On Signatures, Broken Rhythms and Mutes

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In anticipation of the world premiere of Alexandre Lunsqui's New York Philharmonic-commissioned Fibers, Yarn and Wire this Friday, December 16 and Saturday, December 17 at the Metropolitan Museum and Symphony Space, respectively, Q2 Music presents an exclusive chance to get to know the composer behind this season's NY Phil CONTACT! new-music series. Delayed webcasts of CONTACT! can be heard on Q2 Music December 21, 24 and 29.

I began to write this post only a few minutes after the first rehearsal of my work Fibers, Yarn and Wire with the New York Philharmonic, under the auspices of maestro Alan Gilbert. The rehearsals are taking place in the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium at the Metropolitan Museum.

When I began to compose Fibers, Yarn and Wire, two pictures became important sources for ideas. I am quoting myself here: “One picture was taken from the architect Peter Vanderpoel’s essay titled 'Polyrhythms and Architecture' and it consists of a large cloth made up of ‘discreet strips woven individually and then assembled side by side to provide the finished garment.’ The other picture is a colorful staircase in the interior of a Moroccan building. Both pictures show the results of a similar working process: raw material — fiber and pigment — becoming exquisite forms. The outward complexity of these works almost conceals the highly elaborated, meticulous, and somewhat hypnotic handicraft involved. Yet, they immediately resonate as potential models for music making.”

The process of rehearsing a new piece is always very intense. It is, after all, when the composer has the chance to listen for the first time the sounds that were once popping up inside his/her head. There is a lot of expectation involved: is the piece going to work? Are the musicians going to like it? One thing must be said, though: at least for me these questions come very much late in the process of creating the piece. Obviously, I don’t want to compose something that is not going to work, but even that notion is extremely flexible and multi-layered. I think I try to balance complexity and simplicity in my works. And I think it is a positive thing when the piece demands more than one listening to be assimilated.

A lot has happened since the first neumes were created many centuries ago to indicate the shapes of melodic contours. But one challenge remains for the composer: how to precisely notate complex sounds, layers of rhythms, differences of colors in harmonies and timbres, dynamic envelopes, instrumental gestures and expressive elements? We do have collections of symbols (a visual language) that somehow work like projections of the music. Perhaps I am being influenced by the fact that the auditorium where the rehearsals are taking place is near the Egyptian wing in the Metropolitan Museum, but I would say that interpreting these musical codes is very much like someone decoding embedded messages written on papyrus.

The first minutes of the rehearsal were dedicated to discuss some technical elements of the notation, especially certain choices for time signatures. The piece is full of very fluid broken rhythms. The pulse may be somewhat steady, but irregular rhythmic figures abound. In some cases, there are various solutions as how to organize a particular measure that does not follow the usual 4/4, 3/4, etc. The conductor has the authority to re-arrange the measure depending on the physicality involved and overall coherence.

As the rehearsal progressed, there were a few questions concerning the use of mutes in the brass section, types of sonorities for the strings (pizzicatti, col legno battuto, sul ponticello, etc), and a few dynamic markings missing. Often, an orchestral score has hundreds, maybe thousands of symbols. It is a large quantity of very precise information. Even after several proof-readings, it’s common for a composer to have to edit the score during the first rehearsal.

Here's a photo I snapped of the score during rehearsal: 

Once the notation issues were out of the way, the rehearsal became about shaping phrases, enhancing dynamics curves, organizing the balance between what should be in the foreground and background, polishing up rhythmic figures, etc. I tend to participate very actively during this initial process and I was very glad to see that the orchestra was very open to that kind of interaction.