Reflections on a solo performance

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Of which the lead up was pretty awful, but the performance itself was good.

I had a bit of a bad run coming up to my set in the inaugural EBCC (East Brisbane Community Centre) Music Arts Festival. On top of general procrastination and practice struggles, I found myself exhausted by teaching in the days leading up to the show, was surprised by a bit of a family crisis, and had to drop a work from my program at the last minute due to instrument failure (my alto flute magically broke while in its case).

Saturday dawned with my having barely touched the Carter and Takemitsu I was revisiting, and along with the other stresses I experienced several bursts of panic. I handled interpersonal relations poorly (very poorly in some cases) and struggled not to beat myself up for how behind I was. Practice was a huge battle, but I brushed things up as much as I could. I am, of course, bitterly disappointed I didn’t give myself the opportunity to further develop my interpretation of the works, building on previous performances and lessons, using new skills and approaches I have encountered or experienced in the meantime.

I had planned to print flyers for Kupka’s upcoming America concert days before, but ended up doing it on the way to the venue – a recipe for disaster. Of course the first machine I tried at Officeworks was broken and then my card was refused and I had to buy a new one (I was by now in a hurry, and the store was understaffed – there was no one to help). When I finally printed half the number of flyers I had hoped to do (I was charged for colour on both sides of the page despite one being in black and white), I went to ask a staff member to guillotine them – two cuts, which would apparently take over an hour due to a long line of print jobs. I walked out swearing.

Luckily the Judy had a guillotine so I could get them cut when I arrived. There was not, however, any warm-up space made available (it seems jazz musicians don’t find this so necessary as us anal classical types), so Luara and I ran our duo in a hallway, and I sped anxiously through some scales and tricky passages.

Several times I felt completely overcome by how hopeless the situation was. I blamed outside disruptions – people and events – as well as myself, and felt suffocated by my misfortune. I felt quite abandoned (by who, I’m not sure) at the moment I most needed some support. Somehow I managed to pull myself back together each time, and after enjoying some of the previous acts and some particularly good cold rice paper rolls from a wonderful little Vietnamese joint (Ho Chi Mumma …!) I was in a good enough mood to just get up and play the best I could.

Were there wrong notes? Oh yeah. Could I have done better? Most definitely. But I held it together. I directed some of my stress and anger into voice and breath attacks in the Takemitsu. I closed my eyes in my short improvisation and shut myself off from the outside world completely. I shrieked out fourth register interjections in the Carter and ignored the occasional wrong note in the sextuplet passages. I breathed. I had no memory slips in the Kate Soper (and also Luara was magnificent). I felt virtually no nerves, perhaps because I had already expended all my nervous energy! And afterwards people congratulated me, expressed surprise that this music was getting played in Brisbane and admiration at how I had played it. The next day I got further congratulatory messages. I also apologised to those who I was short or overly emotional with, and my apologies were well received.

None of this excuses the problems that led to how Saturday went for me. I want much more for myself, and also a lot less stress, for myself and others. There is much work to be done. But one positive is that I don’t feel like too much of a fraud. It was a bit of an unfortunate series of events, which is going to happen sometimes, and I’m happy to find I can still pull off a convincing and fulfilling performance. I’m very grateful for the support I had, without which I most likely would have failed. And there is always next time…

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Writing music: a preliminary step

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This is a piece that I'm working on, a kind of guided improvisation.

This is a piece that I’m working on, a kind of guided improvisation.

I’ve wanted to try my hands at a spot of composing for a while now. It’s hard, because as a committed flute player I can’t dedicate an awful lot of my time to thinking about writing music, and on top of that I happen to have a particularly thoughtful composer around me nearly always – I don’t want to do a half-assed job, it just wouldn’t stand up to my own ideals or to the work I see Liam putting into his music. But at the same time, just about every time I hear the work of a performer composer – especially wind players – I think to myself, “I could do that. And I’d probably do a better job too…”

When the opportunity came up to do a short solo recital as part of the East Brisbane Community Centre music arts festival (this coming Saturday, 4-10pm at JWC) I thought a lot about the program I would present. My general criteria for Kupka concerts seemed relevant here too, that is: the inclusion of at least one work by a female composer, and at least one Australian work. I also really wanted to play Carter’s Scrivo in vento again, and given the space (the shopfront) I think Takemitsu’s gritty, violent Voice would be quite striking. Australian composer Andrew Ford won that spot with his Female Nude for alto flute (to be performed with clothes on, the title is in reference to a Mondrian painting). And for the female composer, vocalist Luara and I are going to perform the first movement of Kate Soper’s Only the words themselves mean what they say – the whole of which we’ll be playing in the Kupka’s Piano concert on November 29.

Which leaves a 10 minute slot to be filled. There were other works I could have played, but given that the festival is a mix of experimental jazz and contemporary classical streams I wanted to be a bit creative – it’s a good environment to try something new! And so the idea came to me for a kind of guided improvisation, something that I worked on with Liam as an initial step into composition.

The process itself just kind of happened, but it worked very well. I have been scheduling my practice into 10 minute blocks, setting an alarm and just working on one thing at a time. I set aside one of these blocks in a practice session for improvisation, with only the scantest idea of what exactly I wanted to play with. Each new sound I came up with that I liked I noted down (see the notebook page above). After one successful session I tried two more, and then just elaborated on the material I found only slightly. Liam and I then spent about an hour going through this raw material and talking about how one set could develop and flow into the next.

Now with this blueprint in place I’ve just been working on two sections at a time, securing my ideas and the tissue between segments. I’m planning on performing the work with a stopwatch running to bolster the strength of the structure. Each section is very much sound-based, with less focus on pitch/harmonic development, although I think a bit of a rough, intuitive theme still runs through.

This has been a (pleasantly) surprisingly useful process, and in fact Liam and I are thinking we might propose to the whole KP gang that everyone gives this kind of thing a go. It’s extremely good I think for the performer of modernist art music, as we are often so consumed by learning other’s notes we lose touch a little with the sounds and effects we most enjoy playing. In addition, it’s great for Liam, as he gets to hear sounds that he might not otherwise have been able to conceive in his own ear, and the extension of the possibilities and limitations of the instrument.

Oh yeah, and new look blog! Maybe this signals a new direction, but I’m not entirely sure what that might be at this stage.

The Safest Ever Show About the World’s Most Dangerous Topic: The Australian Chamber Orchestra’s “The Crowd”

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The Safest Ever Show About the World\’s Most Dangerous Topic: The Australian Chamber Orchestra\’s \”The Crowd\”.

An absolutely fantastic review. A must read for all interested in contemporary art, contemporary music, and contemporary politics.

“The film then vacillates between interminable footage of football matches, street scenes and images of water, providing a pessimistic and narrow vision of the crowd today. After the tokenistic reference to the political crowd, the real axis of The Crowd is football and nature.

“But between the show’s creation in 2010 and reworking in 2013, two important crowd-related events have taken place: The Arab Spring in all its complexity and the increased media hysteria around asylum seekers in all its banal horror. It says something about Australia, about our wilful ignorance of the rest of the world and fear of the crowd that the closest one gets to a spontaneous crowd is a football match or a mosh pit.

“We like to talk about crises. Here’s one: The ethico-aesthetic crisis of Australian art music.”

via The Safest Ever Show About the World’s Most Dangerous Topic: The Australian Chamber Orchestra’s “The Crowd”.

Asia (an upcoming concert!)

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I might have mentioned once or twice that I play with this awesome ensemble, Kupka’s Piano!

Asia concert front

Anyhow, we have a really interesting concert coming up this Friday (8 March) at the Judith Wright Centre, and we’re really excited about it. We’ll be playing a variety of modern works by Asian and Australian composers, focussing especially on the work of composers of our own generation. More information on the concert as a whole is available here.

Personally, I am performing in three works on the program: Towards the Distant Plains II by young Chinese composer Wang Lu, Andante for bass flute by Isang Yun (from his flute etudes), and a new song-cycle by Liam Flenady called Stars, Not Far Off. You can listen to the Wang here and the Yun here (more on that one in a moment), and Liam has written his thoughts about his to-be-premiered setting of Wallace Stevens’ poetry on the Kupka’s blog – well worth a read. Better again, of course, will be to come along Friday and hear them “in the flesh”!

As I wrote in my previous post, I’ll be travelling to Japan later this month for an academy with Ensemble Modern, so it’s a very Asian-themed time for me! In the back of my mind is some ideas of repertoire I’d like to have prepared for when I go, however this is ruled mostly by what I think I can refresh in time from what I have already played – I also have a quite few pieces to get up for the YPA round 1 just before I leave! Probably some Saariaho, some Takemitsu, maybe Murail, the Yun if I can take my bass flute… I’d love to play all of Yun’s etudes sometime, the fifth especially:


Especially powerful memorised!

Upcoming Kupka concert

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The next thing (there’s always a next thing!) I’m playing in is a concert of French modernism and Brisbane newbies – our ensemble Kupka’s Piano playing Grisey, Boulez, Brisbane at the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts.

The ensemble is a Pierrot + percussion (flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, percussion and soprano), plus we include our three composer members, one of whom is also our conductor, Mr Peter Clark. Peter has recently returned from the Lucerne Festival Academy where he participated in conducting workshops with Pierre Boulez himself! So very exciting, and now we’re all getting to benefit from it, as he has a very clear idea of Boulez’ piece, Derive I, after having discussed it with the composer.

This is the first really big modernist ensemble classic that we’re attempting as an ensemble, and it presents some seriously notey challenges in all its tight-knit filigree. In such an ensemble (this is all of us save our soprano, Tabatha, who’ll be performing some breathtaking Messiaen songs) balance can be an issue, especially when the flute is nearly always in the low register – and in the this piece the flute spends a lot of time in the low register. There’s only one time where I really have to worry about being a bit quieter, on a high E-F trill! The rest of the time, I’m practising my most bolshy low E-flats and Cs.

Alongside these big-name French composers, our three composers have all written works – two solos, for Mac (clarinet) and myself by Peter and Michael Mathieson-Sandars, plus Liam’s trio for flute, clarinet and vibraphone. I dare say that these three works are some of the most adventurous you’ll hear coming out of young Australian composers today. Pete’s is a rendering of Berio’s clarinet Sequenza, which strays quite a way from the original. In Michael’s, snatches of leaping lyricism are interrupted by percussive gestures (they’ll really pop in the space we’re playing in!). And Liam’s trio (“Esprit Rouge”, hehe) combines Carter-esque rhythmic interplay with his own developing harmonic language.

It’s a concert I’m really looking forward to, and with any luck there’ll be many more in this vein. We’ve got plans for a four-concert season in 2013, a “world tour” of sorts, where we “visit” some other musical centres as we have Paris here. Perhaps Italy, the Americas, South East Asia, and the UK…

Recital reflections

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Yesterday I had my second masters recital and performed a program almost entirely of new works. Here’s a PDF of the program, including program notes for all repertoire (Maderna Dialodia, Hurel Loops I, Flenady Sketches I & II, Marais Les Folies d’Espagne with new variations, Dean Demons, Kurtág Bagatelles, and Takemitsu Voice): Recital 2 Program. Some recordings to follow…

It went quite well all things considered – like my sound issues and apparent lack of preparedness. It’s this second factor that I’d like to discuss at this point, as it’s not so much because of time constraints that I felt under-prepared but avoidance and poor organisation of practise techniques in the lead up to this recital. I do think I’m getting better at learning repertoire, but there are some persistant problems that I was commonly experiencing in my undergraduate days and even before. The causes are psychological, and the only reason they haven’t been an even bigger problem is that I respond fairly well to pressure (in terms of suddenly getting lots of stuff done … not so much in so far as I stress out pretty big time) and kick into gear. I think one of the ways I’ve ‘improved’ is by managing to push this feeling of pressure back a little earlier so I get into that final chance mode a few days ahead.

So perhaps a good thing to do would be to create some kind of pressure situation earlier still, something that I can’t easily weasel my way out of. I have set up practise performances about a week out from the actual thing in the past, but generally exclude some of the repertoire, making up some excuse as to why it’s not ready yet. Not sure how to prevent myself doing that … but certainly practise performances, for some kind of semi-important audience, at least two weeks ahead. If I can get repertoire to the standard it was yesterday two weeks ahead of such a performance I then have the time to polish and refine, building up the strength of everything and my confidence.

While overseas I intended to set up monthly practise performances for Patrick and Kathleen – unfortunately Kathleen’s moving to the rainforest very soon, a sad thing indeed, which puts a bit of a spanner into that plan. I should still think about how I can do this though, especially once I finish my degree. A kind of ‘workshop’ without all the faff and nonsense that surrounded workshop classes at the Con (or performance class at UQ). Maybe some of my friendly musician friends would be interested in doing this too – it could end up being a bit of a house concert every now and then, just regular performances of repertoire we’re preparing, and with opportunity to comment on one another’s playing afterwards (Tab? Alex? Alethea? Whaddya reckon?). We could invite each other’s teachers along every now and then for comment too. Maybe we could kind of combine this with my old idea of a musician’s reading group too… Or Liam and Pete’s seminar series, or composer workshops, playing new pieces. Ideas!

My next performance is the Kupka’s Piano concert on October 5 (buy tickets now!!), in which I’m playing new works by Liam (for flute, clarinet and vibes) and Michael Mathieson-Sandars (for solo flute) as well as Boulez’ Derive I. The ensemble works are good because I’ll have the incentive and pressure of rehearsals to prepare for ahead of the day. I’ll play Michael’s work through for Patrick and/or Kathleen by September 26th, and do a practise performance or two for others by the end of that week.

One other thought I had last night, that would work quite well with the idea of monthly practise performance events, is repertoire maintenance. I am always thoroughly impressed at the amount of mileage Alex gets out of his repertoire – performing the works he has learnt on multiple occasions in many different circumstances. He is solidly developing his own repertoire list, a core part of your identity and functionality as a musician. Time for me to play copycat and decide what of the works I’ve learnt over the past few years I want to keep on hand. Over the next few days I’ll make a list (I did start this when I first began this blog, but neglected to see the project through to completion – all full of ‘repertoire dreaming’ and not repertoire fixing), and draft up a plan to cycle through these works as I learn new things, not only to maintain their standard but also to set up other performance opportunities and become really comfortable with playing them. I ought to always have several works going in maintenance mode as well as note learning.

Another thing I’d like to do to address the avoidance behaviour is think about how I can use my yoga practise to lead into flute practise – I’m stepping up my yoga commitment as it’s the best thing for pain prevention and management, as well as mental and physical balance. I’m even considering starting teacher training next year, with the idea of running a ‘yoga for musicians’ class in future.

Lots of new things as I step into the next period leading up to October 5! Rehearsals galore, new works, old works, sound development practise, yoga, practise performances … and writing for my thesis review milestone (due Sept 23) and an ArtStart grant application (due Sept 20)!! Ech!

Support Underscored!

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My wonderful friend Janet McKay of random overtones is running a really exciting looking micro festival in Brisbane coming up on September 14-16: UNDERSCORED. Unfortunately state funding didn’t come through, so she’s trying to raise money using Pozible – a crowd funding website. The way it works is you have to make the amount you’re aiming for or you get nothing (Pozible doesn’t charge anyone’s credit card until the time is up)! So please, if you can, lend a bit of support. The program is really super awesome, including Anne La Berge – contemporary flautist extraordinaire – from the Netherlands.

You can pre-order your tickets or get lots of other goodies by supporting the project, just choose the $15 (one event), $35 (three events) or $70 (festival pass) options for tickets. The full program:

FRIDAY SEPTEMBER 14
6.00-6.30pm: Artist Talk – SHACKLE (featuring Anne La Berge)
7.00-8.00pm: Showcase Performance 1 – SHACKLE

SATURDAY SEPTEMBER 15
10.00-1.00pm: Workshop – ‘Converging Objects’ – SHACKLE
2.00-3.00pm: Matinee Performance 1 – Lawrence English, Janet McKay, Kathleen Gallagher
3.30-5.00pm: Workshop – Composer/Performer Speed Dating
6.00-6.30pm: Artist Talk – Anna McMichael
7.00-8.00pm: Showcase Performance 2 – Anna McMichael

SUNDAY SEPTEMBER 16
2.00-3.00pm: Matinee Performance 2 – Rob Davidson, Ben Marks
3.30-5.00pm: Workshop – Fill This Page With Sound – Rob Davidson, Lawrence English
6.00-6.30pm: Artist Talk – Super Critical Mass
7.00-8.00pm: Showcase Performance 3 – Super Critical Mass