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9 May 2011
Inside the Classics

So, if you guys don’t mind, I’m going to keep writing about this Takemitsu trio I’m getting ready to perform later in the month. I don’t know whether anyone’s actually interested in the gory details involved in tackling a thorny piece of contemporary music, but honestly, it’s consumed almost as large a chunk of my recent time as has this coming week’s ItC show, so if only for the sake of my own sanity, I feel like there should be some record of it.

First off, practicing the beast on my own (our first rehearsal as a trio is this afternoon) has proved challenging in myriad ways. Takemitsu’s viola writing is beautiful but frequently awkward, and it plays to literally all of my weaknesses and insecurities as a violist. This is actually a large part of why I wanted to play it: because of how comparatively easy it is to hide what you’re not good at in the larger sound world of the orchestra, weak spots in an orchestral string player’s technique can quickly grow into gaping chasms if you don’t challenge yourself regularly.

And then, there’s the massive problem of coordinating my part with Greg and Kathy’s parts, which I briefly mentioned in my first post on the subject, and further hinted at in a later moment of frustration. What makes coordination so difficult is that Takemitsu’s music is meant to float by the listener’s ear like a cloud of sound, frequently devoid of all sense of rhythmic pulse and presented as pure sonic art. Which is fine if you’re the listener, but those of us making the clouds still have to find some way to stay together. If we had a conductor, it wouldn’t be a problem, but that would look sort of ridiculous and ruin the pulse-less effect in any case.

My first thought for solving this problem was that we should all just play off a full score, instead of our individual parts, and Kathy will actually be doing just that, but for me, there’s just too much going on on the page to be able to follow my part and keep track of the flute and harp lines. I gave up on the full score idea after only about an hour.

I can’t handle this. I’m just a violist.

Next, I had an ambitious plan to somehow cut and paste bits of the score around a photocopy of my viola part, effectively bringing Kathy and Greg’s lines into my view when I’m likely to need them, and discarding them when I don’t. Were my visual/spatial skills (and knowledge of Photoshop) stronger, I still think this would have worked. As it was, though, I spent two days cutting and pasting and shrinking and tweaking and wound up with an unholy mess that I knew I’d never be able to fit on my stand, let alone play from.

So this weekend, with our first rehearsal looming and no clear way of knowing how I planned to join my part to Kathy and Greg’s, I grabbed a pencil and went back to basics. I went through my part measure by measure, and added the bare minimum of information I know I’ll need to stay in time. I left out the pitches of the flute and harp lines entirely, but frequently wrote out intricate rhythms from their parts that would clue me in as to where to place an entrance or how long to hold a sustained note. I also made sure that anything from Greg’s part was written above my viola line, and anything from Kathy’s part was written below.

I also used some verbal coding (dangerous, since Takemitsu has plenty of his own verbal code for me to keep track of.) The word FLUTE or HARP written in all caps means that I am in rhythmic unison with that instrument at that moment. The word SOLO in all caps means not that I’m necessarily the most important line, but that neither of the other two players will be beginning a given phrase with me, so it’s up to me to jump in and keep things moving. (There’s nothing worse in a chamber music setting than not knowing when you’re supposed to be the one in charge.)

Sometimes, rather than writing a lot of notes in too small a space, I’ve reduced the harp part to a notation like “32nds,” which tells me at a glance that there need to be four harp notes fitting into each 8th note I play. There’s even one section in which I’ve simply written “HARP NONSENSE” during an extended and indecipherable cadenza Kathy plays while I’m doing nothing, followed by “NONSENSE ENDS” to clue me in that I might need to pick up my viola again soon.

In the end, my already complicated part went from looking like this…

click for full size

…to looking like this…

click for full size

…over the span of a day and a half. And that’s before we even start rehearsing, a process which usually results in a lot of extra pencil marks. I’m thinking that, in this case, my rule of thumb might need to be that I’m not allowed to write anything new in my part without erasing something first.

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