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Learning Process 2: The Conductor

June 7, 2012

EXAUDI is, more often than not, a conducted ensemble; but it’s also a rather small ensemble and makes what one might call chamber music, and in many of the pieces we do it’s either preferable not to have a conductor or absolutely essential not to have one. Although I always take a directorial role in the preparation of performances, and take responsibility for the all but the most personal interpretative decisions that are made, what I actually do and how I do it is extremely flexible according to the demands of each piece, from fully conducting to something more akin to coaching or artistically advising. Working with the same people over a long period of time means of course that roles have evolved as we’ve got to know each other better, learnt to trust each other with particular responsibilities (or not), and found ourselves wanting to develop and extend our working practice both individually and collectively. Right from the start I’ve had the belief that, especially in challenging and strange new music, each musician has to feel personally invested and involved in the collective process of getting to grips with the work: thus I’ve always tried to present my role in a small group like EXAUDI as that of primus inter pares, where each musician can have their say and their opinions carefully considered, rather than project a rigidly hierarchical framework.

That said, this only works because we are, broadly speaking, comfortable with our roles and respectful of each other’s (overlapping) fields of expertise. One can take flexibility too far, and many a small group has come to grief through getting roles confused or through tensions being created through people’s ambitions being inappropriate to their talents in a particular area. I sometimes wonder if this isn’t the inevitable entropy of every human grouping with even the slightest pretensions to democratic organisation: after all, a group in which roles are completely demarcated, even by consent, is almost certainly one where full creative potential is being stifled, so the line between sticking to roles and moving outside them is one that has to be constantly monitored and sometimes redrawn if one is to maintain the best possible working practice and the highest standards.

In the case of Aaron’s piece, the roles are, at least on the surface, hyper-defined: each singer is in sole charge of his/her part (and little else, not least as s/he only has his/her part), and the conductor is…well, he is certainly in control of the beat…but what else besides?

My usual practice when learning a new score, whether Cage or Ferneyhough, is fairly early on in the learning process to put myself into the shoes of each musician and learn all of their individual parts. My aim is to be able to view the work from everyone’s individual perspective, to know all the difficulties, to see the work from the view of its individual lines, and of course to know it well enough to be able to correct any and every mistake that is made (though it’s not always appropriate to do so). To me, this is best-practice score-learning, and I am not comfortable completing the ‘vertical’ learning of the work unless I’ve done all of its horizontal lines at some stage first. Whether or not this is a personal foible (I’d love to know how others go about it) – certainly my natural inclination is to see things contrapuntally wherever I can – it’s not always possible or necessary to do it in the amount of detail in which I learnt Missa Brevis, or Dillon’s Hyades, or Lachenmann’s Consolation II, or (a real neighbour-basher this) Xenakis’ Nuits. 

Aaron’s piece, however, is the only purely-vocal piece I’ve conducted where this is, realistically, impossible. Not only is each part of a complexity to keep each singer busy for several months, but the indeterminacies are such that every phrase will come out at least somewhat differently with each person that executes it: even if, in an ideal world, one had several years to learn the score in this way, the sounding results could be at times almost unrecognisably different. The problem is encapsulated by an example from the April rehearsals: I picked a singer up on their vowel sound, transitioning as it was between mouth shapes and tongue positions. More ‘er’, please, not so ‘ah’. ‘But my tongue is in the right place and so’s my mouth shape.’ We compared: it transpired that there was a subtle but definite range of ‘correct’ vowel results for the parameters prescribed at the point I’d marked, and that if anything, his was closer to the centre of that range than mine. In the end, how you are personally conceiving of the precise location of each tongue position, or a mouth shape, or even (dare I say it) of the resulting sound, still makes a difference to the final result; take, for example a variable such as the rate at which transitions are made and the exact point where an ‘o’ mouth seems to become more of an ‘oo’. Sure, it’s theoretically possible to correct a singer – in a one-to-one scenario, for example – on pretty much any of the notated parameters; but in so many cases the actual sound that comes out has a small but significant range of ‘correct’ readings. So not only are you ‘learning’ the part, but also learning the infinitesimal variables that will make the part different in someone else’s mouth. Not easy!

In short, I went as far as I could. I broke the piece into thirty sections, and, section by section, first of all learnt the beating patterns, the tempi and some of the clearest gestural outlines of the music – points of climax, of rest, and so on. Next, I looked for clear topographical features such as rhythmic unison passages (there are lots) and big solo moments, and then built up the rest of the texture around them, section by section. In doing so I ‘sang’ through every part in a kind of busking way, taking into account that there are some techniques that the singers are spending months to master and that there was no hope of my doing so. I wrote in a crib sheet of likely resultant sounds under each note – something that a number of the singers are also doing in order to get a handle on a phrase, though this is contrary to the spirit of the decoupling ideal. But it does help to get the first grip on the material, and for me as for the singers the challenge now is to move away from such aids and see the music as a play of physical interactions rather than of resultant sounds. Finally, as I went through I noted what I thought would be special points of detail using tiny squares of fluorescent post-it notes – many of which turned out to be far less important that they looked on the page when put into context!

All this took the best part of a month, and in the three days remaining before the Residency I went through the whole score again, ensuring that as far as possible I recognised each section and its key moments (ridiculous as that seems, when there’s no fixed sound in your head and the score is consistently and densely detailed, you can’t assume even this!) and was ready to tackle each section in rehearsal in a coherent way by noting (post-its again) the main textural strands of each section.

Had I learnt the score? Emphatically not. But if I had finished, and was completely ready to perform it by that point, I doubt I could have got in amongst the detail in the way that was necessary in those Residency sessions. It’s often the case in these all-too-rare ‘long-haul’ rehearsal periods that if you are too far ahead of the performers you aren’t in the best position to help them. The fact that I was still bound up in the details with them meant we interrogated the questions in a very thorough and patient way – although I struggled with the fact that to really judge the success of each performer’s efforts you have to be simultaneously watching the score and their mouth – so it was good to have the composer sitting behind me to spot what I didn’t.

Even so, I felt uncomfortable. Uncomfortable that I didn’t have the clarity of overall vision of the score that I wanted, though this will eventually come; uncomfortable that the nature of the material means that I will forever fall short of that final sense of physical mastery that each singer will eventually have; uncomfortable that I have the feeling that I may never be able to conceive of even a single bar in all its proliferating, abundant detail. When I’m conducting, I want to possess every tiny part of a work, whatever it is – to encompass it, to feel as I conduct it that it is somehow embodied deeply and wholly inside me: in this piece I’m not sure I ever will. There is a kind of melancholy to that realisation that cuts through the exhilaration I know I will feel when we perform it in July – it will always be beyond me, slightly.

For now, the challenge is at least to get to know it all better: details, larger shapes, everything. I’ve planned four passes through the whole piece between now and July, moving from outlines to fine details and then attempting a holistic integration. My job, as well as beating time, giving a few leads, and shaping as best I can the larger forms and paragraphs of the work (though I’m not yet certain how to achieve this beyond making the singers aware of them – how much, really, can they make larger shapes once they’ve executed their lines as correctly as possible?) is to help the singers get closer to individual mastery of their part, moving between the fine details and the larger gestural shapes, and then adding that altogether to create something that makes musical (yes!) sense of the tangle of individual lines. I have a sense of the clarity that we are searching for and it is that I have to find and bring out – and to do that I have to keep moving more and more deeply into the piece. I need to prise out the larger intentions in every bar as well as the details, and find a way to draw them out of the singers. (Just explaining their role in the texture (yours is a solo line, you two have a duet here) will be a good place to start – so that everyone becomes aware of what is going on around, and their place within it…)

Much ink has been spilled over the role of notation in hyper-complex music, and I wholeheartedly concur with those who would argue that the job of the performer in these circumstances cannot be simply to present a perfect rendition of everything on the page: the point is that perfection remains slightly out of our reach, and we have to choose a path through an informationally-overloaded notation that brings us as close as we can get to as much of it as we can encompass. For Cassidy as for Ferneyhough, hyper-complex notation is, I think, intended to achieve what the latter calls ‘a dialogue with the composition of which it is a token, such that the realm of non-equivalence between the two…be sounded out, articulating the inchoate, outlining the way from the conceptual to the experiential and back.’* If that is so, then our role too as performers might also best be framed as a dialogue between ourselves and the work, mediated by its notation, and that that dialogue by its ungraspable nature be both ever-changing and unending.

The key is to continue the work, strive for ever new insights and mastery, but to give up naive ideas of achieving perfection – which after all have never done anyone any good. It’s Beckett’s famous old quote – ‘Fail again. Fail better.’ – melancholy for sure, but beautiful, and in the end true-to-life.

* I am indebted to Stuart Paul Duncan’s article ‘Re-Complexifying the Function(s) of Notation in the Music of Brian Ferneyhough and the ‘New Complexity”. Perspectives of New Music 48, no. 1 (Winter): 136–72, for a useful overview of the topic.


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  1. Hmm is anyone else experiencing problems with the images on this blog loading?
    I’m trying to find out if its a problem on my end or if it’s the blog.

    Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.

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