BYJOHN EHDE AND KNUT VAAGE
Ehde and Vaage adopted the term “comprovisation” as a description of how they worked. It covers their method of using strict ideas in an improvised dialogue-based setting, while incorporating computer processing and other electronics. The term is borrowed from Richard Dudas:
“In the context of electronic music, a more common form of performance is now regarded as comprovisation, a creative process in which improvisation is used as a precursor to composition to generate musical ideas and extend existing structures, and in which composed structures and instruments are then widely used in an improvisational setting (Dudas 2010).”
See “furter reading” in RESEARCH QUESTION NO. 6 and the individual projects: Composer-Performer Collaborations for more details. To get an impression of their work process - from improvisations, etudes, “comprovisation” - to scores and performances, watch the following videos:
YouTube “Vaage: Duo Etude No. 1” (Vaage, Ehde)
See extracted score "Vaage: Duo Etude No. 1" (in right sidebar)
In some of their pieces more traditional roles reappeared, with the composer using more traditional methods for creating scores. Even here they developed the pieces through active dialogue.
As an example of them working within more traditional roles, watch the following work:
YouTube “Vaage: Night Song 2” (Vaage, Ehde)
See score "Vaage: Night Song" (in right sidebar)
RETHINKING EXPRESSION IN HARALD SÆVERUD´S PIANO MUSIC
BY EINAR RØTTINGEN
Harald Sæverud’s musical language can challenge the performer’s artistry. A key word is “resistance”: signifying that nothing in the score necessarily comes readily or is immediately comprehendible. It has been challenging for me to go more deeply into a musical expression that in a personal and unusual way combines a direct, disciplined, classical clarity - where every note matters, with an underlying intensity and wide range of expressivity.
Despite the composer’s apparent demand to control performers’ interpretations through an abondance of score indications, I sought a greater sense of freedom. I was looking for a key to discover what lay beyond the score, in order to further my own artistic reasoning and confidence. It has a time-consuming process of unsettling and resettling. The level of artistry had to be raised in order to be able to “discuss” the score on equal terms with the composer.
Seeing the importance and overall purpose of specific indications, unusual harmonies, and sudden interruptions can be difficult. The composer’s artistry demands disciplining oneself to take the score seriously while asking why things are indicated the way they are. The meaning of the notation must be discovered, felt and assimilated. A certain artistic alertness is demanded of the performer; one senses a need for developing a sensitivity akin to Sæverud’s in meeting his demands and intentions.
Even the smallest, simplest pieces, such as “Li-tone” Op. 14, No. 5, require an intense presence of mind and concentration. All gestures need to be shaped individually, together with a sense of freedom and spontaneity. This is a delicate balance. Investigations into “Li-tone” early showed how different tempos and greater flexibility can give different ways of expressing aspects of sorrowfulness, all without compromising the score’s indications.
I made efforts to fill in the “gaps” in the score. This included how to execute non-legato articulation and find shades of dynamics and nuanced rubato. The energy behind striving to communicate a musical statement is a large part of what gives the music meaning. The performer’s commitment and intent must join with the composer’s “intent” as inherent in the score. This attitude is more important than any idea of a “right” execution of a given sign, such as his much-used marcato espressivo (<>).
Sometimes musical meaning was hard to find as in some of the “Six Sonatinas” Op. 30. These pieces take the composer’s artistic project to the extreme, containing unusual tonalities in a two-voiced texture that can seem abstract and incomprehensible. The use of childlike metaphors and narratives greatly helped my artistic process, together with the realization that other musical parameters than melody and harmony can be of primary importance. A simple motion forward towards a marked note, a sudden change of tempo, or certain ways of executing staccato or non-legato can be central artistic points. These pieces teach one to be alert, to appreciate and bring out the subtle qualities of the tiniest details in the musical material. It really matters how to play staccato: how does one play a “sad” staccato as opposed to a “happy-go-lucky” staccato or an “impatient” staccato?
The sum of the composer’s score indications seem more intentional than realistic, as they stretch the limits of what the piano can express. The challenge is to find nuanced expression in so few notes and in such a limited texture. How is it possible to create such nuances on the piano? If possible, is it even worth the effort? Does it have meaning to be able to play a continuous diminuendo and portato touch on the three notes of the melody in bar 2 of “Revebjølle”? Only when one feels the musical value and significance of this effect do the indications does one strive to execute it with one’s own sense as to how the portato and level of dynamics should be played. One realizes that such musical details can become unique musical “events” in themselves if carried out with sensitivity.
In this project it became clear that it is the performer’s constant care for musical details which makes these piano pieces artistically unique and eloquent. The form - usually some kind of variation form - becomes apparent through caring for expressive details and a hierarchy of accents. The essence of the composer’s artistry is not the long, singing line; it is as if to say that a hike on a mountain is not all about reaching the top. It is more about what can happen and be experienced along the way: suddenly stumbling over a rock (unexpected surprise), contemplating the beauty of a flower (sense of wonder), or experiencing a sudden change of feeling - from joy (carefree, ecstatic) to sadness (loneliness, pain).
The composer’s artistry requires an engaged dialogue with the performer’s artistry, with the scores inviting one to become fascinated about discovering the potentialities for musical expression. Sæverud’s life attitude – inherent in his scores – can help the performer to rediscover a childlike joy of playing with the musical elements and to develop a greater sense of presence and awareness. The performer’s role is to make the inherent unpredictability in his musical thinking come alive. Even seemingly trivial musical material and events can become interesting through this attitude of living (and performing) as though every moment were spontaneous and being experienced for the first time. Thus, the performer is given the never-ending challenge of making musical events happen and sound fresh each time.
THE SURFACE IS SLOW, PERFORMING PIANO MUSIC BY MORTEN EIDE PEDERSEN
BY SIGNE BAKKE
The pianist Ellen Ugelvik reflected on the performer’s role in her project «The soloist in contemporary piano concerti». After working with Helmut Lachenmann, she wrote:
“The composers of today also belong to the same area in which musicians often are perceived as an ‘instrument’ for the composer. As musicians, we are not supposed to exaggerate our personal presence; the music is supposed to just pass through us. For example, when working with Helmut Lachenmann on his piano concerto Ausklang in 2010, Lachenmann sat down by the piano himself demonstrating what kind of sound I was supposed to make and wanted me to play exactly as he played. In brand new works commissioned by me, such an attitude may give rise to a double-bind situation. As a musician commissioning a new work in which I will be the soloist, I am a central constituent of the work. At the same time, the traditional role of the musician compels me to bracket myself as much as possible”. (Research Catalogue - Ellen Ugelvik:The soloist in contemporary piano concerti; 2018).
Performers experience composers in different ways. Morten Eide Pedersen showed another attitude towards performers than in Ugelvik’s description. Pedersen collaborated willingly with performers already from the stage of making sketches, thus letting them influence the score. He reflected about the different roles of performer and composer, experimenting with the performer’s role. In 2007 he arranged a seminar in which three performers played one of his compositions. Dynamics, synchronization of voices, phrasing and tempos were left to the performers to decide. It was interesting for him to hear the different possibilities for realizing his score. Several of his compositions contain elements of improvisation. His basic attitude was to appreciate the performer’s artistic contribution to the point of allowing them to “co-create” his pieces.
At the same time, I got the impression that he had a clear image of what he wished to hear. This was noticeable during the cooperative process. The performer’s freedom had clear limitations. In the written performer notes in his scores, Pedersen included clarifications about the essential ideas of his works. Despite the score’s openness to the performer’s liberties, his compositions have a recognizable and undeniable identity carrying his personal signature.
TAKING A FRESH LOOK AT HARALD SÆVERUD´S 2ND AND 3RD STRING QUARTETS
BY RICARDO ORDIOZOLA
My work with Harald Sæverud took place after eleven years of formal musical training, the last four of which were spent at Eastman School of Music, USA. Sæverud thwarted all of the expectations I held about the nature of a great composer, except for the possession of a very strong personality. I had grown to believe that symphonic composers had big ideas about form; that everything they wrote obeyed a clear plan laid out in advance; that they considered their scores as sacred artefacts that must not be changed. Instead, I found in Sæverud an artist who was concerned with the precise characterization of individual notes, a man who relied on inspiration from his surroundings (nature, home, family) in creating new works. He saw himself as a caretaker or gardener, whose job was to ensure that the original, inspired idea grew into a piece of music which best fulfilled the potential within the idea. He was a composer who did not hesitate in making changes in scores of his that were decades old, if he considered that they could be made better.
From Sæverud, I learned that music has to be experienced directly, not primarily intellectually, but through the feelings. Sæverud could break into tears at the thought of a beautiful detail of orchestration or become very agitated when in the presence of highly-energetic music. The strongest impression he left on me was his unrelenting awareness. No detail, however small, escaped his attention, whether in music or in daily life. Trond Sæverud said in a lecture at the Grieg Academy in 2012 that his grandfather saw the world as a film being played for his constant entertainment. I never experienced Sæverud as being bored. Such a state was antithetical to his approach to life. He could be in a relaxed state, but he never became lethargic or disengaged. Sæverud’s constant alertness and interest in everything around him informed my work on all music, not only Sæverud’s music.
Being in the presence of Harald Sæverud meant that one had to pay attention and be alert. This attitude summarizes, more than any discussion about the interpretation of his highly-detailed scores, the key to authenticity when approaching Sæverud’s music. The detailed nature of Sæverud’s scores is itself a manifestation of his alertness and attention to detail. To this day I feel the need to be highly alert whenever he performs the music of Sæverud, even more so if the performance takes place at Siljustøl, the composer’s home.
Sæverud poses a particular problem in this respect: his scores are saturated with instructions. The performer simply has to make up his or her mind about how to relate to these. Should we attempt to execute them in their totality? Should we assimilate their meaning before playing the music intuitively? Should we ignore them completely and perform the music according to our intuitive feeling for it - as Sæverud once reportedly asked Jan Henrik Kayser to do? Or should we adopt an approach combining all or some of the attitudes above?
I found myself in a challenging situation in this project; I had, decades earlier, heard the composer sing his musical themes in full character, incorporating all articulations, dynamics and expressive instructions. The title of my individual project was “Taking a Fresh Look at Harald Sæverud’s 2nd and 3rd string quartets”. While feeling compelled to stay true to my intent (keeping it “fresh”), I could not entirely ignore the archetypal sound of Sæverud’s voice in my head informing me about the “correct” performance of his music. In the end, I opted for a distillation of this knowledge, in pursuit of “the spirit of the music”, as opposed to a blind loyalty to the text.
It is about respecting the wishes expressed by the composer on the written page, while staying true to the spirit he or she represents. The “spirit” can be gleaned from the performer’s personal encounters with the composer or through what the performer is able to learn about the composer from texts and meetings with people who knew the composer personally.
As a servant, the performer aims to erase him or herself from the performance, so that the music may speak for itself. Such an achievement is only possible to a certain extent. Even the most fine-tuned human being, through whom music may flow uninhibited, will reveal a degree of his or her own individuality in performance. If performers A, B and C (all of whom have attained the highest imaginable level of personal balance and well-functioning) play the same piece of music, each of the performances will inevitably, be coloured by their individuality. This is as inevitable as it is desirable. The world of music would be unthinkably dull if everyone played the same pieces of music in exactly the same way!