Towards the learning of Cassandra’s Dream Song and the Berio Sequenza

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My big repertoire learning for the summer will basically be the audition repertoire for the Lucerne Festival Academy plus some things we’re (Kupka’s Piano) will be preparing for our “season launch” event (possibly Liza Lim’s Diabolical Birds, Luciano Berio’s O King – a chamber arrangement of part of his Sinfonia, and some new sketches by Peter, Michael and Liam). On the side there’ll be some orchestral excerpts, with the hope of doing another QSO casual audition, and a bunch of Italian flute or fl/piano repertoire I’m interested in.

Choosing which of the contemporary solo pieces on the Lucerne audition list to play is no easy feat – they’re all very difficult in different ways. Of them, Hurel’s Loops is the only thing I’ve seriously played, and then, it wasn’t especially successful (I haven’t yet performed the 2nd and 3rd movements). I “played” the Berio Sequenza in 4th year of undergrad, but really it was a disaster. I’d be learning it from scratch now, although it is quite do-able. However, this is really a standard repertoire piece in Europe these days, and I imagine it would be necessary to have a pretty refined interpretation (and a great sound throughout…) to be selected.

Cassandra’s Dream Song by Brian Ferneyhough is also quite widely played by advanced European students, but I’ve actually done a bit of the work towards developing an interpretation – I examined the work in the final chapter of my recently submitted thesis draft, and it’s really captured my imagination. I read a fantastic article by American flautist and scholar Prof. Ellen Waterman – Cassandra’s Dream Song: A literary feminist perspective” – which seeks out a new reading of the story (the work being loosely inspired by the Cassandra/Apollo myth, notorious for its demonisation of the female protagonist). Waterman’s interpretation was in turn inspired by the novel Cassandra by East German feminist author Christa Wolf, in which the story is told from Cassandra’s point of view as the city of Troy disintegrates around her. There is a degree of performer choice included in Ferneyhough’s work, to do with ordering of the lines on the second page of material. Fun as this would (will) be to learn and play, it is fiendishly difficult (not as difficult as this composer’s later writing for flute, but still “new complexity”), and I’m not sure whether I would get it to standard by the time I’d have to record it for a February 15 deadline.


I’ll therefore endeavour to learn both works, and spend a bit of time brushing up the Hurel, and decide by mid-December or so which I’ll use for the audition tape. And I’ll endeavour to plan out the learning process and approach it in a smart way, developing interpretive ideas and technical solutions before I begin ingraining notes.

Today I began really serious listening work for each the Ferneyhough and Berio. A few years ago American flautist Jane Rigler sent me a disc of recordings she’d made, including Cassandra’s Dream Song – today was the first time I really listened to it with the score and it’s simply incredible. She uses Waterman’s choice of ordering (whether coincidently or because she two found Waterman’s reading compelling I’m not sure), and creates a very rich mesh of narrative, form, and virtuosity. I’m also quite fond of Emmanuel Pahud’s recording, which has a warmth many other recordings lack – and I’d be lying if I didn’t say it’s satisfying to hear him execute something not quite perfectly, which after all is Ferneyhough’s stated intent. It’s just nice to know the guy’s human. The video I’ve included above is Kolbeinn Bjarnason, who has become something of a Ferneyhough specialist, and recorded just about all of his flute music – his performance is also very good. I haven’t listened to so many Berios, but of those I heard today Sophie Cherrier’s is best.

The next steps for the Ferneyhough will be some rhythm study I think. I might actually consult a few other flautists on their learning method for this piece – Kathleen, also Jane Rigler. There’s a good article by Steven Schick about how he learnt Ferneyhough’s Bone Alphabet (for percussion). But he’s a bit intense, and he memorised the whole thing as he went along…! There are some nested tuplets, but it’s not complete insanity. At this stage, I’m most interested in following Waterman’s ordering – perhaps as I really get to know the piece (and as I read Wolf’s novel) I will come to another order, but for now I’d like to explore this reading.

Sequenza, on the other hand, will be all about phrasing decisions. I’ve decided to work solely from the spatially notated score (the original) and be meticulous about fitting things into the duration markings. That means quite a bit of vocalising “rhythms” for a bit before I pick up the flute. This in turn will advise phrasing for me (as well as listening to other recordings). Learning this work will only be possible once those decisions are made.

I think this is one of the things that makes contemporary music scary for those who haven’t had much experience playing it (and also for those who have!) – there is always more left up to the performer in one way or another (even when the score appears meticulously detailed, like Ferneyhough’s), which means interpretive decisions need to be made first, and not applied after a straightforward process of ingesting notes. A period of study must be entered into prior to learning notes. This is something I’m only just committing to properly, and to be honest it’s kind of exciting! I’m going to try and track my progress with these two works on this blog, my stages of learning, refining, and preparing for performance, and all of the problems I encounter on the way.

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