Mefano- Interferences

I’ve been putting a lot of work in on Paul Mefano’s Intererences in the run up to this weekends sessions. Because of the open form techniques Gordon described in Part II of our interview, the notation is about as thorny as it gets. The challenge for the conductor is in managing the intersection of events that float in time and those that need to intersect at particularly moments.

The piece is in 3 “Fragments” (numbered IV, V and VI because the piece was originally much longer). It is the middle fragment which poses the most challenges for the conductor…


 There is free writing and metered writing in the other two movements, but Mefano mostly gives fairly specific numbered cues and second counts in the free passages. In the middle movement, however, Mefano is experimenting with what he called “fields of extendable time.” Mefano has written that “….extendible time fields was and still is a concept peculiar to myself. It may be too difficult to implement, despite its undeniable beauty as an idea. ” Since the whole point of the piece is that it can exist or coalesce in different forms, it would have been counter-productive for him to write in numbered cues, which would have fixed the intersection of events that he wanted the conductor or players to be able to shift in time. However, the complexity and density of the texture means it is not really possible for the players to simply wait for a cue and move at leisure.

Paul and I spoke about this movement on the phone for over an hour last week, and he told me of an early performance under Bruno Maderna. Maderna came to the rehearsal more or less sight-reading, but he had a phenomenal ability to do so. However, in their virgin condition, the parts are simply not playable. Moderna quickly realized the situation was hopeless and dismissed the musicians and collected the parts. He and Mefano returned to his flat and spent that evening marking numbered cues in the parts.

To my delight and relief, Paul and I had this conversation after I had spent the better part of two days editing the parts in exactly this way. However, as I’ve worked on it for the last two weeks, I feel like I’m understanding and getting comfortable with the nuances of his notation and language and feeling like some of my choices were a little too risk-averse. We’ll make a couple of changes from what I’ve marked in the rehearsal on Saturday, because I don’t want to cheat the piece of the freedom he is looking for. I often hear players complain that contemporary composers ignore the character of their instruments. Rather than writing “for” the cello or the horn, they’re simply writing something played on the cello or the horn. Mefano told me that this piece is partly a character study of the instruments, and that the instrumental writing is designed to be almost a caricature of the instruments. The horn should, in his words, sound noble and heroic, the cello lyrical and romantic, the violin neurotic (think Heldenleben), the flute like “birdy music of the time” (think Messiaen Le Merle Noire- Interferences was dedicated to Messiaen), and the bassoon humorous. In any case, when Gordon and I first looked at the score, it looked as though it bordered on being unperformably difficult (and with un-marked parts, it is completely unperformable), especially on limited rehearsal, but I think it will be fine, although a project like this always brings surprises….Paul is arriving on Saturday just in time for our rehearsal. I’m looking forward to meeting him and picking his brain about not only his music, but about is experiences with his colleagues over the years, including Xenakis and Brown who were both good friends of his.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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