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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.

The Residency – Days 3 and 4

I wouldn’t normally regard two days of wall-to-wall student workshops as ‘light relief’, but I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to wake up on Tuesday morning feeling a bit of a weight lifted from my shoulders – albeit temporarily.

I think most people assume I’m joking when I announce periodically that Composer Workshops are just about my favourite part of EXAUDI’s activities. It’s true: there’s something about them that I find especially stimulating, freed from the stress of performance and all the carefulness that descends on composer and performer alike when they know they are going to be publicly judged. The laboratory atmosphere of the Workshop encourages experimentation and boldness, and this is exciting for everyone involved – the composers, the performers and all those watching – usually including faculty members and other composers, who all become part of what is at its best a really hot creative crucible.

It’s also become a bit of a personal mission for me as well, because my own postgraduate years as a composer were periodically scarred by bad workshops: workshops led by bored, cowardly composers and timid, cynical or just plain unimaginative performers who could only tell you what you couldn’t do, and what wouldn’t work (which would include pretty much anything interesting or innovative), and wouldn’t know real creativity if it punched them in the face. A workshop should be a place of idealism and risk-taking, and anyone who can’t get fully behind that agenda has no business going anywhere near a young composer. As soon as we had the chance to lead workshops with EXAUDI, both Juliet and I were at pains to make sure that all our singers understood this and didn’t just do the normal thing of problematising any and every slightly unusual demand the score made on them – as they routinely find is the case in other groups they work for. We will try and do absolutely anything we are asked to do, and in the spirit it is intended, even if the composer has wildly miscalculated – who would have bothered trying to play Xenakis’ early pieces if they didn’t take that attitude? We also try and rehearse as much as possible beforehand so we can give absolutely the best possible account of the piece in the time available. This is hardly ground-breaking stuff, but my own experience has been that many performers don’t take workshops properly seriously and are certainly not really on the composer’s side – is that so much to ask?

Our Huddersfield crucible contained four composers, Matthew Sergeant, Barbara Ellison, Liz Nicholas-Stannard and Pia Palme, four singers – Juliet, Lucy, Alastair Putt and Gareth Dayus-Jones (the latter reinforcements especially for this session), myself, three of the students’ teachers (Aaron, Bryn and Liza Lim) and several others. The four pieces were drastically contrasted – Matthew’s a detailed, normally-notated piece based on Ethiopian phonemes with a quite passionate, if not exactly dramatic, feel (‘primal/incanting’ was the instruction), Liz’s a deceptively simple, almost Scratch-music-style experimental piece that she also uses with primary school students, Barbara’s a series of Inuit-inspired ‘scenes’ comprised of little repeated motifs of ‘chanting and panting’, as she called it, and Pia’s a notated work to be sung without the score, with the singers imitating what they hear through their own headphones.

There was plenty of innovative thinking amongst the four (never before have we performed with rubbish bins on our heads) and plenty of practical issues to resolve as well. Singers, one should remember, don’t like heavy panting (at least during work hours) as it dries up the throat and screws up the voice. IPA (the alphabet rather than the drink) is a Good Thing but has to be done correctly and sometimes can be more trouble than it’s worth if you are dealing with just a few quite conventional phonemes. Instructions can always be clearer. But these were accomplished composers who all had something distinctive to say and the confidence to say it and stand up for it, and I can only hope they were encouraged by what we did with their pieces. For me personally the most interesting moment was watching and hearing the singers performing Pia’s piece, which they’d not heard or seen before, by imitating the audio they were hearing in their headphones. There was a fragility and sense of discovery to the sound, and also a sense of direct expressivity and freedom, that simply could not have occurred had they been reading from scores. To hear four of these lines interacting in counterpoint whilst their owners were aware only of their own was a remarkable experience (and the expressions of concentration on the singers’ faces was something to behold) and an idea that could go in some interesting directions. Pia is not the only composer dealing with auditory signals in this way, but what she produced here was new to me, and exciting.

This wasn’t our only workshop date of the day – earlier on Tom, Simon and Jon Bungard had led a fascinating vocal workshop with soloists and a quartet of singers from the University, Tom deploying his full range of singing-teacher similes – some more outrageous than others – on some willing and very interested students.

On Wednesday morning it was off to Huddersfield New College to work with sixth-form students. Our first session with BTEC performers culminated in a rough-edged but invigorating group attempt at some material from Cage’s Song Books and Aria, and the second session with A-level composers on composing with extended vocal techniques ended with a touching and very windy Haiku Seasons group composition. I hope the students enjoyed it as much as we did. I shall treasure the memory of my colleagues (including Aaron and Bryn) miming a car-wash, running round the room barking, and trying not to do all the composing themselves.

That was one of the most intense short patches of work I can remember: every day a new challenge and every challenge stretching and stimulating. Comfort zones were routinely trashed and expectations beaten to a pulp – long may it continue. Of course I’ve missed out one really important bit – the down-time spent traversing the pubs of Huddersfield, the taco evening chez Cassidy, and all the other little moments of respite that are so crucial to bond us together in our shared purpose and which make working with this lovely group of people such a pleasure. It has been a great week and a big confidence-boost for everyone.

The Residency – Day 2

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.

The Residency – Day 1

One day into our Huddersfield Residency and it’s all going rather well!

As I predicted, there is a range of levels of capability across the group at this stage, but it’s a very small range from just-about-nailed-it to a-bit-shaky-but-still-basically-getting-there, and everyone is ready for the task of putting the score together – by no means a foregone conclusion given how much work is required to get even that far, and how easy it is to go so wrong in one’s learning if one mistakes the instructions even by a little.

In a word…phew!

My plan is to make sure that by the end of three sessions we have covered everything in the piece, trying a section slightly under-tempo, then taking it apart completely (not for the last time!), pointing out some features of individual lines that need improvement, trying to improve them (not always possible straightaway) and eventually putting back together before moving on. It’s like the old story of Michelangelo making his sculptures, gradually chipping away at the block of marble till he has a rough outline of the work, then getting into more and more detail and refinement until it’s finally there. I’d say we’re getting to the rough outline point right now, and it already feels and sounds pretty exciting.

At dinner the night before, Aaron and I had talked about the overall impact of the piece, and the overriding sense of shock, if not horror, the listener should feel on first encountering it – akin to the stomach-churning that accompanies one’s first view of a Francis Bacon painting. Not cheap shock of course, but something quite visceral and lasting, that grows on you rather than diminishes as the work progresses. This was something we decided to put to the singers immediately: no matter how little brain-space one might think one has for such ideas at this point in the learning process, it is crucial that somewhere in your mind you have an idea of the final goal, an underlying motivation for all the contortions you are putting yourself through. And certainly there was the sense throughout the day that people knew why they were making noises ranging from the most delicate fluting and fluttering to the most equine and vomitous – even if the focus and force were not quite there yet.

Focus and force – these things, contrary to what some may think – are always inextricably entwined. In this piece, as each gesture takes on more and more definition, as the infinitesimal nuances of Aaron’s notation sink deeply into the bodies of the executants (this is, first and foremost, a physical music) – only then will the full impact, the sheer, warped strangeness of this music, come fully out (like, one is tempted to say, some Goyaesque monster emerging from the shadows…). And from time to time, after some patient, slow-moving and meticulous work, we began to hear glimpses of what A painter of figures in rooms will – eventually – become.

Not too bad for Day 1…

After the serious work, some serious down-time is in order: say what you like about Aaron, that man can cook Mexican food!

What’s the point? – The composer’s view

Aaron Cassidy writes:

James has kindly invited me to make a few contributions to his blog series.  Let me say, first and foremost, how thoroughly I have enjoyed reading the posts so far.  Even as someone very much on the inside of this project (!), I have found them incredibly interesting, engaging, and most importantly, wonderfully honest and candid.  I’m very much looking forward to reading the rest of the documentation of the process as we move towards the premiere in mid-July.

Since James has focused so far primarily on the what and how of the project, I thought I might chime in briefly to talk a bit about the why.  That is, why have I chosen to work this way, why does the notation look like it does, why have I approached the voice in such an analytical, physiological, stratified manner … Or, to put it another way (to match the candor found in James’s posts), what’s the point?

As James has indicated, the roots of this project go back to much earlier pieces from the late 90s/early 2000s which engaged with ideas of ‘instrumental decoupling’ (very much influenced by the work of Klaus K. Hübler, among others), but more specifically to my work with tablature notation, starting in 2004.  I haven’t written notes since 2003 – instead, my focus has been on developing an approach to composing and to music-making that prioritizes the physical act of sound-production.  I have attempted to make the argument that the way in which a sound is made is intrinsic to the sound itself.  To take a simple example, a trill isn’t a rapid alternation between two adjacent pitches; instead, it is the musculature, the energy, the physical, bodily movement involved in making that gesture.  Its identity, its fundamental ‘trill-ness’, comes principally from the interface between human physiology, the instrumental mechanism, and gesture:  the movement of the wrist, the tension of the muscles, the specific fingerings, the resistance from the keys of the keyboard (or buttons or valves or slides or rapid changes in lip tension…).  In my tablature work, I have sought to generate something of a vocabulary/grammar of musically meaningful action – the aim has been to construct ways of making sound that are, in a sense, already musical, rather than seeing those actions as merely physical means to a sonic end.  Crucially, in each of those works there is a high degree of indeterminacy and unpredictability – I have been interested in setting up scenarios in which identical, repeatable physical actions might generate varied sounding results (sometimes quite widely so), but (and this is key) even within that variety the resulting sounds are all still fundamentally, identifiably connected to the producing action.  It’s not that the difference in resulting sounds is immaterial, but instead that the physical, gestural movement used to make those varied sounds is so clearly defined that it supersedes that difference.

More recently, I have been working to more carefully integrate the many-layeredness of my notational approach.  In the earlier works, each of the various strata of sound production (embouchure, fingers, bow, valves, etc.) were notationally stratified (often on somewhat obscene stacks of independent staves), but since my Second String Quartet I have been working to combine all of these various layers of physical activity onto a single, unified notational image.  The level of specificity is the same, but there is, for me, something much more immediate and plausible about this integrated approach.  The notation for A painter of figures in rooms continues this effort.

This still doesn’t quite answer the question of why, though.  The answer to that question is more personal and much less technical/practical.  First, somewhere along the way I came to a realization that I didn’t particularly care about pitch … or at least it was quite a long way down on my list of musical priorities as a listener.  My connection to music has always been quite visceral, physical, bodily, connected almost more to dance and movement than to sound.  It’s playing music that I love, making music, generating sound.  It’s almost certainly why I love being a conductor.  I’m not particularly interested in sound as an abstract phenomenon – it’s the muscle and sinew and sweat that interests me, the particular energy of, say, playing very softly, or generating a massive crescendo, or playing very high or singing very low, or indeed the massive effort and concentration and muscular resistance required to create a perfectly pure, stable, sustained tone.  Those sounds are interesting, to be sure, but on an emotional level, it’s the human part of making the sounds that I find exciting, risky, and rewarding.

In the case of A painter of figures in rooms, this loops us back to the issue of indeterminacy and unpredictability.  In my earlier tablature work, the notation primarily specifies the interaction between the player and the instrument; in the case of the voice the player and the instrument are of course one and the same.  What I have found most exciting in this piece is not only the extent of variability and indeterminacy emerging out of the unique ‘instruments’ of each singer in the ensemble – that is, different singers can follow exactly the same set of notational instructions and generate quite different sounding results, and indeed in many cases the same singer could follow the same set of instructions three times in a row and get three different sounds – but even more that the unpredictability seems to magnify the unique characteristics of each singer’s voice.  In the 1-to-1 sessions in particular, I found that the personality of each voice emerged most clearly in the passages that are the most challenging and unpredictable.  In the passages that are reasonably ‘singerly’, they tend to sound, well, like singers.  But in the passages in which breath and mouth and glottis and tongue are in some tangled battle, they sound like Amy, or Tom, or Simon, or Stephen …  I find that very exciting indeed.

It’s worth saying as well that this has been at the heart of the tablature project from the beginning.  The project has been, at its core, about inventing new sounds, new modes of expressivity, new ways of playing, but it’s always been filtered through a fascination with the accidental, the personal, the unpredictable.  My favorite bits are the bits that I really could have never predicted, could have never actually imagined left to my own devices.  Armed with a blank bit of manuscript paper and a pen, I think I’d probably mostly write the music that I already know.  I could do that, and frankly I think I could probably do it pretty well, but that approach doesn’t excite me, and, for whatever reason, that approach seems somehow self-indulgent.  My effort to turn the process on its head has been mostly about setting up scenarios in which composing and performing is a constant state of mystery, discovery, befuddlement, and adventure.  My approach has mostly been about:  “what happens if …”  It’s a very risky approach, particularly in pieces such as this one where the stakes are high and where failure would be quite public – the experiment is happening right there, on stage.  The experiment is the piece, even given all of the research and development work that went in along the way.  And indeed it could fail … but that fact is exactly why I do what I do.  It’s the only way to push further and to make something legitimately new, and potentially something legitimately special.  I’d much rather fail in that effort than succeed in making something that I already know will work.  I’m extremely lucky to have partners like EXAUDI who are willing to take this risk alongside me.

Since I have this public forum, let me just express my gratitude to the funders and organizers of the PRSF New Music 20×12 scheme and also to the very generous grant provided by the University Research Fund at the University of Huddersfield.  As James outlined in his post below, we have had opportunities for R&D sessions, extensive 1-to-1 sessions with each singer, and, starting on Sunday, a multi-day residency of rehearsals and workshops at Huddersfield (many of which, incidentally, are open to the public).  It has been a relatively luxurious rehearsal setup, and I am enormously grateful for the financial support that has made it possible.

Somewhere further down the line (probably closer to the date of the premiere), I’ll add an additional post about the title of the piece, the connections to Francis Bacon, and the difficulties of fighting against the tendency of viewing projects like these through a kind of pseudo-scientific lens, pulling the project back from an atmosphere of reasonably abstract research into something more deeply human, expressive, and artistic.

Until then, back to you, James …

Among the foothills

Two days to go till our Huddersfield Residency and excitement is reaching fever pitch! Or rather, some of us are running a high fever of panic trying to get everything in some sort of state to start work…

By this point in the process everyone has (I think) a pretty good idea of what’s going on and what they have to do. A big component of our planning has been mapping out the learning process (the plan of attack) and breaking things into achievable stages.

Our first taste of the project was back in September, when we held a workshop day to R+D some of the main concepts and techniques Aaron intended using. If you’re going to write highly technical stuff for performers using a lot of technical jargon it’s as well to talk to real performers as much as possible about your ideas before committing to a plan! – an obvious point that nonetheless seems to elude a lot of composers (and I suspect it may come up again in our composition workshop at the University on Tuesday…) In a project like this, it’s crucial, not least to get performers onside, give them a stake in the project and brace them for what’s coming.

I’m not sure it totally worked. There was palpable shock, if not fear, in people’s eyes when we reconvened with the finished scores (actually, parts – for once we decided there was little point in everyone having the whole score so the singers are working from parts. I think it looks less frightening that way…) in March, for what was grandly termed an Orientation day. At that point there was little to be done but discuss the copious instructions, gingerly test the waters with a couple of carefully selected easy bits, and then spend a few hours writing the beats in. Yes, that’s right. Just writing them in, nice and slowly, a simple task to get everyone au fait with the rhythmic framework, without which any personal work on the piece was doomed to failure before it started.

At last we were into the project and among the notes, and things were looking considerably brighter during the next day of rehearsals three weeks later. In the intervening time we’d been on the road with major new pieces by Joanna Bailie and Christopher Fox, as well as works by Lucier, Cage, Aldo Clementi, Fokkens, and Machaut, and most singers had had little or no time to work in depth on the Cassidy. The approach we now took was to schedule for each singer short bursts of 1-to-1 work with Aaron or me, interspersed with private learning. By the end of the day everyone had a foothold on the task and the right tools – mental and physical – to go about it. What was perhaps most interesting (as will be discussed in future posts from both Aaron and me) was how extraordinarily differently people approached the same set of problems – and how very different the difficulties they found were.

And so to the Residency: two days of ensemble rehearsal, during which I hope we will cover everything in the piece to a greater or lesser degree. In the spirit of holding myself a hostage to fortune, I’m anticipating that we will basically be able to do it, probably about quarter-speed, by the end of Monday. Which is certainly not to say that much of it will be very accurate: some people I’m sure will have pretty much nailed everything, others will still be finding their way – though I hope not to the extent that they can’t make any sort of stab at their parts…I expect some to have gained confidence, others to have lost some and to be needing some more help.

What is so beautiful about these mountainous challenges – the sort we spend most of our careers, if not lives, subconsciously shying away from – is how complex and unpredictable people’s paths are towards the goal, how they confront our confusions, insecurities and weaknesses and show us at our sincerest and most vulnerable; how the process opens us out, strips us naked in front of our friends and colleagues. We’ve learnt over the years that there is no shame in finding things hard where your friends and colleagues support you; one thing I am certain of is that in this particular team we will all be helping each other.

So what’s so difficult?

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

Hand-to-mouth: planning the project

This is the kind of project EXAUDI was formed for. Idealistic, ludicrously labour-intensive, with no guarantee of ultimate success and no clear path towards it – it’s the kind of challenge I love and which Juliet and I have been foisting on our long-suffering colleagues regularly over the last ten years. That said, even a piece like the Ferneyhough Missa Brevis (which became for a time our calling-card after we performed it for the first time in 2006) pales in comparison with the work required to realise Aaron’s music. But as I said in my last post, this is something I’ve wanted us to do for a long time and is something worth clearing the schedule for.

At this point it might be worth explaining a bit about how EXAUDI works and how we go about putting on a project of this magnitude. Unlike our lucky colleagues abroad (and one or two conspicuously fortunate – albeit deserving – colleague-ensembles in the UK), we’re not a full-time ensemble, or even part-time. We work from project to project, hoping and praying that our freelance singers are free for whatever grand plan we have in store for them. We receive no public subsidy (our only grant is – at the moment – £12,000 a year from the PRSF, for which we are deeply grateful) and have no permanent home. We have skeletal administrative backup and most of the admin is done gratis for the sake of the ensemble. Our singers (and I) are paid by the session.

This being the case, it makes taking on big projects of taxing contemporary music all the more difficult. When they’re not singing for us, EXAUDI members, none of whom (bar Juliet and myself) make a living as contemporary music specialists, are cruising the freelance circuit: Bach in Vienna with one group on Monday, Josquin in Madrid with another on Tuesday. Or teaching, or conducting, or singing in church, or making their way in the opera scene, or whatever, assembling their portfolio careers piece by piece and hoping to scrape together an income along the way. The preparation, mental clarity and vocal freshness one needs to do an exceptional project are not something we can take for granted, and we have to plan very carefully to make sure we can work to the standards we set ourselves. Frankly, it’s not an ideal way to run an international ensemble but it’s the way things are at the moment, and I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have such a dedicated and generally brilliant band of colleagues. Are they new-music-heroes? I think so!

Our Cassidy plans were kick-started when we were selected to be one of the 20 projects for the PRSF’s New Music 20×12, an initiative linked to the Cultural Olympiad that accompanies the London Olympics. It was a bit of a surprise to be selected, as we didn’t seem the most, um, accessible of submissions for what will be a very ‘public-facing’ affair, but all the more gratitude to the judges for believing in our own version of ‘faster, higher, stronger’. In fact, the more we get into the project the more apposite it actually feels for an Olympiad – this really is art at (some of) its limits: a vocal version of the Heptathlon. The award gave us some funding and a goal to aim at: a performance on the South Bank on the Olympiad Weekend of 14th-15th July.

With the structure laid out, we found there was still a large gap between the funding we had won and our aspirations for the project. Here we were really fortunate to secure a chunk of money from the University of Huddersfield, which allowed us a less breathless rehearsal schedule (even some proper Research and Development!) and a recording of not only Aaron’s but several other recent commissions besides.

A plan of attack slowly coalesced and so did our team: our regular pairing of Juliet Fraser and Amy Moore on soprano, relative newcomers Lucy Goddard on mezzo and Simon Whiteley on bass, and four EXAUDI old-timers Tom Williams (countertenor), Stephen Jeffes and Jonathan Bungard (tenor) and Jonathan Saunders (bass-baritone). As it turned out we could have booked eight countertenors or anything else for this piece, as the parts are not voice-specific, but it’s wonderful that we have such a skilled and, almost more importantly, up-for-it group for an experience that is going to push everyone miles out of their comfort zone and doubtless generate some sticky moments along the way. Per ardua ad astra…

Myself and Aaron Cassidy

Well it’s Saturday, it’s raining again, and I’ve awarded myself the weekend off Cassidy-learning, so time to fill in some background to the project…

Aaron and I have known each other since almost the exact same time EXAUDI was starting up, in 2002. We both had pieces at Gaudeamus that year – his a work for amplified solo viola d’amore played by Garth Knox, mine a string quartet played by the late lamented Zephyr Quartet of Amsterdam. We clicked I think firstly because of an obvious shared interest in ‘complex’ music itself (at the time I was writing quite complex scores – albeit not anything like as fearsome-looking as Aaron’s – and studying with Michael Finnissy), but also because of what complexity as an ideal represented for us: devotion to a way of seeing the world that tries not to reduce or simplify things for the sake of consolation or an easy fix of escapism, but revels in its endless and perplexing variety, strangeness and undiscovered possibility. Complexity as an aesthetic is born of a determination to leave nothing out, to show the whole picture – an urge towards truth-telling and revelation – which I suppose is why those who practise it (mainly young men, one notices) feel a strong sense of shared, and definitely moral, purpose.

Clearly there is an element of the fetishistic (and, let’s be honest, more than a soupçon of testosterone) about the embrace of a notation and aesthetic as extreme as Aaron’s, but I was struck at Gaudeamus by his sheer self-awareness about what he was doing, that kept the music from ghettoising itself by becoming doctrinaire, self-mythologising or plain anoraky. He seemed really in command of the ramifications of the path he had chosen for himself, aware of how he fitted into the panorama of new (and old) music, what the limitations of writing like this were (not least in terms of potential collaborators) but also what the rewards could be.

In short, even back then you felt he had found his metier and was comfortable in his skin – and that it really was his skin. And for all that you could argue that choosing hyper-complexity as your ready-made field of activity is a clear case of aesthetic positioning designed to grab some sort of modernist moral high-ground plus maximum notoriety (take note, legions of Cassidy-imitators…), the fact is that Aaron’s work over the last decade or so has shown the limitations of that judgement in his case. He has pursued his own path, done things that other ‘hyper-complex’ composers have not, and never lost sight of the art amidst the mind-boggling technical advances. You can’t caricature real art, and I’d seriously recommend to anyone tempted to force Aaron’s work into some sterile pigeonhole that they do some more listening, especially to the latest stuff. I find the music interesting both to think about and to listen to, mind-stretching, really imaginative and very cool. What’s not to like?!

So obviously as EXAUDI grew up, and my friendship with Aaron continued (he still owes me a lot of malt whisky but I’m subtracting it from the commission fee) I knew we had to have a piece from him at some stage. Aaron has known the EXAUDI gang for a long time as well – he has produced almost all of our recordings – and a mutual respect has developed between us all as we worked our way through arduous sessions on Fox, Skempton, Nono, Scelsi, Rihm, Finnissy… (As an aside, what endears me to Aaron most of all is how deep his knowledge of ‘the repertoire’ (I really mean all of it, not just contemporary or indeed Western or indeed art music) is and how catholic his tastes are, from Vivaldi to Wandelweiser. There’s nothing worse than a composer who doesn’t know further back than Stockhausen – there’s a shallowness to their music and you can really hear it. Which is not to say none of us has our blind-spots…)

Finally, we got our chance when our bid to the PRS for Music Foundation’s New Music 20×12 project for the Cultural Olympiad was successful. What more Olympian a challenge for us than an ensemble work from Aaron Cassidy? And what more Herculean a challenge for him than a piece for eight voices on such a prestigious stage?

Next up: the EXAUDI perspective.

Welcome to EXAUDI 2012

Hello and welcome to EXAUDI 2012! It’s our 10th anniversary season this year and it’s in full swing, as you can see from our website here.

I’ve set up this blog to write about one project in particular, which is the learning and premiere of Aaron Cassidy’s new piece, titled A painter of figures in rooms. This is one of the PRSF’s 20×12 works commissioned for the Cultural Olympiad, and we’re performing it for the first time at the Purcell Room, London, on Saturday 14th July.

As this blog develops, I hope you’ll be able to see why this is a very special project and one of the most challenging and interesting we’ve ever undertaken. It’s all happening quite slowly, as we’ve been working on the final score on and off since the start of March, so it’s kind of perfect to write about since there’s so much time between the various stages. My aim is to write about (or perhaps, ‘write through’) the process of learning a score like this, how it affects us as an ensemble and also as individuals, and why we do it at all. And I’ll also write about the other things that are going on as we approach the premiere date as well, as well as the inevitable ruminations on our first 10 years, and how a group like this operates.

In short, ladies and gentlemen, ‘Three Months in the Life of a Contemporary Vocal Ensemble’. I’ll try and make it interesting!

James Weeks