In the pub
So there we were, in the pub, and I got talking to some of the EXAUDI singers about how things are going with our Cassidy project. Lucy, Tom, Steve, Jon Bungard and Simon gave their opinions…
James: First question then: how does this compare to other pieces you’ve done, with EXAUDI or not?
Lucy: This is by far the most challenging piece I have worked on with the group.
Tom: Yup – in fact, this is definitely the most complete challenge I’ve ever undertaken. Every aspect of musical performance and understanding is seriously engaged – one has to ‘re-learn’ how to sing in order to achieve the appropriate vocal colour for Aaron’s sound-world and also cope with both hyper-complex rhythm and an individually-constructed score.
Jon: My initial reaction was to that this is entirely different to anything I’ve ever done, but as you dig deeper you realise that there are parallels. In many ways, of course, it is still utterly, insanely different, but then I consider some of other alternative notation pieces we’ve approached in recent years and realise that I can draw on those experiences.
Lucy: I thought Eduardo Moguillansky’s piece band: wachs* was tough…
Jon: Yes; bizarrely though I found Moguillansky’s megaphone piece and its sheer physicality easier to get to grips with than the technical demands Aaron’s piece creates. Perhaps I’m just a better percussionist than a singer?!
Steve: That’s interesting, because I feel that my singing skills merely help me work it out faster than a non singer, but that, with an open mind, anyone could have a go.
Jon: There are moments as well that resonate with the thought processes required in Amber Priestley‘s Unloose to the Murmur or The Humanist by Ignacio Agrimbau†. There are also parallels with some of the Cage we do – the processes are specified, but the end result isn’t. Actually, that’s true of quite a lot of the music we have sung over the years. So perhaps it’s not quite as scary as I let myself assume it was.
James: What’s been the most difficult aspect of it?
Steve: Multitasking! It’s like playing mouth drums! Coordination is everything!
Lucy: Definitely. The rhythms are difficult but what makes this piece so tricky is the co-ordination of the five different strands – mouth shape, tongue position, vocal fold tension, air pressure, and timbre. There is always another layer of detail to be added; your job is never finished!
Simon: I’ve been finding the learning process itself incredibly painstaking.
Lucy: Absolutely. I was finding that I would rehearse a couple of bars for hours, only to forget it straight away.
Jon: Just finding the time to allow my brain to deal with the alternative notation has been really hard. When you work with traditional notation (or several different forms of it, as I do!) on a daily, even hourly, basis, switching your brain to another, completely new one, is a big ask if you can’t immerse yourself in it.
Tom: I feel like I’ve been trying to find first gear in a car where the gear box is on the roof and also works in reverse order! It’s taken a very long time to get started, with much frustration in the bargain, necessitating huge patience (something which doesn’t come easily…).
Lucy: Another thing I think that makes it really hard is that even when you are accurately following the score the resulting sounds can differ quite dramatically from one rehearsal to the next. This unpredictability makes it hard to learn. In more conventional scores your ears come to expect a certain sound but in this piece this isn’t always possible. My way of getting round this was to give everything an accurate pitch. My brain seems to like the familiarity of the notes and this has made it much easier to remember things. I always ensure the rhythm is accurate and then work on pitch, tongue position, mouth shape, and and dynamics in that order.
James: So what’s been the easiest part of learning it, if anything?
Steve: Having fun making mad noises.
Jon: The rhythm, I think, but that’s always been one of my strongest points.
James: I’ll remember that.
Lucy: Yes, and realising that in some passages you are in rhythmic unison with another voice made things a bit easier.
Tom: For me it’s been reading the score. Aaron’s taken a great deal of care in how he’s laid out the material and the result is a very easy score to read – even if one doesn’t understand how to realise it!
Simon: I agree; once I’d got the hang of the learning process, the way Aaron has notated it meant reading the score did become a lot more innate.
James: I’m sure he’ll be pleased to hear that…! The next thing I wanted to ask is, do you have a sense of where it’s going as music yet, or are you just wrestling with the ‘dots’? If so, what are your impressions of it as a piece? I’m really beginning to see it take shape now but inside the ensemble it might be different.
Jon: In a word, no. I haven’t got to the stage yet where I can relax enough in my own part to listen to much else. There are a few moments of rhythmic unison that I can listen out for, but I’m not at Ferneyhough-like levels of comfort yet‡!
Lucy: Yup, I feel I’m still wrestling with the dots (or lack of them, more to the point!). I can already appreciate the influence of the Francis Bacon paintings though, with their distorted human figures.
Steve: It definitely creates a mood. The dots are certainly challenging but the true picture is coming through.
Tom: I found in our run-through that there were clear moments of collective and individual clarity, which helped to give both a sense of overall structure and also some signposts as we traversed the very rocky terrain!
James: How did you find the rehearsals? Impeccably directed, obviously.
Steve: Entertaining! Plenty of laughs. Just my sort of thing!
Jon: Weird. Crazy. Hilarious at times. Methodical. Definitely still work in progress!
Tom: Equally thrilling and terrifying! When sections began to take shape and also more and more details were accepted as good by both composer and conductor, there was a palpable sense of achievement, both personally and collectively. In getting to that point we all had to be seriously brave and put our previous hard work on the line. It was very exposing to do that, but the encouraging atmosphere helped to support our efforts. It was also motivating to see our colleagues do so well and take so much risk in rehearsal.
Lucy: For me it was a relief to start rehearsing the piece together as I had been working hard on my own but didn’t know what stage I would be at in relation to the others. It was good to address problems that I had been having producing certain sounds (e.g. the orange colour sounds in the score). The rehearsals made me realise that this piece isn’t impossible, as I had initially thought, and that we had already made a good start.
Simon: Dare I say it, I actually found the rehearsals upsettingly easy! I think we were all expecting it to be a lot more difficult. I think everyone’s put quite a bit of time into learning their part, though. That and the high standard of musicianship in the group means it seems to be coming together quite well!
James: So we’re feeling positive…?
Simon: Brain-tired but thoroughly rewarded!
Lucy: Yes, still daunted, challenged (in a good way though, perhaps!)…
Jon: I’m excited. I love a challenge.
James: So where do you feel you’re at with it now? How much more work needs doing?
Jon: Plenty more, but I have quite a lot of allocated time in my diary coming up for it thankfully. There’s a huge amount of polish to be done – I could “get away” with it now, but I’m not really interested in that level of performance. I think we owe Aaron something extraordinary.
Steve: It’s the finer details that need concentration. You can’t let yourself get away with anything. It’s either right or if it’s not, it’s definitely wrong and you need to sort it out.
Tom: I now need to work slowly, taking each gesture apart, to make sure I’m compromising the least I can in how I execute the instructions I’ve been given. I’ve got a great overall idea of how things work, but I need much more control to perform my gestures with a true and genuine intention, so that it’s really convincing for the audience.
Lucy: I’ve still got to sort out the orange sound. I then need to keep on adding layers on detail until I gradually get closer and closer to what Aaron’s actually written.
Simon: Yes, I think I have the overall shape of my part. The ‘dots’ are pretty much there. It’s now mainly a case of adding even more layers of detail. I need to get away from the idea of overriding ‘sounds’ and start thinking properly about the individual components of the voice that Aaron has notated.
James: Last word?
Steve: Keep on smiling!
* premiered in Witten in 2011: every singer had to learn a highly differentiated and nuanced range of megaphone techniques – not unlike the vocal deconstruction in the Cassidy in some ways.
† two EXAUDI commissions from 2009.
‡ Jon really does mean that the Ferneyhough Missa Brevis, which we did three times between 2006 and 2008, eventually became comfortable enough to enjoy without hanging on for grim death.