Skip to content

Rihm’s Vigilia in Munich

Lest this blog begin to seem obsessive, I’m taking a few posts to catch up with some of our other projects this summer. June is always one of our busiest times of year, being the summer festival season, and this year has been no exception, with visits to old stamping grounds in Aldeburgh and Spitalfields and our first trip to Musica Viva in Munich on 15th.

Taking Rihm to Germany feels a bit coals-to-Newcastle, so I suppose it was quite an honour to be asked to provide the six singers for Rihm’s Vigilia, a monumental (of course) meditation on Passion Week texts, accompanied by the superexcellent musikFabrik and conducted by Emilio Pomarico (to whom I was more than happy to cede conducting duties and enjoy watching a master at work).

The premise of the piece, what it’s doing and how it does it, is, as Emilio remarked, quite familiar, indeed Romantic – but as always with Rihm he stirs things up so that it’s never quite straightforward. Pure harmonies are dirtied, compromised; lines are broken or stop short unexpectedly, like tricks of false perspective; ideas seem to build then fragment and disjoint, sonorities are muddied and dispersed through extended techniques. Conventional expressivity is seen through a cracked mirror. The seven a cappella movements, separately known as Sieben Passions-texte – are interspersed with instrumental Sonatas, followed by a Miserere for singers and instruments. The instruments are low-string and low-brass trios and percussion onstage, clarinet and horn ‘im Raum’, and organ wherever in the building that is. So it’s a ritual structure with strong echoes of Venetian spatialised church music (a little connection with Rihm’s sometime hero Luigi Nono there, too?).

We’ve done the a cappella movements of Vigilia before several times, and even recorded them (Producer: A Cassidy – just to keep him in every post). Apparently Rihm was listening to Gesualdo a lot when writing them – a fact enthusiastically relayed to me several times over the course of our trip, as if to justify their peculiarities – but as a Gesualdo fanatic I don’t find its influence on Vigilia particularly interesting. Yes, you can see Rihm ‘consuming’ Gesualdo here: the a cappella movements are kind of tonal but with crunchy chords and swerves of tonality, and a constant sense of chromatic dislocation and general tonal apostasy (I actually find this music genuinely transgressive, which is not easy to achieve nowadays. That’s what I like most about it). But really, Gesualdo doesn’t disturb the Rihm equilibrium that much, so it feels less a meeting of minds and more a kind of flavouring (probably the idea), which occasionally comes to the fore but not very often. If anything, I think more of Bruckner than Gesualdo when listening to them.

None of which is to say it’s not a good piece: we love it. It’s a huge sing, its big, muscular shapes stretching the voice and its unbridled (frequently outrageous) tonal (or off-tonal) harmonies and progressions sounding glorious across the ensemble. Some parts (first tenor especially) are shockingly high and loud for long periods, and we’ve just about worked out a way of pacing ourselves so we can really go for them without getting exhausted half way through. Steve, our first tenor, says he’s grown into the ‘role’ since we started singing it – certainly five years of maturing voices have helped make this piece more comfortable for everyone – without, I hope, destroying the sense of fragility and risk that makes for a great performance.

From where I was sitting in the Michaelskirke (Lassus’ church) it really was pretty fine. musikFabrik is such a great ensemble – precise, dramatic, a huge range of colours and dynamics and technically so solid. Their instrumental Sonatas came across as finely nuanced and expressive in spite of the bathy acoustic, which threatened to swallow everything at all points but somehow never quite did. Three cheers to the organist, Francesco Filidei, for keeping up in spite of being about 300 yards away from the action. Nor would I have relished having to use three separate intercoms to keep in touch with organist, clarinettist and horn-player during rehearsals – I’ve no idea how Emilio kept his patience, especially as from where he was standing all three players were virtually inaudible!

However frustrating the acoustics were, the venue made for a quite special performance. There was a sense of space, of the numinous and transcendent. We were drawn inwards to moments of intimate pathos and then flung outwards round the church in echoing cries. Doubts I’d had about sections of the work evaporated, as they so often do with Rihm in the actual performance – the man knows the drama of the moment as well as anybody. And what a nice surprise, too, to meet him afterwards.

Learning Process 2: The Conductor

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.

Learning Process 1: Simon Whiteley

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.

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!