Commitment to Sound 4- sound in tension?

I am coming to realise the differences between a sound of monotony and one of nuance often lies in the use of tension and release.

First it is important to think about what tension might mean. Tension and release are naturally found in the keys and textures of the music. There are moments in music of obvious tension and freedom and release. The way in which a composer modulates, or how they create a certain emotion, determines the tension we create.

We can only practice how we use tension and release if we are aware of how we fit in the music. In sonata playing, this means having a good knowledge of the piano part and the key structure of the music. This has always freaked me out a bit! Key’s have always felt like a foreign field to me, but I’m beginning to understand keys as colours (and not stiff academia!) and through this understand how I create sounds. For example, if I have a sustained note I am struggling with, by studying the score I can know whether, in context, it is a note of ease, beauty and freedom or conversely one of conflict and tension by looking at the harmony and texture. Once I am aware of the context of phrases and notes, I can begin to explore different colours on my instrument.

Tension and release can also be created by a knowledge of how to use silences and forming theories as to why a composer have chosen the silences. A great exponent of this is Beethoven. Beethoven has a way of taking us to a different land altogether through is silences. His climaxes often culminate in a huge general pause, before taking us to a completely different environment. In this context, the silence is what creates the tension but is important that we actually learn to ‘play’ a tense silence, a comical silence and a relieving silence.

Much of our use of tension and release comes naturally to us as we respond to the music in the moment, but taking it a step further by looking into the score can bring sounds to a different level of understanding.

Commitment to sound- technique as the foundation for sound

One of the hardest aspects of sound creation to come to terms with is that a great sound cannot be maintained without an awareness of how to create it physically. I am always tempted to believe that sound should be created naturally and without much thought, but the reality is that we must first search for it.

We all have occasional moments in practice where everything suddenly feels balanced and our sound is beautiful and free. It is these moments that I think should provoke our obsession with sound. We should always be aiming for that quality of sound and asking how the sound is created. For string instruments, often the distribution of the bow and the point of contact on the string can add wonderful colour and shape to our sound. Alongside this is freedom within the bowing arm, an awareness of how to create a sound that’s free, as sound that’s focused and a sound that’s forced.

Once the technique is in place to enhance the sounds created, it requires less thought and the music is able to speak. I am finding this is more and more difficult to implement. I want to find a technique that supports my music making, but at the moment many things still feel uncomfortable and it is taking time to sort. In practice, I am very focused on the freedom of my body and bow, but in a performance it becomes clear that the technique isn’t solid enough. I go back to old habits and the music doesn’t speak so well.

Without exploring a freedom of technique and matching techniques to sounds, our music becomes rather unfocused and shapeless in this way. I’m going to try and integrate the technique I am forming in practice into performances. I think a good way of starting this is finding lower pressure performance situations, such as recordings or playing to friends. This way I can allow myself to focus on comfort and freedom of sound without the pressure of the music or desire to perform well.

This sound journey needs me to look for all sorts of sounds, not just one that’s ‘nice’ or ‘pretty’. I want a full and complete sound that speaks the music I love and I am interested to look at my technique more closely in order to begin achieving this.

A Commitment to Sound 2: Finding a Voice

One of the most natural parts of us is our speaking and singing voice. We shape our phrases and intonation to match the mood and express ourselves in speech. Most importantly, we do this totally subconsciously.

To find our voice in playing an instrument means developing an awareness that playing a piece of material, such as wood or metal, is not inherently natural. It is incredibly difficult to develop a sound on our instrument without the influence of our voices to guide the way.

My journey with sound so far has shown me how musical phrases sometimes hold words, gestures and articulations that can be first explored with the voice as the voice has a natural sense of phrasing. Often I have sung a phrase I’m working on and suddenly become aware of bowings and phrasing I have been adopting that make no sense in the context of the voice.

This sense of awareness through the use of the voice is such a valuable tool and makes our sound much more personal. We are developing our own ‘accent’ in a sense, just as actors have arresting voices we strive to develop an arresting sound as our voice between the composer and audience.

My voice is a part of me I am so familiar with and it is wonderful how much it is starting to teach me about my sound!

A Commitment to Sound 1- Motivated by What?

This series shows the ups and downs of me having made a commitment to sound. I have spent many years studying the cello, but very little time has been dedicated to the sound I create and how I create it. Because of this I want to make sound, and not success, my new obsession.

The aspect of this new venture that I am finding most challenging is that I am not always sure what sound I actually want to create. It’s very easy to tune out and get away with a very average sound, especially in the practice room.

I know that my ability to push for a great sound is there because as soon as I am under pressure my critical voice works overtime. It is in my cello lessons, or when someone is listening to me practice, that some of the greatest sound work is done. This is both because my teacher is always pushing for a wonderful sound, but also because suddenly I am being observed. When we start to work on the repertoire have bought I can’t help but hear all the unevenness, the intonation issues and the lumpy phrasing. I am suddenly very frustrated, hyper aware and am striving for better.

If only this constructive and critical voice were more present in my practice. I am happy with less in practice because there is no one watching me, and therefore (admittedly) no one to impress?! The sound commitment I have made is purely for a deeper connection with music through the sound I am creating. Through this I should be trying to impress myself with a wonderful sound and not only motivated towards it in the presence of others.

I have tried to take the music I am playing, maybe also the composer, and imagining them observing my practice. I am asking them questions about how their piece should sound, what type of vibrato to use and how to achieve this. The benefit of this is that the sound motivation has changed from being success and validation to being for the music itself and living up to the expectation the composers had of their piece.

It has also been interesting to record my practice and imagine teaching myself. As a response to recording, so much of the sound work I have done so far has been focused on releasing tension that is obstructing the freedom I am searching for. I often move a great deal when I play, especially when performing, but once relaxed I observe that the emotion in the sound is a result of freedom and not tension.

Sound is such a huge concept and highly personal also. It is proving a tough commitment to have made but one full of much more life and motivation.

A Commitment to Sound

It has been unnervingly easy to go about living, practicing and exploring music without really listening to what I create. I have become complacent, getting by with what is ‘good enough’ and what might sound impressive. My practice has become a frustrating mass of confusion towards a foggy goal of ‘perfect’. Unaware of what I want to achieve, hours per day has become a reassurance that I must be improving. I must be achieving things because I am working hard.

Practice is the bones of creating wonderful music, but what is the use of it if we don’t know what we want to hear? I was about to go to bed a few nights ago when suddenly I decided that I’d had enough of this mediocrity and the rut i’d got into. The many composers whose music I worship and study deserve better. I sat down and wrote ‘I have made a commitment to sound’ in my diary. I commitment not to 7+ hours a day of practice, not to the next award or to proving myself against other musicians. I have made a commitment to, well, the music really and a desire to play it as it needs to be heard.

A ‘nice enough’ sound is not enough to sustain me anymore. There’s no going back from here which is exciting. I am going to use my practice to explore sound and the spirit within the composers bursting to come out. Playing the cello isn’t a sport anymore, I am going to start listening and loving otherwise I see very little point.

I am going to use my blog to share my sound journey with short videos and a raw honesty of how I’m feeling and how my practice is going. I anticipate that this journey is not going to be quick, but with the sound and music now at the centre I am looking to a direction and greater understanding of music.

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Thoughts on what makes our favourite music

It has only recently occurred to me quite how many pieces of music have had a profound effect on my life. Some are pieces that I have grown to love through practice and performance and others that, on the first hearing, I have found myself in a prodigious state of awe and wonder, almost beyond the ability to describe. These experiences with music provide a large part of what I see as my ‘spiritual life’, and through this comes the music which forms my identity.

The music closest to my heart creates a peace, some a deep serenity, some a joy, sadness etc. The way in which they move me is always different and often in ways, and with pieces, I would not expect. I am struck, however, by the comparatively small amount of the musical repertoire I have experienced to date. To think how many of these I keep so close to me feels both overwhelming and exciting.

There is so much life and beauty still to uncover through listening and playing. I will never find it all in this lifetime, but to have experienced a small amount of it to such a degree, I believe, is such a wonderful component of faith.

A list of pieces I have found most profound, also a suggested listening. I’m sure I have missed a lot from this list!

Elgar- ‘There Is Sweet Music’ part song

Schubert- Piano Sonata no.21 in B flat (opening 1st movement)

Brahms- violin concerto 1st movement 2nd subject

John Ireland- ‘the Hills’

Puccini- La Boheme, ‘Che gelida manina’

Schubert- Two cello Quintet 1st movement cello duet

Elgar- The Dream of Gerontius

Haydn- Piano trio no.44 1&3 movements

Bach- St Matthew Passion

Elgar- cello concerto 3rd movement

Walton- Belshazzar’s Feast

Vaughn Williams- ‘O taste and see’

Purcell- Dido’s Lament

Thomas Morley- English madrigals

Sumsion- Magnificat in G

Poulenc- Cello sonata

Debussy- violin sonata

Howells- Magnificat Gloucester service

Tsintsadsze- Chonguri

Janacek- On an Overgrown Path

Shostakovich- Fugue no.7 in A

Chopin-Ballade no.3

REVIEW: Trio Sōra at St John’s Smith Square

Trio Sōra’s recital at St John’s Smith Square on 16th November 2017 marked the start of their UK tour with eclectic performances of Haydn, Kagel and Chausson. The 2017 Parkhouse Award winners are three female musicians who met during their studies at the Paris Conservatoire and are set to take over much of the UK classical music scene this next year. The concert included one of the lesser-known Haydn piano trio’s, the no.44 in E major alongside a one movement piano trio by the contemporary composer Mauricio Kagel written in 2001 and the piano trio by Chausson, an earlier work by the French composer leaning towards the world of chamber music whilst his contemporaries were ingulfed in opera.

Trio Sora’s life and charm was accompanied by their natural intimacy as musicians. Part of the wonder of their performance was the contrasts they were able to deliver from the sweetness of the Haydn to the turbulent and athletic Kagel and then to the undoubtedly romantic and soulful Chausson. Each piece was blessed with its own sense of ownership and shaped by the trio’s undeniable knowledge and understanding behind both the music and their personal musical intentions. It is clear this trio is set on developing its own distinct sound, the communication of the musicians really exposing this desire.

We were taken through the journey of the Haydn with dramatic contrasts from the trio, each phrase holding equal importance to the music’s overall structure. Each musician contributed to the masterly interpretations of sound and colour, the independence of the scores (and even perhaps the instruments!) allowed for none but beauty to radiate forwards. The Kegel was approached with similar finesse and style, but the genre lent itself to a much more academic interpretation. The trio held such a similar intensity and passion for this work, the cellist’s vitality and virtuosity especially prevalent. Ending with the Chausson, its depth and darkness was eagerly met by the trio, the dance of the second movement especially moving in terms of joy and excitement conveyed.

A strong internal connection is essential to the Sora’s style, with a huge depth of playing and a inspiring maturity far beyond their years, they are certainly a force to be reckoned with. This was hugely emotional playing with a transcendental connection both between the musicians and their audience and the musicians and the composers. What a privilege!

Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra- A Poetic Response

Saturday 13th January was my first experience of the London Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle. One thing and another sadly prevented me from hearing the first half of the concert’s Genesis Suite, but luckily arrived in time to hear the incomparable Concerto for Orchestra by the Hungarian composer Bela Bartok.

I had the idea of a sort of live poetry stream as the concert was running. Although we were in almost complete darkness, I set about this challenge, jotting ideas in my notebook and couldn’t believe how natural it felt. The concert began with a reading of a letter Bartok wrote to his friend whilst writing the concerto. The letter talked in great detail about how much the natural imagery surrounding him inspired the writing of the piece. We were also prompted by a back- drop of nature scenes, each refleting a movement of the concerto.

The orchestra were so detailed and expressive in their use of colours. Each member knew their role and were frequently given clear direction and artistic inspiration from Rattle. He struck me as the work’s true soloist and was indefatigable in his commitment, charm and love towards both music and orchestra.

The poem beneath is a totally unedited version of what I wrote as the music was playing. It was so tempting to edit it as I was typing it up, but I felt it important to stay true to the words that came to me in the moment. This new style of poetry has never felt so natural, this down foremost to the orchestra’s poetic excellence!

 

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Painting by Philippa Butterworth

 

The mist is sort of solid

It’s humming a cheerful tune

Laden with discontented discords

The mist clears to expose

Such a raw urgency, a coarse tension

Imagery of such hills as these pushes

My vast imagination further-

A blanket of interweaving paths

None quite explored, and yet cheerfully

Enticing

To be shown either side of a peace,

A deep sleep encircled with pungent colour

And warm horizons slowly encroaching

 

This clan chuckles

In thirds, a joyful good morning

A mockery of our silent peacefulness

Some stark hunger to provoke this

Creeping, a hide and seek

Where’s my laughter faded to

Once upheld by strong sun stokes

 

Mischief in pairs

One, two, three to brighten

Our dreary winters

 

Seasons, both heavy and light

Inhabit the clearings in our conscious mind

An elegy for those swimming in grief

Such as this

A deep hole of loss, a pool of tears

Need never be understood-

Too close for comfort

These variants on love and death

A memory kept alive through shortness of time

The fear is greeted with a shaft of sweetened light

The darkness is softened, knelled in our joy’s

Raging sun

 

Images of meadows etcet. Etcet.

Is this all too obvious?

Yet

It feels so genuine!

Oh blow,

Let’s sit another hour

This love is so bright and blooming

And it intercepts our longing for

Whatever.

 

Great swathes of energy

Hurl us towards this huge beacon

Stinging, reaching

Energy to fill intensities of sorrow,

A persistent murmur of peace.

Here sits the contemplative

A rising joy, that these days have strengthened

In their outbursts they raise us up to Him.

 

Hattie Butterworth

A New Operatic Dogma- How Gluck changed the ‘ridiculous and wearisome’

Christoph_Willibald_Ritter_von_GluckOpera, Italian for ‘work’, is an art form over 400 years old. Inspired by mythology, history, folk stories and politics, composers have turned to writing operas as an outlet of creativity, but the stories behind opera’s broad and fascinating history are incredibly thought provoking in themselves.

The fifth week of our opera history course at the Royal College of Music has seen us studying the operas of Gluck, paying close attention to his reforms to the way opera was written and perceived by its audiences. Willibald Christoph Gluck (1714-1787) is best known for is opera ‘Orpheo ed Euridice’, based on the ancient legend Orpheus and Euridice. I think it is important to remember that opera’s ‘purpose’ previous to Gluck had been rather light and fun entertainment. Of course, darker themes were addressed, but in general opera was, by and large, a social event accompanied by virtuosic and light music. Gluck made it known that he highly disregarded this ‘ridiculous and wearisome’ Italian opera. Gluck believed opera was ready for reform, and made it no secret that he was to lead this ‘stripping down’ of opera into something much simpler. Gluck believed that by ‘stifling the action with superfluidity of ornaments’ composers were taking music away from its ‘true office of serving poetry’. In order to serve the text, Gluck controversially removed virtuosic melismas, da capo arias and vocal improvisation, and instead increased the orchestra’s dramatic presence and gave it a greater role.

Although these reforms paved the way for the operas of Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner, I believe Gluck’s dogmatic views on the true purpose of music to be somewhat flawed. Gluck talks of the ‘true purpose’ of music being to serve the text. Perhaps in opera this holds more truth than symphonies based on stories or texts, though talking of music’s true purpose is not something that can be taken lightly. Music and its purpose has a highly personalised response from each person. Some people interpret music as a playful use of emotions, some see it as escapism, others as an academic and chemical process. For Gluck, its true purpose was to serve the text and through his musical reforms, he could bring the text out by keeping the musical interest out of the vocal line and putting it in the orchestra. A good example of this is Orfeo’s arioso “Che puro ciel”. Here the voice is reduced to the minor role of recit-style oration. Here it is the oboe that carries the main melody, supported by solos from the flute, cello, bassoon, and horn. There is also accompaniment from the strings (playing in triplets) and the continuo. This is thought to be the most complex orchestration that Gluck ever wrote.

Although, on the face of it, Gluck’s ideas for reform appear rather opinionated and controversial, we cannot deny that his opera style triggered a major shift in Operas style. An example of Gluck’s influence is the quotation in Mozart’s Don Giovanni of Gluck’s Alceste. Mozart used the same chord progression in the garden scene for the Commendatore speaking to Don Giovanni that Gluck used in his opera when the High Priest says Alceste will die if no one takes her place. The influence is unquestionable, and leads us to question whether Gluck’s philosophy behind music and opera, although seemingly narrow minded, holds a longevity to inspire and influence other great composers.

 

Our World From Up Here

Our world from up here

Vast scenes below then hypnotic

Sunsets far and wide

And warm until memories 

Like a canal flow gliding

Open to us and run free- 

Alive in the clouds but 

Below the moon still 

Glowing black like darkened

Emotion pouring to heal

And your voice to seal 

Echoed cries from their booming