits, I like that one is able to practice several tempi and modulations consecutively here, and I also enjoy the stimulus that comes with the metronome click shifting places within bars.

i should note that the notion of singing melodies and switching to only counting internally is not addressed in specifics, as it is in exercise no.1. I’ve left this open-ended only because it is not the thrust of this exercise, as it is in no. 1 (and no. 4). Even so, great care should be taken to feel the internal pulse, thereby fitting precisely with the metronome. This care should be informed by the procedures detailed in no. 1, including hearing the appropriate melody internally.

Exercise no. 3 is an elaboration of no. 2. No additional comments are necessary:

Image

Exercise no. 4 asks the conductor to execute only preparatory gestures and their respective downbeats. There should be no motion when the conductor’s line has rests. In other words, during the 4/4 portion of this exercise, one should be delivering an ictus only with the metronome clicks.

This exercise goes back to the primary goals of no. 1: to practice consistency of inner pulse and accuracy of melody-based tempo memory concurrently. As such, it also asks the conductor to begin by hearing the melody internally, switching to only hearing the counting of the pulse once comfortable.

For me, this exercise addresses internal pulse in the most complete way possible, because it obfuscates the conductor’s ability to rely on the regular “physical cadence” of consistent conducting motion to inform his/her inner tempo. To clarify this point: if the conductor was asked only to deliver preparatory beats of all the same duration, s/he would begin to intuit the tempo by virtue of the fact that the baton is moving with regularity. Needless to say, so-called “muscle memory” plays a major part in conducting technique, including tempo acquisition and maintenance. However, pure internal pulse is the backbone, and this exercise is designed to strengthen exclusively this.

Here is no. 4:

Image

I hope that you are able to take something away from these ideas for your own journey toward a personal and meaningful technique, informed by your artistic sensibilities and musical intuition.

Successful Rehearsing

21 Aug

Below, I’ve compiled a few thoughts on running successful rehearsals as a conductor. Generally, there is a focus on maintaining ideal conductor/instrumentalist relations, rather than on any specific technique.

I’m a young conductor, and so I offer these with the understanding that I have volumes to experience and learn. My hope is that – if nothing else – conductors my age and younger might be able to draw on these notions I’ve adopted at my relatively early developmental stage.

1. Start rehearsing at the beginning of a piece. In conducting pedagogy, there is often an emphasis on planning out rehearsals precisely. One common result of this is that conductors will begin rehearsing more involved works somewhere in the middle of the piece, where the most difficult music is. Some professional conductors do this as well. I believe that one should begin rehearsing a piece from bar 1, with very few exceptions. Starting at the most difficult section of a piece says to the ensemble “this music will be hard for you, and I know we need to spend a lot of time on it, even before I hear you try to play it”. However true this may be, it sets a bad tone, and is disorienting for the ensemble. In the end, you will have to spend more time on the difficult music regardless of when in the rehearsal cycle you reach it. Starting at the beginning is the safest and most intuitive option.

2. Don’t run through long portions of music unnecessarily. Unless a piece is relatively simple, or there is very little rehearsal time, I start rehearsing a piece in detail immediately at the first rehearsal without doing a preliminary run-through. I believe that the fundamental building block of good rehearsing is detail work, and so I address specific details of a piece almost exclusively, while interspersing global comments only occasionally. A run-though with global comments at the end should not happen early in the rehearsal cycle, because it it does not insist on meticulous music-making. I feel that when a conductor starts with a run-though, he then has to fight against it for the rest of the cycle, trying to get the musicians to play their best. Rehearsing in a detailed,appropriately insistent manner from the beginning guarantees an understanding of high expectations.

3. Don’t begin every critical comment with a compliment. This will dilute the potency of your critical comment and your future compliments. Offer a compliment when something genuinely exceeded your expectations, and make the rest of your comments pithily, without a generically positive opening. Pairing criticism with praise is one of the worst cliches of leadership, and it will not garner respect.

4. Explain your reasoning for musical decisions infrequently. If you do, it will likely denote weakness and uncertainty. Just impart directives, and let the score become illuminated naturally, through prudent rehearsal.

5. All young conductors get destroyed by professional musicians at some point. I’ve heard enough famous and successful conductors talk about their experiences with this that I am convinced that no conductor gets through his/her formative years without being eaten alive a few times by seasoned musicians. For me, these experiences were grueling, but were also indispensable; they forced me to grow a thick skin. Conducting can be difficult and nerve-wracking, and someone who is just learning to do it does not deserve to get their feelings hurt by the ensemble, even if they’re not doing their best work. Like Casals said, we’re human before we’re musicians. If someone has said something hurtful toward you in rehearsal, it’s their fault. I would recommend receiving potentially hurtful comments without retort, because it will suggest that you are above meaningless personal conflict. If there is a consistent problem with a particular player, I think it’s appropriate to say something to him/her at break or after rehearsal, away from the ensemble.

That being said, accept the fact that within most snarky comments are kernels of truth.

6. Don’t try to please the players. If there is a request from a player that you don’t want to do, politely say no, but without explanation. Likewise, if there is a request that seems appropriate or good, agree to it, again without explanation. Explanations open the door for argument and suggest that you are concerned with what the player think of your decision. I believe that the ensemble will ultimately respect a terse approach most.

Also, false camaraderie is loathsome. Acting with professionalism and kindness is requisite, but forcing friendship beyond that will foster contempt.

7. Apologize for mistakes. Everyone deplores a conductor who tries to cover for his/her technical mistakes, usually by stopping immediately following the error and pretending that they had something imperative to say right at that moment. It’s horribly transparent, and moreover, dishonest. If I make a mistake, I apologize at the next opportunity, simply and clearly (not under my breath, so only the first row can hear), and then forget about it and get back to work.

The idea that the conductor has to be held to to a perfect standard of execution strikes me as old-fashioned and silly. I don’t like making mistakes, but I try to keep in mind that rehearsal is about a group of people working together to realize a work of art, it’s not a sport where I score more points for making less mistakes.

8. Don’t try to act like a conductor. Out of all of these points, this one is perhaps the most overarching, and it’s been very important to me. I believe that relating to the ensemble becomes much easier and intuitive once you recognize that no one expects you to act like anything except yourself in rehearsal. There is no archetype of a conductor to live up to, and nobody wants to see you act like something that you clearly aren’t outside of rehearsal.

 

Darkness In Haas’ “In Vain”: insights into the text and execution

6 Aug

I was extremely fortunate to have the experience of leading Georg Friedrich Haas’ In Vain this past February (You can read about the concert HERE). I’m very happy to say that that performance stands as one of the most personally meaningful for me so far. As many of you likely know, Haas is deeply interested in the relationship between light and the aural sense, and so a number of his works have periods of complete darkness. I mean “complete darkness” literally: the performance space should be so dark that nobody can see anything except black. As you’ve probably surmised, the musicians have to commit these portions to memory, and perform without the usual aid of seeing each other. I’ve frequently been asked many questions regarding the composition and execution of these sections. This article is intended to address those queries, and hopefully further elucidate this music for those who are interested in the work and may be performing it in the future.

Typically, performances of In Vain have two sections of complete darkness: one close to the beginning, and one toward the end in which the climax of the work is contained. In the performance I led, we played in very dim light during the first of these sections, and in complete darkness for the second. This procedure is permitted by the score: the first section bears the indication: dunkel bzw. wenig Licht (dark or low light; see example at left). Contrastingly, the second section demands völlige dunkelheit (complete darkness; see example below). My feeling is that doing the first section in complete darkness dilutes the drama of the later section, and the climax of the later section contains the loudest and most turbulent music of the piece. In other words, when one experiences the first section in darkness, he has the idea of “ok, we’re doing this again” at the onset of the second one. Of course, this is just a matter of opinion; both are acceptable, to say the least.

I’d also like to briefly expand the previous point into a broader one: the markings concerning the lighting effects in In Vain are very clear, yet “open” in terms of execution. Take, for example, the moment when single strobes of light begin: optisch wahrnehmbares Signal (z.B. kurzer Lichtblitz) dann wieder völlige dunkelheit (a noticeable visual signal (e.g. a short flash of light, then, total darkness). Considering that Haas is a particularly scrupulous craftsman, I would assume that these markings are deliberate in what they indicate and what they don’t. In the aforementioned example, Haas mentions flashes of light as merely an example, yet in the piece’s 12-year life it has already become customary for these visual cues to be only flashes of white light, as suggested. In this and other instances, it strikes me that there are other options, potentially richer and varied. If I’m lucky enough to lead In Vain in the future, I hope to explore a wider visual palette.

Find below a recording of the work and some useful time markers to orient yourself. Please note that the lights are very slowly dimmed and illuminated, and so the  beginning/ending times are the points at which the room arrives at the final level of darkness or luminosity.

first “dark” section: 5’30”

first “dark” section ends: 11’02”

Second “dark” section begins: 42’15”

strobe flashes begin: 48’20”

second “dark” section ends: 56’35”

The beginning of the first dark section surprises the listener with an amorphous, murky soundscape; it gives the impression that the terse, fleeting music of the opening of the piece has become submerged deep in water, where one’s senses are slowed and dulled. The section is primarily comprised of a series of duos (one string instrument and one wind instrument), whose entrances are overlapped and chained together. The duos begin on a unison pitch, but the string instrument immediately slide the pitch up or down by a half step, concurrently overtaking the corresponding woodwind in volume. The first example page earlier in this article will clarify this construct; it is the first page of this section. My own markings in the middle of the page indicate what instruments are playing with each other, and what pitch the duos begin on. Take note that the dotted lines indicate where the duos begin. When executed accurately, the dovetailing should create a constant ebb and flow, so there is no moment of stasis.

The cadence of duos increases steadily in speed (yet not volume) for circa 4 minutes; each “event” played by a duo is marked to last 6″ to 7″ at the outset and speed up until they last 3″ to 4″ at the end. Like much of In Vain, this process evolves so slowly, and by so few parameters, that the notion of “increasing intensity” creeps up on the listener only after most of the music has been played. Haas is a master of pacing, and it is just at this moment that the formula of the “chain of duos” becomes apparent that he introduces the brief, yet  ingenious, transition to the following harp solo. The transition is essentially 12″ long, and can be found at the end of the example page below. In it, the sustained sonority of the strings, which has been acting as little more than a diffuse “cloud” over which activity occurs, becomes the primary material without arising from its ppp dynamic level(!). The strings begin sliding glacially from their chaotic, indistinct harmony, and slowly approach a  glimpse of profound harmonic resolution: a pedal B1 along with F#, C#,  and A-one-sixth-flat, i.e. a a small, delicate collection of lower partials of B. However, Haas only hints as this moment of relief. The majority of the strings glissando very slowly over the 12″ duration against B and F# pedal tones in bass, cello II, and accordion (a  common-tone harmonic relation that Wagner would be pleased with). So, in the last few seconds, the listener anticipates the arrival of the B-based resolution, yet at the actual point of arrival, the B1 in the bass part (the most fundamental to the sonority) slides microtonally higher to B-quarter-sharp! So, although the B+partials arrival is perceived by the listener, it does not appear in vertical alignment in the score, strictly speaking. This is only one of many varied events in which Haas plays insidiously with the aural and mental perception of the listener. For me, this subtle, fleeting transition stands as a deeply meaningful first exhale after 9 minutes of music. It’s poignant beauty is not only due to its musical content (brilliant as it is), but also to its arresting brevity.

The gentle, spacious harp solo comes suddenly and unexpectedly (the two example pages below contain the entire passage). The harp is tuned to an overtone series, and this tuning, in conjunction with the closed, knotted sonorities, creates a singular timbre that makes it almost difficult to recognize the harp as being the instrument it is, at first. Hidden far behind the harp is a turbulent murmur created by low strings playing sliding pitches a quarter-tone apart from one another. The effect is that of a distant storm cloud, which further highlights the crystalline, immediate voice of the harp. While the low strings recede,  the harp states its last utterances without a decrescendo(!). The purposeful omission of a decrescendo at the end off this solo is – to me – a tiny masterstroke. Like the lack of a crescendo in the previous series of duos, the missing decrescendo here gives the listener a heightened feeling of uncertainty and expectation. Consequently, the silence at the end of the harp solo is alive with attentive anticipation, whereas if the harp did the obvious and dwindled to quasi-niente, the silence would feel flaccid and pedestrian. Then, the upper strings offer a minuscule sliver of light – the 8th, 11th, 12th, and 15th partials of B-flat2 – concurrently with the onset of the slowly illuminating concert lighting. The purity and simplicity of this moment is a fitting introduction to the honest, austere, and indefatigable central section of In Vain, which houses some of the most lovely and integritous music I’ve had the pleasure of conducting.

 

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