Rehearsing QEM2

I’m very much enjoying rehearsing my new piece Quite Early Morning, no. 2. I’m very fortunate to have the time and the goodwill of Kupka’s Piano to be able to work with them for quite a large number of rehearsals.

There are numerous points during the total process of creation where reflection is heightened: when a section is written, when the score is completed, when the piece is being rehearsed, when the piece is performed, when it’s recorded.

My increased emphasis on music as a social practice (which class-related DOL and then commodification fundamentally alter for better and worse), and my new belief in counterpoint as relations between real human beings, and chamber music as an ideal instance of this – all this leads me to lend far greater importance to the insights revealed in the rehearsal process than I have done before. Of course before there were always ‘workshop’ periods with my pieces, where technical matters could be resolved and interpretational matters discussed, but this current process is considerably more in-depth, since my piece is particularly challenging to pull together, and since I’m there for all the rehearsals.

There are of course numerous technical things that need to be tweaked in the piece for playability. A since I’m not super familiar with all the flute fingerings (something I hope to slowly rectify) and tend to push the envelope on percussion writing, there’s a number of things that need to be corrected: some notes adjusted here and there, some techniques changed or cut out since there’s not enough time to move from one to the next, etc etc. I won’t go into that here, since it doesn’t really have more general relevance for my practice and theory of counterpoint.

My score is also riddled with editing errors needing correction, but that’s even less interesting.

Most important are some questions about ensemble balance, ensemble rhythm, ensemble communication, and ensemble character.

In terms of balance, there are a number of aspects of the work that just don’t work. These include the fact that in some passages I want the flute to be a ‘background’ instrument, but due to the register I have written it in, it nonetheless sticks out with a fair bit of intensity. On the other hand, the percussion is often too soft, partly because the techniques themselves are very soft. But that’s not the whole issue there. If those techniques were less densely written in the percussion part, the percussionist would have more time to make them sing out properly. As it stands it has a half-articulated quality to it, which can be nice, but is often unsatisfying and certainly not very conducive to the percussion asserting itself as an independent line in the texture. In future I’ll have to pay a little more attention to tessitura and technical instrumental aspects if I’m going to want to have more control over the contrapuntal texture: what is foreground, what is background, how relations between instrumental lines will be perceived, etc.

Ensemble rhythm is a very interesting aspect in all this. What I have been beginning to lean back towards on the level of my listening and my ideals – a sense of metre – has been confirmed in the rehearsal process. In my current piece there are elaborate hockets and relations between instruments but they are in reference to a metre that is essentially absent in the work: whether it’s a 4/4 metre or a more complex compound metre, it does not really figure often. My work fits into the ‘ametrical’ modernist paradigm, then. This has caused problems in rehearsals because none of the musicians have a clear frame of reference for carrying out their (often very complex) lines. No one is providing the downbeat or even the basic groupings of a complex metre. This makes the ensemble relations less defined, and a lot of guesswork is involved. Often the result is still very good (after much rehearsal), but it’s a problem. There’s less of a real sense of ‘chamber music’, and the performers lose something in their own experience. On an aural level it also means that the textures sound quite ‘floaty’.

Now, the alternative of foregrounding a predetermined metre or pulse doesn’t appeal to me. To me it falls short of the modern contrapuntal ideal, which is to say that the relations between the lines must be immanent, and not pre-given or abstract. So if I want a metre in the work, it should be a function of the counterpoint. So the solution would be to make the metre the result of the developmental logic of a line (or lines). Of course this would then be something ‘imposed’ on any new line added to the texture, but to mitigate this and open up this approach: a) the writing process could involve reciprocal development of lines, so the more auxiliary lines could impact upon and alter the ‘pre-written’ metre-line; and b) the function of ‘giving metre’ to the work could switch between lines across the course of the piece, so as to show a freedom of association, so to speak; c) the metre-line could be internally contradictory and be the result of two or more simultaneous processes.

Either way, the metre will be present in the work, with (theoretically) at least one line taking the pulse written in the time signature of each bar. How to make this work while keeping a great degree of flexibility is not yet clear to me.

Nonetheless, I feel this will allow for much more of a chamber music experience for the performers and end in stronger musical ideas.

Which brings me to my next point. Ensemble communication. In this current piece there are quite a few sections that require one of the musicians to take the role of ‘leader’ in the ensemble and in one way or another cue the others, or somehow indicate the basic pulse (head bopping, subtle conducting, etc). Yet, there are times where, while this is necessary, no one is really in a position to do it, since their parts are much too dense and rhythmically challenging and require too much concentration. So one thing I want to think about in my next piece is how to incorporate an understanding – at each point – of what it would take for the musicians to work together to pull the music off, and who might need to play what role (cuing, giving pulse, leading with energy, etc). This mightn’t need to be too intricately thought through, but it’s true that I did very little thinking about that in this last piece, and it shows… Again, for the purposes of the ‘counterpoint’ qua social practice, this kind of DOL should be part of the conception of the work, and not something impossible to achieve.

And finally, there’s the element of ensemble ‘character’: What are the performers trying to achieve together? What is the role of each individual in this? In QEM2 mostly there is clarity in the gestalt gestures, but often this could be refined by clearer character markings (i.e. me writing little words here and there to explain the nature of the gesture or affect I’m after). But there are also times when the nature of the gesture or section is very ambiguous and the musicians need more clarification to know what they’re trying to achieve together, how the parts interrelate, etc. I find it difficult to retrospectively fit a character on a section, so I think it’s worth me in future attempting to come up with the ‘character’ aspect at the moment of composing. This is actually an ongoing issue in my music, and I identified it last year in Singapore. This rehearsal process has helped me understand this better.

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