Interface Intensive: day I’ve-lost-count, but it’s going well!

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These kinds of rehearsal/learning intensives come with their ups and downs (hey, we’re all about extremes in new music), and I’ve had my share of stress, panic, frustration, disappointment (at myself), and exhaustion this past week and a half, but yesterday we got all the way through the Donatoni without stopping for the first time and improved of our full run of the Lanza that we first trialled on the weekend. Exhilarating!

Check out some photos of our first week on the Ensemble Interface blog – taken by their cellist Christophe (and a few that I took!).

Our first performance is Friday night, and while we’ve still a way to go, I personally feel more on top of things coming into a Kupka concert than I think I have ever before. After rehearsing for 6 hours yesterday afternoon I felt surprisingly invigorated – it was the first evening I didn’t drag myself home and collapse into my bed, forcing myself not to worry about ALL THE NOTES. (There’s been rather a bit of panic practicing, impatiently trying to play passages faster than I’m ready to. But now I think I have the space to settle back and just take it slowly. I know well the sections that present the most extreme challenges for me – fourth reg F slurred to an Eb anyone? semiquavers dotted with articulated grace notes at MM100? violent! – and how I will approach them, and have Interface flautist Bettina to thank very muchly for this.)

In addition to rehearsals of our concert repertoire, this mentorship period has included a number of other extremely fruitful activities: lessons with our corresponding Interface member, workshopping some short duos by my partner Liam Flenady (he write about this on his blog), Interface workshops given at the Qld Conservatorium and University of Qld (Bettina is giving a circular breathing class at the Con this evening!), and two of what we have dubbed “Bildungsforums” – structured sessions for discussion of personal and ensemble identity and direction. So far we have had one of these, focussing on each of us as individuals, and what we think are our personal roles and talents. It was very useful to hear exactly where everyone felt they were at, the direction of their self-development and some career ambitions. Tonight we embark on our ideas of how we operate as an ensemble, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what this brings up, and how we will deal with questions of stability and ambition into the future.

This entire intensive only continues to confirm for me that this is what I most want to do, and I’m starting to feel a new layer of determination set in. I suspect I will have a lot of thinking to do as this draws to a close as to my next steps, and how I will best use my time in Europe next year (I’ll be spending at least three months in Cologne studying with Camilla Hoitenga, with the ArtStart grant I deferred from this year).

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Interface Intensive: Day one

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So! Ensemble Interface have arrived in Australia (as of last Wednesday, when I met them in Sydney – they gave a wonderful workshop at Sydney Con and then we flew up to Brisbane on Friday evening) and today marked the formal beginning of our two week intensive. During this time we will be rehearsing together a number of new and more established Italian works and two brand new pieces by emerging Australian composers Michael Mathieson-Sandars and Luke Paulding.

We’re working together courtesy of a JUMP Mentorship (a joint initiative of the Australia Council for the Arts and Next Wave), and as such Interface will be ‘mentors’ to Kupka’s Piano for this two week period, guiding us through the music they are very familiar with – such as Donatoni’s Arpège and Maderna’s Honeyrêves – and the learning process for fresh works. In two weeks we’ll have some twenty rehearsals, along with discussion sessions exploring ensemble identity, organisational questions, solutions to current and anticipated issues, and showing them some of what we think are the most exciting things happening in contemporary Australian composition. It’s going to be, well, intense, but also freaking incredible. At the end we’re performing our co-designed program twice, on September 27 and 28 at the Judith Wright Centre.

Today was the first day we all got together – Kupka’s and Interface around the one table – and talked through the pieces we’ll be playing and how we will make this period best work for all of us. As we started our rehearsals, their response to one of our questions really stuck with me (for reasons that will become immediately apparent). One of the major hurdles with playing this repertoire is the limited time allowed for preparation compared to the sheer difficulty of what is to be achieved – whether because of late submission by a composer or limited funds to hire scores in advance or other time constraints and commitments – and when asked how to deal with this, Interface members Anna, Bettina, Christophe and Agnieszka gave a clear and considered reply:

Working from the score provides the best opportunity for full collaboration, as in chamber music (with or without conductor) it is vitally important to know who is doing what when. This might mean practicing from the score and marking up your part for rehearsals (for practical reasons), or doing a full cut-and-paste score. When working in a limited time frame, efficiency comes from clarity, therefore making definite decisions together as a group and clearly marking them from the beginning saves a great deal of time. There is also a hierarchy to what musical elements need to be strong by the first rehearsal, and in particular rhythm and dynamics are the priorities. As there are some difficulties that will take time to practice in (such as microtonal/other alternative fingerings, or many runs in unfamiliar patterns), focussing instead on these two key elements means that ensemble work can meanwhile begin. Confidence, however is key – play ‘wrong and strong’! Being unsure renders you useless.

For me this was driven home by our first rehearsal of Mauro Lanza’s Skin of the Onion – as the work is really quite considerate of the performer and involves a great deal of repetition, I have put it a little way down my list of practice priorities. A little too far down, as it turns out, as I was most definitely unsure when we came to rehearse the work this morning. Worrying about whether I was putting down the right fingers or how to angle my air to make the multiphonic speak meant my rhythm and attention to dynamics was compromised. I felt disappointed in myself and quite under-confident, which of course fed back and contributed further. I didn’t play appallingly, but I wasn’t really there in the rehearsal in a way that best contributed to the ensemble. On the other hand, I now have a very clear idea of what I need to do in order to be better readied for rehearsal #2, especially after also spending a brief session with Bettina this evening checking all my bass flute techniques and working to increase the volume I could give on the instrument.

In the Donatoni we worked firstly Kupka’s-only for one hour, before being joined by all four Interfaces. I personally was more on top of the sections we worked on (although I’m quaking in my boots thinking about what will happen when we get to bar 207!), as was much more able to play an active role in the rehearsal. Even when the tempo pushed beyond what I felt I could do in terms of clean sound production, I was definitely able to play ‘wrong and strong’ in a way that was ‘right’ for this stage of rehearsing! We did, however, decide that for the next rehearsal Interface members will sit in from the beginning, as they know the work so well and can offer us a great deal as we work through each segment.

One more thing before I end this post – I’m not sure there are lovelier people in all the world than these wonderful musicians, and it is a true honour to work with them. Just about every project I have been involved in with musicians who play contemporary art music has been especially rewarding on account of their generousity and friendliness, which for me has really driven home that this is the right path for me to pursue in music, but these four seem to have taken that to an all new level. This is a very, very exciting time.

Something must be written

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Unfortunately I neglected to write a post before Liam, Ernie and I headed around to Alethea and Michael’s (and Peter’s, and Jess’s) this evening, and we have only just arrived home again. Still, I’m determined to stick to my post-a-day commitment, so something must be written.

The day: started okay, if a bit slowly, with a walk and breakfast and tea at the cafe over the road. But I felt a bit low and then the heavies hit, and I slumped out – just as I was about to begin it all fell to pieces. Consequently I didn’t achieve much until the afternoon when I found I could do some practice in 10 min bursts or so. A little clocking of some Donatoni mostly. Then I had an older student (in his 60s!) for his first lesson and was confronted with the difficulties of the adult beginner – the frustration, matched only by the determination. The remainder of the day consisted of two 50 min walks to and from Alethea and Michael’s, which sandwiched dinner, a chat about their trip to Italy/Finland/Britain/Germany, some initial Donatoni rehearsal, and Ernie running about like a mad thing.

Some of the major challenges with the Donatoni will be precise note-placement, particularly accented notes, between instruments with very different attacks/delays of onset, matching note length (staccato!), and just plain old difficult finger work skipping across registers. Together Alethea (violin) and I slowly played through a few sections – these are quite distinct in this work, demarcated by tempo and distinct character changes – nutting out some initial problem patches. Over the next week or so we’ll do more of this work, in sectionals and smaller groupings, before starting to pull the work together when Interface arrive.

Tomorrow I’ll start the day with a much needed yoga class (my middle back hates me, and let’s not mention my right shoulder), then will focus on technique practice, some more Donatoni, Carter, and Lanza.

Kurtág fun times

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We had our first rehearsal of Kurtág’s Bagatelles yesterday evening – a set of quirky miniatures for flute, double bass and piano. It’s mostly quite straightforward, and apart from a few sticky patches that need a bit of extra effort to get together it started to sound rather lovely by the end. For me, the major thing now (leaving aside getting a good strong forte in the low register…) is capturing the individual character of each work. Some thoughts and questions on each movement:

  1. Furious chorale – the sharp attacks of the piano and bass pizzicato don’t especially lend a sense of a chorale, but perhaps it is there in the richness and intensity of loud flute harmonics (overblown at a double octave). Somehow I need to feel like I’m a whole choir screeching away. The odd little vivo – marked “impudently” – that punctuates this movement needs to be just that, a naughty, rude interjection. The final line, with its brilliant octaves and fffff low C, needs to have a festive flair in it. I need to get enough colour and overtones on that low C so that the octaves just spin out of it (and also so it gets half loud enough).
  2. Hommage à J.S.B. – I wondered aloud in rehearsal whether this is Bach only in its steady perpetuum mobile and focus on harmony. To me this sounds soft jazzy, café jazz, especially at the start. If I could portamento down through that break D to Bb (high to middle register) just a little, I would. It needs an expressive, languid feel, but not lazy. Liam says he hears it more simply, just fluid continuing lines, and probably that’s how it will end up anyway. The only things I really have to play with are tone colour (limited in that register, but there’s at least two possibilities) and emphasis. Do I bring out the rhythmic lilt? Or keep every note pretty much equal-weighting? Experimentation needed.
  3. Like the flowers of the field – slower than we first thought, painfully slow was the eventual conclusion. And it works much better that way. It needs a much slower tempo to differentiate it from the previous movement, as it has a similar opening gesture for flute. This one is much creepier – perhaps just because I was doing Bartók with the kids at the Mater Hospital yesterday afternoon, but it reminds me a little of Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, especially when the dynamic drops dramatically. There’s a steady yearning in the descending lines. “Like the flowers of the field”… a bit of an ambiguous title – are they, for example, like the red poppies in the battlefields of northern France and Belgium in WWI? Or is it perhaps a metaphor? They sound a bit too weird to just be ordinary, pretty flowers.
  4. Wild and tame – the character here is contained within the timing, striking the ff scales in at precisely the moment the double bass resolves its cadence. The flute lines are scurrying and scatty, and bearing in mind that these pieces are re-workings of his Játékok (“Games”) for children at the piano, certainly this has the feeling of being some partially domesticated animal. The “tame” bit at the end is not a happy domestication, but a forced one, the breaking of a will.
  5. Flowers we are, mere flowers – an interesting title given the title of the third movement. Another gentle melancholy. Perhaps I need to try not to be too soft on the first few entries, so that the pp and ppp marked later can have more of an effect. I’m not sure about vibrato and colour here, yesterday I played very straight, but perhaps the sound needs a bit more variety through it. Often with these things I get the feeling I need to make a pure ringing bell tone, but really it needs to be more singing to create the effect I imagine.
  6. La fille aux cheveux de lin, enragée – far from Debussy’s pretty blonde image! That iconic broken minor seventh (leaving aside the original bass line) remains, but never resolves – instead it continues downwards or upwards in a full-range fury. It’s seems somehow like there’s a joy to all this rage, however, as there’s a dancelike lilt. The meaning contained in the softer, reflective lines isn’t clear to me. Is it an external view of an angry young girl that allows someone viewing her to either romanticise the image or reminisce about her in a happier state?

A fun piece! Very strange, but brilliant and beautiful in its own way.

Crumb, take 1

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First rehearsal this morning for George Crumb’s Vox Balaenae (‘Voice of the Whale’), and it went very well – in fact Jonny Ng said after the first read-through that it was probably the best first run of that piece ever! This probably has a lot to do with the fact that he’s already played the work twice before, and I was slightly obsessed with it in second year and have now been practising it on and off over the last year, and also Katherine Philp is a simply wonderful cellist. So all in all I think it will come together very nicely!

The only parts we really had to work on ensemble-wise were the Paleozoic and Mesozoic variations – Mesozoic in particular is quite difficult to get just right. The piano is playing polyrhythmic percussive patterns with a glass rod lying across the strings jangling away, which obscures the quaver pulse – the cello and I have to discern it anyway and come in together (in total unison, with me playing right up in the top of the flute range) counting the quavers accurately. And it’s fast! Still, it’s kind of exhilarating, skin of your teeth kind of stuff.


At this stage, this is probably the piece I am feeling most confident about for my recital. Apart from this very promising first rehearsal, the work also happens to be almost universally appealing, very theatrical, and really fun to play. Sure the exotic scales he uses and the tonal melody of the Sea-Nocturne are a bit naff, but what the hell!

What I’m looking forward to now are cleaning up the ensemble difficulties so that we can really engage in the theatre of the work and see just how well we can hold an audience spellbound…!