Dench timez: day 1

Today I began learning Chris Dench’s alto flute solo Gelb : Violett from his Vier Darmstädter Aphorismen (which contains a solo for each of the four standard western classical flutes – piccolo, concert/C-flute, alto and bass). When I start out learning a solo like this one I’m always intimidated and worried that I’ve bitten off well more than I’m able to chew. But once I get into a bit of a flow with it and gain a bit of familiarity the learning process becomes something utterly doable and enjoyable. So I thought that this time I might actually document the process a little bit, keep something of a practice journal as I learn this and several other works by Dench for Kupka’s concert on December 2nd. This is probably mostly for myself, a kind of self-encouragement exercise that might also help me the next time I come to the beginning of a large learning task (almost always the toughest point for me). But maybe it might also serve as a resource to another musician wondering how to approach learning a piece like this one, or who might be struggling with similar non-issues.

So here’s my first-day diary:

The score is freshly printed, not a mark on it. I’ve opted for A4 even though that means tiny notes – the portability is useful – however I do have an A3 somewhere that I may have even started marking up in the past. I might dig that out for the note-learning stage (…paved with good intentions…).

I start by kind of noodling my way through the first few lines. It helps me get some of the jitters out. Or at least it helps me just to start, a big step*. Woah. This is a big learning commitment. Feeling suddenly anxious and slightly at sea, I return to Laura Chislett’s recording (see below) to start to get a sense of how these first lines might flow. I spend much of the day re-listening to this recording, both hearing the piece through to its end and repeating the first line or two. This is important image building, constructing the aural architecture which for the time being I can imitate. Later I’ll stop listening and my phrasings will move in slightly different directions (I know this from experience, having learnt Venezia, the concert flute piece from VDA, in a similar way. Listening to Laura’s recording now I realise I have quite a different concept of how the work flows and which phrases connect most naturally).

Of course, we contemporary music performers don’t always have this luxury. I often shy away from new solo pieces because I find constructing this kind of imagery on my own very challenging. (In ensemble works I often don’t really have a good mental image until after the first rehearsal.) Dench does his very best to make this easier on the performer by creating beautiful scores with copious phrase, articulation, and dynamic markings in precisely measured spatialisation. If a passage looks dense, it probably is. If it looks flowing and legato, that’s what you need to create. What you see is what you get. That’s certainly not the case for many of the new scores I’ve been handed, handwritten or typeset. But even with such care taken in notation, there’s still an awful lot of difficulty. Tiny grace notes fall over the top of each other and reading them isn’t easy. There’s no steady pulse – the first page contains twelve measures, with metre changes every bar (some are senza misura) and four different tempi over the course of the page. This page at least is not so tuplet-heavy as some other Dench works (turning to page two I immediately spot a nested tuplet, a 5:4 within a 21:16 where the twenty-one is dotted 32nd-notes into sixteen 16th notes so I won’t get too excited), but nevertheless has a few, in between which are squished a healthy smattering of grace notes. So, long story short, given the resource of a pre-existing recording, I’m gonna use it.

After a few listen-throughs, and a bit of time away from the flute, I returned and had another hack. Now some of the notes start to feel a little more like they belong together. I listen again to the opening and then I try to imagine myself playing it. Just the first flourish. Then I play. The better the visualisation, the more successful the attempt. Now I try the whole first bar. I’m building up, bit by bit, the material for the first line. I won’t get it flowing entirely smoothly today, I’ll need to apply a bunch of other techniques to it – rhythm variations, choosing different chunks, transitions between figures and phrases, singing the line, singing and playing, bringing out the melody notes, and so forth. But I’m beginning to build up the picture, just a tiny detail in the bottom left corner.

In learning Venezia I kind of fiddled around in this way until I hit a bit of a wall and realised that in order to achieve more precision I needed to seriously engage with the shifting time structures of the piece. I also needed to better connect all of the details presented to me, especially the tiny changes of dynamic and articulation. I marked up the score using coloured markers, so that the amount of blue (anything marked mp or quieter), purple (anything marked or moving to mf), and red (f and louder) could immediately communicate the dynamic transitions to my brain without my having to look directly at them. I also calculated the precise tempi of each tuplet or changed division, and practiced these microphrases with metronome before ditching the metronome and putting this patchwork of snippets together (for enhanced precision, this time I intend to make a clicktrack). I know some musicians resist this way of working (cheating!), but for me it helped create a sense of shifting sands and fluid motion that works very well with Dench’s lyricism.

This work could be done before picking up the flute, and for other pieces that’s exactly what I’ve done, for instance in preparing the score for eigenmomenta, one of the ensemble works we’ll be playing. I have upcoming rehearsals for that to keep me accountable! With solo works there’s often a more detailed fabric, and I kind of want to be sure that this method will fit the piece before I put the effort into an hour or two of mark-ups. Nearly every time it’s what I end up doing anyway, but I feel much more comfortable with it after doing the kind of things I started with today. Also, starting is terrifying; whatever I can do to ease the transition from nothing to something is good, if that’s allowing myself to noodle around with the first few lines in a completely unstructured way (or picking up my alto flute and forcing myself to carry it around until I just start practicing goddammit**) then so be it.

*Here’s quite a nice list of suggestions if you, like me, struggle with the start.

**I did this today. Can recommend.

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