A naked read, and by that I mean reading music at sight for the purposes of making music rather than noise, can be a stressful situation for everyone involved. Granted, the performers get an extra hat tip because, after all, they are the ones who have to suffer in the spotlight while the rest of us luxuriate in the shadows. Usually, the only way to tell we’re even there is a soft weeping sound garnished with tasteful howls of anguish.
You might say that I’ve seen my fair share of painful reading sessions. Anybody with a degree in music composition is well acquainted with the squirm-in-the-chair-feeling that accompanies pretending what you heard wasn’t a total massacre. But of course, perfection never comes (Open for debate, I know, but hear me out). There is always something to tweak. One of the most valuable insights you can get when you have your music read by a musician made of toenails and organs is whether or not you’ve gassed up enough at this unglamorous pit-stop on the way to performance.
We, the living, don’t have the luxury of having our music proofread again and again by a clamoring mob of pre and post doctoral candidates eager to settle the debate on what Dead Composer X really meant when he wrote the squiggly line next to the dotted ampersand. An essential part of the craft is getting your scores visually close enough to what’s out there (The reams and reams of music by Dead Composer X in their up-teenth edition) so that the performer can focus less on interpreting your slips of the pen (Slips of the mouse) and more on being in tune, in time, and most important of all: in the moment.
So you can say I’m a little guarded about reading sessions. Usually they’re less an exercise in music-making and more a chance to go over the fine-tuning of craftsmanship. To say otherwise is to short-sightedly dismiss the whole rehearsal process and the lifetime a performer spends developing a reliable technique. Thusly, it’s usually best to go in with your expectations focused on kicking the tires rather than chasing that feeling of crossing the finish line in a blaze of glory. It’s because of this pessimistic, yet arguably practical, outlook that I have the pleasure of saying that I was extra-creamily impressed by the Vancouver Chamber Choir‘s musicianship at their annual Interplay Workshop for composers this morning. Not only did I get the requisite tire-kicking I craved and an in-depth proof-reading by about twenty professional singers (Shout out to the alto who pointed out my faulty hyphenation of the word angelorum), but I got to hear all my dots arrive in tune and in time. I couldn’t be more elated.
Three other composers with just as many limbs as myself were selected to participate:
Brian Tate, director of the City Soul Choir, published composer, and all-round nice guy brought a primal and aggressive setting of Psalm 102 to the table. Out of all the music we heard today, it was the most challenging read for the sole reason that it moved like lightning. It also featured one of my most favourite potential musical events which can only be found in aggressive, violent music: The cool-down. Brian wove a spell binding ending that rose up from the baritones to the sopranos in a series of tensions and releases only to leave us hanging by plummeting instantly, much like a feather doesn’t, into a lush and thick D minor.
Tobin Stokes brought a small scale sketch of a larger work to workshop a concept he was working on. In a nutshell, the men’s and women’s voices moved in mirror image to one another. The harmonies were unexpected and exquisite.
Jordan Nobles, artistic director at the Redshift Music Society brought what was, to me anyway, the most intriguing piece of the bunch. Observe:
A lot of Jordan’s music relies heavily on sensitive use of chance devices and this one is very much in that vein. The idea is that the singers maintain a drone on a ‘g’ throughout the piece and pick from their choice of musical motifs from the page pictured above and sing them out of sync with their neighbours. If set in motion with minimal direction we get a beautiful bubbling texture that rises in intensity towards a middle point and then fades out to the drone again. The exact form and shape of the piece is very much up to the intuition of the leader of the ensemble whether that be the conductor or the ensemble members themselves. Jordan expressed the idea that it should be ritualistic. That is to say, and I’m probably putting words in his mouth, that a concept for the how the piece is to be shaped could be suggested by the way in which it’s inflicted upon a willing listener. A performance where the choir starts embedded in the audience would suggest a different approach than one in which they were moving through the audience, or around, or stationed above, or below, or swinging from chandeliers. The options are multitudinous.
After it was all over, the four of us took part in the ever popular composer ritual of gazing in rapturous amazement at our countless gaffs of engraving: