Tomorrow in Australia

My most challenging set piece for the festival was Tomorrow in Australia, a solo flute piece by American composer Paul Richards, to be played in a concert of his music on the first Friday. I was able to work with both the flute teacher Lisa Cella and Paul Richards himself on the piece, and really enjoyed both the learning process and music itself.

Being an Australian, I was really surprised by the title of the piece. After a little Internet searching, I turned up a program note and was able to form some ideas of how to approach it in terms of the post-apocalyptical inspiration. It turned out that Nat (the festival director) and Lisa has been looking through Paul’s catalogue to work out the concert program and decided that it would be funny to give me the piece purely based on the title. Program aside, though, I came to realise that everything I needed to know about the piece and its interpretation was written in the music – as it always should be!

I had been practicing Tomorrow in Australia for about two weeks before arriving at SoundSCAPE, and felt that it was in pretty good shape considering that. I had worked my way around the slides, tongue rams and tongue pizzicato, and felt that I was doing all the various extended techniques quite well.

Lisa, however, opened my eyes to the fact that I was being rather too polite with everything. For a start, I needed to make slides more pronounced and be confident to slide with my embouchure even if I couldn’t do it with fingerings. I had been erring on the side of caution and dropping out any effects that didn’t seem convincing, where as what I actually needed to do was work on the unique sounds that extended techniques create. The same was true for breathy tone – the reason I didn’t like it much as an effect was that it sounded too close to my normal tone with too much pitch. I needed to (and still need to) work on creating something that is less beautiful and more airy. This technique was particularly important at the piece’s climax, and made for a much more dramatic gesture when it was clear that I was giving everything.

My tongue pizzicato, which I had been quite happy with before SoundSCAPE, was also up for review. The sound I was producing was more of a clipped airy sound than true pizzicato, and we worked on using the tongue between the teeth to create the necessary pop rather than putting air through the instrument as I had been. Tongue rams, while not quite such a disaster, were improve by making sure that the seal of the lips and the flute was tighter. Finally, we talked about exploring the realms of vibrato a little more. The slower sections of the piece called for a varied, highly pronounced vibrato that I had thus far been trying to achieve with a little too much delicacy. I need to be confident enough to take a step away from the ‘bel canto’ style of flute playing and accept that sometimes vibrato can take over the sound entirely rather than being within it.

Considering how long I had had the piece for, I was really happy with the way I played it at the concert on the first Friday. I had learned a lot about creating the intensity the music demanded, and felt that I gave a convincing performance even if a few notes were a little different from those on the page. Paul Richards also seemed pleased. However, I feel that I can still go a lot further with the piece in terms of both attention to detail and dramatic intensity. I will certainly play it back in Australia (despite this seeming to contradict the title) and would very much like to fit it into my Masters recital later this year. The thing that strikes me most about this piece is its rhythmic intensity – there is so much energy and drama!

Improvisation – Part 2

Finally I return to writing a little about my experiences over the last two weeks. SoundSCAPE was busy and life is short – I decided it was better to enjoy my time in Maccagno (and the occasional few hours of sleep) rather than forcing myself to write every day. E alora, I find myself at the end of it! All went far too fast, but I am still keen to reflect on what I’ve learned…

Improvisation continued to be one of my favourite classes, and I now feel much more confident with ideas of structure, form and timbre in free improv. For the rest of the first week we continued to experiment with some set ways of controlling the piece. As ABA form is quite pleasing, we worked on small group pieces where Tom walked back and forth along the front of the auditorium to indicate transitions from A to B and back. It took us a while to be confident in arriving at a B section that was radically different from the A section, either in terms of texture or motivic material. Not playing all the time is one way of achieving this, and knowing when to sit out is important. For me, wedded to the flute as my mode of expression, it was good to try and get away from the instrument. The range of sounds on stage is so much more interesting if we also make use of vocalisation and any percussive ideas that spring to mind.

In the second week, the aim was to achieve interesting, unified improvisational without clear direction from a conductor or external force. A lot of this comes from listening to others, borrowing ideas and knowing when to lead or follow. I often found that this was a groove that it took a while to get into; the first improv I did in each class would be pretty average on both an individual and sometimes a group level. Once we had done a few, the process began to feel more natural and the pieces were both more unified structurally and more daring.

Our one piece of ‘homework’ for the week involved creating the structure for an improvised duet. I was with Jessie, and with two flutes we needed a plan that would create structure and interest through something other than the fundamental difference of our instrumental timbres. We decided to control structure by our physical placement on the stage: we would start on opposite sides and come together, then return. When far apart, we would toss ideas back and forth, sharing motivic material and elaborating on what the other had played, but waiting for them to finish before we began. As we moved closer together we would aim for increasing density in our texture, still sharing material but interrupting when we felt like it and being more direct with our musical statements. I really enjoyed experimenting with this idea; the duet form made for intense interaction and Jessie is great fun to improvise with. Though we weren’t over the moon about how the performance went in class, a commitment to really ‘go for it’ in the concert on Thursday made for a fun, engaging piece.

Following a game of Cobra, duets and some small ensemble free improvisations, the concert concluded with a piece called Blurred that Tom had brought along. This was once again improvisation with constraints – the piano played a cyclic chord progression from a score and we (in surround sound) played notes that we heard in the chords. We could start playing notes once we heard them, but didn’t have to drop out the moment they stopped, creating a blurring of each chord into the next. In the classes we were mostly playing with long notes, but for the concert changed to more rhythmic statements on a given pitch. While this wasn’t my favourite piece, it was great for ear training and the audience seemed to enjoy the effect!

Now my dilemma is how to continue working on improvisation, as I do think it is a wonderful skill and one that we don’t explore nearly enough as students of western classical music. Playing alone is one thing, and I will try to incorporate it into my practice. But I also need to recruit some friends to practice and explore with, and I think it’s something that needs to happen with relative frequency. Food for thought, and for a musically open mind!

Improvisation – Part 1

Since it is now up to day four and I haven’t had much time to write , I’m going to focus on themes rather than trying to go back and give a day-by-day account. There is so much to think about that this will hopefully focus my writing a little and also help to preserve some of these thoughts and ideas for myself when I head back to Australia.

Improvisation class is at 2:30 every day, and has become one of my favourite times. It’s taken by Tom, the piano teacher, and focuses on ways to direct free improvisation so that we can produce meaningful and interesting pieces. Basically, instead of saying “just go for it”, we’re experimenting with parameters that can aid us creatively. I think this is ideal for me, as I’ve done some improvisation before in set styles (mostly jazz), but if I had to get up on stage and just improvise I would have no idea where to start. This lack of ability, in my mind, really sets a lot of classical musicians apart from those working in other genres – I certainly believe we should be able to improvise, but wouldn’t know where to begin.

We have had three classes so far, and they have made use of improvisation ‘games’. On Monday, we played Cobra, a piece/game where a prompter uses cards to direct the music. The cards can get us to play in groups or as individuals, to swap roles or team up and copy a partner’s music, and can save musical moments for later if they’re interesting. If musicians are unhappy with what’s going on, they can employ ‘guerrilla tactics’ – putting on a hat and doing whatever they want – for short period of time. The game is fast-paced and fun, though it is almost entirely up to the prompter how the form of the piece works out.

On Tuesday, as well as a game of Cobra, we experimented with ways that one of the group could vary elements of the performance. We started out working with short motives from each player, and Tom encouraged us to think outside the box a bit in terms of perceived meter. At the start, most musicians chose to play in four, while the more interesting textures came rather from us having the confidence to think in other beat patterns. Then, I was given the role of ‘director’, but only of how dense the texture was. While also playing, I had to walk between pillars in the hall, with the pillar closest to the stage indicating that we had to only play one note of our motif, and the farthest pillar that we had to play five or six. We then added people with the same control over dynamics and tempo, meaning that we all had to do a lot of watching. The piece was interesting from an interaction point of view, though it was interesting to note that the variables were not totally independent – musicians naturally play louder when they get faster!

Ready for SoundSCAPE…

Tomorrow I will travel to Italy to spend two weeks playing at the SoundSCAPE new music festival in Maccagno. I’m really excited to tackle a huge range of contemporary music and to work with composers on brand new pieces!

This new section of my blog will be something of a reflection on the experience, tracking my development as a performer and my reactions to the music I hear and play. I hope that through writing I’m able to share what I’m sure will be an incredibly intense experience, perhaps even give some readers a new insight into why it is both wonderfully fascinating and rewarding to engage with new music.

For now, the bags are packed and the music is practiced. SoundSCAPE here I come!