During my undergrad, I loved glissandi. I learned how to do them before anyone else in my class (a combination of stubbornness and being a repressed jazzer), and in my third year we did a performance of Kagel’s 1898, the performance of which featured a fairly death-defying downwards glissando. Not sure I’ll ever forget the look on our conductor’s face the first time I managed it, nor the way he said, “How do you do that?”
I guess the point is that glissandi are fun. But they’re quite hard to understand for composers, because they aren’t easy in all registers and what individual performers can or can not do affects a lot. It’s a big issue really, and to be truly comprehensive, I should have done months of research. But as with last week’s post, what I’m going to do is I’m just going to share a little knowledge and understanding, and then provide as many examples as I can. Questions? Please leave a comment or send me an e-mail.
Recently, a composer sent me an e-mail asking a number of questions about air sounds. I made a number of recordings for him, and thought it seemed like the perfect excuse for a blog post on the subject. A lot of these questions get asked over and over again, so this blog post aims to serve as a kind of introduction to writing air sounds for Bb and bass clarinet.
This post doesn’t aim to be comprehensive, at least, not right off the bat. I’m hoping that you’ll leave comments with your questions, and I’ll try my best to address them all. I’m sure there are plenty of things I haven’t thought about, and I’ll update this post as the questions come rolling in.
There are plenty of sound files here. Things are fairly quiet (with a fairly close mic), so I’d recommend some headphones. And anytime I mention pitch, we’re talking about transposed pitches. Bb clarinet a major second higher; Bass clarinet a major 9th higher.
A few weeks ago, as part of a week long residency at Bangor University (specifically to play a rockin’ concert with Xenia Pestova and Carla Rees), I was asked to lead a workshop on chamber music performance. I don’t teach very often, so it was a great forum for developing my own thoughts in terms of what skills I’ve developed over the last three years, principally as a member of hand werk.
Just over two years isn’t a particularly long time to be working as an ensemble, but it seems to me that it’s at this point that one starts to feel a sense of consistency on stage. Even when we aren’t as individuals feeling our best (exhaustion at the end of our tour has been a contributing factor recently), we are still capable of delivering a high energy and convincing performance. It’s taken us more than two years and approximately 40 concerts to get there. I’ve had that sense for some time in my own solo performance, so it comes as both a thrill and a great relief that this is also possible in terms of chamber music.
This post, then, serves to offer some general advice for those interested in furthering their own chamber music skills, whether as students or as young professionals aiming to form a new group. In the future, I’d like to do a post on very specific musical advice, but today I’ll keep things general and socially-oriented.
This article was published in German this week in the ON magazine (online version is here). The magazine features a number of articles from local interpreters, composers and even dancers, discussing their experience of the scene here in Cologne. Here follows the original English of my contribution:
I grew up in a small town on the west coast of Canada, a town too small to be able to speak of a new music scene. I studied there, later in London, England, and still later in Huddersfield: a small town with a vibrant and active new music scene, and home to one of the best new music festivals in Europe. I moved to Cologne three years ago; before that, I had only performed a handful of times on the continent.
Within the first six months of moving to Cologne, I had already performed more new music professionally than in my entire life up until that point.
There is no doubt that the new music scene in Cologne is active, diverse and open-minded. There is no doubt in my mind that Cologne achieves balance between supporting both resident groups and foreign visitors, and that the city has an increasingly strong reputation for being a hub for new music.
Some time ago, I wrote at length about my ensemble‘s last experiment with the audience-performer relationship through an alternative concert situation, our Unter Vier Ohren project. As I’ve been so focused on developing audience-performer/ensemble relationships, the Kölner Musiknacht seemed the perfect venue to develop some of this thinking!
For the first time since moving to Cologne, I’ve been able to participate as an observer in the Kölner Musiknacht, an evening-long event that takes place once a year in 25 venues across the city, with dozens of musicians/ensembles taking part. Concerts start every hour and each programme is intended to take just 40-minutes, allowing audience members to (quickly!) move between venues. In principle, it’s a perfect concept and a great way to experience a lot of music in one evening while seeing a great deal of the city. The size of Cologne is also ideal: one can be just about anywhere in twenty minutes, so what other cities spend an entire night on, we can do in the course of an evening. (The city doesn’t just apply this to music: the Kölner Theaternacht takes place on October 2.)
Bit of a fluff piece on the blog today (hua hua). A couple of years ago I was working on Gerard Grisey’s Solo pour Deux for clarinet and trombone with the incomparable Steve Menotti.
At the very beginning of the piece, the clarinetist inserts the bell of her instrument into that of the trombone repeatedly. We were a little concerned about any extraneous noise (or damage to the trombone) caused by the clarinet hitting the trombone, so after considering a few less-fun solutions I created this:
It didn’t have to be yellow I suppose. No, actually it did. But I could make more of them in just about any colour you can think of, so if there are other clarinetists out there who are interested in having one of these, don’t hesitate to get in touch. (Let’s say, €20?)
Recently, I’ve been asked to consider the reasons why I participate in composition competitions. I really wanted to address some of the problems with competitions, but instead I’ve just rambled positively about one of my favourite projects in the hope that other festivals will run something similar in the future (and hire us to play, obviously). So I’m going to ramble, and then I’m going to speculate, and then I’m going to ask some questions. I do hope you (yes you, composer in the back) manage to read that far, as I do what your answers!
In essence, my ensemble takes on concerts that involve competitions because we are sometimes asked to do concerts that involve competitions.
We have never started one ourselves, and competitions as a strategy for repertoire building or promotion were never part of our original mission statement. That said, the ones we have done so far have resulted in some of our most culturally, geographically and musically diverse programmes. It is not all we do, but it is a part of our work together that I relish. And as many of you have already read, I have a great deal to relish.
My competition-love mostly stems from our participation in the Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik, so I’d like to describe our participation in this festival in some detail, as it seems to me to be a fairly ideal situation for all involved.
I finished my PhD last year and wrote rather a lot about the finer points of dialogue in collaborative relationships between performers and composers. Not so long ago, Lauren Redhead wrote an excellent post on her own blog discussing some of her own collaborative experiences and also referenced a few key points of my own research.
I wanted to contribute some of my own thoughts on the matter in as practical a way as possible, based on the research I conducted and the things I read (in the fields of social theory, collaborative creative writing, dance, music, visual arts, etc.) throughout my PhD. While my last post on the subject focused on things that composers can do (or shouldn’t do) in a purely professional sense, I wanted this time to look at relationships that set out to be collaborative. A Utopian view of what the new music scene could be like, perhaps, but I’ve had just enough experience to know that composer-performer collaboration can work and can work well, and there are skills here that we can develop.
Over the last two weeks, my ensemble has collaborated with ensemble chronophonie on a fairly unusual concert presentation. Called Unter Vier Ohren (literally “under four ears” – “unter vier Augen” means “between the two of us”), we installed 7 musicians in 7 small rooms with room for one audience member at a time. The idea was to create an intimate space in which audience members could have an unique experience of new music.
(Our “Unter Vier Ohren” poster)
While it’s a very simple idea, there are a number of ways that one could approach it as a group of performers. We’ve presented the project twice so far, in two very different venues, and the differences between them (as well as the audience/performer reaction/experience) was inspiration enough to write about the endeavour. The bottom line, however, is this: try it. It was, all in all, one of the most rewarding, interesting and engaging concert experiences of my career, gave me a new lease on my feelings of connectedness to new music, and would be a much more fulfilled musician if I had such experiences more often. The response of our audience was also overwhelmingly positive. That said, I’d like to share my experience of both performances, in order to facilitate a kind of ‘recipe’ for a great Unter Vier Ohren experience!
I do a lot of projects with young composers (and when I say “young,” I’m generally referring to the under-35 set). A lot of these projects involve workshops with the composers, which are theoretically designed to simulate a kind of collaborative atmosphere. The idea is that we perform to the best of our ability under the guidance of the composer, the composer gains more experience and learns more about our instruments, his/her piece and talking to groups of musicians, and then we all go and have a nice beer.
Unfortunately, rather too often, in my experience, these workshops/rehearsals can turn sour. Too often it seems to me that interpreters start to assign points to themselves, every time they prove the composer wrong or can demonstrate that he/she has made a mistake. It goes quickly from collaborative environment to team sport. Well, a ‘team’ if you’re the ensemble. Should you be in the unfortunate position of being the composer in this situation, you’re on your own.
And in all likelihood, you might not even notice that this is happening. I’ve been amazed when in rehearsal I thought the workshop was a collaborative disaster and was sure I’d find the composer in tears in the hallway, then half an hour later I find an updated Facebook status, detailing how positively gorgeous the ensemble was to work with.
This might give the impression that one should have to tip-toe around sensitive moody performers, and it’s not really true. Well, actually sometimes it is. Moving on.
Right. So the point of all of this was that I wanted to set down a few of the ways I thought that composers could kind of protect themselves in these situations. For the most part, it’s fairly common sense stuff. Or basic professionalism. What it generally comes down to is the fact that we want to try to be as efficient as possible and these are mostly ways that you can help us to do so. My intention is not to bully composers or to be condescending. If you feel I’ve been unfair, you can take it out on me in the comments. So here goes: