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So what’s so difficult?

April 25, 2012

So what is it that’s hard about the piece?

Like all of Cassidy’s works it uses a technique of ‘decoupling’, whereby many of the different physical components of the player’s technique or sound-producing mechanism are given their own part, usually in rhythmic counterpoint with each other. For a string player this might mean the decoupling of the left hand and the right hand (to take the simplest possible example), so that the left hand could be fingering a sequence of pitches and the right hand bowing a completely different rhythm. One can take this a lot further – and Cassidy has – isolating the various different physical moves required to make a sound (for the bowing arm, wrist angle, speed of bow movement, direction of bow movement, arm weight) and give them all their own ‘line’. The relation of this to ‘classical’ serialism is of course clear: decoupling is the refinement of parametric thinking to the nth degree of detail, requiring performers of such complete technical control and mental agility that they can pull apart their techniques and keep each bit separate in their minds and bodies while playing. Patting your head and rubbing your tummy doesn’t come close.

The fact is that A painter of figures in rooms is by no means Aaron’s hardest piece, in terms of what each performer has to do. Usually he writes for soloists of proven pedigree in this field – most notably the soloists that come together to make the ensemble ELISION, and the JACK Quartet, who have been Aaron’s champions and near-exclusive collaborators for some time. Writing for EXAUDI (note: really hard contemporary music groups use CAPITALS to show our UNCOMPROMISING COMMITMENT) was a different challenge for him because we are simply not decoupling experts, and few if any of our singers have thought about their techniques in the piecemeal way Aaron has deconstructed them. And as will undoubtedly be seen in later posts, it’s by no means a foregone conclusion that everyone who can sing can dissociate the components of what they are doing to the degree required. Added to that we have EXAUDI’s hand-to-mouth existence and it was definitely a case of discretion being the better part of valour where sheer performative difficulty was concerned. I’d like to think that this works for Aaron too, as the piece has more chance of being taken up by other groups if it looks at least slightly possible to execute!

In A painter of figures in rooms, Aaron isolates Vocal Fold Tension (roughly, pitch), Air Pressure (roughly, volume), Mouth Shape, Glottis Position/Tension (in effect, timbre, from breathy to pinched), and most crucially, Tongue Position. In this example you can see the four Tongue Positions represented at the top of each singer’s tablature notation by small green squares, and the Mouth Shapes shown on the main bit of the tablature enclosed by squares or circles. Projecting out of these squares or circles are coloured lines; the colour represents Glottis Position (e.g. a purple line is a rather tense glottis giving a nasal sound) and the upwards and downwards directions of the lines show Vocal Fold Tension (pitch really), relative to the entire possible pitch range of the person attempting the part (falsetto included). Finally, the width of the line represents Air Pressure (volume).

Immediately you will have noticed that some of the rather physiologically-designated parameters can be simply translated to mean pitch, volume and so on. One question that arises from this is, how relevant is it not to translate these back into simple musical parameters? The answer in theory is that each parameter impinges on the others, so the Air Pressure may be great but in terms of volume it might be almost totally negated by the combination of Mouth and Tongue positions, giving a resultant dynamic of p. For musicians used to dealing in absolutes, this will be one of many big challenges to come. In fact, I suspect that the hardest thing of all will be to resist the temptation to simplify the score into things that are more readily understandable – or at least to make sure that we translate them back to what they started as once we’ve found a way into the notation. The fact is that however theoretical some of Aaron’s instructions may seem, they are all in fact genuinely practical and impinge directly on the sound.

Happily for us, Aaron’s own simplifications of his previous vocal practice in this piece have resulted in him being quite sparing with the amount of rhythmic counterpoint that exists between different physical actions. In this same example, you’ll see various moments where the tongue is executing a glissando while the parameters on the main tablature staff are moving in a different rhythm. Thankfully that’s about all there is of that kind of counterpoint, which is surely the hardest thing to deal with. But there is plenty to think about from the point-of-view of gradual changes: lots of the piece features mouth shapes that transition from one to the next (circled mouth shapes are transitional ones, squares are static), and the tongue likewise, and the timbre likewise (gradual changes of colour). And setting parameters in transition against parameters that are still is quite enough of a mouthful!

Next: Learning the piece: the story so far

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