Conducting Digitally

Last year, on my way out the door to JFK and a gig in Dublin, I thumbed through the D section of my bookcase of scores looking for my score to Donnacha Dennehy’s Grá agus Bás. But it wasn’t there. I tore apart the whole bookcase thinking it might have been misfiled or gotten wedged in somewhere, but to no avail. The score was gone and along with it years of precious and irreplaceable markings: rehearsal decisions and changes, things Donnacha had said about the music, notes on the text and its sources. Records from years of work with the composer and the ensemble were now gone. This was stuff that couldn’t be replaced easily if at all.

That episode got me thinking about the advantages of dealing with scores digitally: marking and conducting off of a tablet, with scores and markings safely backed up in the cloud. I’d already been moving my CDs, books, and pictures to digital and the cloud and had found lots of benefits; doing the same with my scores seemed like it could make my conducting life better in lots of ways:

Access. Any version of any score in my library could be available on any device at any time. I spent over a third of last year on the road, so that’s a big plus.

Safety. All of my scores and their markings could be safely stored in the cloud (with local backups too).

Flexibility. What I need to look at in a score changes from one gig to another and over the years I may spend with a piece. Marking up a physical score is a fairly permanent act, but digital markings can easily be erased and redone and can exist in infinite different versions. And what happens when a score is revised? While a hard-copy score has to be marked again from scratch, PDF annotations can easily be copied from one version to another.

Collaboration. It’s frequently helpful for players to see how I mark up my scores, and there are sometimes things I need to do in marking up a score that are algorithmic enough that I could outsource them to an assistant. All of this would be difficult with hard copy scores but is easily done with digital ones.

Simplicity and minimalism. No more hassles with printing and binding; no more shelves and piles of scores gathering dust and getting ragged with time.

So I began to look seriously at conducting off a tablet. Of course, many musicians perform off tablets, but conducting brings particular challenges for both hardware and software. The main hardware challenge is size: the iPads and Android tablets that I see musicians performing off of are too small for me to conduct full scores from. The main software challenge is page-turning reliability and speed: most PDF reading apps I tested on most devices were either too slow or not reliable enough in responding to page turns. Scores generally involve much more frequent page turns than players’ parts, and without bars of rest. The software has to be able to keep up: even a brief lag in page turning could be disastrous. (In an early trial of conducting off of a tablet, the software I used lagged a full six bars behind in turning pages in a performance of Nancarrow’s ferocious Study 3A; it was terrifying.)

I spent a long time searching for a setup that would meet all of these needs with as few missteps along the way: backstage with Crash Ensemble players just before walking on stage, I was demonstrating to a player how you adjust the screen brightness on a device I was trying and accidentally turned the screen completely off and couldn’t turn it back on. Someone had to throw a paper score at me as we walked on stage. But I finally found a setup that works really well:

HARDWARE: 

Sony Vaio Flip 15. This is my laptop, but it’s perfect for marking scores: the screen can fold back on the keyboard, turning the laptop into a (thick) tablet, and you can write on the screen with a stylus, which is infinitely better for marking up scores than a finger. The 15″ screen is a little small for actually conducting off of, but it’s fantastic for marking scores. I also keep it close on hand for performances in case something goes wrong with the larger-screened device I principally use for conducting…

Dell XPS 20. This is my “conducting tablet,” the device I actually conduct off of. It’s got a big 18.4″ screen which is a great size for scores, though still small enough to (barely) slide into my backpack. Without stylus support, it’s not as good for marking as the laptop, but I can make markings with a finger in rehearsals and then clean them up later on another device if I want to. I’ve been careful to keep the conducting tablet free from any software besides the app I use for conducting: I want to minimize the chances of anything unexpected happening in performance.

Nexus 7. It’s often useful to be able to look at scores on a small device that I can keep in a pocket and pull out anywhere. The Nexus 7 is perfect for that. With a 7 inch screen and no stylus, it’s not great for marking and would be terrible to conduct off of, but it’s ideal for light score study on the subway or a plane. It’s like those old “pocket scores” from days of yore.

SOFTWARE:

Drawboard PDF. This is the app I use for marking and conducting scores. It’s got the best annotation tools I’ve found in the Windows Store, and works wonderfully with the pen. It’s also got super smooth, reliable page turning, which is critical for performance. Drawboard is developing and improving at an extraordinary pace, and its staff has been amazingly responsive in dealing with bugs I’ve caught and features I’ve suggested. I’m very grateful to them.

Google Drive (along with FolderSync on Android). This is what keeps all of the scores in sync between all of my devices. I’ve a “current repertoire” folder which is automatically synced via Google Drive between all my devices. It’s lovely to be able to mark a score on, say, my Nexus 7 and have the markings automatically show up on the conducting tablet when next I turn it on.

I’ve been using this setup for a few months now and really loving it. I’m gradually replacing all of my physical scores with PDFs, which is also making my apartment neater and less dusty; and it’s great to have more and more music available on these devices. I’m particularly appreciating the experience of content divorced from form: in the old days, having a big score of a piece for the podium and a small one for the pocket meant buying two scores (which would never have the same markings); with this setup, I can work with the same PDF (with the same markings) out on any device of any size.

There are still issues, though. The biggest frustration is publishers: most are very reluctant to share PDFs of scores. Of course, one can always scan scores and make PDFs that way, but the software-generated vector PDFs that publishers have of any recent scores are higher quality files that are smaller and take less processing power. But few publishers are comfortable sharing them. I hope that this will gradually change as the demand for digital versions of music increases.

And while conducting off tablet is safer in many ways, it’s almost certainly more prone to catastrophe on any particular gig than working off of paper scores: a PC crash is probably more likely than music falling off a stand or out of a binder and harder to recover from.

But the plusses seem to far outweigh the minuses. Last week, I realized that I’d forgotten to download a score that I was about to conduct a rehearsal of. But it just took a few taps in to have the score downloaded and ready to conduct with all of my markings. That was a whole lot easier and a whole lot less stress than what I had to deal with with Donnacha’s lost score next year. I’m hoping that will be the last marked score that I ever lose.

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Alarm Will Sound Discusses Steve Reich

In preparation for our visit to the Community Music School, and for a workshop designed for beginning and early intermediate students on the characteristics of Steve Reich’s music, I polled my colleagues in Alarm Will Sound. They were asked to share some their earliest memories of his music and of course, their favorite pieces. Here’s what they had to say:

Courtney Orlando: violin, voice, accordion

What is your favorite piece to listen to by Steve Reich?
I have two favorites:  Tehillim (for voices and mixed instruments) and Sextet (for percussion and keyboards).  Each is a multi-movement work, and the contrast between the movements is what makes these pieces so interesting to me.  They go from being incredibly joyous to extremely subdued in seconds.  It’s very striking!

What is your favorite piece to play by Steve Reich?
Again, I have a few favorites:  Music for 18 Musicians is really fantastic in its variation and breadth, and Triple Quartet is so energetic and fun.  However, I think my favorite overall is Daniel Variations.  The subject matter is the execution of the journalist Daniel Pearl.  It’s beautiful and heartbreaking to listen to, and so moving to play.

What was your first experience with his music?
The first pieces of his that I heard were his early tape piece, Coming Out, and his string quartet, Different Trains, which also has a pre-recorded component.  The first piece I played was The Desert Music, which was also the first piece I recorded (with AWS).

If you could ask him one question today, what would it be?
Even though I’m a violinist, I would ask him why he writes such difficult cello parts.  He writes in a very high register for the cello, and I’ve heard numerous cellists comment (read “complain”) about it.  I’m guessing he just wants that specific timbre, which is a very unique timbre – quite nasal and piercing.  It would be different than simply writing those parts for viola, which would sound much more mellow and nondescript.

Do you have any stories to share?
My favorite Steve story is from my very first performance of Tehillim, at which he was running the sound board.  At a certain point in the piece, the strings were playing long tones – nothing really all that interesting.  But for some reason, Steve decided to turn me WAY up in the mix – I was MUCH louder than everything else that was going on.  I thought he must have made a mistake, but when I looked up at him, he gave me two thumbs up.  He obviously really wanted to hear that specific line right then.


Caleb Burhans: violin, viola, voice, guitar, composition

What is your favorite piece to listen to by Steve Reich?
I think my favorite piece is probably Music for 18 Musicians. it’s such an important piece and it also motivates me to enjoy life or just clean my apartment.

What is your favorite piece to play by Steve Reich?
That’s a tough one since I feel like a lot of his vibe exists in all of his pieces. I’d have to say either Tehillim or Music for 18 Musicians. I’ve played and sung both, respectively, many times and it continues to be the most uplifting musical experience I’ve ever had.

What was your first experience with his music?
I was 13 when I first heard The Desert Music. I didn’t like it and honestly, didn’t give it much a chance. it wasn’t until I was 17 when I first heard Tehillim and was totally hooked. it’s also the first piece of his I ever had the privilege of playing as well as the first recording I ever did. when the hallelujah comes in at the end of the last movement, for me, it’s the most transcendent moment in music and it gives me goosebumps every time.

If you could ask him one question today, what would it be?
What’s up with the baseball cap? (I’ve known him for 14 years and have never once seen him without his black baseball cap)

Do you have any stories to share?
Steve doesn’t use a ton of dynamics in his music. one thing he’s said a number of times is that, in his music mf doesn’t mean mezzo forte. it means matter of fact. I like that a lot and feel that it sums up Steve’s vibe quite nicely.


Stefen Freund: cello, composition

What is your favorite piece to listen to by Steve Reich?
Hearing Piano Phase live.

What is your favorite piece to play by Steve Reich?
Radio Rewrite

What was your first experience with his music?
I remember listening to the Desert Music on a cross-country road trip once. That was a really bad idea because it put me to sleep.

If you could ask him one question today, what would it be?
What was it like to be downtown on 9/11?


Christa Robinson: oboes

What is your favorite piece to listen to by Steve Reich?
Electric Counterpoint

What is your favorite piece to play by Steve Reich?
Three Genesis Settings from the Cave, especially the 2nd movement, Birth of Isaac

What was your first experience with his music?
The album with Pat Metheny playing Electric Counterpoint, and Kronos Quartet playing Different Trains was constantly being play by someone or another on my dorm floor during my freshman year at Eastman.  I couldn’t help but be interested in hearing more.  I grew quickly to LOVE it!

If you could ask him one question today, what would it be?
What is your favorite piece to listen to?


Bill Kalinkos: clarinets, saxophones

What is your favorite piece to listen to by Steve Reich?
Tehillim

What is your favorite piece to play by Steve Reich
Music for 18 Musicians

What was your first experience with his music
I think it was playing Clapping Music when I was in middle school.


Elisabeth Stimpert: clarinets, saxophones

What is your favorite piece to listen to by Steve Reich?
Tehillim

What is your favorite piece to play by Steve Reich?
That’s a toss-up between Tehillim and Music for 18.  But I also have a great affection for Clapping Music, which I teach to my first-semester aural skills students every year.  It’s so much fun to see the light-bulbs go on over their heads as they figure out how to navigate the groove of that piece.

What was your first experience with his music?
My first memorable experience with Reich was performing Music for 18 at Eastman with Ossia.  By the end of the concert, it was really music for 17 1/2, because one of the cellists got sick and wandered off stage and collapsed.  That was one of the first times I had played large-scale chamber music where the players were responsible for cues and communication without a conductor and it kind of blew my mind.

If you could ask him one question today, what would it be?
What’s under that baseball hat, anyway?


Michael Parker Harley: bassoon, voice, keyboards

What is your favorite piece to listen to by Steve Reich?
Music for 18 Musicians.  It’s such a big, beautiful piece and creates a really special world of sound all its own.

What is your favorite piece to play by Steve Reich?
I enjoyed Tehillim very much — especially because it’s maybe his only piece that uses bassoon!

What was your first experience with his music?
I first heard one of his early pieces that uses phasing – I think “It’s Gonna Rain” — in school, studying contemporary music, and remember thinking it was really weird!  though I liked the idea of it — he recorded a preacher on the sidewalk outside and then used that tape running at different speeds against itself.

If you could ask him one question today, what would it be?
Who is the living composer you most admire, and why?


Michael Clayville: trombone

What is your favorite piece to listen to by Steve Reich?
Music for 18 Musicians

What is your favorite piece to play by Steve Reich?
City Life, it’s the only piece of his I’ve been able to play!  He doesn’t have very many brass parts unfortunately.

What was your first experience with his music?
My first experience with his music didn’t really involve hearing his music… it was the concert he gave at Eastman (around 1999?), the audience was so big that it stretched out into the main hall of the school. It was nearly impossible to even get into the school with the huge crowd. The amount of people there made me interested in his music and got me listening.

If you could ask him one question today, what would it be?
Why don’t you write more brass parts? ;-)


Jason Price: trumpet

What is your favorite piece to listen to by Steve Reich?
Definitely Electric Counterpoint with Pat Metheny. I put that on all the time and I’m a big fan from back in the day when I worshiped Pat Metheney! Maybe Different Trains as a second.

What is your favorite piece to play by Steve Reich?
Only Music for Large Ensembles involves my instrument, so that would have to be it!

What was your first experience with his music?
Different Trains came out when I was a freshman in college and I was totally obsessed with it! It completely spoke to me! Still gets to me.

If you could ask him one question today, what would it be?
I would ask him what his interest in paired instrumentation is. As a twin I’d ask him what his interest in paired instruments is – I’m interested in pairs of things.


Chris Thompson: percussion

What is your favorite piece to listen to by Steve Reich?
Electric Counterpoint

What is your favorite piece to play by Steve Reich?
City Life, especially the first movement.

What was your first experience with his music?
Six Marimbas, in percussion ensemble my sophomore year of college. We were totally perplexed, and playing it probably at about half tempo. I had never done anything like it. In my curiosity to figure out who this guy was, I went to Tower Records and bought the Steve Reich CD with the coolest looking cover, which happened to be the iconic Kronos Quartet/Pat Methany recording of Different Trains and Electric Counterpoint. I’ve listened to that record hundreds of times.

If you could ask him one question today, what would it be?
It would probably be something boring about New York real estate in the 60s and 70s

Do you have any stories to share?
Steve is super iconic in our world and we are naturally pretty nervous every time we get to work with him directly. One time just before he was scheduled to show up, we happened to be having a pathetically bad rehearsal of the piece of his we were all least prepared for. The focus sucked, stupid mistakes were happening everywhere, stuff was falling apart, it was really tense. So when Steve walked in earlier than expected, it was like the entire ensemble held its breath: we were pretty sure it was about to be a bloodbath.  Yet somehow the sudden pressure caused us to completely turn it around, and we white-knuckled our way through a full run of the piece and managed to make all work. Steve seemed happy. It felt like a miracle.  From that day on, we’ve had a life-sized cardboard cutout of Steve in front of us at every rehearsal.


Alan Pierson: artistic director, conductor

What is your favorite piece to listen to by Steve Reich?
Tehillim

What is your favorite piece to play by Steve Reich?
Tehillim!

What was your first experience with his music?
Tehillim! It was played for me by a teacher at a summer program at Northwestern the summer after my senior year in high school.

Do you have any stories to share
I love that, while composing Tehillim, he recorded himself singing all the vocal parts. I so want to hear it.

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Memorizing “Intégrales”

On February 20th, Alarm Will Sound and Dance Heginbotham presented “Twinned” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. As part of the performance Alarm Will Sound performed Intégrales by Edgard Varèse while moving around the Engelhardt Court in the American Wing of the museum. To be able to pull off playing and moving AWS members devised some ingenious ways to memorize their parts. Here’s a gallery of showing some of the notation systems and ways of carrying it around they developed:

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Alarm Will Sound’s Staged Realization of Edgard Varèse’s “Intégrales”

 

Nigel Maister, Alarm Will Sound’s theatrical director, laid out some details for the performers. Below are Nigel’s words to which we’ve added audio excerpts.

As when we first performed this piece, the staging of the Varese and its structure, have been conceived as a narrative of a battle, one in which the directionality of the sound (where it’s coming from and where it’s aimed at) plays a part.  The audience is, at times, surrounded by competing volleys of sound—in the thick of the battle, as it were.  I’m going to lay out the general narrative in its broadest form, as it may help you find your way into the theatrical dialogue of the piece.

The structure of the battle is, simply, the following: we start with opposing camps—the clarinets, flutes, oboe and trumpets behind the audience on one side, versus the trombones, percussion and horn, on “stage” on the other.

The forces of the clarinets (et al) are ultimately weaker and overpowered by the onstage forces.  The E♭ clarinet begins the piece with a “call to arms” from the balcony on top of the Tiffany Alcove, a call that “wakens” the trombones (who you can think of as surly and sometimes aggressive sentries on the opposing side).

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In turn, that brings the forces on the onstage side of the battle out onto the field egged on by the bass and snare/tenor drums.  Ultimately, the bullying and badgering of the onstage forces “defeats” the weaker side, and trumpets, clarinets and flutes (the most bashful and shrilly timid of the bunch) all are “brought over” to the onstage forces.  This concludes with the capitulation of the flutes (at the “Lent,” measure 5 before Reh 16).

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The climax at measure 6 before Reh 16 is the end of “Act 1” of the piece.  At this stage, to all intents and purposes, we think the battle is over.  Everyone takes a breather and relaxes (except from some of the percussion who are dutifully still at their posts/on the lookout). The entire ensemble is gathered on the onstage area of the space.  Except for the oboe, that is, who we’ve forgotten and who has been hiding/left behind enemy lines (still behind the audience), so to speak.  She’s like a refugee—shell-shocked and terrified—who emerges from the bombed out rubble long after everyone else has fled. Once she announces herself plaintively, the remainder of the piece revolves around everyone trying to get the oboe—by cajoling, bullying, sweet talk, encouragement (it differs by instrument; the clarinets tend to be the most comforting; the trombones the most bullying)—to come over to the winning side.  The oboe is lyrical, bashful and timid.

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She eventually does get lured onto the playing space, but once moving into the heart of the victorious forces, instead of being saved, she is ultimately destroyed (which is how the piece ends).  Not all refugees survive the war.

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I don’t know if you’ll hear all that and it’s not important that an audience follow this narrative with absolute clarity…but it will give focus to what you do.

Some brief “character” notes:

Piccolos/Flutes: timid, skittish, shrill; very dependent on each other. Physically you are a close, worrywart team.

Oboe: like a vulnerable, wounded animal.

Clarinets:  you’re like sentinels/sentries; you’re sensible; direct and emphatic (without being bullying)

Horn:  you’re almost the leader if the onstage forces; you have authority; you keep tabs on everyone; you corral people and organize them; you motivate; you’re the general

Trumpets:  you’re strident and warlike

Trombones:  you’re sentries and lookouts; you quarrel and “talk” amongst yourselves.  The Bass trombone tends to be the leader; the Ten trombone tends to be the aggressive hot headed one; the Cb trombone is the surly, but menacing one…the “bouncer”.

Percussion: precise, militaristic; urgent and insistent

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Living Toys at the Metropolitan Museum

When I learned that we were to perform Living Toys at the Metropolitan Museum, I was excited because I could immediately see connections between the visual nature of Thomas Adès’s masterpiece and the Met’s holdings. I went on a hunt to put together images that I think work well with the story behind the music.

“When the men asked him what he wanted to be, the child did not name any of their own occupations, as they had all hoped he would, but replied: ‘I am going to be a hero, and dance with angels and bulls, and fight with bulls and soldiers, and die a hero in outer space, and be buried a hero’. Seeing him standing there, the men felt small, understanding that they were not heroes, and that their lives were less substantial than the dreams which surrounded the child like toys.”anon. (from the Spanish)

This story presents an explicit program for Living Toys, composed by Adès when he was just twenty-two. It does not merely describe the dreams of a child in general terms —to do great things, to be unique, and to be celebrated for it — the story is more specific: the child wants to “dance with angels and bulls,” to “fight with bulls and soldiers,” to “die a hero in outer space,” and to “be buried a hero.” Adès wrote this story after composing the music, possibly to justify (in his youthful insecurity) what he had composed. It’s not exactly a Spanish folk tale; it’s more like a scientist changing his question to fit the answer he’s already found. However, the imagery the composer developed after the fact is a fantastic point of entry to the music.

Living Toys is divided into five main movements (Angels, Aurochs, Militiamen, H.A.L.’s Death and Playing Funerals), each representative of a portion of the composer’s story. The musical depictions of these images are rarely cut-and-dry: Adès’s angels don’t sing pure harmonies accompanied by harps, his military men don’t march in time to regular rhythms, his dying computer contains no electronics. The Met’s enormous collection is the perfect place to find parallels in visual art.

In the first movement, the plaintive French horn solo represents the child hero. That melody is set against shimmering woodwinds, pulsating gongs and gradually morphing sustained notes which draw to mind not your run-of-the-mill, frolicking cherubs but rather otherworldly, ethereal angels: creatures without definite form or distinguishing features.

Angel (Recto); Fragmentary Sketches of Same Subject (Verso)
Anonymous, Italian, 16th century  (Italian, active Central Italy, ca. 1550–1580) 

“Aurochs,” the second movement, begins with a noble theme in the low instruments but its regular, triple rhythm is quickly thrown. The theme becomes more and more diffuse, eventually becoming just a memory of its original character, and after a kind of musical bullfight it is overlaid with a form of the horn theme from the opening of the piece. Through the battle members of the ensemble even clap, mimicking castanets or perhaps the claps of the bullfighter, taunting the beast.

The militiamen Adès depicts in the third movement don’t appear to be battle-hardened veterans. An off-kilter drum beat and jazz-inflected piccolo trumpet bring to mind images of someone engaging in battle without fully understanding its horrors, like the boy of Adès’s story playing at war rather than actually going to war. There exists a roughness and density that does speak of war, creating a balance between playfulness and disaster.

Untitled
David Levinthal  (American, born 1949) 

“H.A.L.’s Death” is a slow lament, a moment suspended in time. Adès weaves the tune “Daisy Bell” into the subterranean low register in the contrabass, bassoon and piano; a nod to the death of H.A.L. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The Falling Soldier
Robert Capa  (American (born Hungary), Budapest 1913–1954 Thai Binh) 

The final movement “Playing Funerals” begins with a violent descending figure and settles into another slow movement, a dirge. Lines pass through the ensemble as the music transforms subtly in timbre and register. It is a stately, solemn affair.

The Funeral
Édouard Manet  (French, Paris 1832–1883 Paris)

Soldier’s Funeral (from The Life and Death of a Soldier)
Etched and published by Robert Blyth  (British, ca. 1750–1784) 

Derry, 1971, Funeral of an IRA Volunteer
Gilles Peress  (French, born 1946) 

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Pitch Patterns in Steve Reich’s “Clapping Music”

Clapping Music

Alarm Will Sound will perform Steve Reich’s Clapping Music on the 16th at Stanford. (If you don’t know the piece, see here.) It will be a full ensemble performance of the piece with Steve Reich, the man himself, clapping along. Steve has never done the piece in such a way before, and quite possibly it’s the first time it will ever be done with such a large group. (Though it has been juggled before.)

Practicing it got me thinking about my past experiences with the work and particularly an anecdote that I vaguely remembered from a music theory course. What I recalled was that there was a way to map notes to the rhythm and as the pattern phased against itself it would line up in significant ways.

I did the most logical thing for me: I contacted Gavin Chuck, AWS managing director (and music theorist extraordinaire) and Alan Pierson, AWS music director. A lengthy (strange) email exchange ensued: Alan pointed out that there are twelve eighth notes in the pattern which can be mapped to the chromatic scale. Gavin took it a step further:
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