Thoughts after workshopping with Alex Raineri

So the illustrious Alex Raineri came to stay with Hannah and I in Brussels for a few days more than a week ago now. We had many chances for tasty Belgian beers and frites, etc, but we also managed to get some good time in on the first few minutes of my piano piece Si el clima. Here’s just some general reflections to help me remember the important things that came out of these few sessions, from the standpoint of both the development of the composition, and also its performance/interpretation.

Firstly, it was surprising how technically playable much of what I had written was (at least for someone as agile as Alex). As I was writing the piano materials, I had thought about whether there were hands or fingers available for all the material I was laying down, but in general the material was thought about in a fairly abstract manner and I was expecting there to be all sorts of problems and impossibilities. There were only a handful in the end. So a few notes were changed or displaced by an octave or they were shortened to allow the hand to get somewhere else.

One thing that caused grief was the passage from bar 24 to 26 which four different lines are taking place simultaneous, with different rhythmic constitutions:

Si el clima_3 excerpt

The main problem here is the middle line in regular semiquavers (derived from the great song ‘We Shall Overcome’). It’s not really possible to play the line on the bottom staff with any clarity (or perhaps at all…). This may be fine in itself, if it wasn’t for the fact that bar 24 represents a return to material from the opening section, which is quite a clear and precise texture, unlike the few bars before 24 which are wildly gestural and have a pedal down, creating a particular ‘spatial’ quality. Bar 24 should be a break with this pedalled, unclear texture, so keeping the murkiness brought about by the inclusion of this ‘We shall overcome’ line is not really an option.

The solution is to take this ‘We shall overcome’ line and put it in the tape part. Normally I would be against this as a solution. I’m interested in the lines of live piano part really interacting in an ‘organic’ kind of way in the body and mind of the performer, and a line coming from the speakers would mean something very different… However, in this case, the resolution is really quite a good one: this line is already associated to the emergence (in the tape) of the voice of Hugo Chavez. It has been already ‘subterraneously’ plugging away for some time in the previous section in the live piano. The idea that it would switch to the tape at the point at which it becomes recognisable in itself sounds interesting to me, and I intend to do this with the subsequent moments in the work where ‘folk’ pieces emerge associated with the voice of Chavez. Up until the coda, where they will be ‘recuperated’ by the live piano itself, and all 4 of the songs will be performed in counterpoint with each other, stripped of the surrounding materials.

The next issue that came up was to do with how Alex will actually deal with syncing with the tape part. As it stands the tape part is very involved and rhythmically precise, so a totally ‘loose’ relationship to it, in fact, as it stands, it really does demand that Alex subordinate himself to the tape part and become quite mechanical in his interpretation, which is really not desirable from my perspective, and it goes entirely against my philosophy of performance and interpretation. It is also quite ‘impossible’ since the degree tempo accuracy required by Alex with practically no cues from the tape perhaps beyond human capacity (or at least within reasonable performance practice). So, neither desirable, nor possible. Something’s gotta change.

Si el clima_3 excerpt2

(Piano 9 and 10 are the tape parts)

The solution is twofold. Firstly, we’ve decided to go with having a ‘trigger’ system, so that Alex can hit a pedal at different points to trigger the next section of electronic stuff, which will him a greater control over the electronics.

Secondly, this would need to be coupled by a slight ‘loosening’ of the electronic part (in the opening section at the least) to allow that it can be much freer in its relation to the piano between ‘pedal’ moments. That is to say, there will be a lot of room for the live piano to get ‘out’ with the tape piano, since at certain important points they can be ‘re-cued’. This will be an interesting experiment.

With this looser relationship between live and tape, the question of whether the tape part should be written on the same score as the live piano part comes up. While it would be tempting to only include the pedal-triggers for the live pianist, and not include the tape part in his score, there’s a fundamental reason for keeping the full score.

This is because a new formal dimension is opened up by having a foot-pedal to trigger new sections, that being the antagonism between freedom and constraint, or the degree to which the pianist controls the tape part, or the tape part controls him. The two new formal elements therefore are non-symmetrical:

  1. The increase of the frequency of ‘trigger’ points increases the control the pianist has over the tape part and thus the total discourse; the decrease in the frequency would generally mean the opposite, control of the tape part over the live pianist, except that
  2. The tape material can be defined in a more or less rhythmically precise way. If the rhythmic precision in the tape part (the degree to which the score implies that the pianist and tape should play in sync with each other) is lessened, the pianist is freer to take liberties, if it is increased, the pianist is more rigidly bound to follow the rhythm and tempo of the tape part.

So there are two possibly ‘parametrisable’ elements here that mutually mediate one another: the relative frequency of the trigger points, and the relative rhythmic definition of the tape part. Both can be submitted to formal processes across the work.

(There’s an allegorical dimension to all of this, since the tape part ‘represents’ nature, and so there is an antagonism between domination of man by nature and vice versa. An antagonism that the work will present in its tension and not resolve).

This does then beg the question: how does one construct the tape part to be ‘more or less’ rhythmically precise or defined? Considering the result will very much be rhythmically defined (since a tape will produce it), it doesn’t make much sense to me to compose the tape part in spatial notation or something like that. There will remain an ‘ideal’ syncronisation between tape and live, but it will in fact not be ideal. The idea will keep the live pianist at least partially free.

A few elements will come into the construction and notation of this approach to the tape part:

  • Degree of rhythmic regularity
  • Frequency of points of (meaningful) coincidence with the live part
  • Degree of rhythmic density
  • Dynamic and spatial ‘presence’ of the tape line (is it ‘off in the distance’ or up close?)
  • General character marking of tape part
  • Indications to the live performer along the lines of (‘you can largely forget about the tape part in this bit’, or, ‘slavishly follow the tape part here’)

My job for the next few days is the elaboration of these and coming up with a working approach to the composition of the tape piano part. Expect more rants on this blog as I try to make sense of it all…