CMEW wrap-up

I’m sorry not to have written sooner about my weekend with the Contemporary Music Ensemble of Wales, something I can only attribute to the combined effects of being very tired from it and very busy since it. In the end, I loved every piece on we did- it was a great and diverse program.

I came away from the weekend with three main thoughts I wanted to share.

First, I have to loudly shout my admiration for the tremendous virtuosity, dedication and goodwill of the musicians. To put together such a difficult program to such a high standard in two days is almost beyond reckoning. To perform it on Sunday night after two 3-hour rehearsals already that day is simply awe-inspiring. I hate to say it, but it’s not something that many elite American instrumentalists would do or allow, which is fair enough, but without CMEW’s  players being so willing to work unreasonably hard, this project would have never happened.

Second, I wanted to pass on to you a conversation I had with Paul Mefano after the concert. When I told him we were doing Interferences on one rehearsal, I think he nearly passed out. However, after the concert, he seemed quite thrilled with the performance, which featured some stunning solo playing from everyone in the ensemble. He told me quite bluntly that “40 years ago, this music was impossible to perform. Everyone struggled with it, no matter how many rehearsals we had, whether it was Bruno Maderna or Michael Gielen or Gibert Amy.” When he recorded the work with his Ensemble 2eM a few years ago, they had several rehearsals before the sessions, even though he had done it with them a number of times. I pass this on, not by means of self congratulating myself for getting through it on one rehearsal, but to remind us all not to be too quick to say “this piece is impossible.” Mefano’s interpreters found Fragment V of Interferences so impossible 40 years ago that he abandoned the idea of “flexible time fields” as “too difficult to implement.” Today’s instrumentalists can give a broadcast worthy performance after one rehearsal and a sound-check.  When a performer complains about an unplayable passage in a brand new piece, perhaps we should ask if it will still be so in 40 years?

Third, and finally, although all four pieces are formidable, I would say that the only problems the players had  with them in the end had to do not with what was written (how difficult, how tiring, how treacherous), but with how it was written down. I don’t to end with a rant, but musicians like the CMEW players will go to the matt for a composer, they will put in a super-human effort, and they can play anything they can read. The parts all four pieces posed challenges of legibility and use-ability, in some cases in spite of hard efforts and good intentions from the composer or publisher. I hate to sound like a broken record, but I’ll put my “Tips” forward again. Sibelius and Finale are wonderful tools, but do you really have the eye of a professional typesetter to make sure your parts are easily read? It may look good to you, but you know what is on the page, so you may not be really reading it as a player would be. I know a professional copyist is expensive, and good ones are hard to find…..

Publishers need to do a better job- the Mefano parts were in horrendous condition. In a piece where the players have to look up more often than usual and see finger signs instead of beats (which are much harder to detect), the musicians need parts that are totally EASY to read. The piece is wonderful, but it needs a critical performing edition. My Xenakis score was completely unreadable- I had it blown up to 3x its size and still couldn’t read parts of it.   One of my colleagues is doing Corigliano 1 this week, and the parts for that, which has been played hundreds of times now, are a nightmare. Ledger lines that aren’t evenly spaced that lead to notes that are higher being written lower on the page than the lower pitches which precede them! Also, if it can be written in 4/4, don’t write it in 4/16 unless you really have to- you’re just asking for counting mistakes (as the composer in question discovered this week). That’s not to say one should ever sacrifice a musical idea to be pragmatic, but sometimes pragmatism can be an ally of the musical idea as well…

Anyway, it was humbling and rewarding.

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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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4 comments on “CMEW wrap-up”

  1. ComposerBastard

    “…Also, if it can be written in 4/4, don’t write it in 4/16 unless you really have to- you’re just asking for counting mistakes (as the composer in question discovered this week!)….”

    Absolutely good advice!

    “… Sibelius and Finale are wonderful tools, but do you really have the eye of a professional typesetter to make sure your parts are easily read?…”

    Hmmm…I dunno…I’m having a sentimental memory of George Crumb’s scores, and a desire to working with thick French velum and rapidographs again to get some character back in the typeface…whadda think?

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Well…. George Cumb is a genius, and imitating genius is dangerous work! His notation is a perferct test of my basic idea of notation. Unique as it is, it is the most logical way of writing that music….

    I’d just say, if you can make your parts look like an 1860’s Breitkopf engraving, players can read them. Look at the height of the staves, the thickness of the staff lines, thikness of slurs, note sizes, number of bars per line, distribution of notes and durations in bars, placement of dynamics in something that everyone agrees is easy to read, and don’t be proud about copying it…. It’s the music that counts.

  3. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- a view from the podium » Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the IP Casino

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