21 July 2010

Scores -- Sonatine -- Scriabin

I've been allergic to score study my entire musical life. It's too easy to blame this solely on my education and not at all on myself, but I would at least start the discussion there. In college, conductors and instrumental teachers occasionally scolded us (collectively, and in the vaguest possible terms) for not doing more score study, perhaps unaware that we had no clue how to go about it, or that almost no one in the theory or musicology areas had touched the subject. We spent some time with a few movements from the classical piano repertoire in my final semester of tonal theory, which was a welcome departure from the Baldwell and Skankter purgatory we'd been living in for two years, but it was a fleeting and shallow expedition, adjourning well before I would have felt any better equipped than I already was to jump into something with more than two independent staves.

The next theory class I took was 20th Century Theory, where we spent the majority of the class walking through some pretty thorny orchestral works, highlighted by Schoenberg's Five Orchestral Pieces, a radical departure to the opposite extreme for which few (if any) of us were truly prepared for. For better or worse, our professor in that class held our hands and wiped our butts for us, obviously fully aware of our condition and having no intention of causing us to break a sweat. The primary analytical endeavor in that class was to name motives, sections, and other musical ideas metaphorically. This seems to be the one method of analysis endorsed by shut-in academics and anti-intellectual pop culture mavens alike, yet one which to this day I still cannot see the practical value of. Certainly in my case, it left me right back where I started, which was completely unable to hear score and lacking a systematic method for approaching in its written form the majority of the composed music that interests me. A few months later, I received a B.M. anyway and no one batted an eye.

Yes, it's easy to blame my education, but of course, I could have tried harder. I could have made score study a priority. I could have continued taking piano lessons after passing piano proficiency. I could have made it my job to perfect my sight-transposition skills. Instead, I was playing tuba many hours a day, taking as many non-music electives as the department would let me get away with, shamefully devoting and hour or two of my daily practice to jazz improvisation, and spending my weekends and whatever other slivers of time were left over frantically composing the music I didn't have time to compose while all the rest of this was going on. Given the same less-than-ideal constraints on my time, I'm not sure I'd do anything differently if I had it to do over; the skills I honed as an undergraduate have served me awfully well in a lot of ways, and if some knucklehead music school adviser would have told me that I had to learn to read score before being allowed to get down to business on these more central (at the time) concerns, I probably would have quit right then and there. Nonetheless, I've always felt handicapped by my unfamiliarity with scores, and as my general aspirations have broadened and moderated somewhat from, "I want to be the best tuba player ever," to something more like, "I want to be a compelling tuba player who performs his own compelling compositions whilst writing a compelling blog entry every couple of months and occasionally convincing his students that the music he listens to is compelling," I've finally reached the point where my desire to read score is no longer merely a consequence of blind ambition, but rather appears destined to become, if it hasn't already, a matter of necessity.

Hearing score is, admittedly, a daunting task, akin to perfect pitch in a sense, and perhaps not entirely unrelated. Even prestigious composition competitions judged by Big Name Composers® tend to require or strongly recommend the submission of a recording to accompany a score. Either this is yet another of their farcical methods for weeding out prospective entrants who aren't really "serious," or, like most of the rest of us, they can't hear score very well either and don't feel comfortable judging a piece without having heard it realized. So, while it's something I wish I could do, I realize that it's neither the most practical thing to go about achieving, nor is it necessarily the most utilitarian skill I could devote all that time to developing. To be clear, I have no intention of getting to know pieces first from scores and only later from recordings or performances. For me, seeing the score has always been a bit like discovering the Wizard of Oz to be just a little fat guy behind a curtain. I feel the same way about transcribing jazz solos, whether I write them down or not. In addition, I'm generally satisfied with my ability to pick things up by ear. I tend to end up with myriad influences in my music whose work I've never so much as glanced at in written form, and I'm often astonished in skimming through earlier works of mine at how much I've assimilated solely by ear.

I'm also weary of the notational idolatry that prevails in some circles. ("This score looks cool, I can't wait to hear what it sounds like.") I think it's important to stay grounded in sound, and avoid being seduced by the more arbitrary aspects of notation. It is both a blessing and a curse that written music more often then not looks beautiful on the page whether or not the piece is any good, or for that matter, whether the notation itself is even legible for practical purposes. I've always felt that this is merely a fringe benefit, and ought not distract us from the main event. That's why I almost never tweak any default settings in Sibelius, and have been loathe to use the jazz fonts, though I give in occasionally. Surely some will lament this loss of individuality among composers who engrave their own music; call me a sociopath, but I'm actually rather enamored of the idea. When scores resemble each other so closely in appearance as to render the musical content the most (or only) meaningful difference between them, well, congratulations, the musical content is the most meaningful difference between them. Gone, then, is any possibility of the calligraphy influencing our opinion of the work's content.


The million dollar question, of course, is, "Where do I start?" It's a question I've been asking myself for a long time. During my last year of school, a maverick professor hipped us to a score reading text that starts with two single-note lines in familiar clefs and gradually adds staves, clefs, and transpositions to the mix until suddenly at the end of the book you're reading full orchestra music. It sounds like the most logical way to go about things, unless of course you're both pathologically impatient and a shitty pianist (guilty as charged). It certainly would be a wonderful challenge and an excellent parlor trick to be able to plop down an orchestral score and play it at the keyboard; this, of course, encompasses all of the skills I'm after, but also many others which aren't essential to my ends and would needlessly occupy boatloads of time (specifically the part about the piano). So, as an alternative, I'm starting simpler, trying instead to come up with more conceptually accessible ways of working through a score whereby each and every note is momentarily made the focal point.

Specifically, what I've come up with is (a) playing through the parts individually (on tuba), and/or (b) copying the score by hand. My theory in taking these approaches is that merely staring at a score expecting important details to jump out hasn't worked very well, and so a more active approach is in order, even if in some ways it's no more focused. No one would doubt that staring aimlessly at a full orchestral score without a specific task or outcome in mind would be a pointless endeavor, but I would argue from experience that it's no different with, say, an unaccompanied tuba solo. Of course, I've long been capable of hearing a single part in my head, especially my own instrument's part, yet I suspect that were I tasked with analyzing such a piece without being allowed to play through it, I wouldn't catch a lot of important detail. Playing is study, and I've long maintained that composers and theorists would do well to try it sometime if they really want to know what they're talking about. What I wrote about in that previous post is the experience of performing a great piece as part of a large ensemble and thus hearing the inner workings of the piece from, well, inside the ensemble. In my experience, there's nothing like it, and being, as I said, by no means discontented with taking things in aurally, I can't honestly say at this point that I expect score study or anything else to replace it. It's an irreplaceable experience, and while the quota of constant participation in large ensembles imposed by brute force on music school undergrads practically numbed me to all conceivable benefits, I do (finally) miss it a bit nowadays, mainly for this reason.

Playing through the parts of a large score individually is certainly a different ballgame, and not one which necessarily threatens to help one actually hear the full score any better once the instrument is taken away. However, it does compliment the performance experience in an essential way, which I imagine might be obtainable with just a score and a quiet room, but which for spazzes like me is better undertaken with the horn in our hands so as to help us focus better and longer. I believe it's more useful to take small sections of a piece and play through each part in succession in a single sitting than it is to play through only a couple parts at a time from start to finish over the course of multiple study sessions. Playing through parts happens more or less in real time, and so tackling complete parts from start to finish can be tough to accommodate logistically. I also have found in other areas of instrumental practice that intense focus on a small amount of material maximizes the amount of information I actually retain, and in the case of score study, the "material" (and the challenge) is vertical, not horizontal.

Needless to say this activity also puts the player through their sight-reading paces. As a tuba player, I can't imagine actually needing to sight read in tenor or alto clef as part of a professional performance, but stranger things have happened. And again, for those of us who play only arranger's piano, realizing these parts on our primary instrument is a good way to maximize information retention. (The visual aspect of the piano is also very powerful, but in my opinion moreso with polyphony than monophony. Sometimes having the other 87 keys just staring at you can be disconcerting.)

The first piece I undertook to play through in this way was Eugene Bozza's "Sonatine" for brass quintet. As there are only 5 parts to deal with, the score is not altogether overwhelming, but there's just a bit more going on than what I realistically feel like I can hear in my head, and the trombone part is almost entirely in tenor clef, which makes for a nice challenge. Coincidentally, there's also fodder here for the notation-as-art-in-and-of-itself discussion, as this is one score which is not nearly as pleasing to look at as it is to hear realized. The sloppy manuscript is legible enough to play from, but not at all pleasing to look at, and even included a stem on the wrong side of a notehead (horizontally, that is, not vertically), a minor mistake in practical terms, yet one that makes it look as if a child copied the score.

It's hard to accept that the authoritative published version of such a widely played and highly esteemed piece of music could be so poorly engraved, especially when the score and a set of 5 parts (which, mercifully, have been more or less properly engraved in LeDuc's distinctive house style) costs almost $70. Here's yet another reason that I really have to kick myself in the butt to find the motivation to sit down with a score: too often it's like looking at those tabloid pictures of scrubbed out celebrities without their precious makeup on. In any case, if you're not a brass player, you probably don't know this piece, and if that's the case, I strongly urge you to check it out. It's damn hard, but playable, and in my mind, the first two movements would be great music in any instrumentation. It's so ubiquitous, apparently, that some members of my quintet don't want to play it, this after I spent nearly a decade of my life quintetless and wanting to play this piece above all others. When worlds collide...


In contrast to what I'm advocating above, the value of copying a score, whether by hand or with notation software, I think needs less explaining. Any technophobes out there can withhold their criticism of the software this time because, yes, I've decided to work by hand. For all the harsh words I had for the Bozza score, my own manuscript is abominable, and though I can't at this precise moment in time think of a scenario by which it might become essential for me to improve, I figure there's no harm in doing so just for it's own sake. My first score copying endeavors were, however, done with a computer when I was in high school. I may have done more than one piece this way, but memory fails me in that regard; the only one I remember for certain is the fugue from Bach's Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue. At the time, my only concern was to get the computer to play back this incredible music for me so I didn't have to beg my dad to play it on the harpsichord, which he had been doing occasionally around that time. When I told him what I'd done, he remarked that many great composers had studied that way; I don't think I let it slip out that my ends were not nearly so noble, but while I can't recite the piece from memory today, it did make a lasting impact on me, enough at least for me to quote it obliquely (without referencing the score) in one of the better pieces I wrote as an undergraduate.

Eventually, I also discovered (as most of us do with time) that you can purchase and otherwise obtain recordings of music you want to listen to being played on real instruments by skilled performers, and so the need to copy scores into the computer to hear them played back disappeared rather quickly and quietly. I do wish, however, that I hadn't completely left behind the impulse to copy, as it hit me like a ton of bricks several months ago that it might be the best first step of them all to towards turning myself into a score reader. Enter Scriabin's Fourth Piano Sonata, specifically the second and final movement. On the surface, Scriabin's early and late sonatas don't seem to have been written by the same person, and while you've probably already correctly guessed that my greatest sympathies lie with the later works (beginning with the 6th), the 4th and the 5th are fascinating in their own rights as they seem to represent the transitional period (and let's face it, transitional periods are, if not always the most musically successful, certainly endlessly interesting for those of us wonks who fancy ourselves composers and are inclined to look at things with an academic eye).

Of course, I first discovered the work by listening, and had listened to it a ton before I ever looked at a score. Not to belabor the point or anything, but boy was it a shock (not a good one; it never is) to see what all of this looks like on paper. Were a student to bring me a piece like this, I would tell them it was unplayable; many sections of the piece would have been more clearly notated on three staves rather than two, and this became, almost by coincidence, a significant component of my copying endeavor which I'll say more about later. Add to this the fact that it's in the key of F-sharp major but also takes more than the requisite number of late romantic tonal detours, resulting in several bars that I had to stare at for minutes at a time to make sense of harmonically. It's also in 12/8 time, making for some (visually) loooong bars with double sharps carrying through from beat 2 to beat 12 and other such shenanigans. In short, it's a score that has only two staves, uses key signatures, and has four big beats to the bar, and yet was an absolute bear to get my head around much of the time. This is a big reason I decided to copy it out by hand, playing through each measure (or beat, if necessary) on the piano as slowly as I had to.

The even more bizarre part of the story, however, is that I had already decided (indeed, begun) to transcribe the piece for brass, and if you know the piece, you can see why I'd call that bizarre. I can't imagine a more inherently pianistic piece of music, nor one which could more throughly defy direct transcription to most any combination of orchestral instruments. There are, however, substantial march-like sections of the piece that have suggested a brass realization to me from the very first hearing, and when I joined the CSBQ, I had at my disposal for the first time a capable quintet eager for new repertoire, and so it was time to shit or get off the pot. In stricter terms, what I'm creating is an "arrangement," since I'll have to do more than just extract 5 voices from the piano score and give those parts to the quintet. Rather, I've already virtually recomposed one section of the piece out of necessity, as well as changing many octave placements and chord spacings in order to keep the blood flowing through my trumpet players' faces. I've mostly been a curmudgeon about arranging throughout my musical life, and I absolutely stand by what I wrote in my C.o.S.T. manifesto, namely that,

"...in order for the transcription of existing music to be a valid and viable proposition, it must promise to somehow enhance the musical work in question rather than merely enhancing the professional outlook of the musician, and is otherwise an act of vanity in absence of inspiration."

I didn't have to go back and reread my own words to acquire a certain amount of trepidation about this project; I had toyed with idea in my head for a couple of years before actually jumping into it, having repeatedly decided it was not worth the trouble only to have the meekest of the voices in my head, the optimist, chime in at inopportune moments. Even after I finished the first third or so of the arrangement, things had already gotten quite difficult, and while I'd created something that I thought would sound pretty good, in all honesty, it felt to me quite a bit like "an act of vanity in absence of inspriation."

Where all this changed was when out of due diligence I began seeking out additional recordings of the piece with which to balance the impression of it I had gained from many hearings of Ruth Laredo's ravishing yet somewhat over-rubatoed version (of course, I had to look at the score to fully understand the extent of the interpretation, which speaks well for looking at scores, but also supports my claim that it's more often than not a shock and a disappointment). It was through this search that I discovered that the second movement is pretty much unplayable, or so one might be tempted to conclude after sampling the commercially available recordings. I did, however, eventually settle on a recording I found through the dearly departed Lala service by Italian pianist Antonio Pompa-Baldi, who makes great music out of the piece without missing notes*.

His performance notwithstanding, I ended up tempering my cynicism about essentially recomposing this piece for brass after realizing that it is bursting with ideas that almost no pianist can adequately realize by themselves. Such is the best justification I'm aware of for reworking another composer's music, not in the sense that the ideas ought to be changed per se, but rather clarified. The brass quintet is well-suited to some sections of this piece and horribly ill-suited to others; even so, I believe there are ideas here that threaten to both transcend instrumentation and survive reduction. Of course, a four-hands rendition would also solve the problem and be far more faithful to the composer's intent, but even so, my vanity detector is suitably placated for the moment, and I have enough confidence in my own composerly abilities and accomplishments at this point to be confident that history won't judge me as someone merely "picking the pockets of the masters" just to feed my ego and advance my career, since I have my own music with which to accomplish those goals.

Deciphering some of the denser moments in this movement was painstaking, and of course the physical act of writing occupied nearly as much time as the actual "studying" did. Nonetheless, I'm a big enough dork that I had fun, and I look forward to studying many many more of my favorite pieces this way. I stuck with three staves throughout the movement, even when two would have sufficed. Initially, I made this decision simply because, on 12 line paper, the chances of ending up with a single unusable line at the bottom of the page when alternating haphazardly between 2- and 3-line systems was at least 50%, and being the treehugger that I am, these were unacceptable odds. In the end, though, this led to an important realization that I intend on observing throughout future projects as well: rather than copying the score precisely as originally engraved, why not expand smaller scores and reduce larger ones? That way, you'll end up with two copies with different salient features, one which fits all of the information into a smaller visual area while making quite a clutter out of the individual voices, and another which isolates each voice more clearly but does so at the cost of greater demand on one's field of vision. It seems to me that they compensate for each others' weaknesses as far as suitability for study goes, and so as extreme as any given score might be to one or the other end of this spectrum, I plan on copying it out the other way and then using both copies interchangeably from that point on depending upon the analytical task at hand. Another idea I've had (though I didn't have it until after I started copying this movement) is to string the pages of the copied version together continuously so as to more closely model time in the visual configuration of the score. (Anyone out there sell rolls of paper with staves printed on them?)

A final caveat about this score which I don't expect will apply in the future: in transcribing the piece for brass, I'm taking it down a half step, putting it in the brass friendly key of F Major. There are long sections of the movement throughout which one can simply pretend the key signature is one flat rather than six sharps, but there are others where a sea of accidentals makes reading the music as is enough of a challenge, and sight transposing it all but impossible. It also truly modulates at one point, key change and all, to D Major (the bVI if you insist), but true to late romanticism, the music doesn't stay there nearly as long as the new key signature does, and that's also a pain. Long story short, I copied it out in the new key rather than the original one, which added yet another layer to the study (helping rather than hurting, I think).

Here's a passage from the public domain score available on IMSLP:

...and here's the same passage in my own hand (don't L, please, at least not OL):

*It's curious to note that this recording comes from a competition, but upon listening, it's no wonder he did so well in it. Momma always told me (yes, my mom actually has said this to me more than once) that the people to keep your eye on aren't the one's who win music competitions, but the one's who finish runner up. Perhaps this penetrated my subconscious a bit too deeply, resulting in my resume consisting of way too many Finalist, Honorable Mention, and Alternate entries and not nearly enough *Winners*. Or maybe I should just have practiced more...

14 July 2010

Close Encounters With Permission Culture

I've just finished reading Lawrence Lessig's 2004 book "Free Culture," which is chock full of mostly demoralizing stories, observations and ancedotes culled from recent and occasionally not so recent legal and cultural history. Lessig pulls together this history in order to make a point, and he makes it convincingly, but the history is worth knowing in and of itself. The nugget that I just can't get over is ASCAP's threat to sue the Girl Scouts, among others, for singing licensed music at camp. You can read all about it here (via Lessig's helpful list of the book's online references here).

Once upon a time, as a freshly minted music school graduate eager to gain a foothold in the more business-oriented side of my chosen profession, I began looking into joining a performance rights organization, and, for reasons I've since forgotten, ultimately settled on ASCAP. Even then, I had misgivings about joining such a club, for years earlier, ASCAP had supposedly threatened action against a local venue where I and many of my colleagues frequently performed. Rather than pay the fee, the owner began enforcing a zero-tolerance policy regarding "other people's licensed cover songs" and requiring each performing group to fill out and sign a form. This made for some eclectic, original programming, and gave me a great excuse to impose even more of my tunes on my bandmates, but those trivial facts aside, there were no winners here: not ASCAP, who hasn't received a cent; not the owner, who evidently was scared shitless by the whole thing; and least of all those of us who perform there, of whom even the most radical like to play other people's licensed music from time to time, or at least know that we can if we want to.

To have one's music performed by others is not only one of the most basic artistic aspirations which many composers share, but also, the state of music publishing being what it is, increasingly the only meaningful financial aspiration as well, or so I've been reading over the last several years. I'm normally too pessimistic to plan on things like that ever happening, but have occasionally been prone to making such plans simply to put my mind at rest, and as there was no application fee, it seemed harmless enough to just send the damn thing in and forget about it until that first royalty check showed up. Nonetheless, I was never totally comfortable doing so knowing that I was also criminalizing the performance of my music in the very types of venues it was most likely to be performed in, venues where the management and the musicians alike are lucky to break even on any given night. This ultimately weighed on my mind more heavily than not being a member had before, until finally an envelope arrived from ASCAP. Rather than a welcome packet, it was my application, which was being returned to me because I had forgotten to sign one of the forms. I've never been so relieved, and to this day, the incomplete application sits buried in a file cabinet, where I anticipate it will stay for a very long time.