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Learning Process 1: Simon Whiteley

May 14, 2012

We’ve asked the singers if they’d like to contribute a slightly longer description of the learning process for Aaron’s piece. For regular readers of this blog there might be a risk of overkill here, but what I hope might become interesting – and of course applicable to the learning of all sorts of different pieces, not just this one or pieces like it – is how very differently people approach an overwhelmingly complex task. I hope to twist a few more arms into submitting their Learning Processes to public scrutiny, and I’ll do the same myself – but for now, here’s Simon Whiteley’s take on Challenge Cassidy:

The mere fact that there are three pages of performance notes for A Painter of Figures in Rooms tells you that it’s not your average piece of music, and certainly not when it comes to learning it.

It is a completely graphical score, the only really recognisable musical parts being the time signatures and the rhythms. This was my initial starting point: start with what you know! Unfortunately, the rhythms aren’t too simple either: every bar has a radically different time signature to the last, and most bars have some fairly tricky tuplets in them.

Having spoken to Aaron about the piece, it is clear that it is incredibly meticulously and exactly laid out and composed. As such, I wanted my rhythmic accuracy to be as great as possible. I therefore turned to Sibelius (music programme, not composer) for some help. My learning process consisted of about an hour a day, or one ‘gesture’ per day, for roughly 6 weeks. The first part of it was to put each gesture’s rhythm into the programme (on an A, usually staccato) and then listen back with the metronome clicking until I got the hang of it. Easy part done.

As people are most likely aware by now, the piece takes the voice to bits and puts it back together in its composite parts: fold tension (‘pitch’), air pressure (‘volume’), mouth shape, glottis position/tension and tongue position. Every ‘note’ has each of these stipulated. Many vocal effects and extended techniques are employed as well: tremolos, trills, in-breathing, pitched and unpitched consonants, to name but a few.

So, where to begin? Combining the mouth shapes and tongue positions gives a good overall sense of the sound required. For example, if you are using an ‘oo’ mouth shape with an ‘ee’ tongue position, the resulting sound is a closed ‘ü’. Therefore (only as a starting point – don’t worry, Aaron) under each ‘note’ I wrote the overriding sound. It was then a case of learning to perform these with the rhythm, and then adding different layers of specificity. For example, my first gesture starts with some very quickly moving mouth shapes and tongue positions, so it took a while to work out the overriding sounds. I then had to think about the tessitura (very high but always changing), then added the trillo marks and the dynamics (very quiet). I’m sure this all sounds very complex, but luckily it was all in black, meaning a ‘normal’ glottis tension: perhaps the only ‘normal’ thing about my first gesture!

Once I’d repeated these steps with the first few gestures, it became a lot more innate, and the whole process a lot easier. This breaking down of the different features and then building up of layers was painstaking but necessary. At least, it was the only way I could think to do it.

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