Monday, March 18, 2013

Notes before a Final (5): Kaija Saariaho

One of the things I constantly find myself saying when I take part in discussions about future repertoire for the orchestra I play in is to emphasise the need to put in music by people who aren't dead. Everything I've played and planned to play thus far in this competition was written in the past century, and can be described as contemporary in the sense that it was written by people who were alive within living memory (my parents' if not mine). However, it's still all written by dead people (and reasonably long-dead people at that - the most recently breathing composer, Lutosławksi, dies over 20 years ago). It therefore seemed a matter of urgency to include something by someone still alive. As with the Falla, I found what I needed by trawling through Spotify and other online sources for recordings.

Kaija Saariaho scores double points for being not only a non-dead composer, but also a non-male one. She's white and European, but two out of four ain't bad, I figure.

Sept Papillons (Seven Butterflies) is a work for cello solo. This seemed to create a nice symmetry: I begin with just me, introduce a piano for the two 1914 pieces, and finish alone again (no singing this time though). I'm playing the sixth papillon. It's an extraordinary piece, that seems to exist on the edge of silence. It's full of tapping, high ethereal noises and harmonics, and has a sense of weightlessness abut it. After the richness of tone that the Falla demands, this is something's else entirely: silvery, glittering and brittle. At the end it just seems to evaporate. It connects to the Webern's gossamer textures, just as the Falla and Partch seem to connect by their more earthly moods.

Having moved from loss and despair through to consolation and peace, this seems to me to take things somewhere else, more ethereal and otherworldly. It's absolutely not a rousing climax, it's not designed to bring the crowd to their feet, but that's not what I'm aiming for. I figure that's what's expected in this sort of event, and what's expected seems to me to the least interesting thing you could do. I hope that rather, this sequence will provide something nourishing for the soul.

Notes before a Final (4): Manuel de Falla

This is in a sense a set of two halves. The first two pieces are ones I've been familiar with and wanted to play for a while.  The last two are fairly new to me (as a player, at least) and I've learned them specially for this gig.

Having set up a trajectory with Partch and Webern - in which Partch prepares for and amplifies the emotional world of Webern - I wanted what followed also to throw a light on Webern, but this time through contrast. After the devastated mood of those two pieces, I wanted something comforting, without being too sentimental.  I had a Mendelssohn Song without Words in mind, but this was a little too long for the context (especially as I'd decided I'd need a fourth piece to round things off).  Cue a lot of random looking up of cellists on Spotify.
Eventually I alighted on the Popular Spanish Suite by Manuel de Falla (which is a transcription of some of his Popular Spanish Songs), and in particular "Nana".

Falla is one of the most famous of Spanish composers (both in his nationality and his style), but perhaps surprisingly the Spanish Popular Songs are a rare example in his output of his using preexisting folk tunes. "Nana" is a lullaby, and had all the qualities I was after: it has that sense of consolation, but isn't sentimental, and has that aspect of noble melancholia that comes to my mind when I think of flamenco (the songs are all full of flamenco influences). It's also quite simply a very beautiful melody.

It's an unexpected juxtaposition with the Webern, and I hope an effective one. Curiously, it only dawned on me later that this and Webern's Three Little Pieces were written in the same year, 1914. Falla died one year after Webern, too. I chose this piece purely on the basis of its sound, and yet these connections and resonances seem to arise between the pieces.

A lullaby could be a good way to end a sequence, but I wanted something else, something to effect a further transformation. This is where the final piece in the set comes in.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Notes before a final (3): Anton Webern

When you look at a score by Webern, the really obvious thing you notice is there really aren't many notes there.  You might think this makes it easy to play. You'd be wrong about that.

When I mentioned to a friend that I was going to be playing Webern's Three Little Pieces as part of my set for the Office Musician Final, her reaction was something along the lines of, "All the rep for cello you've got, and you're doing that?" 

There are  lot of preconceptions about Webern.  It's cold. It's difficult. It's unrewarding to play.  All thse things are bollocks.  Webern's music is some of the most emotional there is. He was deeply traumatised by the death of his mother in 1906, when he was 22.  He never really got over it, and pretty much his entire output after then is, I think, consumed with grief at his loss. It's grief quietly expressed.  Not chest-beating, extroivert grief, but internalised, a weight held deep inside that never leaves.  It's highly condensed: a fleeting gesture or even a single note carries the sort of weight that in conventional music would be carried by a long melody or a cascade of notes.  This is what makes it so difficult to perform: you have to reach deep inside yourself and put so much into so little.  The other thing that people find difficult to appreciate is that it needs great accuracy.  There are complex rhythms and tempo changes that aren't necessarily directly evident to the listener, but it matters to get those silences and those placements of single notes just so.  I think the point is that as a musician, you need to be filled with that level of intense concentration to put the music across to the listener. I cn honestly say that rehearsing this music has been incredibly rewarding, and my admiration for it has only increased.  It's all very well to play somethign fast and showy with lots of notes and scrambling about, but to play a single note just right - now that's real virtuosity, and far harder to bring off.

There's a affinity between Webern's inconsolable grief and that of the protagonist in "The Long-Departed Lover" which I hope will come across whn they're heard one after the other.  This is what I hope to achieve in a good programme: that the pieces all fit together and illuminate each other in some way.  I hope that the contrast of the Falla piece that follows the Webern will also shine a new light on it.  If a few people come out of it feling better disposed to Webern than they were before, I'll feel like I've achieved something.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Notes before a final (2): Harry Partch

I can't recall precisely when I first heard of Harry Partch.  I have a vague memory that I was aware of the name when I was a student*, but if he was mentioned in British academia at all then, it was as a freakish footnote.  I knew he was a hobo, that he invented a 43-tone scale sand some weird instruments.  He was an eccentric, marginal figure, not someone to be seriously considered or studied. Certainly his infamous scale would have been presented as some kind of crazy folly, and the logic and impetus behind its creation not considered anything worth study (and anyway, getting hold of recordings of the music was next to impossible in that pre-intenet era. I may have been aware of the term "Just Intonation", but I didn't really have any conception of what it actually was until years later.

Something I never learned to do very well was to play the piano. I started playing the cello at 6 but didn't have a keyboard lesson until I was 17, when my mother (who'd decided not to force it on me as my elder siblings had nearly all hated it) figured I probably needed some keyboard skills for the A level I was studying.  At times this lack has irritated or frustrated me over the years, but latterly I've come to realise it was a blessing, as it kept me from becoming too trapped in the 7 white and five black bars covering the window of the cell called equal temperament.  Although I didn't have the understanding to fully appreciate the significance  at the time, I was always aware that the way I tuned my cello, in perfect fifths, didn't quite fit with a piano. (I knew I needed to tune my A string slightly sharp to stop the C string sounding really flat.)  This is what got me interested in the notes "between the notes".  I was fascinated by the quarter-tone music written by Ives and Lutosławski, and captivated by the "out-of-tune" intervals of the harmonic series.  It seemed strange to me that they were called out of tune; surely they, as natural phenomena, were correct, and the scale on the piano must be wrong?  But I didn't have the language to describe and understand such things properly, other than the quarter-tones which were what amounted to microtonality as far as my education was concerned. (It's astonishing to think that back then even quarter-tones were regarded by a lot of teachers and musicians as intervals too small to be perceived.  The degree to which received wisdom can smother your thoughts is extraordinary.)

So for years I had this vague idea in my head of Partch as this funny weird guy.  Then I heard his music, and perhaps as importantly read his book Genesis of a Music in which he explains in detail the theory and practice of his compositions. That was a major explosion in the middle of my preconceptions, the consequences of which I'm still getting to grips with.

So Harry's an important figure for me, who revealed truths I'd only half-glimpsed before.  Nowadays it's easy to get hold of recordings of his music - you can find the recordings he made of some of his Li Po settings on Spotify - and it's even possible to get hold of some scores.  I forked out the whatever-outrageous-cost-of-a-photocopy Schott charge for the Li Po settings, partly because I thought they were wonderful of course, but also because I liked the self-sufficiency they stand for - just Harry, with his voice and his adapted viola, making his revolution all alone. There's a strength and also a melancholy to this single-player set-up, and Li Po's poems also carry some of this sense of isolation and loneliness.

It also occurred to me that some of them at least might be performable on a cello.  And so it proves.  When I started transcribing them, I transposed them down a fifth, as the cello is tuned a fifth lower than an adapted viola (which is tuned one octave lower than a violin), and also because it seemed a more comfortable register for my voice. However, I've gone back to the original pitch of "The Long-Departed Lover", as I think the slightly uncomfortable, strained effect from my singing in that register suits the song.  In the poem Li Po's protagonist is bereft at the loss of his beloved. Whether the Beloved has left him or has died isn't made clear; that's something for you to decide.  It's a sharp, uncomfortable portrait of someone inconsolable, presented in a concise, stark manner that has no room for sentimentality.  I hope that coming before the Webern, it'll help amplify that work's similarly concentrated emotions.  This isn't going to be a singerly performance - I don't think Harry would have approved of that anyway, judging by his own performances†  - but it will, I hope, be a truthful one.

*Thinking about it, I suspect it was in connection with Tom Waits, and specifically "Bone Machine", that I probably first heard about him. 

†Not of "The Long-Departed Lover", sadly - that's one of the ones he didn't record.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Notes before a final (1): Balancing Act

Creating a programme for a concert isn't just a matter of chucking together a bunch of stuff you'd like to play, whatever some people think.  My original plan for the first round of the competition was to pair Feldman's Durations II with Debussy's Cello Sonata; I thought it would make an intriguing pairing, the Feldman both acing as a kind of warm-up for me and the pianist before we launched into the various difficulties of the Debussy, but also acting as a foil: there's the contrast between Feldman's slow, flat surfaces and Debussy's busier, jump-cut style, but also a shared interest in texture and colour.  The Debussy got cut because the time I had got cut, down from 15 minutes to 10. Lutosławski's Grave is a piece which, like the Debussy, I've been laying privately for years, so I had under my fingers (at least enough that getting it up to scratch seemed feasible), and in its changes of mood and  varied texture has a certain affinity with Debussy, and hence I figured would provide a similar fit with the Feldman (which I was determined to keep in the mix).

The Lutosławski's quite an overtly virtuosic piece, very dramatic and full of gesture (very much unlike the Feldman).  The obvious thing to do for the finale would be something similarly flashy.  Doing the obvious just isn't me though.  From the moment I dared to start thinking I might make it to the final I knew I wanted to do some kind of sequence that would create a certain mood, and progression of mood.  The one piece I knew I wanted to play from the off was Webern's Three Little Pieces for Cello and Piano (I'll talk about this piece, and the others, in more detail in further posts). The other thing I was keen to include was one of Harry Partch's Li Po settings, and it occurred to me that one of them in particular would make a great prelude to the Webern, and really help the intense emotion of that to come through.  "The Long-Departed Lover" is, as you'd guess from the title, in part about loss, as is the Webern; pretty much his entire output as a composer is coloured by the trauma he suffered when his mother died.  Following that, I wanted something very calm and soothing, even comforting.  This was the hardest piece of the jigsaw to find; not just the right tone, but the right length to fit in the limited time I had.  In the end, I added two pieces to follow Webern: one to comfort, and another to bring a transformative, fantastical end to the set.

After my set in the semi-final, I was asked, "do you do any more... mainstream pieces?" I guess the answer is, "not this time!".  Mainstream doesn't seem a very interesting place to be to me.  It only occurred to me after I'd settled on the music I wanted to play that only one of the composers I'm playing through the whole competition isn't dead (bad), and that the piece most people would recognise as "Difficult Modern Music", the Webern, is the oldest piece I'm playing, by the composer who died longest ago.  I find that quite a satisfying thought.

Retuning to the stage

Here's me playing Feldman's Durations II and Lutosławski's Grave at the Office Musician of the Year semi-final, my first public performance as a soloist for about 25 years:

It's strange to listen back to it now.  At the time I thought it went really well, and others told me they did too.  But recordings are an unforgiving thing, and listening to this in the cold light of day, without the excitement of being present at or involved in a performance makes me start to hear everything that's wrong with it: the notes I didn't quite pitch right, the moments where the rhythm's a bit off, the failure to pull the bow quite straight or put the finger down quite firmly enough that just skews things slightly away from what I wanted.  This is partly inevitable, that small slips become magnified by a recording, and things that are barely noticed as they fly by in performance can be heard and re-heard.  I's like to think it's also down to the fact that I've been working a lot harder at playing than I have for years, and am becoming more exacting of myself and  more aware of what I need to improve.

In the end (post recording self-criticism aside), the semi went well, I thought. Having spent years living in fear of the idea of standing up* in front of people and playing as a soloist, it seemed to come remarkable easily.  My wife said she was surprised at the degree to which I performed, not something she would have previously associated with me.  This was something I and my accompanist Jon had worked on quite a bit since the masterclass - trying to make sure we injected a certain theatricality to proceedings (it's not called performing for nothing, you know).  We even planned our entrance, bow etc.  In the event our brilliantly planned choreography came to nothing, as the event was really rather more informal than that.  We came out of the audience, as there wasn't an easy route from "off-stage" to "on-stage."  I hope I managed to look vaguely like I looked like I knew what I was about, anyway.  I said a few impromptu things about the two pieces which I think managed not to be total waffle, and then we played.  It helped that Jon's a great musician and a good rehearser.  Most of our rehearsing ha to be squeezed into our lunch break, so time's at a premium, and making efficient use of it vital.  It was a massive boost to confidence walking on to the stage to know we'd really thoroughly prepared ourselves and had nailed all those tricky corners.  One of my old teachers once told me you need to allow for a performance being  around a quarter to a third less good than the best you're capable of.  The great feeling was being confident we were good enough to drop that bit of quality and still be OK.

Interestingly, the main criticism I had from the judge was that we could have given more space to the Feldman.  I actually agree with this, but as we'd been given only 10 minutes (and as you can tell from the recording above we were already pushing the boundaries of that) we had to take a particular approach that was a bit faster than I'd have naturally done.  Having said that, I think it's always a good idea to question received wisdom, and the idea that a piece like that should be done as slowly as possible is one such thing.

There were eight of us in the semi, and five went through to the final.  It's a strong line-up, but I think I may actually be in with a chance.  Of course, I'm scuppering that chance with a programme that's pretty much the exact opposite of a crowd-pleasing fireworks display.  I think having got there, there are two ways I can go: one is to do something to show off, and the other is to decide I don't care about the winning and just do something I really want to do.  Too much of my life is given to compromise as it is, so I'm going with the latter option.

* Not literally. This is cello playing, after all.