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June 14: Day 2, soundOn, a new music festival at the Athenaeum, open rehearsal, evening.
Audiences should be allowed into rehearsals on a regular basis. I know that the presence of outsiders can distract the musicians from their work. Still, rehearsals are sometimes more interesting than performances, and they certainly give the audience new insights into a work as well as a heightened understanding of the musician’s talents and labor. Here is the drama of struggle, of wrestling with materials (especially with a new piece), trying sounds on for size.
As a music writer, I’ve been to several rehearsals, and I love them. I usually sit out front, especially for chamber music where space is tight, but I’ve been lucky to find myself smack dab in the middle of a symphony orchestra, among the musicians, close enough to read the score and able to watch the front of the conductor.
So tonight, I’m here in the Athenaeum, as four composers and the members of NOISE, the resident ensemble for San Diego New Music, rehearse the works they will perform at the festival’s final concert on Saturday night. As usual, everyone is dressed down in jeans, sandals, whatever. But the rehearsal is all business.
One by one the composers, sitting in the front row, scores open across their laps, listen to the musicians play their creations. Because most of the composers are from out of town, so this is the first — and only — time that the composers and performers will work together. Every minute counts.
The collaborative style is identical from composer to composer. Their voices are gentle, praising the musicians then asking for some changes. It’s a process where both learn, and the tiniest detail is not overlooked.
Edward Top has traveled from London to hear the world premiere of “Four,” his winning composition in the festival’s international “call for scores.” The four members of NOISE must reveal the conflict between the two identities in the piece, and precision is crucial. Pianist Chris Adler decides that Colin McAllister must take the lead in getting the group through several measures. To get what he wants from a performer, a composer must go beyond his score to the instrument and the capacity of the performer. Flutist Lisa Cella is looking at a long phrase and asks about a place where she wants to take a breath. Yes, says Top, “that’s a nice place to breathe.”
Orlando Jacinto Garcia, another winner of the scores competition has come in from Florida. Cella and guitarist Colin McAllister are rehearsing “el silencio después la lluvia” (silence after the rain), a work of excruciating delicacy. Cella must reproduce the sound of a whistling wind, and McAllister the tapping of a light rain. Garcia says McAllister can choose to use a pick or his fingers for one sound effect as long as the texture is right.
The rehearsal can reveal weaknesses or ambiguities in a composition. Simply having to turn a page requires some planning; it’s easy in a big orchestra, when you have twenty violins and a player can drop out for a moment to turn the page. With just two players, however, it’s a little trickier. For Christopher Burns’s “Tangle,” a work that is constantly twisting and changing, Cella is filling in with an extra flourish so that cellist Frank Cox can turn his page. Burns, who has come from Milwaukee where he currently teaches at the University of Wisconsin, gives her the green light.
Then Cox gives everyone a little talk about what constitutes “soft” and “loud.” “Dynamics are illusions,” he says. There’s not a big decibel difference between soft, with the “p” marking and very loud, marked as “fff,” but it can affect tonal quality. A simple “p” is just soft, with “pp” some of the tone’s body is lost, and with “ppp,” the tone is almost gone.
The toughest piece to rehearse is Matthew Burtner’s “Snowprints” because of its technical challenge, which requires synchronizing electronic (a recording) and acoustical (live) elements. The recording provides a sonic background for the trio playing on stage, and as the piece grows in intensity, the two elements coalesce, just as the natural elements converge in a snowstorm.
After one false start, Cox, Cella and Adler get through the piece just once, while Burtner, from the University of Virginia, paces. When they finish, Adler says the rehearsal is out of time, running into the final concert for the day, and he asks Burtner for some quick suggestions. Burtner says to general laughter, “Let’s go back to page one.”
Then Burtner, an Alaskan, turns to the group and gives them some ideas to inform their performance. “How are we going to get the audience into the mountains outside of Anchorage in just 27 seconds? The challenge is to turn this space in wind, light, shadows and snow.” And after the audience gets through the storm, “How do we leave this environment?”
People are already arriving for the environment, and as Burtner bends over Cella’s music stand, talking about a place in the score, NOISE’s members are scrambling to rearrange instruments and music stands.
One of the great frustrations of hearing new music in concert is that you rarely can hear a piece again, because the newest pieces are not yet recorded. Besides, nothing beats a live performance, with the players and audience concentrating intensely.
The festival’s open rehearsal opened up a new opportunity for me this time. I’m looking forward to Saturday’s concert, at the Athenaeum, at 7:30, with a pre-concert discussion with the composers at 7.
Today’s sessions of the soundON include a community new music workshop, when you can compose a new work under the guidance of NOISE members; a performer’s roundtable discussion at 1 p.m. with members of NOISE and guests; a people’s concert at 7 p.m. when NOISE will perform works composed in the morning’s workshop; and a “Chill-Out” concert an 9 p.m., when pianist Chris Adler will perform Tom Johnson’s “The Chord Catalogue,” an exposition of the 8,191 chords in a single octave.
For a complete festival schedule, go http://www.geocities.com/SoHo/Den/2293/soundON07.html“target=”_blank”>here.
Cathy Robbins is a writer and the author of “All Indians Do Not Live in Teepees (or Casinos)”, to be published by the University of Nebraska Press.