This morning I had a skype chat with American flautist (flutist!) Jane Rigler about learning Cassandra’s Dream Song by Brian Ferneyhough. The score is a little intimidating: two pages of tiny black notes, fingerings, rhythms (nested tuplets, argh!), techniques, articulations, and directions. There is an element of performer choice incorporated into the work, in terms of ordering the material on the 2nd page, which alternates with the pre-ordered lines on the 1st. Because of this, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done prior to picking up the flute and starting to learn to play the piece.
I had a number of specific queries for Jane (who so generously offered her time to discuss this with me! New music flute-players are so lovely!), to do with the decisions she made prior to learning the work and how she went about ingraining it. She was learning it at the same time as Ellen Waterman, who wrote an article that I found really inspiring and exciting, weaving a feminist literary reading of the Cassandra myth into her interpretation of Ferneyhough’s piece. While they came to their orderings separately, they influenced and inspired one another, and ended up making similar choices. Both of them came to an ordering drastically different to the majority of other recordings I’ve listened to (virtually all of which have been made by male flautists), perhaps due to a different understanding of what the piece can convey. Jane’s order was E A C B D, Ellen’s was A E C B D. (I might also say that Ellen’s article is strongly recommended reading for all performers interested in delving as far as possible into their own personal interpretation of a piece. There isn’t enough of this kind of performer-based interpretation being written.)
In terms of starting the learning process, Jane recommended finding those lines that are most ‘flutey’ – for which the practise procedure is most clear – for example line 5 (1st page). Some other lines also jump out as being more initially accessible, mostly on the 2nd page – A, B, and C in particular. The ones to avoid at first are those with a lot of unusual fingerings marked in and with severe rhythmic difficulty.
Line C (2nd page) itself includes an ordering choice, which both Jane and Ellen have suggested experimenting with leaving the exact decision to the moment in performance, although Jane cautioned that you need to feel super comfortable with the material to do that. In fact, she said that while she never played the work from memory, it did need to be virtually entirely memorised for a fully engaged performance. Her choice to play from the score was partly choreographical – it’s exciting to see the flautist sweep from one stand to another to change between lines, and it also indicates the change of character (a bit of a split personality!) – and partly to avoid this intensely complex and difficult music being dismissed by “she’s just making that up”.
Once I make it to the more difficult lines (4 and 1, 1st page, for example), she suggests learning the finger patterns first, and then learning the rhythmic patterns relative to one another, and just in small phrase sections that then fit into the bigger line.
All this gives me a really good toe into this piece. While continuing listening and interpretative mapping, I’ll start learning some note patterns in line 5. At the same time, I’ll step up practise of articulation (there’s a fair bit of getting-as-fast-as-possible-then-breaking-into-flutter stuff), throat flutter … and circular breathing! It will take me a bit of time to decide on my own ordering, but I will continue to listen to every recording I can get my hands on (there’s quite a few actually) and to read Christa Wolf’s novel Cassandra for inspiration.