Sunday, November 13, 2011

China mega-post Part-I

I was in Beijing from October 23-31.  Finally now I'm little more relaxed, I get to post some pictures and stories from there.   My October was really hectic for me; As I wrote in my previous post, I had two premieres within a week: Eigenspace, my new interactive graphic collaboration, I-Quadrifoglio, my first string quartet premiere with the Cassatt String Quartet.  Then I prepared a new composition written for me by French composer Marc Battier for violin and electronics entitled Double Suns, to be premiered at the Musicacoustica Festival held at Beijing Central Conservatory of Music.  I had to learn Marc's piece within a week, since it was just finished :) which suited me as I had absolutely no time before the I-Quadrifoglio premiere!

On October 22, I left for Beijing from Newark, a 9-day trip leaving my two children with my husband.  The day I was leaving, my daughter who is physically very fit and hardly ever sick, decided to come down with high fever.  She usually goes down very deep like this, but comes out of in within a day, which fortunately she did according to my husband and she didn't miss any school.  Nonetheless, it was a little unnerving to leave them in this state...  The flight to Beijing was full, with the longest line for the first class and business class that I have ever seen.  It looked almost as long as the economy line which I was in.  The flight plan showed that we were flying straight up from New York through Canada, over the north pole, and down through Siberia to China.  It was the first time I've done that.

As we were landing I took some pictures from the plane: a lot of blue and red roofs of factories (I assume) but these two colors symbolize China.  Here I come!   Then I was picked up along with a group from Lyon, GRAME.  Here are composer/architect Pierre Jaffrennou, formidable percussionist living in Lyon Yi-Ping Yang, and composer Max Bruckert also from Lyon, waiting for the car at the airport.  Not just because of these people from Lyon, but with others from France and Chinese professors who are Francophone, I think I spoke more French than English in China throughout my stay.
From the airport, as we approached central Beijing, you are struck with avenues after avenues with gigantic new architecture. Just imagine twice the size of New York's Time Warner building, and that is standing next to each other on both sides for miles and miles, by streets twice the size of Park Avenue. That's Beijing!

After hurriedly checked into the hotel, I was brought straight to the rehearsal to meet Marc Battier at the Beijing Central Conservatory.  The new piece he wrote for me, Double Suns, was to be premiered the next evening at the Opening Concert of the Musicaoucstica Festival.  The Opening Concert was entitled Voyage Apollonian, adopting my composition for interactive graphics I was performing in the concert (graphics by Ken Perlin, NYU).    The next morning I staggered downstairs of my 3-star business hotel restaurant for breakfast: my first Chinese food buffet, which I ate too much and lasted for two-meals worth :)

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Regrouping again :)

Long hiatus since July.  I just had a very busy fall season, constantly feeling like a hamster in a wheel :)  Now I am finally having to sleep normally, regrouping, think and listen again, without constant crises and pressure one after another.  It is a VERY welcome and much needed state of mind :)

I realize my last post was July, when I came back from Japan.   The editor of STRINGS magazine, Greg Olwell, read my previous post about my visit to Japan, especially concerning teaching and meeting with Japanese students in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and asked me to contribute to the STRINGS magazine blog, which they called "Music as Medicine".

In the fall, I had two big new works premieres.   One is a commission from Harvestworks, an interactive audio video work with Japanese movie director and media artist, Tomoyuki Kato.  I met him through his brother, Prof. Kazuhiko Kato, a renown computer science professor at Tsukuba University in Japan.  He came to my lecture in July there, and over the internet, he introduced me to his brother.  Mr. Tomoyuki Kato is widely known for his stunning visuals and designs expos, industrial presentations, and theme parks.  My new work is called Eigenspace, using work that I did this summer with Nicolas Rasamimanana at IRCAM, using "eigenvalue" of the bowing movements.  It is related to kind of inertia of the movements my bowing and musical expression generate.  It is a new mode of interaction for me, which I am now exploring intensively. Mr. Kato also uploaded his "director's cut" version on YouTube; it shows a bit of rehearsal images of the project. Eigenspace was premiered at Roulette in Brooklyn, and we are planning on expanding it to an evening-long event in the future.

Another big project for me this fall was a commission from the Cassatt String Quartet (through the generous support of the Fromm Foundation Award), "I-Quadrifoglio" for string quartet and interactive computer.  The picture here is the Cassatt Quartet rehearsing "I-Quadrifoglio".  I so wished that I had chronicled my compositional process and progress.  This is my first composition in recent years, which I was not involved as a performer myself; I had to notate my musical intentions very clearly, which I have become complacent with, since I have been writing for myself most of the time.  For the four string players of Cassatt, I was conceited that I, a violinist myself, know what I wrote and what I mean.  It was only when I was confronted with all kinds of musical questions regarding articulations and expressions (for example "what do you mean by an accent with a dot, is this stronger or shorter than the... " etc) I realized how much I didn't know.  This was a going-back-to-school experience for me, which I am very grateful to have the most patient and generous teachers as the Cassatt Quartet!  The premiere was at the Symphony Space, and there was a pre-concert cocktail/interview along with other composers on the program, venerable Judith Shatin and Sebastian Currier, both master composers.  Although I felt a little intimidated :)  I very much enjoyed that it was the very first time I could actually enjoy a glass of wine just before my performance, since I'm NOT playing! In this picture I'm setting their computer up just before the performance.  It is a totally hands-free, no click-track or foot-pedal used, interactive composition, which fortunately didn't fail at the performance!  I'm so humbled that this is my first string quartet ever, and I was fortunate enough to be given this opportunity.

A week after the "I-Quadrifoglio" premiere, I left for Beijing, China for the first time, to participate in Musicacoustica Festival, invited by French composer and organizer of TIMI Modern Music Ensemble's director, Benoit Granier.  I returned on October 31st, followed by family obligations and some grant proposal deadlines.  Now that I have a bit of breathing time, I am planning a "Beijing mega-post" and photos in the coming few days :)  Or so I promise!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Back in Paris, encore visit to IRCAM

After Tokyo, I briefly returned to New York to pick up my kids, and arrived in Paris this weekend.  I'm visiting IRCAM again, following up with our work together and discuss new developments.   Frédéric Bevilacqua, the head of the Real Time Musical Interaction Team and I, met last Monday in New York, the day after we both arrived from our  original home countries: Fred from Lausanne, me from Tokyo.  Fred invited me for "VIP only" MOMA opening for "Talk to me" exhibition, where IRCAM's "MO", Modular Musical Objects, which include my bowing motion sensor "mini-MO" (the smallest and the latest model) won the first prize in a competition and is now displayed there.   We were both spectacularly jetlagged that we were wide wake :)

Then Frédéric went on to visit his old school UC Irvine (Fred has PhD in Biomedical Optics!) giving lectures, and returned to Paris today, joined us for lunch practically right off the airplane.  What a guy! :)  Then he went to an appointment at IRCAM...  I on the other hand, herded my kids through JFK where our Air France flight was about 2+1/2 hrs late, but somehow pulled through since my kids slept through the flight.  I admittedly was quite tired, since my jet-lag from Tokyo/NYC was never cured :) decided to enjoy Air France's free Champagne and free red wine, and happily went to sleep.  Only a few hours later, woke up feeling so sick!   Bad decision, and my French husband scolded me later "Don't mix Champagne and red wine... if you have Champagne, drink only Champagne all the way!"  Oh well I did learn my lesson LOL!  All is well, and my children are with their French grandparents who very kindly are keeping them so I could work at IRCAM staying in Paris, and of course, for their second summer of complete "French immersion".  And my brother-in-law kindly let me stay in his apartment near Republique where his family is away in Madagascar.   I can walk to IRCAM from this quiet part of town.  Here are my poor kids, waiting while I was looking for our luggage at CDG (there was Air France strike, and everything like baggage collection took a very Loooong time :)

Here is Nicolas and I, Nicolas Rasamimanana, my formidable collaborator at IRCAM who now runs his own NPO, Phonotonic, a 'spin off' of IRCAM pursuing individual projects. He said he might incorporate by the end of the year, to go "for-profit"!  :)

Nicolas is a violinist also, and such a wonderful mathematician and scientist, that when we are together, what I do is to start saying something, and he goes, "Yes, that's right..." or "That's something I wanted to do anyway..."  Although he speaks fantastic English, we really don't have to say much, and we could communicate with motions, music, or mime :)  I count my blessings being able to work with him.  I discuss what I need from the sensor data, and he starts talking to himself programming, and I just listen to his murmuring like music :)  Then we try, then he programs, repeat....  In short half a day, we got already so much done.  We also tried our scenarios for Fukusuke Nakamura, Kabuki actor wearing the sensor while he dances, by looking at the movies and data I made in Tokyo two weeks ago.  (See the last post)

And of course, I'm in Paris, so my first lunch out with Nicolas was Salade de Gésiers.... I was dreaming about this :)  Nicolas had crêpe, and we both had Cidre... :)

Friday, July 15, 2011

My monumental day with Fukusuke Nakamura (中村福助)

I have been visiting Japan almost for the week, giving lectures and performances here in Tokyo.  I decided to do this, leaving behind my family in NYC, after hearing that young Japanese artists and students are feeling rather depressed and helpless in the aftermath of the nuclear disaster in Fukushima.  I wanted to at least give some hope and joy of being creative in a unique way, and by all accounts, from the letters I received from enthusiastic students at my lectures saying "so encouraging, so much fun, astonishing, flabbergasted" (!)   I am so happy that I came back.

A few years ago, I had an earth-shattering, shocking experience seeing the extraordinary performance by one of the foremost Kabuki actors of our time, Fukusuke Nakamura, (Japanese here) who gave an avant-garde performance dancing with a pianist playing Chopin  (see  "Where am I from?").  Yesterday, I had one of the most inspiring meeting with this extraordinary artist.  I visited him in the backstage of Shinbashi Performance Theater (新橋演舞場), in between his Kabuki performances.  I was introduced to him by Today's top Shamisen virtuoso Mojibe Tokiwazu 5th, the head of the House of Tokiwazu(常磐津文字兵衛5世)whom I collaborated a few years ago when I curated Music from Japan Festival in New York. Mojibe is the most astonishing artist; no one can be more traditional, yet he does completely outrageously adventurous activities.  (see his Shamisen Rock video!) I can't say how much I respect his open-mindedness; we worked together on interactive computer with Shamisen and Violin.

Fukusuke, a Japanese celebrity, a theater actor as well as a movie star, is one of the foremost Japanese Kabuki actor in the female role (Onna-kata 女形) recognized over the world.  I was quite star-struck at first, but I immediately realized he is a true artist completely free of pretension, who is tremendously open-minded and genuinely interested in all forms of creativity.  He was wonderful to speak with, about all issues regarding the very essence to performance.  We are in very different fields, but I think we connected instantly at the artistic level.  We spoke about the 'flow' of performance, 'preparations' gestures, what is the 'quality' of movement, and how one must remain connected to the tradition, as well as being experimental.  I wished that I recorded everything he talked about; Fukusuke comes from a long line of the prestigious House of Nakamura, the family who has been Kabuki actors since the 1700s.  He spoke about many of his legendary relatives and how they worked, their discipline and what he learned from them; many of his relatives were given the titles of Living National Treasures by the Japanese government.

The picture is Fukusuke wearing one of the motion sensors I'm working with, developed at IRCAM in Paris.   I took Fukusuke's hand gesture data, and let him try out some interactive computer music with his hand.   I was very happy that he seemed genuinely interested in collaborating together, and he wrote so in his official blog (in Japanese) , and more pictures here too !!!  

Friday, July 8, 2011

Off topic: obsessions :)

This post is not related anywhere near Subharmonics, but I think I have an addictive personality.  From childhood my mother used to complain that I would get into one thing and ONLY one thing, like food, book, toy etc. going through phases.   I still haven't recovered from this 'sickness' which continues to my adulthood.  Maybe because of this obsessive personality, I get to do such esoteric thing like Subharmonics LOL!

To take an example, I watch same movies over and over and over again, actually ONE SCENE of a movie over and over again.  There is this movie called "Evil Under the Sun", an all-star cast Agatha Christie movie starring Peter Ustinov.  In this 1982 movie, English/French actress Jane Birkin has a scene towards the end where she dramatically changes her demeanor and especially clothing, making a spectacular entrance.  I am so obsessed with this scene, with the accompanying march-like music, I believe by Cole Porter arranged by John Lanchbery.  Peter Ustinov tapping his hand and his feet with the tune, and the tempo slows down in crescendo changing into more jazzy music, and Jane Birkin's character descends the spiral staircase while everyone watches her open-mouthed in awe. (if you have netflix, it's about 1hr 48 min)

I think what I'm obsessed with is the TEMPO change.  It's the effect of this music and the scene that are so perfect together.  I'm not giving away the plot since this is a mystery, but for some reason, I can watch this scene, over and over again :)   I'm curious, what are other people's silver-screen obsessions?

Monday, July 4, 2011

July 4th :) and "I-Quadrifoglio"

To my complete surprise, in today's New York Times there is an yearly ad placed by the Carnegie Corporation entitled "100 immigrants: Pride of America", which I am included as one of them.  A friend alerted me on my Facebook page. (I'm right next to the word "America" on the right side, middle of the page)

It is such an honor, and I am so grateful to the Vilcek Foundation whose founder, Jan Vilcek himself is listed right next to me as well in this page.  It was the Vilceks, who sponsored and presented my solo recital in May, recognizing my work as an immigrant artist.

In the meantime on earth :)  I went shopping with my daughter this morning for all-American (or trying to be) July 4th dinner, which I imagine consists of hamburgers (although we can't barbeque on the upper west side NYC apartment) corn on cobs etc.  I haven't gotten beer which is a huge oversight.  (but we got wine)

AND in the meantime I'm very busy preparing for visiting the Cassatt String Quartet tomorrow morning to do some basic soundcheck for my new commissioned work "I-Quadrifoglio" for string quartet and interactive computer, which will premiere in October in NYC.  It would be absolutely my first composition, which I will NOT be performing myself!   Although the first violinist, Muneko Otani and I studied with the same teacher and we have been a long-time friend.  I know her violin playing and how she would phrase music.  As for the title, it was very simple; Muneko emailed me one day almost in panic "I need the title!!" since they were doing a presentation at an Apple Store in Manhattan.  Everything Apple starts with "I", and I happened to be browsing at hybrid cars (!) one of which was Alfa-Romeo.  Quartet /4-leaf clover + Interactive = I-Quadrifoglio !!!    A lot of times, title of my pieces actually start to take over my imagination and this one probably will :)  And not to worry, for the premiere, I will have more 'legitimate' program notes and the origin of this title :):)

It is very VERY interesting for me to be working on this project, as processing a string quartet is quite monumental compared to processing just one violin as I usually do.   It has already been done by many composers, but I guess what would be quite unique about mine is, that I am trying to make this work completely "hands-free", that is, using absolutely no computer operator on or off stage, but with absolutely no pre-recorded materials, just real-time processing.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Recording JanMaricana

So I played a duo concert "Hue for Two" with Stephen Gosling last Saturday, to a standing-room-only audience thanks to the extraordinary work of my publicist Jonathan Slaff; he got the New York Times weekend listing which also received 'starred' recommendation, so I actually had some audiences who were tourists from out of town just came out of curiosity.  I appreciated very much playing not just among my usual NYC circle of "contemporary music crowd". (photo by Lee Wexler)

I also for the first time, tried my hand in fund-raising through United States Artists.   It was a very educational experience, but in the hindsight, it was very very hard to both do the fund-raising AND performing such a demanding program.   I'm not sure what I should do in the future regarding this issue.

Today I went into a studio at Harvestworks, a media arts center in NYC, to record one of my newest pieces called "JanMaricana for Subharmonics" which uses my newest Subharmonic 5th.  It was composed for my solo concert in May, presented by the Vilcek Foundation which support immigrant scientists and artists; I was so enormously grateful for their complete support that I decided to write and dedicate a work for Jan and Marica Vilcek borrowing their name, and even put in some Smetana/Dvorak-ish Czech harmonies in the piece (they are of Czech origin).    By incorporated Subharmonic 5th into this JanMaricana for the very first time, I thought the work will be known as the very first composition in the history of the violin that uses the Subharmonic 5th, also my deep gratitude to Jan and Marica Vilcek for recognizing the significance of my work.

I have this pathetically fatalistic notion that every time before I get onto a plane, I make sure to leave my latest everything current LOL!   I thought that I should document this recording of JanMaricana before I fly to Japan in a few weeks, and while I still can play this very difficult piece. :) Here is my finger after 2 hours of recording; I also took the sound samples for my other new work, "Voyage Apollonian" which was also premiered at the Vilcek concert last month; I will have to process it and post-produce it, but now I have the sound source.  I also recorded the samples for English composer Andrew Lovett, whom I'm collaborating.  The whole session took less than 2+1/2 hrs, of which more than 30 minutes were spent on adjusting the microphone placements. My wonderful sound engineer is Paul Geluso, who has been recording most of my albums as I trust his ears.  We listen and listen until we like the violin sounds, in every register.  It really is a great pleasure working with him as he understands what I like.

Here is Paul adjusting the microphones in XY placement; he also put a third microphone below aiming from a different direction.   We spent a long time adjusting the balance of the two tracks.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

In Copenhagen and temporary home of my blog :)

Well, I just logged into the using Danish version of Google, and managed it :)  I'm here on a multi-media collaborative workshop project by NYC media artist Toni Dove.

I have been on hiatus yet again from my blog, but at the moment I have temporarily immigrated my blog to United States Artists, a NPO I was invited to join; it is an artists' advocacy for fund raising organization, connecting artists directly to the audience and philanthropists.  Next week, I'm self-producing a recital of violin and piano, with prime NYC pianist Stephen Gosling entitled "Hue for Two".  For the first time, raising my own funding.

Please visit my page at Hue for Two.  You can see my demo video there, as well as daily (I'm trying :) updates (click on "updates" below our picture/video).  Today I just posted a note about Debussy's violin sonata and a 1-cent clue on violin practicing :):)

If you like my temporary blog, I appreciate any pledge (you won't be charged unless I reach my goal) and now your every $ has a matching fund from USArtists!

The picture above is a copy of the first page of Debussy's sonata, which belonged to my last teacher at Juilliard, Joseph Fuchs.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Longest hiatus, back with a bang :)

So I didn't post for two long month--I wrote sometime ago that I was alone in Paris last summer while being an resident at IRCAM, when I had all the time to myself, thanks to my French in-laws who kept my children.  Back in NYC, with  daily life of the mother of two (7 and 10 year olds) plus everything else that I do, prevents me from low-priority activities such as blogging :)

So here it is, the New York Times feature just came out today, a wonderful effort by one of the best journalists I had the privilege working with, Matthew Gurewitsch.  I really don't know how he managed to put this kind of thorough efforts, taking on such an esoteric artist like myself.  Matthew really is an artist himself, whose integrity I truly respect.  He asked so many good questions that also helped me define what I do, as "disseminating" and "publicizing" have never been my strong points.  He managed to explain correctly two very difficult and different areas of my creative activities accessibly to the public, one in Subharmonics and anther in interactive computer.

One thing he breezed through, which he stated in the article, that I have now Subharmonic Octave, Second, Third and the FIFTH.  It is this FIFTH that I have been working on and off for several years, for those of you who read my previous enigmatic posts about it probably knew :)  Yes, the elusive 5th is here.  Actually I also do have diminish 5th and 4th, as a deviation from the 5th, which is my latest of the latest, but didn't make it into the article :)  I am still curious if there is a FOURTH as it stands alone, not a deviation of the 5th; what I mean 'deviation', is that I slightly move my bow towards the fingerboard while I play Subharmonic Fifth, then I get these two: diminish 5th and perfect fourth.

Oh well, that is still to come.... :)  For those of you violinists who are trying my technique, try the fifth!  :)  It came very difficult to me but everyone's arm is different, and I suspect it comes quite easy for some of you.

Friday, March 11, 2011

When life stops

As most of you know Japan suffered one of the biggest earthquake in history today.  I happened to wake up in the middle of the night in New York, and found someone posting on Facebook and tried to call my parents.  All phones and cellphones were out, but eventually my mother emailed me, and my family is all fine.  It turns out, internet was the lifeline.

After finding out my family's safety I tried to resume my work and life, practicing my Subharmonics again. I kept watching Japanese realtime internet TV and couldn't really focus.  But life goes on, but I am rethinking our family's preparedness; I should beef up our emergency kits....

I did practice almost 2 hours on Subharmonics, and got other work done.  It was relieving to know my parents were safe.  The disturbing thing about my last note, the one that I'm so struggling to get, is that there is almost no sign of it!  Others are getting better and better, and now I'm trying to artificially put a pressure on myself, to make sure I can produce them under any circumstances :)

Life goes on, work goes on.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Déjà vu

For the past month and a half, I'm intensely working on the new Subharmonics that I am finally getting.  A few weeks ago we took our kids on vacation but I even took my practice violin along so that I won't forget it.  If I let go for more than a day, I'm afraid I lose it.

This is purely a kinetic exercise that intellectually speaking, quite boring.  I just have to repeat my motions over, and over, and over again until I have it.   These days, every morning for solid one hour and half, I am doing only one thing and one thing only. Practicing this new Subharmonics.   It is getting quite reliable now, and as said in my previous entries I need SEVEN semitones, of which I already have six.  The last one, the open G string, is the most difficult to control.  I am "inching towards it" quite literally.  That is to say, I am putting my left hand finger very very close to the end of the fingerboard so it is almost open G, but not quite.  I am trying to get used to the feeling on my right arm how it would feel like on the open G, although I still can't do it.  I am seeing the day is coming very close.  I can already do it about 60% of the time with this "cheat mode" with stopping the left hand finger very close to the open G.

This exercise is oh so boring, so much so that I need some entertainment.  CNN these days is too disturbing about the news about Libya, so I'm watching movies that I have watched many times before, so I don't really have to watch it.   With occasional resting of my right arm, I can watch "Apollo 13", "The Young Victoria", "My Cousin Vinny". "Analyze That" (or "This"), etc.  I need to occupy my mind but not so much so that I need to pay attention to the film.  When I work, I usually need some kind of distraction.  If the TV or movie is on, I usually don't remember much, which my husband laughs about.  I can watch the same movies over and over again since I'm not really watching :)

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Setting up

This morning, I went to the home of Muneko Otani, the 1st violinists of the Cassatt Quartet.  I'm writing a new work for them for quartet and interactive computer, and they just got all the gear -- programs, microphones and audio interface -- so I went there to set up and check everything.

My new pieces are in different stages of development, one in particular, in connection to my *new* Subharmonics is especially interesting to me.  I need to compose at the same time I'm just finding out how to control this new technique.   The new Subharmonics arrive to me by accident.  One day I hear something and I go, "Oh no, you've got to be kidding me!", which turns out, it isn't.  I try to repeat the *accident*, and give up when I'm unable to do so.  Then, when I do get to repeat the sound production I go "Ah ha!", try to hang onto that repeated *accident* and remember how I felt.   Then I forget.  Then I try again.   It has been like this for the last several years to get this new Subharmonics.   Finally, it is no longer an accident, but still quite unstable.   In order (for me) to use it in a composition, I have to be able to play it 200% of the time - well, 100% of the time...  i.e. I cannot afford NOT to be able to play it.  It has to be on demand, and that is the hardest thing about Subharmonics.   ANYBODY can play Subharmonics.  But to control it, you need a very precise bowing technique.

I still don't have my last, 7th note... I got six out of seven.  But I'm inching towards it.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Listening to Pictures

Right now, I'm involved intensely in several projects that are totally different.   One in particular is very different from my usual creative process.  It is an interactive graphics work, where I'm interacting with a short movie.  I started this project inspired by the complex and imaginative beauty of this visuals, created by my friend Ken Perlin at NYU.

I have worked in collaboration with the visuals in the past, but this particular one, seems to dictate the music.  I look at it, and each section or frame evoke sounds to me.  I am "listening" to the pictures.

Not much can be said at this point, and I will follow up later.

The new Subharmonics is still stalled at six out of seven notes I need.  One more note to go still, but it's still not coming.

Today is my father's 78th birthday.   His name is Ken-ichi Kimura, and he is a Professor Emeritus at Waseda University in Architecture.  He is the Japanese pioneer of Solar Energy.  If you go to his page I linked here, and see "Japanese Vernacular Houses with a focus to energy conserving technologies" you can see how Japanese old houses used natural energy to be ECO-friendly.   I grew up in a solar house, one of the first experimental house in Japan called "Kimura Solar House".   He studied at MIT where he married my mother who was at Radcliff at the time.  Both of them were on Fullbright Fellowship, and I have to say, that I know I was conceived in Boston!  :)

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Hunting New Subharmonics in a Cave :)

So I have taken the longest hiatus on my blog in a long time, only posting once in February.   Those of you who have been reading this blog maybe wondering what has been happening :)   Well, it's multiple of things, but mainly it is my vanity that I wanted to come out with a BANG!    While ago, I hinted that I have a new Subharmonics interval; I so far have Subharmonic Octave (I play a note and I can get an octave below without changing the tuning or moving my left hand finger).   I also have Subharmonic 3rd (I play a note and I get minor third below the note I play, again without moving a finger on the fingerboard).  I have minor 2nd, which is just F#, a half semitone below open G, by slightly modifying the way I play.

For the longest time, I wished I had this new interval I'm working on, since musically it is significant.   I really don't mean to be secretive, and I WILL introduce it in my concert in May.   It has been a looooong time coming, several years in fact, that I tried, stopped, tried and come back to it yet again.  Last summer, while at IRCAM, I allocated a bit of my time trying to work on it again, quite seriously.  I have in fact, documented my progress (or non-progress... I couldn't quite do it), by video taping myself.

Just about a month+ ago, I took it up again.   This time, I have been absolutely determined to get it.  And, I DID.   I am not quite yelling out on the top of the mountain yet, since I still don't have it quite under control.  I have been practicing very hard, just doing the exercise.  It reminds me very much when I first came up with the Subharmonic Octave in 1992 (I didn't publicly introduce it in a concert until 1994, when I was absolutely solid and was good enough for performance).   In 1992, I was a student at Juilliard, and that winter, I remember it was cold like what we had this year in NYC, and I had no social life.  I didn't have a boyfriend (or maybe he was far away :)  and I had my time all to myself.   I sat in my small studio on West 70th at Broadway, practicing Subharmonics over and over again like a maniac.   I was in a CAVE :)

Now so many years later, I am finding myself in a cave again, in the same obsessive mode, with a bit more experience and knowledge about how to produce Subharmonics.  I wake up in the morning, I try for half an hour--my arm gets tired and I stop before it gets tired.   Usually my concentration is shot after 30-40 minutes anyway, so I take a break.  My children demand my attention, which is not exactly an unwelcome distraction.   ("Mommy can you peel me more apples, pleeeese, NOW?!")  Sometimes my exercise gets so boring I listen to CNN while I do it, or have Google Earth and roll the mouse so I fly over the world, like Sahara desert slowly (I know it sounds sick... :)  I repeat this in the afternoon a few times, then in the evening.  Repeat the next day.

There are seven semitones I need to get for this particular Subharmonics (if you are so inclined and so savvy and have nothing else to do, you know by now what this interval is :)   But anyway, I have SEVEN notes I need.  As of today, I have SIX.  One more to go.   And I started to use my husband as a guinea pig; I catch him when he comes from work and say, "So watch, see?" and try to play my six notes.  Of course I play a lot less better than in my privacy. Although it is *just* my husband, I do get nervous when I try to do this in front of people.   There is some attention or projection element in my violin playing that changes the way I play, so I need to practice this Subharmonics, really, in front of people.  My poor husband happens to be the most immediate "other people" I have.

Anyway, I thought I start up the blog again, since I can no longer pretend I am going to come out with a BANG!  and this blog entitled "Extended violin DIARY" should really be a diary that documents my progress, to help those who want to attempt something new, and to show the creative process (or struggle) or what I'm doing  :)

Just so that I put an extra pressure on myself, I am already writing a new piece using this new Subharmonic interval, which I am planning to premiere in May.  So it MUST be done :)  And at the same time I get to explore the way this new interval can be musically incorporated into the violin playing and phrasing, which is essentially, the ultimate purpose of my developing Subharmonics in the first place.

I am very, very close.  This is by far, the most difficult one for me to control, compared to Subharmonic Octave, 3rd or 2nd.   And I'm not quite good enough yet to officially announce it.  It is hard to imagine anyone else gets so excited about it, but in fact, from my point of view, in the history of violin playing this is pretty historic :)  Or so I tell myself :)

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

How to get to the Soul of it

I have taken a long hiatus from my blog.  About 10 days ago, I had an emergency room visit for corneal abrasion.  I damaged my eye by taking off a contact lens in a wrong way.  That was Saturday a week ago, and on Sunday morning, I think I scrubbed my eye waking up.  The following few hours, I was in excruciating pain on my right eye.  I was going to *tough it out*, but tears were streaming down non-stop, and the pharmacist on the phone said to go to the emergency room, so I did.    At the ER, doctors came in to look one by one saying "wow, that's impressive!".   A doctor friend said later, "it's not great when doctors are impressed"  :)  They told me it was quite large, 3mm x 3mm abrasion in the center of the eye.

It healed very fast but the pain medicine, Vicodin made me quite sick and slowed me down, which resulted in everything piling up.   I'm slowly picking up and catching up!

I went to see a Flamenco dance performance recently.   My husband is taking Flamenco guitar lessons quite seriously so friends call and we go out for these things.  I love Flamenco guitar, but in doses--it is just so intense, and if I listen to it, I will have to stop everything and it becomes very emotionally draining.  My husband plays Flamenco CDs all day while he works, and I have absolutely no idea how he can do that!

At the concert, the dancers were marvelous, well rehearsed, technically superb, and I just love the sheer energy of these fierce women.  The band: singers, drummer, guitarist were sitting in almost a semi-circle behind the dancers and I had this strange out-of-body or  out-of-context feeling: as if we were transported near a beach somewhere in the south of Spain, near a camp fire, or in a drinking place gathering and watching our neighbors sing and dance late into the night.  It was a strange feeling--on stage there is Malaga, and we the audience, Manhattan crowd peeking into the world ages and places away.  I see other more ethnic performances so to speak, but this Flamenco performance gave me this strange surreal feeling.

The top-billed dancer was obviously fantastic, and all three women gave great performances.  After the curtain call, all musicians and dancers came in front and formed a semi-circle clapping in interlocking rhythms as they do, and one by one they took turns giving short encore dances with only singing and clapping.  Even musicians and singers danced, which doesn't happen in classical setting;  how many violinist can drop the violin and join dancing the Nutcracker?  :)

Anyway, as much as the program "proper" was impressive, what I really felt for, was one of the singers who sang throughout the show.  She became a dancer for the moment during this encore, and gave her short solo dance.  She probably didn't have the fancy footwork that the dancers showed all evening, but I was moved by her, in just a few minutes of her dancing.  I felt she had the soul of it, and I don't know how I know it.   She didn't have more tragic or intense facial expression than others; she didn't move faster or slower than others.  But her dance spoke to me as a whole expression.   I try to think why this happened.

When your performance is rehearsed, choreographed, executed according to plan, one must do so until it becomes a second nature, where everything feels as if it was never planned.  I must confess that is quite a difficult state to achieve, as I find myself usually almost out of time, just enough to fulfill the planned execution.  I usually barely have one or two days of *non-involvement* that is to say, I don't have to think about specific execution of the performance before the concert.   You can put yourself a bit outside of the performance, which frees you.   As I mentioned in my previous entry, when I am not "all there", the audience seems to respond better than when I'm completely aware of every single things I'm doing during the performance.

This Flamenco singer-dancer had it---she wasn't thinking of the dance, nor choreography, but she was on the Magic Carpet expressing the soul of it.   It looked as if everything came naturally to her and it was her second-nature.  And that is what put everything into place--her facial expressions, her movements, everything.  When this happens, communicating with audience is completely effortless.  Now let's wish us good luck for our own performance next time, that we will get to the Soul of it  :)

Friday, January 21, 2011

On Tenors: Professional Opinion

In response to my post yesterday about how interpretations today maybe limited, taking the example of "La Donna E Mobile" and Caruso, which I amateurishly posted, a friend of mine Andrew Moravcsik sent me this very informative and educational email.   Andy is an opera critic who has reviewed Bayreuth Opera and writes for Newsweek International and other publications such as Opera magazine and Economist.  He is the authority on operas for me, although he has a day job teaching Political Science at Princeton University, and to many, is an authority on European Union.  But when Andy calls at the last minute inviting me to go to an opera production, I basically drop everything and go.

I thought that his email is too good to just sit in my inbox, so I share it.  Here is what Andy wrote me:

Hi Mari!

Glad to see my favorite electronic violinist is slumming in the land of Italian opera favorites. But why don't you consult with your opera expert before throwing these things up?

You have very much the right idea that modern singing is one-dimensional as compared to older opera singing: Sung from the chest, little variation in expressive and musical means. This is the tragedy of modern singing. But you do miss three big items intrinsic to any "Donna è mobile" comparison:

(1) You compare on rubato, and that is important. But there are many more relevant dimensions of vocal expression that we are losing, besides simply tempo. Among them are dynamics, vocal color, whether to sing in the head or the chest, characterization, artistic imagination, diction, rhythmic articulation, etc. The use of these other tools has declined just as much as use of rubato.

(2) You compare 8 modern ones, 1 quasi-professional of the 50s (Lanza), and Caruso. But the greatest competitors to Caruso lie in between. In a serious 20th century comparison, most people might include, alongside Caruso, Pavarotti (for sheer vocal splendor), Kraus (for style), Domingo (just because of who he is, even if he is misparted here). None of the others rate in historical perspective, though I rather like the version by Kaufmann I've heard. The more interesting tenors are those between 1910 and 1970.

(3) Another thing any serious opera person will note is that Caruso recorded the aria three times, in 1903, 1904 and 1908. These are rather different. (There is a whole debate about his evolving style.) So which one do you like and why? The same goes for many of these others: Kraus, I believe, recorded the entire opera more than once. Pavarotti has recordings of the aria spanning 40 years. In the latter case, I rather like the early ones, which are freer and more imaginative, then he settled into routine that was much criticized. (See the piece I wrote for NEWSWEEK on his death on my website here:

Now, on to Caruso. I appreciate, as you do, the use of rubato at the end of each line (not just the end of the stanzas), and find it interesting. But I believe it comes at a cost, both musical and dramatic. Remember that this is an aria by an aristocrat who is at once arrogant and indifferent to those around him, and who doesn't have a worry in the world. The opera's plot turns on the fact that the Duke does not care about morality or mortality, for nothing can ever happen to him. He's untouchable. The injustice of this, viewed from the perspective of Rigoletto, his lowly jester, drives the plot: Rigoletto first joins the Duke, then tries to beat him--of course unsuccessfully and, in the end, tragically. The aria is brilliantly written to convey this. Any interpretation must be done with a light touch, projecting this uncaring, light-hearted personality, obliviousness to surroundings, simple-minded interest in pleasure, even his exasperating arrogance, yet at the same time a certain underlying fierceness and danger. It is more difficult to do well than it might seem at first.

Back to Caruso: I find there are real problems in the 1908 version. It is heavy, both in terms of vocal color (the voice sounds too old and heavy for the part--and it is notable that, though this was less than 1/3 of the way through his recording career, Caruso never recorded this lyric aria again), and in terms of interpretation. The tempo changes work against him in places: for example, the ends of the phrases seem clumsy and heavy, and stopping in the middle of the line makes him seem like someone who thinks too much. I like the 1903 more, and the 1904 even more. Caruso's voice sounds more youthful, he mixes and varies head and chest well, the rubato more naturally employed, there is more rhythmic snap and characterization to it all, and he sounds less mannered. 1904 Caruso would be on my top 10. Obviously, compared to Rolando Villazon it sounds great. But I think there are even better ones out there.

One of my favorites is Beniamino Gigli 1934. ( but I do not like this transfer, the original is warmer of sound, so use the version attached above, which I think sounds more natural). This one, in my view, has it all. The tempo creates the right mood of insouciance. It is slower, relaxed. It passes your rubato test, but in a different way. His tempo is steady through the first part of the stanzas. He does not use rubato at the end of each line, and I think (see above) in this light aria, that is the more appropriate choice. (There is a debate about whether in the 19th century singers varied tempo more, what we have lost, etc.) You can almost see the strolling aristocrat, who cannot be bothered to notice anything except the little tune he is singing and the girl he is chasing. He uses a more conventionally placed, but perfectly judged ritard on the high note, followed by a snappy acceleration.

Gigli mixes and varies head and chest voice well--in a way that is varied, natural, musical, and in character. He starts mezzo-forte with mostly chest, a very focused tone, goes from full voice to an audaciously pure head voice (pp) on the high note (Caruso does this once, suddenly, but with an uncomfortable break, near the end of the 1903 recording, but this is much better), then back to mixed. Only on the last notes of the phrase does he open up the voice to forte, and only on the last notes of the entire aria, after the little cadenza, does he exploit his voice's full, golden richness, more chesty and darker than the start, at ff. Notice also that he starts the second verse in a slightly more head voice than the first (Caruso hints at this in 1904, as well).

There are, in addition, myriad rhythmic and stylistic details. The mordents are perfect, musically lovely, and dramatically suggesting aristocratic disdain. The diction is very clear, and there is a wonderfully teasing quality about it. In the first stanza, listen to how crisply the words "cento" "penSIEro, "pianto" are enunciated, and the way he snaps "mobile" halfway through the first stanza, tracking the violins exactly. (You think there is nothing at all in the thin accompaniment to this aria, until you hear an singer make use of it like this.)

All this is high art, very subtle, and yet the most amazing thing is that you do not notice any of it. Gigli is so personable, so innately musical, and so firmly embedded in a stylistic tradition, and yet so idiosyncratic, that it seems entirely natural. He adds all this without crushing what is the simplest and most unaffected of arias. In my opinion, it is sheer genius.

There are dozens of performances between 1910 and 1970 worth parsing in this way, though few quite as good as Gigli. But no time!

BTW, if you want to hear the greatest conducting of Rigoletto ever, which really makes a virtue of this mix of restraint and freedom within a proper style required to be truly great, listen to the celebrated live Act IV from Madison Square Garden under Toscanini.  Toscanini pushes the tempi, which is correct in Italian opera, and yet it feels open and natural. He understood the need to make each line breath, as if it were sung, and the need for rubato where appropriate. Listen, for example, to his handling of the Quartet, which comes right after "La donna e mobile." The first (allegro) section (from 4:45 to 6:11) is played with unmatched deftness and lightness, combined with irresistible flow and forward momentum. What he gets the orchestra to do between the two stanzas with the accelerando and rubato--for example, that sudden violin sfz articulation at 5:38!--is just magical. This section just sweeps you into the more famous andante that follows. Toscanini He underscores the contrast by not initially varying the tempo, giving the line a magical sense of stillness. As in Gigli's "Donna è mobile", he exploits the dramatic potential of an initially steady tempo. There is a slight increase in urgency when the other voices come in. Then at the end of the verse, a little accelerando and a big ritard on the tenor high note. In the tutti that follows, the slight tempo changes are all natural, not forced as in Caruso. Once in a century it sounds like that--despite being live in a basketball stadium.

You should hear my evening talk on "10 tenors of the 20th century" sometime. I do one aria each by, arguably, the 10 greatest tenors of the 20th century, arrayed to tell the story of the tenor aria from Monteverdi to Britten. I contrast Gigli and Pavarotti on "Donna e mobile" to show the decline of singing. People are blown away by how low we've sunk. You certainly got that right! I look forward to your other forays into opera!

Andy Moravcsik
Princeton University

Is "score" a Bible of Interpretation?

Since I went all out yesterday with French pop "grandma's music", making my French husband and in-laws quite alarmed :)  Today I go back to classics.    Like anyone, I like comparing performers, listening to different violinists playing the same pieces; or at least I used to, comparing old timers.  Today not so much, as younger generation of violinists seem to be not too distinguishable from one another, and I don't find it fun.   Just because my daughter is playing the extraction of "La Donna E Mobile" from Rigoletto for her piano lessons, here I go.

As I mentioned yesterday, I really like listening to singers of any genre, and get a lot of performance ideas in terms of phrasing.  My old violin teachers also used to say, "listen to the singers!".  I'm not an opera specialist but my interest is very specific in today's case: rubato of a part of a phrase.  Here is the text of the first 16 measures of the song.  I'm specifically listening to the underlined italic places:

La donna è mobile
Qual piuma al vento,
Muta d'accento — e di pensiero.
Sempre un amabile,
Leggiadro viso,
In pianto o in riso, — è menzognero.

(Woman is flighty
Like a feather in the wind,
She changes her voice — and her mind.
Always sweet,
Pretty face,
In tears or in laughter, — she is always lying.)

Call me old fashioned (I really am, despite all the "revolutionary" Subharmonics and interactive computer systems  :)    but my favorite is hands down, the good old Mr. Enrico Caruso.   And here is the reason.   At the underlined second-half of the phrase, he is practically the only one I could find, who does "rubato" to the degree that's almost distorted in terms of tempo.  He takes quite a liberty in making a very noticeable ritardando (slowing down).  He does it every time,  making very clear contrast, as the text corresponds in contrasting character.   Even if you don't understand the Italian lyrics, you know something is different because of the way he sings.

So I was curious, as I can't really find anyone sing the way Caruso does, I went on Youtube doing a "La Donna E Mobile Sing-Out"  :)  The quality of these recordings isn't the issue; you are just listening to how these tenors sing the first 16 measures.  I found it curious that after Caruso, the singers of the following generation sings with more and more rigid tempo-- almost no inflections at all.   Really, nobody sang like Caruso after him.  I do enjoy all of them in a different way, but again, I'm just interested in this specific item.  If you like, click on the names and compare yourself:

1. Here is my "winner" Enrico Caruso. (b. 1873)
2. Mario Lanza (b. 1921) slight "tenuto" where Caruso slows down
3. Richard Tucker doesn't quite slow down as much as Caruso but clearly sings with contrast
3.5 (new) Alfredo Kraus does almost slow down once
The "Three Tenors" sing it with no tempo change at all.
4. José Carreras, and his earlier version which I prefer (less audio quality)
5. Placido Domingo  slowest, no rubato except for the fermata at the end of the verses like everyone
6. Pavalotti sheer power house, I don't have much else to say...
Now, the younger generation, theirs maybe slightly more in variety and freedom than the previous generations of giants.
7. Rolando Villazon pretty much following the previous generation
8. Marcelo Alvarez see above, even more straight than Villazon
9. Jonas Kauffman no real rubato, but certainly a lot freer than the "3 tenors" from the last generation (at the end you can see Carreras is in the audience)
10. Juan Diego Florez does the slight ritardando a few times a la Caruso

I wrote yesterday, that without the recording of old works while the composers were alive, even with today's scholarly performance practice studies, we maybe performing a very different music from what was originally intended.   Caruso is the closest to Verdi's generation obviously, born 20 some years after Rigoletto was first performed in 1851.  He sang Rigoletto making his debut two years after Verdi died in 1901.   It is very possible he heard Rigoletto while Verdi was alive, and it maybe that the singers of that time sang the way Caruso does.  Or, this "slowing down" was Caruso's unique way, that he made the mark on his own.

More "composer-centric", or clearer the interpreter/composer division became in the 20th century, the "liberty" such as of Caruso's, seemed to have become shunned or frowned upon.  "It is NOT WRITTEN!" to slow down, so you don't slow down like that.   We have become more faithful to the score, taking it as the "bible" of interpretation.  It seemed to have made us sacrifice the freedom of individual expression and we have achieved the conformity instead.  Is it too cynical the way I put it?  :)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

"La Belle Vie" and "The Good Life"

And both are great :)   For no apparent reasons, today I listened to Sacha Distel's "La Belle Vie" and "The Good Life", English version sang by Sinatra, comparing over and over again for about 10+ times :)  My French husband said Distel is like "grandma's song" but as a violinist, it interests me immensely how singers carry their words and phrases, in any genre.  

(I attached the both lyrics at the end of this post)

I'm particularly interested in the pronunciation of words and the rhyme; it is very much like articulation in string playing, at least to me.    Articulation on strings, I mean the way the sound starts, is the consonances in songs.   I think that string composition and string articulation are very closely related to each other--you can have beautiful sustaining tones but if you don't start and end the sound in the way which you are meant to project, the phrases don't truly speak.

I did this Distel (French) and Sinatra (English) "listening match", and as expected the original French version has more rhyming with clear consonances, articulating the music the way it was intended.  The English version "The Good Life", the translation or re-write of the original lyrics written by Distel and Jean Broussole, are completely different, and the lyrics don't even mean the same thing.   Musically I hear almost a completely different composition.  I don't mean to say it's bad; I like Sinatra's juicy volumptuous voice very much, so it's a different song.

I also listen to "The Girl from Ipanema" a lot, comparing Sinatra/Jobim.     In this amazing footage, Sinatra singing in English, starts out with the band clearly marking the downbeats for him, for otherwise quite rhythmically intricate piece.  Then they switch to Jobim with his guitar singing in Portuguese.  His lyrics are very different, syllables quite pronounced and rhymed, and of course completely off-beat.   Sinatra himself hears the difference and murmurs at 0'34" mark, "That's the only way!".

When songs are imported from one language to another, it often seems to become almost a different song, except the notes and harmony are the same.  Does this apply to instrumental music?  Maybe if Chopin, Liszt, Vivaldi or Paganini were alive, those of us who play their works in the way "we" play, might actually sound completely different from how these composer/performer intended.  Even with scholarly performance practice studies, there are no surviving recordings.  Maybe what we are "interpreting", the works from the past, without the "correct" articulation and phrasing, we maybe merely tracing something that once was a completely different composition....

I attach below the lyrics of "La Belle Vie" and "The Good Life" I found on the internet.

"La Belle Vie"

Ô la belle vie
Sans amour
Sans soucis
Sans problème.
Hum la belle vie
On est seul
On est libre
Et l'on s'aime.
On s'amuse à passer avec tous ses copains
Des nuits blanches
Qui se penchent
Sur les petits matins.
Mais la belle vie
Sans amour
Sans soucis
Sans problème.
Oui la belle vie
On s'enlace
On est triste
Et l'on traîne.
Alors pense que moi je t'aime
Et quand tu auras compris
Je serai là
Pour toi.

"The Good Life"

It's the good life, full of fun, seems to be the ideal,
Yes, the good life, lets you hide all the sadness you feel,
You won't really fall in love 'cause you can't take the chance,
So be honest with yourself, don't try to fake romance.
Yes, the good life, to be free and explore the unknown,
Like the heartache when you learn you must face them alone,
Please remember I still want you and in case you wonder why,
Well, just wake up, kiss that good life goodbye.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Rolling in the Magic Carpet

Does this sound a bit x-rated?  :)  It's not; those of you who have read my older post entitled Magic Carpet might know what I maybe talking about.

Recently I attended a concert of a fantastic performer who presented a huge repertoire, truly a tour-de-force performance.  It was just impressive.  The performer was most competent, musical, and delivered the program with utmost integrity.  The concert was packed with select audience, many of whom were composers and fellow performers such as myself.  It was truly a treat.

I knew very little of these pieces; there were famous and familiar composers but it was not my instrument.   In fact most of the composers on the program were those whom I admire and respect immensely, however I never quite *loved*.   That's why I was taken by surprise that one of the pieces completely charmed me, works by my "respectable-but-not-lovable" composer.

The work in question was written quite early in the composer's career, therefore retained the early musical influence.  But I didn't think that was why.  The mark of the composer's voice was unmistakably already there in this early work.  I don't think it is because the work sounded rather "conservative" compared to the composer's later work, that I liked it.  There are works of similar style that I really don't care for.

The performer chose this work for whatever reason, but to me, the performer was so comfortable playing it, riding effortlessly on the Magic Carpet.  In fact it was so effortless that I didn't feel like the performer was playing the instrument, but rather flying or rolling around in it.  The performance was that spectacular that it made me forget which instrument the music was coming from.

Other works on the program were delivered by the performer with equal rigor and perfection.  But this piece I described in particular I thought, was just perfectly done.

Now, I must be careful; I am not saying that the performer didn't deliver other works as well as this piece in question.  But there are at least two possibilities.   1)  Indeed the performer was at most comfortable and indeed loved this particular work, therefore the Magic Carpet was flying.  That's why I, who doesn't really *love* this composer usually, loved this work.   2)  It was this particular work itself allowed the performer to ride, or roll in the Magic Carpet, whereas other works on the program didn't, nor the same composer's later works that I don't particularly love.

I was deciding it was 2), that it was the work itself which was better than others.  That would be the easy answer.  But the question is, how if it was 1) ?    If it was the first possibility, that every performance I've heard of any composer that I never cared for, were not performed by those who weren't comfortable enough to fly the Magic Carpet?  Have I been robbed of appreciating all these pieces?   That would be truly sad, and makes me feel the obligation as a performer.  Note to self....

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Facelift, or Plastic Surgery? :)

No, Not Me!!   :)   I'm just putting this title as a metaphor for revising or rewriting an older work.
One of this year's (2010-2011) creative project, during my Guggenheim Fellowship year, I decided that I would rework on my 1999 Violin Concerto and try to get it recorded.  It was commissioned by Guanajuato Orchestra in Mexico with grant from Jerome Foundation.   It was absolutely the first orchestra piece I have ever written, and with no real experience and with no guidances.  I did take a lot more harmony and orchestration courses than "normal" violinists at Toho School but still I am very largely self-taught when it comes to composition; my only composition "teacher", although that is not even too official--I wasn't enrolled in the "composition" department--was Mario Davidovsky when I enrolled in Juilliard-Columbia Univ. exchange program and took private lessons with him for a few years.

I decided to "upgrade" or rework on my old concerto instead of writing a new one.  I much prefer to write a brand new one (and I would like to actually); it would be a lot easier than to rewrite.  The main reason being that this 1999 work is the first Violin Concerto in history that used Subharmonics, pitches below open G, introducing those low notes in the violin repertoire.   An excerpt from the Cadenza was printed in an article on Subharmonics I wrote on STRINGS magazine in 2001 (August/Sept issue). The picture above is a measure from the Cadenza.  So it is already documented somewhat, but I feel I need to cast it in stone for the historical value.

The orchestra part is at times almost embarrassingly simple; when I got the commission I talked to Robert Dick, a virtuoso and revolutionary flutist who single handedly changed modern flute's capacities, and who also wrote his own concerto.   Since Robert and I are friends (and in fact we have a duo improvisation CD out, called Irrefrageable Dreams) I turned to him for an advice.  In his typical quirky and cheerful way, Robert said to me, "Whatever you do, just remember Mari, CHOPIN is the cut off" !   He meant that the orchestra part shouldn't be simpler than Chopin's piano concerto!  :)   

Unlike so many great contemporary violin concertos written by master composers today, I am curiously not ashamed to say that my intentions for creating a violin concerto as a violinist myself, isn't really in creating a master orchestral piece :)  My interest is foremost to showcase and feature the violin, which one could say that it maybe more "shallow" or superficial musically.   I personally find modern violin concertos (in general) too "thick" in orchestration that covers over the solo parts too much, but again that is spoken by somewhat egotistical typical violinist point of view :)  The modern composition ethics seems to dictate that the solo violin part should be more integrated into the orchestra as a whole.  I don't mean to be rebellious, but personally I am not interested in this aesthetics; other more competent people can write more "integrated" master compositions.  I write for the solo violin :)

Anyway, even with this self-serving violinist-pleasing concerto writing style, I feel I still would need to improve on my orchestrations and even some structural elements.  The orchestra I wrote for was a University orchestra, and I had consciously kept orchestra parts, especially winds and brass, rather simple.   The question is, when I start "improving" on the already-written score and parts, would that be a "facelift", pulling and tightening when necessary, or would it involve some major structural changes like a plastic surgery, shaving bones and such!?!?   As I'm already working at it, I am afraid that it is the latter.   

This is a "Violin Concerto, 1999", but when I finish revising it, I will have to add "revised 2011" and it will have more than a decade in between.  I am realizing that it will not be the same piece anymore.  Why didn't I do it before?  Good question; I guess I would just blame it on having two babies!  :):)

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Rehearsal scenarios and anti-click-track :)

So I just spent a good few days completely focusing on developing a "plug-and-play" interactive system for cellist Joel Krosnick, and made Ralph Shapey's cello piece "Solo, Duo, Trio" interactive using MaxMSP.  In terms of programming it was relatively easy, but the hard part for me was to imagine all the practicing scenarios that one would expect, if this was a human 3-cello piece.  "OK, lets play from m. 47", "can you do that again?" "just 1st and 3rd cellos only, let's go from where we stopped" etc. etc.    This is Joel and I rehearsing today at Juilliard. It is truly inspiring to work with such a remarkable musician who has worked with and recorded Carter, Shapey etc. intimately with their presence.  Joel discussed multi-rhythm schemes by these composers and the performance practice of these works.  I felt like I just attended a private lesson!

When you are rehearsing with human players, of course all you have to do is to "say" where and how you are going to rehearse, but for interactive performance with a computer, especially when there is no computer operator, and for a classical cellist who has never used any kind of computer music program before, AND who is holding a cello on one hand so essentially he has one hand or just a finger or two to press a key, it became surprisingly challenging.  I had to simplify the user interface, making it automatic enough but still keep flexible and versatile rehearsal schemes.  I also spent a good amount of time color coding cues and displays for at-a-glance recognition of what is happening, since Joel is mainly reading the music and have very little time to glance at the computer.  Having to plan for my another commission I'm writing for the Cassatt Quartet, this was a very good exercise for me.  I'm happy to say Joel is able to do everything on his own :)  So far so good!

Joel has been performing this piece by playing back the recording of his overdubbing, which is obviously cast in stone in terms of timing.  He said that he used click-track to make that recording.  He also mentioned that, at one performance he performed some notes a little too long, but of course when it was "played back" during the overdubbed part, it was different from what he just played.  So this time, he is performing it live, which Shapey originally intended.  Now that he has to live with "himself" so to speak, which isn't cast in stone but played live, Joel said "Now I have to get used to playing with ME!" and we laughed.

Joel and I discussed how people still use click-track in performance, which both of us don't like.  We agree that the sound of click-track itself dictates musical quality, and the price of "in sync exactly on time" kills the spontaneity of rhythm and live performance.   I have heard very young and talented composers even, while attempting to use the most sophisticated "score following" program and failing (or the system wasn't working as well), resorting to performers wearing click-track.  What is really a point of writing music that requires a click track and syncing with electronics so perfectly that requires an electronic conductor to dictate the humans?   That's sad.  But that's just me  :)

I have heard one exceptional performance by a young duo from Mexico, whose name I'm trying to remember--if someone knows them please remind me!  The second word of the group was "Ritmica"... I heard them at Anthology Film Archives concert years ago.  (I will update this entry with their name when I find it!)   Anyway the two percussionists were perfectly in sync, very musical and vibrant.  And they were using click track wearing headphones.  The music was very rhythmic and the use of obvious click track, for the first and only time for me to this day, didn't bother me; it made sense.  I went up to them after the concert and asked, "so what ARE you listening?"  They let me hear their headphones, and to my surprise, it wasn't the usual "ticking" with one pitch--which I find appallingly unmusical--but they were actually listening to some piano sounds in ARPEGGIO which was actually changing in 3, 4, 5, 7 or something in time!  What a creative and musical idea :)

BTW Joel is wearing a headphone but NOT listening to a click track :)  We also talked about how disturbing it is to wear a headphone and play an instrument at a concert.  We also agreed that we both prefer these "ear buds" to full-ear-covering headphones, since you really can't hear your acoustic sound well with those unless you uncover one ear or something.