CHROMAtic music

Yesterday I joined members of CHROMA to workshop new compositions by students of the Music Department at Royal Holloway, University of London, where CHROMA is currently resident. Apart from the pleasure of seeing old friends whom I bump into surprisingly rarely in the course of our work, it’s always interesting to discuss how and why music works. Mark Bowden, Director of Composition at RHUL, had split his group of students into groups to write for one of two combinations: mezzo, violin and clarinet, or baritone, flute and cello. They had not heard their compositions before, other than in a synthesised version, so this was an essential experience to discover how different the reality can be from the performance in their inner ear.

We worked in the lovely Victorian chapel, whose generous acoustic helped those pieces which contained plenty of space and fogged those with lots of texture and detail. In a dryer acoustic we would have had a very different experience of each work and this in itself generated a useful discussion about the advantages of giving the listener’s ear a rest (and the musicians an occasional breather).

Stuart King (clarinet) CHROMAMy partners for the afternoon were CHROMA Artistic Director Stuart King (clarinet, Right) and Alexandra Wood (violin), and these are some of the things we discussed:

Like any language, music has grammar that can be correctly or wrongly notated, including the spelling. If it’s wrong it’s still possible for players to work out what the composer means, but doing so takes time and effort. For a performer, it jolts the attention, even in a piece that one already knows well, to see something that momentarily makes no sense. In a sight-reading situation it can be really tiring to keep having to decipher the way the score is presented. Clearly the fun bit of composing is writing the music. The more boring but totally essential bit is then to go through every part in the score and check for these spelling and music-grammar errors. Many publishers no longer offer proof-reading as a matter of course, so we rely even more on the composer to supply an accurate edition.

All instruments have a finite range and most singers and instrumentalists will say that it’s not great to spend lots of time at either extreme. I am often asked what my vocal range is. In explaining that it’s less about the absolute extremes and more about context, it can sound as if I am weaselling around the subject. But, as I said to our students yesterday, the four things that combine to affect accuracy and quality of sound for a singer are: the speed of the music, the distance between the notes, the degree to which the intervals in a phrase are tonic or augmented and the complexity of the text. I once heard an actor talking on the radio about the correct speed to speak a certain text. He said that if all the consonants were sounded correctly, that would dictate the tempo at which the text could best be understood. I’m not suggesting this is something that should be imposed on a finished composition but speaking text aloud in this way reveals the time required to articulate words full of consonant clusters or dipthongs. It’s a very useful thing for composers to be aware of.

I think it’s fine for a composer not always to be able to articulate why a phrase or piece of music is written a certain way. Sometimes the musical idea comes without being preceded by a definitive thought or image. However, performers do want to know how to phrase what is on the page and what kind of colour or emotion might be attached to it. This is often so much more useful than a tempo marking. I often have questions about why a word is set a certain way or what’s going on with a particular kind of articulation. Stuart’s pet hate is when the first marking in his part is mezzo-forte – it’s a kind of “half-way” volume but half-way between what, when it’s the first phrase of the piece? It’s really helpful to have descriptive markings. We had a lovely one yesterday: dancing, without weight.

Word-setting. I feel strongly about this one because I love words and feel they often provide initial inspiration but then somehow lose out to the music after that. Stravinsky got away with all kinds of crimes against word-setting but that was because he was Stravinsky. Citing him as an example of why it’s ok to ignore the scansion and weight of words in a phrase is, in my humble opinion, a sign of not having given it enough thought. Of course there are works in which the whole point is that the words are chopped up and treated as sound rather than meaning; Berio did a lot of this and it can sound amazing. However, the fact that a composer has chosen to set words in the first place would generally seem to imply that the words have some meaning worth sharing. Setting them in a way that makes the singer’s and audience’s experience harder begs the question of why the composer set the text at all.

We did have one great moment when we started a new piece and it sounded pretty cacophonous. Looking over at the composer’s horrified face, we realised that it perhaps wasn’t quite what she had expected. It was only after several more false starts that we realised she had forgotten to transpose the clarinet part. Sibelius and other music-processing software programmes are wonderful but in the end someone still has to remember to press the right button!