The First Premiere

Tonight, 7:30pm Mountain Time, in Rolston Hall at the Banff Centre for the Arts, I will kick off another level of this wild adventure with the world premiere of Mason Koenig‘s The Blue Book.

Don’t worry if you’re not out this way– I will be performing it again very soon, on November 3rd at the Red Roof Church.
More info to follow!!!

From Luke

Luke Nickel has changed some of his ideas. Sometimes this happens! Here is what he has to say:

“It is always difficult for me to change course. I am a person with a love of set schedules, strong concepts, and definition in all areas of my life. I began the Sarah Albu Solo Vocal Project with a clear idea of what I wanted to do. My idea seemed exciting for Sarah, and a logical extension of my last year of musical activity.

The mind works in mysterious ways.

The same day I came up with the original idea for Sarah, around early July, I also came up with another idea for a short piano piece. This often happens to creators; we get carried away in the raw joy of conceptualizing and end up with overflow. In this case, the other idea was more of a joke. It went to the back of my notebook and sat there for a few months. I peacefully toiled away at Sarah’s project, conceptualizing, dreaming, and creating. We worked together for a few sessions, and things seemed to be heading in a very promising direction.

Unfortunately, I lacked one thing: the actual computer know-how to complete the project I had in mind. Somehow, as us composers tend to do, I placed the logistics on the backburner and focused on the conceptual beauty of the project I was about to embark on. The first weekend of September hit, and I started to feel the stress.

Like most grad students, I chose to procrastinate via productivity. I flipped to the back of my notebook from July and saw the little joke idea I had hastily written down in my day of glorious idea-making. The idea was rather simple: take a piece that had already been written and re-organize it. The project was intended to be rather banal. I dreamt of all the Cs of the piece in a row, all the Ds, all the Fs, ad nauseum until all the notes had been used up.

I decided to try a little test with one of Schoenberg’s short piano pieces. Much to my surprise, the example did not end up sounding banal. Instead, it sounded meditative and beautiful. The inherent qualities of the piece came out in a unique way. As a listener, I could feel the weight of how many Gs there were, their relative slowness compared to the smattering of Fs in quicker rhythm. I learned something new about the original work, and ended up with a new work.

My interest was piqued.

I continued working with the idea, venturing into the repertoire of vocal music. First I reorganized Purcell, and then Ives. I often tried to explain the idea to friends using a visual metaphor that I had seen circulating the blogosphere a few years ago; an image of a camera or other mechanical object taken apart, organized by size and colour of objects, and photographed from above with natural lighting.

Around this time, a good friend of mine (violinist Mira Benjamin) pointed out a remarkable similarity in my process and visual metaphor to visual artist Ursus Wehrli, who wrote the book Tidying Up Art. His TED talk can be seen here.
Wehrli’s process is much the same as my own. Based on arbitrary systems of organization, he attempts to make sense of abstract or chaotic works. In the end, the reorganized works provide an almost humorous clarity to the original work.

I researched this idea further, and found the blog Things Organized Neatly, curated by Austin Radcliffe. Radcliffe shows both user submitted and personal examples of systematic reorganizations of various things. The beauty of Radcliffe’s project is that it shows many different organizational systems and preferences, in the end becoming just as intuitive and chaotic as the original products being organized!

In the end, my work for Sarah contains a surprising amount of similarity to the original work I proposed. This being said, it’s a difficult pill to swallow as a performer when you are first told that your project has been changed entirely, and then handed a sheet of text that tells you how to construct your own piece. For this reason, I am extremely grateful to be working with a performer so flexible and positive as Sarah. She has made it a joy to change my project, and in the end I think we are both benefiting from its new direction. I can’t wait for us to further explore all the ramifications of process work, and to see her bring it to life in concert.”

Toronto: Sally, sounds, dog, wool!

I went to Toronto a couple of weekends ago to spend some time with Sally, looking at her sketches, making some new sounds, playing with some ideas and getting inside her mind and method of composition.

Sally and I met last summer at the premiere of Did I escape, I wonder… at Theatre Ste Catherine in Montreal. She is a friend of my cherished collaborator and flute-wielding fairy godfather Jeffrey Stonehouse (of Ensemble Paramirabo.) I generally work in a pretty intuitive way, and I remembered her when I was making my list of potential composers for this project simply because I enjoyed meeting her and liked her vibe. Jeff had also shown me some clips of her opera (<– go! listen!) and I was struck by the intensity and beauty of its stillness and minimalist textures. There are many instances of solo voice (as well as solo instrumental passages) that are very full of colour, personality and drama in this work, and I thought to myself, “yep.”

Sally came up with a text inspired by a newly discovered Grimm fairy tale. She reveals the full text in her blog post, above. With this piece, as with all of the works in this collection to date, we are working with the theatrical, something I am of course thrilled about. We played with some different deliveries of the text and I sang through the sketches she wrote for me. Something that was really helpful for me was to sing a passage that is conceived with a strong harmonic structure accompanied by the chords on piano. After doing that, I was able to sing the melody with a much fuller understanding of the context of what I was singing. Singing with the memory of the accompanying chords made a difference in which parts I accented and stressed and which words and notes I ended up moving towards/pulling back on. I really appreciated having the chords written out– sometimes with solo voice work, it can feel like singing a floating, random melody that comes from the air. It can be really difficult to imagine the harmonic structure (if there is one!) the composer had in mind, and I’m not sure that it’s completely useful to fabricate one where one isn’t indicated. This also reminded me of a great exercise I did when I took some jazz voice lessons — going through my charts SINGING THE ROOTS OF THE CHORDS all the way through, to really get inside the piece, thus cultivating a stronger understanding of the framework of a song and making improvisation a lot less scary. I find this is actually a good way to approach learning most repertoire. So why not use it in solo pieces (if the framework exists), even if it isn’t heard in the final performance? This was sort of a revelation! Awesome! We also discussed possible future incarnations of this piece that would include Sally at the keyboard. We agreed that would (will?!) be pretty great.

Another idea we are looking at with this piece is achieving the effect of a loop pedal, without the loop pedal. Sally mentioned an artist, Camille, whom she’s been listening to of late. Here is a cute and fun song with a cute and fun video:

Cute! Fun!

…Ahemmmmm…. (pardon. just clearing my throat there.)

In our work together, I’m going to experiement with singing two “lines” at once, basically by flipping back and forth between two or more characters at a very rapid pace in order to create a rhythmic effect and trick the listener’s brain into thinking it is hearing two distinct tracks at once. BUT THEY’LL BOTH BE COMING LIVE OUTTA MA BOUCHE! As with all of the theatrical vocal pieces I’ve looked at, it’s important to exaggerate each character so that the changes and in voice and mood are perceptible. It will be the contrast that really creates this effect.

After some very satisfying musical sessions and fun hangouts with Sally’s adorable dog Fox, we went yarn shopping and obsessed over another mutual love: fiber and needlecraft!

I’m so pleased with the community-strengthening aspect of this project– it’s wonderful to get to know people, both through their music and just as human beings. I know it can be difficult for musicians and composers to get enough social contact when so much of our time is spent in solitary: writing, creating, learning repertoire, working on technique, etc. Speaking of social contact, I’ve got to leave for a rehearsal. It’s been lovely! The next time you hear from me, I will either be at the airport or IN BANFF!!!!!!!!!! So check out Sally’s bio, go to her site and hear her music, and stay tuned for more adventures!

Sally Norris

trickpony is a research and creation project of singer/actor/performer, Sarah Albu. Working with 8 composers on 8 new pieces for solo voice, Sarah has committed herself to a year of exploring her voice, the rehearsal and the development process.

Sarah has generously included me in this project. I had a wonderful time during our first meeting here in Toronto this past weekend. We went over some initial sketches and discussed possibilities, timelines and due-dates.  Work is satisfying in the setting of workshop. Exchange ideas. Ask questions. Listen. I feel ready, armed with new information regarding Sarah’s voice, to complete a first draft of my piece this month.

When first considering this project, I was struck by Sarah’s comfort in the theatrical. I wanted to include this strength in my writing and find inroads into narrative style. Feeling that a 10 minute solo voice piece could benefit formally, from characterization and…

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The Blue Book

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 RepertoireDr. 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.


The month of August is not turning out as planned.

For one thing, I should be back in the forest by now. For another, if I’m not, why aren’t there 15 new blog posts yet? Typing is slow in these parts, due to a fractured scaphoid bone in my left wrist following a chamber-opera-related fall. But I’m OK! (‘I’m OK’ also being the words I meekly offered seconds after the fall). So, here I am, bashing away at the keys to bring you the news.

I’ll take the opportunity now to warn you: it’s likely that the next few weeks’ blog posts will appear in short forms, as I can only handle typing in small bouts.

That said, here’s an update! Today was a very exciting day! Andy Costello handed me the finished score for Smiles from Miles. Smiles from Miles is an extensively physical and theatrical exploration of my brother Miles’ transition from being born biologically female (and given the name Emily) to accepting and adopting a male identity and a new name. [[back issue diary entry forthcoming]] It’s really special to work on something so personal and I look forward to the next leg of the journey of developing this piece. The score will be available in pdf form soon, for anyone who would like to take a look before the premiere. Andy is working with pictorial notation and action on several planes instead of staves; one the first page there is one line for text and vocal sounds, one for head movements, and one for special directions. Another section is as much a map of choreography as it is a score. I am someone who feels more freedom when a framework has been laid for me to play inside of, and this is definitely a very solidly-built playground. Thanks, Andy!

Someone I seem to have been ignoring on this blog page (but not in real life, I promise!) is Mason Koenig. His work, The Blue Book, which deals with Ludwig Wittgenstein‘s ideas about language (among other things), has been coming to me in small fragments. He also cheered me up a lot with a much-needed phone call the day I came back from the emergency room in 30-degree heat with a gigantic plaster cast up to my elbow. Thanks, Mason! Anyway, I received the first few pages of this rhythmic and theatrical (yes! theatrical! again! is there a pattern here?) work last week, and have begun my descent upon it slowly and carefully. One of the things I need to consider with this piece is a palate of different specific characters that I must be able to draw upon as readily as I would a specific dynamic, according to what is marked in the score. Different characters, or qualities of voice, are marked in the score and I must respect these directions as much as I would pitch, rhythm, or anything else! I have to imagine I have a drum kit inside of me, and be able to pull off complex combinations of different sounds, switching between each confidently and without hesitation. This is where working in layers is very helpful– I’m finding that attacking something like this all at once is a big no-no. Getting comfortable with the text, pacing and rhythms first is key. Once that  part is relatively solid, I can move on to some more involved acting work: identifying each of the characters and attempting to find some sort of trigger point–a word, a memory, a sensation–to allow me to quickly snap from one way of performing to another.

OH and, another bit of news, I’m going to the Banff Centre in October to work on this repertoire! I’m pumped!

Unfortunately friends, that will have to be all for tonight from immobilized wrist-ville. Until next time!

“Back Issue” #1

Hey! I’m back from the forest and hanging out in Ottawa doing a recording of another project this week.

This is the first post in a series of what I like to call “back issue” posts. They are journal entries I wrote either before this blog went up or while I was away from internet access. I’ll start with another account of my work with Luke (whose bio is now up on the composers page), written on July 24th:

The heat of the Montreal summer is not exactly conducive to intense focus. Still, Luke and I braved the thick humidity and had our first week of intensive work on our collaboration. (We did remember to take breaks sometimes).

Something that I’m finding really enjoyable about this process is getting to know each composer as a person, and spending the time to talk about our ideas about music, life, schooling, creating, etc. It’s important for us to be comfortable with each other and feel OK about asking any kind of question about the other’s practice, process or “tools”. It’s also interesting to see what kind of background and set of beliefs each of the composers is coming from, and how those experiences inform and influence their music.

The mimetic way of working with Luke is somewhat freeing in that, without a score, I am forced to rely completely on my ear. But often, this is not as easy as it sounds (groan.) Rather than humourously imitate what I hear, I am aiming to reproduce in as close detail as possible asound with many textures, layers and parameters. The sounds are often very unnatural and intricate and challenging to wrap my voice around, but it’s a lot of fun peeking into the guts of this popular song and getting to hear what’s happening between the parts we hear when we’re being fed the full package.

Although the majority of the process is going to be to learn this piece based on what I hear (and by what I am taught by the Max patch), we want to have written documentation or a map of the sound. We don’t have a score yet, though here is a sketch we were using as an experiment during one of our brain-melding sessions:

The text, or text fragments, are written on the bottom line. Above are the pitches, indicated with note names, followed by some different symbols representing different effects. Basically, the thickness of a shape represents amplitude. I’m hoping to put some examples of some of these effects up in the media section– I will definitely post about it when I do!

Thus far!


It’s only just begun and already, I find myself scrambling to get all my documentation up as it happens. This will be a major challenge for me, as “cultivating an online presence” isn’t something I take to as naturally as I do to say, responding to sounds in my environment by attempting to mimic them with my voice.

I think before I get into blogging retroactively about the actions that have taken place thus far, I need to talk a bit about today’s session with Luke Nickel (read his bio on the composers page). I mention this not only because it happened today, but because our work process is deeply inspired by mimicry and aural tradition.

I arrived at Luke’s place and was greeted with a laptop and a pair of speakers, essential tools in the development of this piece. Luke is playing with bits of the vocal tracks from a well-known pop tune, adjusting the speed of the fragments and teaching them to me by repetition. The piece isn’t a stand alone piece; rather, it is the test run of a framework that will allow a performer to generate their own piece in the same style using whatever source material they want. I am told that Max/MSP will be involved. That’s the quick and dirty version –more to come as the work develops! I’d rather tell you about what we do while we’re doing it than give you a long spiel about what we’re going to do and then have to backpedal or feel like I’m letting you down if we decide to change something!

Today, we worked very specifically and in a lot of detail on the first line of the first verse of this song in several transformations. We were able to sap material this circa-six-second clip of music for almost three hours! What really surprised me was the richness of textures and effects that emerged from this snippet of voice: slowed down to 70% its original speed but still retaining the same pitch, mid-sentence growls and little releases after words became complex microtonal ornaments that were tricky to hear in the first place  and took many (often hilarious) attempts on my part before I was able to to reproduce them with anything in the neighbourhood of accuracy.

I’m looking forward to another productive session tomorrow!


I got a blog tool for my phone! Holy!! Meeting with Luke and Mason today, more posts to follow. I promise you my journal entry from last week’s session with Andy. Today, in addition to important meetings, is learning to use all the wild technology available to me that will hopefully help me with (and not distract me from) my project!


Hi! Welcome to the future home of trick pony – a project for one voice, eight composers and the spirit of adventure! Check this page often for updates, notes on the process and musings about working with voice!