Wednesday, September 21, 2016

A New Challenge: Quarter Tones

I'm learning a piece now which features quarter tones, or the pitches that fall in between the normal 12 notes that we are accustomed to in Western music.  I have never worked with quarter tones before.

In works such as Ravel's Piece en forme de Habanera or Alyssa Morris's "Yellow", from Four Personalities, we see pitch bends.  These are usually done with the embouchure, and I have no problem moving most of the notes on the oboe even as much as a half-step up or down.  But this technique always involves a certain amount of scooping in the sound - I hit the real note then schmear my way to the adjusted one, and in my experiments this week I found that I was unable to reliably guess my way to a clean attack on an altered pitch using only my embouchure and air as a guide.  In other words, if I finger B natural, I can adjust that easily to a quarter step flat or sharp, but can't reliably hit that quarter step straight on without having to wiggle for it.  And this makes sense.  I am in fact fingering a B, and the oboe wants to play in tune, and all of my decades of study make me want to play in tune as well.

When I performed Qigang Chen's Extase, I did a lot of glissandos and pitch bends that were fingered.  In other words, I would finger a real note then slide with intentional slowness off the hole or off the key, releasing it gradually and using lots of air to force the pitch to bend upward or downward.  This is also not quite what I need for my current project. I am asked to play intervals such as C to Eb+, or G to F- and predictably hit the note that is exactly 3 half steps plus a quarter tone, or two half steps plus a quarter tone away.  I need an entirely new set of fingerings.

Fortunately, there is a book.  So I spent a few days looking through diagrams, experimenting to see what worked best on my instrument, and making terrible sounds, and eventually found a full set of fingerings that I could use pretty well to split the difference between every half step.  They don't all sound amazing.  The oboe is designed to play the traditional 12 pitches of our western scale - BARELY! -  and all of the fingerings I'm using involve some degree of compromise.  Some are more muffled than others, some are more blaring.

I spent two or three days working on finding and hearing that middle place between G and Ab, say, and between C# and D.  Yesterday I took one of my tuner apps and recalibrated it to listen to my between-pitches, and practiced playing chromatically within that quarter tone scale.  In other words, leaving out all of my REAL notes, and playing chromatic scales that registered IN TUNE on my tuner which was set exactly half-way between A and Bb.  That was much easier for me to hear - even though the pitches are technically WRONG, and the fingerings are complex and tricky, my ear is well attuned to hearing half steps, so I quickly adjusted to my new pitch center.  Now that I was working for intonation and evenness within the quarter tone scale, I was able to adjust some of my fingerings for sound and timbre.

Today I worked through all of my major scales, again exclusively within my quarter tone fingering set.  In other words, I'm adding whole steps to my efforts, and as I hear what pitches I need to adjust - harmonically - I have tweaked even a few more of the fingerings.  I'm getting more comfortable with the awkwardness of the fingers, and working to get the qualities of the notes to be more aligned.

My next steps will be more difficult, I think.  I need to work on intervals between my "real" and my "fake" fingerings, and start to try to hear what "in tune" really means when those intervals are CRAZY to my ears.

Honestly, I think that the piece I'm working on, Charles Dakin's Tarot de Marseilles - of which I could not find even a mention online, much less a a recording - will wind up being an awfully hard sell to an audience, even with all the schtick that's part of the piece.  The concept is that I shuffle and lay out all 22 Major Arcana cards randomly, do a live reading as I perform the little short vignette that goes with each, and in the end interpret and play the conclusion, the final five cards.  In practice, this will amount to some 15 minutes of aleatoric out-of-tune sounding solo oboe, and as much as I love the oboe, extended techniques upon it, AND the Tarot, I suspect this might not be a crowd-pleaser.

But that is a separate challenge, to be dealt with after I master the current one.  I'm fascinated with this new quarter-tone world that I'm exploring.  It's a far cry from Mendelssohn and Bach, and is giving me a lot to think about, and I LOVE THE OBOE.

Further updates as events warrant...



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Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Playing on Your Own Reeds

Memo to students
Re: Playing on your own reeds

You should be playing on the reeds that you make.  Otherwise, the making of those reeds is purely an academic exercise, and a huge waste of time.  There's nothing that will improve your reed-making faster than the realization that you are about to play in public and that what you have is totally inadequate.  You will sink or swim very quickly, and you will make more reeds than you would if you were just working on them idly, and you will figure out a way to diagnose the problems you are experiencing, and you will hypothesize ways to fix them, and some of those fixes will actually work and in this way you will learn to make reeds.

If you are not yet a fantastic, consistent, competent reed-maker, and you are playing on reeds that you made, I salute you.  You will be a stronger, better person for facing this adversity.

But there's a caveat.  If your reed, that you labored long and hard over, still does not perform some of the basic functions of a reed - if it does not allow you to articulate a note, say, or to slur over the break, or to diminuendo, or to produce more than one dynamic - then that reed is not ready to be played in public.  You still have work to do.  This is the part of oboe playing that just stinks - even when you have worked and worked and worked, if the result does not sound like an oboe you must work more.

At a certain point, you need to have pride in your playing.  You need to create a sound that not only starts and stops when you want it to, but also is beautiful.  Perhaps it's not easy to create that beauty - perhaps you are turning metaphorical somersaults inside your mouth trying to make it sound right and play in tune - and that's OK, it's part of the learning curve and when you craft your next reed you will know what to work on to make your life easier.  But do not settle for something that makes you sound much worse than you are.  That doesn't allow your great qualities to come forward.  That makes you sound incompetent.

I had to lecture TWO students on this concept last week, so I thought I'd put it out as a public service announcement.  Even your bad reeds have to work, or they're not reeds.  And if you can't make yourself sound like an oboist on your reeds, you're not quite a reed-maker yet.  Buy some reeds. Take a reed lesson or class.  Beg your teacher for help.  If you can't PLAY, you aren't having any fun and you aren't doing the oboe world any favors.

Have high standards.  Take pride in your own unique, individual, beautiful self, and do not accept a reed that won't allow it through.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Is it Live? No, Decidedly Not.

I recorded my CD last week!

I was startled that my engineer's biggest concern in the editing room was reducing the sounds of my breaths.  This had never crossed my mind as an issue - an oboist has to breathe.  Any wind player has to breathe.  Humans breathe.  I didn't see the problem.

I understand  that you don't want to be wrenched out of the pretty music and back into an awareness of the performer's physical struggle - but I've always found an excitement in the sheer humanness of performers.  There was one  particular breath that we argued about a little.   I pointed out that it was dramatic, rhythmic, and integrated into the line of the exciting phrase I was making.  In a live performance that would have been 100% part of the act.

He pointed out that this was not a live performance.  He won the argument.

It was important to me to have my recording feel real.  I didn't want to use the studio magic to piece together something I was unable to play live.  But I also understand that, lacking a visual, certain aspects of live performance don't translate.

Playing live I'm always thinking about showmanship.  Playing for the microphone I was thinking about making my musical ideas come through without the benefit of the look of me.  I had to focus on accuracy and cleanness, because anything less than that would have detracted from the music.

I enjoy my live performances.  I love being on stage.  But it's hard to listen back to the audio of those performances without cringing.  I know that performing is risky, and that in the heat of the moment things can be missed, and that the experience IN THE MOMENT was much more positive than the thing I am hearing - but every small inconsistency glares out at me from the speakers and makes me feel bad about myself.

When I attend a concert, if the artistry is there, I can forgive almost anything that happens to the person performing.  That said, I will never release the recordings that are made from my own performances.  They just feel too appallingly imperfect for anyone else to hear.  But when I see a VIDEO recording, after the fact, I have no hesitation in releasing it.  I'll post it to YouTube myself, and promote it.  Seeing the excitement of a live performance makes everything else make sense.

So, as I sat in the recording studio, my job was to create something that wouldn't make me cringe on repeated hearings, and we mostly succeeded in that, and I'm excited to move forward with the creation of my CD.  But certainly performing for the mic is a different skill than performing for an audience, and it's one I'll need to work on before I go platinum...

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Recording: Doing It!

It's not finished yet.  That's why I haven't talked about it.  But recording my CD at a professional
studio has been AMAZING.

I'll take you through my experience.  I played into a microphone in a room, and it sounded, to me, like me.  I was disappointed.  I had sort of imagined, perhaps unrealistically, that just being in the studio would make me sound better, more like the real oboists on the recordings.  But it was still me.

I heard the first take played back through my headphones, and I was kind of impressed.  Who knew I could play such cool music?  In the moment, as I'm doing it, I'm too focused on doing it to notice the effect, but some of my material is REALLY GREAT! Some of the technique sounds very impressive.  I love the music I am presenting, and I was pleased to have this record of my hard work.  That could have been the end of it for me, and I would have been happy.

But then, I stepped into the control room, where the engineer was sitting, and heard what he was hearing. Paul and I were isolated from each other as we played, and I heard him only through my headphones. Furthermore, I knew full well who I was and thought I knew what I sounded like - but I was blown away by the quality I heard through the speakers. The piano and the oboe were rich and lush.  I sounded just like the great oboists on the great recordings!  It sounded REAL.  It sounded LEGITIMATE.  It sounded GOOD.  WE sounded good. I sounded good.

I don't think this has ever happened before.  I heard my own musical voice on a recording and I liked it. It sounded like the sound I aspire to make, and never think I achieve. The equivalent visual trick, I think, would be to give me a full hair, makeup, and clothing makeover and have me turn out magically looking like Scarlett Johansson, or Michelle Obama, or someone legitimately gorgeous like that. We don't have the technology to make me really look like them - I hope - which makes me kind of sort of believe that the beautiful playing I heard was really me.

Yes,  quality speakers.  Yes, seriously expensive microphones.  Yes, the skill of the engineer.  I couldn't have made a recording like that in my room with my phone.  But in the end the technology can't actually play the oboe, and I can.  It's kind of a heady feeling.

There were disappointing surprises in the process as well.  I had worked so hard and worried so much about the technical parts of the pieces, but for the most part those sections were just fine.  The bulk of our time was spent in going back to the easy stuff and fixing a little muffed attack here, some water in the octave key there, a slur that didn't speak cleanly.  The things that we kept having to repair were the things I'm always not so good at, the tiny details that sometimes I allow to get by in the practice room, the things that the oboe is always out to get me on.  I know that I'm not always perfect, but it was jarring to recognize just how many LITTLE sloppinesses could slip in even as I was striving so hard to be pristine, to get things in one take, to not waste time.

In other words, perhaps I sound better than I think I sound, but I am not as competent as I think I am, and that was a little dismaying to discover.

In all, I was incredibly happy with the first day of recording.  We didn't quite get everything recorded, and we didn't finish the mixing process, so I'm going back tomorrow to complete this stage of the project. And it feels wonderful, and I can't wait.