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The Residency – Day 2

May 1, 2012

Strange portents and wonders: sun in Huddersfield. Birds singing, flowers blooming, the grim and freezing streets we know and love from Festival time filled with happy singing Yorkshiremen; laughing composers in their dozens spilling out of every craft-beer joint…it just doesn’t feel right.

We’ve been inside of course, finishing off our first pass through A painter of figures in rooms. By lunchtime we’d covered everything at the same slow pace as yesterday, twenty-five bars per hour, and if anything the focus and accuracy has been even more intense than the previous evening – simply, I think, through everyone feeling more comfortable and confident as the hours pass.

Several issues keep coming up. One is the need to define and execute more precisely the timbral (coloured) layer of the material, in particular the ‘pinched’ (orange) timbre, which comes naturally to some and not at all yet to others, but about which Aaron has very specific ideas of execution – perhaps even more so than it appears from the instructions. A second recurring problem is that the indeterminate, or loosely-defined, pitch space as it appears on the score makes it all too easy for one to mistake the accuracy of the pitch gestures that inhabit it – easy to turn a shallow glissando into an octave or more, or to read too casually the exact contours of the line. I think part of the issue is that most music that uses these sorts of notational solutions for pitch is less demanding of some sort of pitch precision than this is, so that knowing Cage’s Aria, for example, where gesture is everything and fidelity to every tiny wiggle and kink of the linear contour need not be right at the top of the performer’s hierarchy of importance, might lead one to approach Aaron’s piece in the same way – which is actually not appropriate.

Thirdly and finally, there is a tendency to make quite disjunct lines lyrical and smooth: this is an ability for which singers usually pride themselves, yet here we need to unlearn that sort of expressivity and find a more geometric style of articulation, with clean starts and ends to things and sharper edges, just as they appear visually on the score. It’s not as if this demand is new to us as an ensemble, yet even our normal ideal of focused clarity of sound is generally too soft-edged for these textures and this aesthetic.

In other words, there’s still a long way to go for us to find the exact rhetorical register that the piece inhabits. It’s just as easy to overcook the drama, the Bacon-inspired twistedness and contortedness, and make it sound caricatured, as it is to undercook it and make it sound mushy, ill-defined and dull. I really don’t think this piece, maximal as it is in density of information and highly gestural to boot, has a great deal to do with Ferneyhough’s ‘too-muchness’ of expression, with its characteristic rhetorical ferocity. As Aaron noted after the rehearsal, so many of the sounds of the piece are private sounds, sounds he first made to himself in the solitude of his study and which belong in a space that’s so intimate that they almost have to be still inside one’s head as well as just outside it. Putting them into play with some bolder and dramatic noises and gestures is dangerous on both sides of the coin, as it is very easy to amplify the intimate register (just so it can be heard, as much as anything) and in doing so amplify and overdo everything else besides (not least in the heat of what will be an intense performance). Finding and holding onto an ideal balance of interiorisation and exteriorisation – thus making the piece as strange and unsettling as it is intended – will have to be the work of later rehearsals, and I daresay after a lot more private practice.

The afternoon session brought a refreshing change of air: Bryn Harrison’s new work for us, eight voices, getting some early rehearsal time in advance of its premiere at Darmstadt in the summer. It’s a beautiful series of four panels filled with overlapping loops of very detailed patterns, very much in the mould of his recent work but (for me) sounding especially lovely on voices. It’s not easy to do, however: the writing is very instrumental and demands amazing control of body and mind (counting in particular) – attributes slightly lacking in us after the intensity of our Cassidy work over the last two days. I would hesitate to say we’ve conquered it, but at least we know our way round a little and are prepared for its pitfalls when we come to rehearse it in more depth in July.

So our rehearsals are over and tomorrow it’s a day of student workshops at the University. I love these sessions and can’t wait – I hope it’s raining though.

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