31 January 2012

Ingrid Stölzel’s Explorations of Time and Identity

Ingrid Stölzel

A   fter picking the title ‘For the Time Being,’ I realized just how often I use this expression in my daily life. When we say these words we imply that whatever state we are in or whatever action we are performing is temporary and merely a fleeting moment. In reality, of course, all states and actions are temporary, and our perception of permanence is an illusion. ‘For the Time Being’ is the newest in a series of works examining this concept of passing time.”
  — Ingrid Stölzel.
I   didn’t measure how long I was doing mouth-to-mouth breathing, but I remember thinking during the last several minutes that [the plight of this lifeless, transverse-presenting, APGAR-score-zero newborn] was hopeless. But I persisted [thinking that my doing so was, for the time being, at best ridiculous and, at worst, wrong or disrespectful of the natural fact]. And I was finally rewarded when Anna MacRae of Middle River, Victoria County, came to life.”
  — C. Lamont MacMillan, Memoirs of a Cape Breton Doctor.
I ngrid Stölzel’s new composition for flute, soprano saxophone and piano offers great beauty for the listener, plus intriguing expressive and technical challenges for each of the performers. The flute and soprano sax parts are balanced partners, while the piano undertakes an impetuous, omniscient-narratorly, cantus firmus role, with occasional upper-register tolling that explicitly marks the passage of time.

F or the Time Being’ was a commmission by the Greenbrook Ensemble in Nashville. The work that resulted from their commission is a phenomenally beautiful and poignant addition to the trio repertoire for flute, soprano sax, and piano: a 7-min fantasie, in a Walter Piston-esque, Bohuslav Martinů-esque neoclassicist modal-chromatic idiom, symbolically-charged with repetition in both rhythm and pitch, including pedal points. The work is contrapuntal, highly chromatic.

I ts initial lyrical, light and graceful lento is seeded with contemplative rubato, becoming adagio and intermittently more animated/incisive—embodying the transitoriness/impermanence suggested by Stölzel’s remark in the blockquote above. Flute and soprano sax parts are intertwined, coalescing into close harmony and then diverging again. The work embodies an intense chromatic saturation, as contrasted with more ‘open’ diatonic style. The result is subtle: acutely self-aware but never self-absorbed.

I  relistened to the Colorado State YouTube video several times (vid embedded below), capturing timings for the woodwinds. The rhythmic interplay between flute and soprano sax exhibits a fractional structure as a function of frequency that is close to a 1/f relationship, intermediate between uncorrelated ‘white’ noise and strongly-correlated Brownian noise. (An important property of 1/f timeseries structure is that it correlates logarithmically with past values. The last 3 notes, say, have equal influence on what comes next as the last 30 or the last 300.)

A nother feature of 1/f or “nearly-1/f” structure is ‘self-similarity’, which means that the smaller-scale details resemble coarser features that are higher in the hierarchy of structures that comprise the piece. Self-similarity of musical structures has fascinated composers long before fractal and multi-scale mathematics was known. For example, Bach sometimes used the same pitch contour in his fugues in the slow cantus firmus as in the fast motoric figures. So, too, with this new Ingrid Stölzel piece.

S tölzel changes meter many times in the course of the short piece. The continual shifts of meter and tempo are a most noticeable aspect of the work’s complexity, and of its perspective on personhood, self-awareness, and awareness of Time.

T he piece is constructed on a series of dyadic conflicts: episodic expansion/contraction metaphors, mainly involving the flute and soprano sax. Neither wind player can escape or circumvent these chromatic inflections, but must make believable decisions about how to use timbre/spectra to express the conflicts and their resolution. Am I azure or lavender? Was I light turquoise or dark robin’s-egg blue? Remembering/forgetting? Separating/reuniting? Living/dying?

S tölzel meditates... on the socio-historical reality of what it is to be a person, situated in Time and lacking any guarantees; on the connectedness of how we conceive of ourselves, in the context of yesterday, today, tomorrow; on our uncertainty about how much time we have (or don’t have, in the case of those of us who have a highly-uncertain and likely very-much-shortened future due to chronic, life-threatening illness). Martin Heidegger, Wilhelm Dilthey, and Paul Ricoeur are among the philosophers who explored this terrain in the 20th Century. (Links to works by other, more recent authors appear below, for your interest.)

I n other words, the trio is a delicate balance of love and horror—we create something meaningful that soon slips from our grasp; we inevitably lose our loved ones or they lose us; we cling futilely, to hopes that no longer have any reasonable basis. Life: so brutal, so unreliable. Life: the only good thing that we have, for the time being.

I   n any instant the Sacred may wipe you [out] with its finger. In any instant, the bush may burst into flames, your feet may rise, or you may see a bunch of souls in a tree. In any instant you may avail yourself of the power to love your enemies; to accept failure, slander, or the grief of loss; or to endure torture.”
  — Annie Dillard.
I ngrid Stölzel has written for ensembles such as newEar contemporary chamber ensemble, NOISE/San Diego New Music, California E.A.R. Unit, Adaskin String Trio, Erato Chamber Orchestra, Allegrésse, and Synchronia, among others. She is the winner of the 2010 NewMusic@ECU Festival Orchestra Composition Competition, the 2009 Cheryl A. Spector Prize, the 2007 UMKC Chamber Music Composition Competition and the 2006 PatsyLu Prize awarded by the International Alliance of Women in Music. Stölzel is a frequent guest composer and her music has been performed at music festivals and conferences including the 2011 Festival of New American Music, 2011 International Alliance of Women in Music Congress, 2011 New Music Festival X, IC[CM] 2010 International Conference on Contemporary Music in Spain, NACUSA 2010 National Conference, soundOn Festival of Modern Music, 30th Sacramento State Festival of New American Music, Oregon Bach Festivals, Ernest Bloch Festivals, Women in New Music Festival, Chamber Music Conference of the East, Otterbein Contemporary Music Festival, and Indiana State Contemporary Music Festival. Stölzel received her doctorate in composition at the University of Missouri Conservatory of Music and Dance in Kansas City, where she studied with James Mobberley, Chen Yi, and Zhou Long. She holds a Master of Music in composition from the Hartt School of Music in Hartford, Connecticut. Stölzel was a guest composer at the 30th Sacramento State Festival of New American Music. She has done artist residencies at the Ragdale Foundation and the Atlantic Center for the Arts in Florida.
Ingrid is a native of Germany and has lived in the U.S. for the past 20 years.

F or the Time Being’ will be performed in Kansas City in a concert by newEar Ensemble on Saturday, 11-FEB. Go, hear!
I   f the muscle can feel repugnance, there is still a false move to be made;
If the mind can imagine tomorrow, there is still a defeat to remember;
As long as the self can say ‘I,’ it is impossible not to rebel;
As long as there is an accidental virtue, there is a necessary vice:
And the garden cannot exist; the miracle cannot occur.
The garden is the only place there is, but you will not find it
Until you have looked for it everywhere and found nowhere that is not a desert.
The miracle is the only thing that happens, but to you it will not be apparent
Until all events have been studied and nothing happens that you cannot explain.
And Life is the destiny you are bound to refuse until you have consented to die.”
  — W.H. Auden, ‘For the Time Being’.

Aries Composers’ Festival at Colorado State University Center for the Arts, 07-NOV-2011.
B   eran and others comprehend musical self-similarity as a problem of engineering. In contrast, investigations that consider its cultural significance within a certain historical tradition, are very rare (e.g. Kieran 1996, Yadegari 2004). In a brief article published in 1995, Alexander Koblyakov throws a first light on this matter, making a basic statement about the study of musical self-similarity, noticing that [in principle] ‘there is a problem[atic] situation... It is necessary to include the perception (mentality) factor in a considered phenomenon of self-similarity.’ Unfortunately, most of the literature on the subject disregards this sharp observation.”   — Gabriel Pareyon, 2011.

28 January 2012

Kristen Plumley, Star Fleet Soprano

Plumley, Takei

I   think that the science fiction genre has inspired so many artists... painters, poets, and certainly musicians. It is such an imaginative form of expression that speculates on our destiny — where are we going in the future? Science fiction and the music we associate with it truly resonates with many, many people.”
  — George Takei.
I   was a HUGE science fiction fan growing up, so this concert is like a ‘dream-come-true’ for me. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had on-stage.”
  — Kristen Plumley.
I t takes real guts and musicianship to pull off pieces like the ones we heard last night at Kansas City’s Kauffman Center! Let’s just say that it tests the mental and emotional stamina in a different way, compared to, say, opera. Maybe such pieces should become a part of the repertoire for performance requirements—Star Fleet costume and all!—in conservatories and schools of music. Can you deliver your solo starship-arresting vocalizations and maintain your composure? Kristen Plumley sure can! Hailing frequencies are open!

Plumley, Takei
R enowned pops conductor Jack Everly led members of the Kansas City Symphony in a superb performance, made even more dramatic by voice-overs by George Takei. Tickets were sold-out weeks in advance—which speaks volumes, too, about the tremendous appeal these familiar tunes have for broad audience. Brilliant programming and marketing! Bravo!

Plumley, Takei
Plumley, Takei

23 January 2012

Communion with the Audience: Encores taken from Bach’s Solo Cello Suites

Yo-Yo Ma

M    any movements from Bach’s unaccompanied string works contain implied polyphony. Although earlier approaches describe this technique as a way of using arpeggiation to embellish a melodic line, to disguise an otherwise unacceptable melodic progression, to delay the resolution of dissonance, or to create underlying voice-leading patterns, these descriptions cannot account for the variety and complexity of the implied polyphony in these pieces. ...[using analysis based on auditory stream-segregation techniques, I come to the conclusion that—] Bach did not treat implied polyphony as solely a melodic feature. He instead used implied polyphony to apply irregular accent patterns to the otherwise ‘isochronous’ surface of the music, thereby creating perceived rhythmic variety at the fastest levels of the metric hierarchy.”
  — Stacey Davis.
I n the sarabandes of Bach’s cello suites, the second beat can be risky, easy to miscalculate. If you start the bow at the frog, instead of towards the middle, you’ll run out of bow on the two-beat upbow. The planning about distribution or budgeting of the bow is critical. You must maintain the pulse on the larger beats... this is far harder to do if you’ve chosen too slow a tempo. Difficult for the cello to maintain a steady pulse because of the many stops in these movements, especially the D major sarabande!

D ouble and triple and quadruple stops: a single part expressing several voices—and the registral placement of these voices doesn’t necessarily duplicate their placement in the underlying voice-leading. Dissonant, tension-creating intervals come from octave displacements in the voice-leading; notes out of the key of the piece to invoke/allude-to/tonicize another key before returning to the home key. And the bass line is not continuous! There are gaps, suspensions, and resumptions that take an eternity to arrive. The continuity of the voices the cello is speaking is tenuous, vulnerable, intermittent, waiting to be confirmed—even if the vulnerability only lasts a few beats. So much risk!

I n the D major sarabande, keep the high C in measure 13 in your mind throughout this and the following measure. The C returns in measure 14, and must sound as if it had been held throughout both measures, like loving parent returning to worried child left briefly alone.

Y o-Yo Ma’s beautiful sarabande-as-encore: dark; warm; transparent. Cello emulates the human voice; proposes spiritual communion between people. Communes with them—as close as a single body; reaches out and touches with sound. Generously melds with the strangers; friends them; speaks as if you and they had known each other for a long time—like kin, like lovers. Remember that small actions that may be heard clearly in a small venue may not communicate to an audience in a larger auditorium. You must not worry that large actions are maybe likely to be construed as ‘false’ or ‘suspicious’ ones. Acting is believing! Honest human behavior is sometimes enormous! And so long as you conduct yourself truthfully in imagined circumstances, no matter how large your expressions, the audience will believe you.

S uch intimacy and risk-taking and bigness-of-spirit are surely the essence of a perfect encore, whether from a student or from a master! And that—a perfect encore—is precisely what we received on Saturday night...

Yo-Yo MaYo-Yo Ma

18 January 2012

Chamber Music for Dressage Freestyle (kür)

Walker article

I   want people to feel that it’s not just a kur but something like art. I hope people have a physical feeling as they hear the music—for me it is so special. I want them to be excited as they listen and watch. I think there’s a lot of emotion in it... My music before was mostly French, and this kur has some international music, but I’m also using some music by Polish composers... It’s difficult to put a name to this music, but it’s like a mix of classical with trance.”
  — Michal Rapcewicz, FEI World Cup 2009.
T his November 2011 post about the Spanish Riding School in Vienna has in 6 weeks’ time received a surprisingly large number of pageviews and outclicks.

M ost of these new visitors to CMT (and searchers who land on CMT) are equestrians, dressage riders looking for suitable music with tempi in the 140 to 160 bpm range that will suit the biomechanics of their horse and that will offer a chance to dramatically differentiate themselves from the other competitors… these are horse people who are tired to death of riding trite ‘pop’ music for their dressage tests.

B ut some of the horsey CMT visitors landing on that November lippizaner blogpost have come from TCP/IP addresses that indicate they are from Conservatories and from chamber music ensembles’ websites. Are these visitors merely musicians who in their spare time are hobbyist dressage amateurs? Or are they instead seriously looking to program new repertoire for dressage and thereby expand the market for their chamber performances and recordings? Are any of them composers, I wonder?

A nyhow, the traffic does stimulate thought! Possibly some composers would be intrigued by the prospect of writing for dressage... consider it in the same way you would composing for ballet! It is far easier to get commissioned by serious dressage riders to do some ‘miniatures’ than it is to get hired to write a ballet score. [Typically, there is a very brief leader or intro (the rider must enter the arena within 20 sec of the start of the music) to establish the mood/atmosphere and tempo and rhythmic structure of the piece—enough to cue the horse and rider. The dressage rules stipulate that the maximum length is 5 minutes of music. In many jurisdictions, there is no minimum time limit; however, most kür music is a bit longer than 3 min. Depending on the choreography, saying what you want to say in 3’30’’ or 4’20’’, say, is far more crisp, focused and dramatic (and competition-winning) than pointlessly dilating the piece to the max 4’59’’.]

A nd possibly some chamber music ensembles would be interested in recording such works... providing CDs or MP3s for dressage tests.

P ossibly ACF or other sponsors of new music would set ‘dressage to music’/‘freestyle’/‘kür’ as a subject for a future competition and call-for-compositions. Possibly one of the national dressage organizations would commission some compositions for kür.

T hink Bach WTC Bk 1, Prelude and Fugue No. 2 in C minor, BWV 847 (prelude), with a dark-angel Sviatoslav Richter-esque tempo. Nothing too delicate! Nothing too subtle! The music will be amplified, typically in a large echoic arena or open space—so you need clear orchestration with not too much polyphony or rhythmic complexity. Think confident, ebullient, full of impulsion! Think music that is emblematic of divine almighty beauty, whatever you conceive that to be! Think intimate and individualistic sound that will showcase the equine dancer! Think ‘What music would a beautiful, balletic horse love to dance to?’

16 January 2012

How likely to sing after radiation therapy for head-and-neck cancer?


F   or oropharynx and nasopharynx cancers, it is sometimes possible to limit the dose received by the larynx according to the extent of the primary lesion. Thus, if the tumour constraints permit, the maximum dose to the larynx must be less than 63 to 66 Gy. To reduce the risk of laryngeal edema, it is recommended if possible to limit the mean non-involved larynx dose to 40 to 45 Gy [to prevent dysphonia or significant damage to vocal cords/folds].”
  —  C. Debelleix and co-workers, Centre Hospitalier Dax-Côte d'Argent, France.
T he question in this post's title has arisen several times each year over the 5 years I've been writing this blog. A relatively small percentage of the approximately 52,000 persons per year who receive a diagnosis of some form of cancer of the head and neck (U.S. SEER statistics; AHRQ HCUPnet statistics for procedures HCPCS L30318, G0251, G0339, G0340; CPT-4 77373, 77401-77435, etc.; ICD-9 92.3x) and the thousands of patients (U.S.) who receive radiation to the neck as part of a treatment regimen for a head-and-neck cancer are singers—either avid amateurs or professionals. However, the rate of inquiry by (or on behalf of) singers for whom this situation does happen is evidently not by any means ‘rare’. There have been 6 such search-strings that I have noticed in the CMT traffic logs in the past 3 weeks alone.

S o this post is meant to provide you with links to recent medical literature that you can show to your otolaryngologist/oncologist and discuss. In that regard, the typical radiation oncologist tends not to be expert in medical management of musicians; conversely, specialists in medical problems of musicians tend not to have a great deal of experience with head-and-neck cancers for which radiation therapy is routinely used. This is compounded by the fact that the situation of singers undergoing radiation to the neck is just uncommon enough that there are not many clinical trials or specific studies conducted in that population. The published studies that have some relevancy to the question are not easy for your physician to locate online or in the library either—which is why I believe providing these links will be helpful.

A  majority of the published work on this topic has to do with ‘quality-of-life’ (QoL) measurement in cancer patients treated with radiation to the neck, where one of the QoL measurements is ease of vocalization and the frequency and severity of pain or hoarseness or other forms of dysphonia or vocal abnormalities.

F or each patient, the specific cancer type and the extent of the cancer’s spread and other factors contribute to the decision-making as to whether ‘larynx-sparing’ reduced-dose, stereotactic, imagery-guided radiation therapy is a sensible approach or not. But in those cases where it is deemed to be a reasonable approach, there are specific guidelines for planning and conducting such radiotherapy.

O f course, there is no guarantee that returning to singing will be achievable, or that vocal quality or agility or range or endurance will be the same as they were prior to treatment. But to get the best chance for those outcomes, the info in the lit below should be part of your decision-making with your doctors.

I f you’re one of those who’ve been hitting the web and this blog looking for info on larynx-preserving radiotherapy and prognosis with regard to return to post-treatment singing, maybe the links below will be useful for you and your doc!

15 January 2012

Cheryl Melfi: Digital Reeds Extraordinaire!

Cheryl Melfi

S   pace is social, and each society produces its own space—space that is simultaneously mental and physical. Space is always ‘produced’, in the sense that it is always a set of relationships; it is never a ‘given’; never inert or transparent; never in a state of nature untouched by culture. There is no such thing as an ‘empty’ space. You have already filled it...”
  — David Wiles, p. 10.
I   n electroacoustic music the interrelationship of spatial attributes and spatial schemata is often engaged in a play of perceptual grouping—one that blurs and confounds distinctions like ‘source’ and ‘ensemble’.”
  — Gary Kendall & Mauricio Ardila, p. 125.
T he solo electroacoustic clarinet performance by Cheryl Melfi last night in CharlotteStreet.org’s City Center Square location was excellent. Apart from the beauty of the works, the program illuminated a number of aspects of electroacoustic performance practice—things that are more apparent when it is soloist-plus-electronics, as contrasted with larger-ensemble-plus-electronics.
  • Mark Snyder: ‘Butterfly’
  • Richard Johnson: ‘Hiram’ (première)
  • Alex Harker: ‘Fluence’
  • Daniel Eichenbaum: ‘The Lonely Road’ (première)
  • João Pedro Oliveira: ‘Time Spell’

T hese are all works for amplified B-flat clarinet and electronics. By their nature (with the performer positioned center-stage in a multi-loudspeaker array configuration) the works explore the relationship between ‘enacted’ space (a space whose semantics are created through the presence of the clarinettist on stage), the composed space of the “tape” (electronics) part and the bridge between the two created by live processing (typically in Max/MSP or Pd or other software tool). The clarinet part calls for extremes in register and dynamic range, with extremely animated playing. Each of the compositions draws on sonic causal relationships that we perceive as interactive, but which are in reality generated through careful synchronization with the electronics part. In some of the pieces, by using ‘clarinet-triggered’ causal relationships and gestural interplay (notably in the Oliveira piece) as an alternative to continuous realtime processing, the electronic material becomes more strongly linked—spatially and narratively—to the live instrument.

T he unique potential of electroacoustic music to explore spatial relationships and our auditory perceptions and cognition of the body’s spatial situatedness has raised issues about appropriate performance practices for this music. Throughout the course of its evolution, electroacoustic music has invited research into new modes of performance. Spatial details are invariably a consideration in these.

T he unique potential of electroacoustic music to explore timbral relationships and our perceptions is also invariably revealed... so long as the performer is up to the challenge! Clarinettists are today challenged by innovations in both contemporary music and technology. Compositions for clarinet in recent decades have led to performance practices that include new techniques, such as frulato, multiphonics, glissandos, extreme alternate fingerings, reed-jacking, microtonal pitch-bending, key-clicks, lip-buzzing, and vocal sounds such as humming or singing at the same time the instrument is blown. These techniques are increasingly permeating the repertoire of the clarinet, especially so in the case of film scores. They require the clarinettist to constantly extend her/his technique, both blowing and fingering.

N otably, Rehfeldt recommends the amenability of the clarinet to experiments in new music: “Its flexibility allows a wide range of effects, including all manner of multiple sonorities, microtones, tone, trills, air sounds, percussive sounds” (see also Druhun, 2003).

C larinet and electronics mingle and exchange places. The identities/characters of each, though, remain discernable. An explosive staccato articulation is a ‘Bartokian’ act clearly in an instrumental idiom, while longer note values, with long dynamics changes and circular breathing to sustain them, manifest an overtly ‘vocal’, visceral, diaphragmatic aspect. Cheryl negotiates some superhuman clarinet feats—virtuosic technic [extreme technic] with appealing musicality!

M ono samples were used to dramatic effect in several of the works, panning the samples across the Mackie speaker array. This was most notably the case with the sounds of extended releases of breath through the clarinet, which present spectromophologies that ‘accept’ the spatialization attributes of panning across the area of the Mackie monitors. [Smalley emphasizes that “the motion must be implicit in the sound itself, or the texture itself, or the context itself.” Basically, the use of 5.1 spatialization (as opposed to 8-channel or other formats) magnifies the perceived kinetic energy of material. Small gestural fragments are scattered over the 5.1 array to form “cumulative” trajectories of sound, and the listener becomes immersed in dark and abstract soundscapes generated by the clarinet.] By layering materials a rich spatial hierarchy is created: a World, a believable World. At any given moment, certain sounds/motions dominate others, and the hierarchy is in constant flux as materials emerge, develop, and recede. Cool! A World that is impervious to human mastery!

A  number of processing techniques are utilized.

  • Buffering: This is used to extend textures established by the clarinet into more dynamic and irregular textures, building up a dense sound-world which clearly originates from the clarinettist on stage.
  • Delay Lines: Depending on the delay times, these either exaggerate short gestures through rapid and irregular repetition or, alternately, longer delay lines assist in the build-up of textures.
  • Freezing: This facilitates harmonic layering based on the clarinet’s note being artificially ‘held’ once it has moved on to another.
  • Granulation: This is frequently used to add fluctuating textures to sustained notes, often controlled via amplitude tracking (e.g., a louder sound will have a smaller grain size and greater grain variation).

C heryl Melfi has served as principal clarinetist in the Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra, the Catalina Chamber Orchestra, and the Michigan Pops Orchestra. She is a past member of Quadrivium, the Crosswinds Ensemble, the Arizona-based wind quintet Fünf, and the contemporary music quartet THUD. She has also performed with contemporary music groups including the Contemporary Directions Ensemble, the Prime Directive, and the Nova Chamber Players. With Quadrivium, she was a featured artist at the 2010 Electro-Acoustic Juke Joint and the 2011 Thailand International Composition Festival. Melfi has performed at the 2008 International Clarinet Association’s ClarinetFest where her performance was called “excellent and exotic.” Other festival performances include Electronic Music Midwest and SEAMUS.

Levels of Abstraction

14 January 2012

Gene Pritsker: William James and Pluralistic Consciousness Beyond the Margin

Gene PritskerT he new recording of Gene Pritsker’s ‘William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience: A Chamber Opera’ is beautiful—musically and dramatically.

W illiam James was fascinated by what he termed our ‘selective interest’—our harmoniously adjusting ourselves to things seen and unseen. In the sea of evolving, conflicting stimuli in which we are immersed, we pay attention to a small subset of things... mostly things that match our predispositions and expectations: our interests and beliefs. A renowned psychologist and pragmatist and empiricist philosopher, James in the late 19th Century set about to assemble evidence that could reveal whether and how experiences that are gated by interests and beliefs in things unseen can catalyze positive changes in people—especially when people attach symbolic or emotional/spiritual importance to the experiences. “Explore the peculiarities of this attitude... All our attitudes... are due to the objects of our consciousness... the things we believe to exist. We feel a presence in the room... definitely localized... coming suddenly, and suddenly gone... I felt myself to be the less ‘real’ of the two...”

I n VRE (p. 55), James says “so far as religious conceptions are able to touch this reality-feeling [of objective presence of the Other] they would be believed in spite of criticism, even though they might be so vague and remote as to be almost unimaginable... even though they might be such non-entities in point of ‘whatness’...”

  • Gene Pritsker, guitar
  • Greg Baker, guitar
  • Dan Barrett, cello
  • Larry Goldman, contra bass
  • Lynn Norris, soprano
  • Chanda Rule, mezzo soprano
  • Marc Molomot, tenor
  • Charles Coleman, baritone
  • Chester Layman, narrator
  • Kim Pritsker, narrator
D elicate, taut, and incisive writing. Beautiful interplay between instruments and voices, between the rhythm/melodies/harmonies and the text. ‘Synaptic’ guitar picking; a really elegant solo improvisation on Track 5.

T he guitars-cello-bass instrumental ‘presence’ pervades the whole—this fact plus the fact that the voices in the foreground are so crisp and tangible make it seem as though the instrumental parts must collectively be ‘God’. But then the timbre of the voice changes, and I’m doubting that my sense of that was right. Maybe this is sonic evidence for some sort of pantheism? Everything is divine... everything that’s not being deceptive, anyway.

P ritsker’s ‘William James’s VRE’ is not a contemporary event-centric historical opera per se (not a “headline opera” about a famous historical figure and a famous moment in history, a la John Adams’s ‘Doctor Atomic’, on J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project to create the atomic bomb). Sometimes event-centric works feel too self-referential—‘program music’ or a suite of ad hoc ‘concept’ compositions that are too overtly seeking adherents.

T his chamber opera is not like that. It’s far too unpredictable! It does, though, share with historical operas an attractive ‘topicality’ in terms of (a) dramatizing interrelated subjects (spirituality; religion; multiculturalism; tolerance) that have plenty of currency these days and (b) grounding these in the life of one well-known historical protagonist.

I  really admire the judicious excerpting of William James VRE texts for this libretto! Attention to the unbiddenness of how we recall things: verses, that bubble up in our minds, contrary to our ambitions or plans.

M any passages from James’s book (VRE) are dense and literary: the sentence structure was meant to be read by readers of 100+ years ago. When spoken aloud in this opera, these words engage our minds in provocative ways that highlight the finiteness of our attention as well as the alienness of the century-ago culture that produced the notions in VRE. Our relation to the music that is being performed while the voice-over narration is going on is altered, far more than happens in ‘conventional’ opera.

W hat’s more, some of the narrators/texts are more ‘reliable’ as narrators than others. Each is clearly earnest in his/her own way, and yet some of them make statements that are more accessible or less accessible to us, given our own beliefs and style and inclinations/disinclinations to share our feelings in ways that resemble what the narrator is doing. Listening to these different narrators/singers, we’re led to recognize more of what we ourselves are doing: selectively filtering, giving and getting, allowing and forbidding.

T he opera and the ‘arc’ of the 8 tracks of the recording ably convey dramatic tension of setting out on a journey to explore the diversity of spirituality; of encountering many instances and types of experience; of empirically assessing each of these; and finally integrating and summarizing what we’ve found out.

T he 43-min performance time is just sufficient to develop the ideas and the ambience and characterizations, and bring things in for a satisfying “landing”.

T he sound has warmth and intimacy throughout, perfectly matched to the subject and content. Beautiful performances by all, plus excellent engineering and production values on the recording.

I ’m uplifted by this new Pritsker CD—impressed by the authenticity of music that “had to come out”, had to be composed, had to exist. There is a wonderful ‘meta-meta’ aspect to the work as well. It is as though Pritsker has created a sonic picture of ‘William James’s Red Mood’ (see Arthur Danto’s famous book of 30 years ago, link below)—plus a further picture, an abstract minimalist exemplar of geometrical art which happens to be lush and sensuous and red and pulsating—plus yet a further picture, a metaphysical painting based on the fact that James knew the Nirvanic and Samsara orders are identical and that the Samsara world is fondly called the Red Dust by its deprecators.

J ames near the end of VRE says “Religious mysticism... is much less unanimous than I have allowed... It is dualistic in Sankhya and monistic in Vedanta” (VRE p. 336). He maintains that, rather than being adversarial or conflictual, the varieties of spiritual experience can in fact be harmonious with each other... there can be rapproachment between individuals and religions that hold what appear to be incompatible ‘over-beliefs’. James says that this can be done by looking to everyday feelings and to everyday acts—however unplanned and discordant with ambitions and ideologies as they may be—looking to these as comprising the essence of real religion (VRE p. 397).

T his opera by Gene Pritsker honors that Jamesian notion. The opera—and this recording—are a welcome invitation to self-discovery, to mutual respect and tolerance for the spirituality (or lack thereof) of others, and to joyous, mindful living in community. Look for the CD when it’s released in February. Very worth your listening!

03 January 2012

Guided imagery in music training and performance


I    n order to have fast mobility and clarity on left-hand fingers, string players have to train their fingers to have these 3 elements when dropping their left-hand fingers on the fingerboard: speed; strength; and the fast release right after the drop. The 3 elements on the left-hand fingers take training to build up the strength of the muscles and the speed of the reflex of the fast release. Of course, any ‘tool’ that we gain from our technical training is ultimately to be used to create music that would touch listeners. Sometimes when musicians concentrate too much on technical elements, their music tends to be too mechanical, too careful, and lacks emotion. By contrast, when musicians concentrate on being musical, it actually helps the technical things. For example, whenever I feel my fingers stiffen in fast passages, I always find thinking something light and bubbly helps to increase my fingers’ lightness, mobility, and fast articulations. Whenever I try to sustain a long note [and yet try to musically project vitality and suspense, despite the temporary absence of pitch-change or the lack of overt dynamics changes while the note lasts], I remind myself about the struggles and tension of the music. Whenever I try to create smooth bow changes, I often picture a [calligraphy] paint brush changing its direction, instead of which muscle to move first!”  —  Jackie Lee, Heartland Music Academy, 2012.
Jackie LeeI n reply to the previous post, I received the helpful advice above.

A nother CMT reader emailed me to ask whether there was any scientific research literature that establishes the effectiveness of visual or kinesthetic imagery in music teaching, especially for soloists or chamber performers.

T here’s lots of published research on guided imagery in the neurophysiology and physical medicine and rehab literature—and in the lit for research on aging and stroke. Quite a lot in the dance and sports medicine lit. But there are not very many published controlled research studies in music performance/pedagogy lit, so far as I can tell.

I  will continue looking; please feel free to add comment below or email me if there is a reference that you like.

M eanwhile, here are some links to work that’s relevant to this.
T   he left arm functions, to a large extent, by 'walking' on the fingers. In actual walking, torso balance shifts forward, and it is caught on top of the moving legs. For the cellist's left arm, a similar balance can be felt when the upper arm shifts and must be caught by another finger or the arm will fall over... This ‘walking’ image can be strengthened by imagining that the fingerboard is a staircase... Picturing this helps you feel that your balance is aligned in the Earth's gravity, even though your fingers look angled-back in relation to the surface of the fingerboard.”   —  Jeffrey Solow, cellist, quoted in Bruser, p. 121.
I    n automatic or cyclical movements, actual and motor imagery (MI) durations are similar. When athletes imagine only the dynamic phases of movement or perform MI just before competing, however, the environmental and time constraints lead to underestimating the actual duration [and the benefits of the guided imagery are diminished, despite the speed and ease with which the imagery for brief or cyclical movements is called up]. Conversely, complex attention-demanding movements take longer to image [and so guided imagery for complex movements has impediments to its effectiveness, even if duration over/underestimation does not occur].”   —  Aymeric Guillot, 2005.
T    he bilateral frontal opercular regions [in the brain] are crucial in both preparation for and during music execution and imagining. They may have ‘mirror neuron’ properties that underlie observation or imagining of one’s own performance. The motor areas are differentially activated during the preparation and execution or imagining the sequence.”   —  Rumyana Kristeva, 2003.
Mike Mei, calligrapher D    uring execution of musical sequences in professional musicians, a higher economy of motor areas [in the brain] frees resources for increased connectivity between the finger sequences and auditory as well as somatosensory loops, which may account for the superior musical performance. Professionals also demonstrated more focused activation patterns during imagined musical performance.”   —  Martin Lotze, 2003.

02 January 2012

How Fast Does Violin Bowstick Go?

Diana YoungS urprisingly, this 2009 CMT blogpost on violin kinematics keeps receiving a lot of pageviews every day, with page visitlengths averaging more than 3 minutes. (I monitor the tags/keywords that cause readers to land on each page, to better understand what topics for future posts might be useful and welcomed. And, for that 2009 post, ‘bowstick velocity’, ‘bow speed’, ‘bowing agility’, and similar phrases are what people seem to be looking for information about.) So I thought I’d gather together here some relevant links on that specific aspect.

A lso, because some people who are searching on these searchstrings and keywords have emailed me to say that they have a desire to increase the maximum velocities that they can propel the bowstick with, I collect some links below that have to do with various athletic activities involving fine motor coordination and speed of the upper extremity. (For pianists, Czerny and Hanon are of course good. For brass players, Arban. For violin family, the Bauer books look interesting, although I have not tried them myself.)

M ost interesting to me are some of the findings in the research papers by Diana Young and her colleagues (jpeg above), showing a tremendous amount of ‘fine-structure’ in the velocity and force timeseries. No matter how ‘smooth’ we think our bowing is, there are a tremendous number of little variations—some of them arising with the interaction of the bowhair with the strings; other of them arising from the ratchety contraction physiology of our muscles.

01 January 2012

Jan Beran’s ‘Winter711’, fractional Brownian motifs, long-range interdependence

Chris and Jan in studio

D    reams pass into the reality of action. From the actions stems the dream again. And this interdependence produces the highest form of living.”
  —  Anaïs Nin.
A new year; an occasion for us to meditate on how our mutual feelings and actions—our own; those of friends and family members—are meaningfully intertwined over long stretches of time.

H ere’s an MP3 of Jan Beran (piano) and Christopher Raphael (oboe) performing Beran’s ‘Winter 711’. Beautiful and evocative of long-range interdependence/entanglement.

I f you’re interested, some of the mathematical underpinnings of the compositional method used to create ‘Winter 711’ can be found in the links below. Happy New Year!

I   believe it is not possible to coordinate musical parts in a purely responsive manner. That is, a system that simply triggers its events on the detection of notes in the solo part will perform badly in most musical contexts. This is due, in part, to the inherent detection latency that is built into the problem which makes the responsive system perpetually late. Instead, Music++ schedules the accompaniment’s note times by continually predicting into the future based on what it has currently observed.”
  —  Chris Raphael, Indiana Univ.
J    an says of ‘Winter711’ that he tried to avoid any familiar sense of musical flow. In other words Jan’s music doesn’t give the performer (and listener) the usual cues needed to rhythmically organize the music. While the music is sometimes highly rhythmic, many sections contain no recognizable steady pulse, nor clear points of emphasis whose times differ in simple ways, as in much mixed meter music. While I think these pieces are engaging on their own terms, they work as a wonderful showcase for the [sequencer] accompaniment system, since I doubt they could be played by an all-human ensemble.”
  —  Chris Raphael, Indiana Univ.