I am Now Delighted to Present to You Yet Another Back Issue!
Here, I recall last week’s session with Mason, first captured on paper in a journal and finally shared here for your blogskimming pleasure!
Wednesday, September 5, 2012
Today, I had a rehearsal/meeting with Mason, to start sinking my teeth into The Blue Book. It’s a good thing we met so early in the process, too. One of the most difficult things about learning new music (and by new music here I mean anything I haven’t sung before, from any period) is not forming habits out of errors. I had, of course, already formed some sloppy habits with a few of the sounds in The Blue Book. For example: I need to differentiate between a voiced and unvoiced “T” sound where indicated, which I had neglected to do in my preliminary study of the work.
My plan with this piece was to learn the rhythm first, then pitches, then syllables/word fragments and then to superimpose character, accents and dynamics once I felt a little more secure with the skeleton of the piece. While it is very useful to do a run though and check tricky passages this way, I’m less than certain about this being a productive way to proceed. I think this is the kind of piece in which the characters need to be completely integrated into the fabric of the piece in order for the whole thing to be successful. This (like several of the other pieces in this project) is really a piece of sung theatre. Mason’s composition teacher, as it turns out, also mentioned this. With this work, perhaps even more than others, it is my interpretation and the interactions of the different characters I bring to the piece that will make it work as a whole.
For this part of the work, I call upon my acting training. A few questions I have been asking myself:
-How many characters/voices are there in this piece?
-Who are they? (list them)
and for each:
-What are some defining characteristics of this entity?
-What is the entity’s motivation? (why is this entity speaking? what does he/she/it want or hope to gain?)
-What does this character look like, physically? How does this character stand and gesture?
I also really like giving the different characters and moods of areas of a piece of music names or reference words, so that I can trigger the appropriate delivery with a moment’s notice. (Shout out to Ensemble Paramirabo/anyone who might have been around while we were working on Pierrot Lunaire. Do the words “Zombie Prayer”, “Toni Braxton’s Unbreak My Heart” or “War of the Worlds Announcer into walkie-talkie” have anything to do with Schoenberg? We think so!)
In her book Exploring Twentieth Century Vocal Repertoire, Dr. Sharon Mabry gives some practical advice on how to access different vocal shadings or what I call different characters:
“Allow the mind to recall sensory memories that relate to vocal lines or texts taken from the music being studied. Spend a few minutes imaging those ideas, feelings, or scenes… Dissect and practice each colour indication separately. Imagery can then be applied to relate the desired colour to sensory perceptions. These sensory perceptions can be visualized, as well, and related to remembered mental pictures of events, places, textures, smells and tastes. It is important to create a sensory picture of the desired sound or colour in order to alert the body to the physical requirements needed for the production of that tone colour. Once the muscles and breath are responding appropriately, an emotional response can be triggered by this sensory picture, adding a final layer to the construction of the desired colour.” (2002, p. 49-50).
*** I highly recommend this book to composers, singers and interested parties alike!***
I usually wind up with some pretty wild free-association-generated images that only make sense to me and make everyone else either laugh nervously or scrunch up their faces in confusion. I’ll say “Oh! I GET IT! Like a sad rooster whose wattle is flapping everywhere as he mournfully heralds another dark rainy morning!” And the flutist will scratch his head with his piccolo and cock his eyebrow at me before asking if we can please take it from m. 17, again. But hey! Whatever works!
In the score, my favourite way to mark these indications is with COLOURED PENCILS! Once I have worked out these details in my mind and marked the passages correspondingly, the writing in 98% of pieces I’ve looked at all of a sudden makes 600% more sense. This is where “learning and remembering patterns” ends and morphs my activity into “actually making music”; a much more satisfying and worthwhile pursuit. I certainly don’t mean to focus on interpretation to the point of ignoring or fudging the written pitches or rhythms; I am suggesting that all of these aspects be developed in parallel in order to achieve a wholistic understanding of the music as a complete work of art. Working in this way is fundamental to the approach of Maestro Iwan Edwards, whom I was privileged to learn from for my three years as a member of Concerto Della Donna. I felt compelled to mention him partially because I am singing in my last concert with the choir this coming weekend, and partially because being continually exposed to this approach has been invaluable to my growth as an artist over the past years. Iwan always tells us “the answers are all in the text!”, and in my experience, that remains true!
Taking the time to understand why a composer asks for something specific usually helps me learn to do it. My experience with Mason is no exception! In vocal writing, composers work to bring out certain aspects of the text. Mason uses complex rhythm to highlight and contrast points of text and their related sentiments. Talking about some of his specific choices and hearing him verbally express what he wants me to communicate with the audience really helped to get me out of my head and into the music– and I’m not talking about the page of music and the symbols representing the music but the real MUSIC of the MUSIC– which is really the reason I’m doing any of this in the first place.