Decoding the Page
20 Apr 2011
Inside the Classics

The orchestra is off this week, but it’s anything but a vacation week for me – Sarah and I are hard at work on the next Inside the Classics script (and yes, I think I’ve figured out what to do about the cold open,) I’m playing a couple of gigs, and I’m also putting in some serious work on the trio I’ll be playing with flutist Greg Milliren and harpist Kathy Kienzle next month at MacPhail.

The trio is a 1992 composition by the acclaimed Japanese composer, Toru Takemitsu. You may think you haven’t heard of him, but if you’re any sort of film buff, there’s a good chance you’ve heard his music. He scored over 100 films, including some real Japansese classics, and by sheer coincidence, the Trylon Microcinema in South Minneapolis is about to launch a mini-festival of some of them. Takemitsu was heavily influenced by Debussy, and also drew on inspirations as disparate as John Cage and traditional Japanese music (though he struggled mightily with the latter early in his career.)

For a listener, Takemitsu’s music can be transportingly beautiful, but also haunting and maddeningly ethereal. For a performer, tackling Takemitsu frequently means committing to an extra layer of preparation that goes well beyond just practicing your part. In the case of our trio, titled Then I Knew ‘Twas Wind, every measure of music contains a dizzying array of verbal and visual codes that go along with the notes, and to make the sounds Takemitsu wanted, you have to master them all. And that’s before you even begin to consider how you might coordinate what you’re playing with the other two players.

Just to give you a quick example of what I’m talking about, here’s a two-bar phrase from my viola part that occurs roughly halfway through the piece:

So there’s an awful lot going on there beyond just notes and rhythms. First of all, you might have noticed that the time signature is 4.5/4, or four-and-a-half quarter notes to a bar. A less exacting composer might have changed that to 9/8, or even 4+5/8, just to make things slightly easier for the performer, but not Takemitsu. (I’m guessing the reason he notated it the way he did was to insure that I’d think of the bar in “big” beats, and not get bogged down in small units of time.)

Then there’s the fact that he wants the tempo here to be “slightly faster,” but also “con rubato,” which usually means that you should stretch some parts of the phrase. So I’ll need a quicker overall pulse than whatever came before, but I’ll also have to find places to pull my own part back from the steady beat.

And then you get to the odd little initials inscribed above each of my entrances: l.b.p. and s.p., followed by a little arrow pointing to p.o. According to the glossary in my part, l.b.p. stands for “light bow pressure” (there’s also an n.b.p. for “normal bow pressure,”) which is a decision most composers leave to the performer, and s.p. means sul ponticello, which is a string instrument technique where you place your bow right up against the bridge, producing a scratchy, metallic sound. Finally, p.o. means position ordinaire, a simple marker to tell me that the ponticello section is over.

So, over the course of less than a second of music, Takemitsu is asking me to begin slightly faster than the previous tempo, but pull back almost immediately, and also execute a diminuendo from piano to some undefined softer dynamic while using light bow pressure and quickly transitioning from ponticello to a normal bow position. Oh, and that little phantom note in parentheses at the beginning of the second bar is his indication that he’d rather I hold the previous note slightly too long than cut it off too early.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that nearly every bar in the piece is like this – some are even more complicated. And then, of course, there’s the fact that I’m not playing this thing alone. Here’s a look at the same two bars with the flute and harp parts added in. (Flute’s on top, then viola, and the bottom two staves are the harp part.)

It’s a daunting-looking page, no doubt about it, but the interplay between the three parts is so intricate that we’re toying with the idea of all playing from scores instead of our individual parts, just so we can keep track of each other. I’m also considering trying to mock up a hybrid part/score that shows me Greg and Kathy’s parts when I need them, but omits them when I don’t.

Oh, and just in case you’re wondering, here’s what those two bars actually sound like…

That’s a lot of work for nine seconds of music. But if there’s one thing I know about Takemitsu, it’s that the end result is always worth the extra effort.

<October 2019>

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