Tag: love letters

Love letters: a prologue

Song 1 (1966) Michael Finnissy
Song 16 (1976) Michael Finnissy

Three Songs by Ukerion O’Connor (2007) Jennifer Walshe
Flow my tears (1600) John Dowland
Che si puo fare (1664) Barbara

I have a theory:

Pieces are beings.

They have personalities, likes and dislikes.
There are things that they enjoy, behaviors that they tolerate, and requests that they absolutely refuse.

Sometimes, when I am in the middle of working on a piece, I will get to a stage where I am making small improvements here and there. But the piece just won’t quite speak. Then, I notice a small thing, tweak my approach, and all of a sudden the piece opens up. It’s as if, before that, the piece was being polite and making chit-chat, until I stumbled upon something that it was also interested in. Then we start truly talking to each other.

(There are also pieces that I don’t get along with, or pieces that I think are wonderful but who just don’t like me. Sometimes that realization happens on the first date. Sometimes it takes years of trying before either of us realizes that, and then a few more years before we forgive ourselves for not being the right match.)

As a freelancer who does mostly contemporary and early music, pieces come and go in my life like people through revolving doors. It is rare for a piece and I to stay with each other. It’s even rarer for us to grow together: as I get older and inevitably change, sometimes what interests me is no longer fun for the piece, and vice versa.

Despite that, there are a handful of pieces that chose to stick with me, through thick and through thin.

And this is a series of love letters to some of those pieces.

The story starts like this:

In 2021, my friend Juliet Fraser connected me with her friend Jacquelyn Bell, who was looking to support art-making as a private patron. My initial pitch to them was a project to make new recordings and refresh my digital portfolio. Jacquelyn generously agreed to help fund the project. I continued thinking about it and expanded the idea to include videos, filmed during the recording session. To support this version of the project, I applied to and was granted funding from Help Musicians to cover everyone’s fees and expenses. On top of that, I was given insightful one-on-one coaching from some Help Musicians mentors as part of the funding package. During the coaching sessions, one thing led to another, and slowly the project morphed from its initial idea of audition videos into this current labor of love, which now also includes a small writing challenge for myself.

These pieces carried me to where I am now.

They met me when I didn’t know much, witnessed me being confused and frustrated with rhythms, pitches, and life in general. But somehow we muddled through together and became friends. (To be honest, we’re still muddling. Just with a bit more experience and patience.) I learned what I was capable of because they were counting on me to pull through for them. They can be a right pain in the butt, but all good friends are like that sometimes.

I love them. These pieces hold a special place in my repertoire.

It should come as no surprise that it took a village to make this project. I would like to say “thank you” on the record here to some of the amazing humans in my life:

To Juliet Fraser, the big sister and friend I look up to, who lit the initial spark and gave me momentum.

To Jacquelyn Bell and Help Musicians, who believed in me, funded this endeavor, and shepherded the project along the way.

To Jacob Heringman and Susanna Pell, who miraculously joined in for this. (I’m still fan-girling, you cannot stop me.)

To Angela Guyton, who filmed in ninja-like silence while we were also recording audio, and made the beautiful visuals.

To Aaron Cassidy, heart of my heart, who is a great producer/sound engineer, and also my wonderful husband.

And lastly:

To all the pieces that stuck around, I hope you will continue to be my companions as I walk my path.

To all the pieces I have yet to meet, but will become friends with, I look forward to having you in my life.

Love letters: Three Songs by Ukeoirn O’Connor | Jennifer Walshe

The first time I met this piece was at the Darmstadt summer academy. Jennifer Walshe walked onto the stage with her red ukulele, strummed the first chord, and I was a goner. It was exquisite.

The piece was listed as “Three Songs by Ukeoirn O’Connor” in the program. So, once I got home, I started looking for some way to contact Ukeoirn O’Connor. There were some writings about him and the piece, but I couldn’t find a website or email for him at all. Finally, I sheepishly emailed Jen, asking if she could please put me in touch with him. I felt bad bothering her for such a small thing, but I was desperate: I really wanted to do the piece.

To my surprise, she emailed back and told me that she was the composer. Somehow, during all of my digging, I failed to figure out that Ukeoirn O’Connor was member of Grúpat: an art collective entirely peopled by Jen’s meticulously constructed alter egos with real-life outputs such as installations, albums, books, etc. and online footprints in interviews and articles.

Jen asked if I could meet her in London in a few weeks. She hadn’t intended for someone else to perform the piece, so the score needed a clean-up and she needed to walk me through some details. I gladly said yes, hopped on a Megabus from Huddersfield to London, and met her at the cafe inside Foyles.

Jen showed me the three-page score, which had mnemonics for the various vocal colors: there was “Morrissey”, “Fozzie Bear”, “Cocteau Twins” in the first movement, and various tongue positions plus direct samples from a recording Jen found of Irish women miners singing in the third movement. For the second movement, Jen spoke about how she strummed the ukulele with her thumb angled, so the fleshy pad contacted the strings and made a meatier sound. (She also warned me about getting a blister from that and suggested that I build up a callous on my thumb. Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to build up callouses on my fingers, even during my serious violinist days, so I’ve always played this piece with a bouncy, bubble-like thumb blister on the verge of popping mid-performance.)

The best way to learn the piece, she said, was to look at the score and listen to her recording of the piece. The piece lived somewhere between the notated score and her performances.

By tracing over Jen’s recording as carefully as possible each time, every tiny flaw and accidental deviation I make is a beautiful, unintentional affirmation of my presence. I don’t try to copy Jen’s voice when preparing the piece, I’m not trying to mimic the sonic surface. Jen’s recording and score are my conduits to accessing this piece, this ontologically independent entity. Preparing this piece is an act of triangulation between the oral tradition from Jen, the piece itself, and my own body.

Three Songs by Ukeoirn O’Connor is as close as I get to belonging to a folk tradition. It has a special place in my repertoire: most of the time I’m looking for ways to stop shouldering the weight of a piece’s performance history by looking at it with fresh eyes, or I’m treading into unknown territory and creating a performance history for a new work. Three Songs by Ukeoirn O’Connor is the one piece where I embrace the being part of a lineage. It might sound like experimental music, but I prepare the piece with a sense of responsibility and respect towards its oral history. I love this piece, and I am deeply grateful to Jen.

It’s interesting to note that Jen’s Ukeoirn O’Connor is part Irish and part Japanese, a mix of two cultures, like me. I didn’t know that when I first heard the piece, I just felt an unexplainable pull towards it. But it makes sense, in hindsight, that it is a folk song I chose to claim for myself. This piece is a belonging-place for me, and the process of preparing it is a tradition I follow together with Ukeoirn O’Connor: gazing both into the past and future, simultaneously disrespectful and honoring, nostalgic for an imaginary past and impatient for the unclear future.

Love letters: Song 1 and Song 16 | Michael Finnissy

I remember excitedly opening the envelope containing these scores as a Masters student in 2009 and immediately being intimidated.
I chose to do them anyway.
I couldn’t help myself. Even then, I could see that they were lush, sparkling, quicksilver darlings.

When I first started working on these pieces, I was quite naïve. I told myself that, at the end of the day, it was just pitches and rhythms. It was only a matter of time before I learned them. Of course, the more I worked on them, the more I realized that those things are always intertwined with gesture and pacing.

For me, the pitches and rhythms in these pieces have real physical qualities. They have mass, and there are velocities and trajectories. Some things drift along like dandelion fluff; others require a solid shove to start moving, before gathering more and more momentum as they roll. They stretch, snap back, bounce, soar, and thud.

On the second page of Song 16, there is a cluster of 9 pitches within a quarter note, and on the third page there is a cluster of 10 pitches within an eighth note. How slow can the pulse be, to get those two gestures to be different, but also to be able to sustain a line that has half notes in it?

If I look at the text of the first line, plus the vocal range and the possible breathing points… What might I try out for tempo and dynamics? What does that mean for color? And if I choose one of those options for the first line, what consequences does it have for the next line? For the next section? For the pacing of the whole piece?

In Song 1, what are the implications if I consider the filigree writing not as ornaments but as an integral part of the main line? Are the grace notes part of the filigree material, or something separate? What is the color of p in this piece? If that’s p, what is ppp? How much am I willing to risk for the ppp? Are vocal flaws considered expressive in the universe of this piece?

These two pieces have so much personality. They don’t tolerate interference and heavy-handedness. Each time, I try to dance through the pieces with playfulness and carry the technical challenges lightly. I see how much wider I can stretch things, how much sharper the rebounding snap-back can be, and if I can make the bounces more buoyant. It’s always an exercise in bravery: how heavy do I dare to make the consequences of my actions? How high can I dial up the contrast, without losing sight of the details?

As always, I’ve had help from many people along the way. My sincere thanks to Ian Pace, who sent me the Song scores in the post all those years ago, James Weeks for chatting about these two pieces in the context of Finnissy’s oeuvre, and Lucy Goddard for coaching me on the Italian. Thank you to my MA supervisor John Potter, who never told me that what I was doing was hard. (Sometimes the line between naïveté and bravery is a fine one.) Whenever I brought him a thought or a piece, he would just grin and tell me to keep going.

And of course, a deep thanks from the bottom of my heart to Michael Finnissy, who has been encouraging and supportive from the very beginning of this journey.

Love letters: early music | John Downland and Barbara Strozzi

I struggled with the text for this love letter.

Flow my tears by John Dowland and Che si può fare by Barbara Strozzi: it’s not that I love them any less than the other pieces in this series, or that I love them in a different way. They are just also well-loved by many other people. What could I possibly offer that hasn’t already been said by someone else? There are so many performances of these two pieces. Was it necessary to add my versions to the world? Was it self-indulgent?

Plus, performance practice/history can be a heavy thing to reckon with. At its best, it is a chest of tools made by past performers and scholars that one can use to build new things. At its worst, it is a collection of hardened “shoulds” and “should-nots” to measure against and find lack.

I rolled the thoughts around in my brain while going for a run, and realized that maybe the premises for my questions were faulty to begin with. As I wrote earlier, pieces are beings, and each person has their own individual, private relationship with a piece. I enjoy researching performance practice for early music, but would probably be wary of anyone who said they knew the One True Way™ of performing anything.

Pieces are not territories to be occupied, to be conquered. Pieces are not objects that get worn out by use. They are not commodities; there is no part of any of this which is finite. I understood why these concerns appeared in my mind, but none of these were the real question.

I dug a little deeper and unearthed it, the one we singers ask ourselves when we lie awake in the middle of the night:

Why sing?

As this was mid-run, my thoughts naturally drifted to why I was running that particular evening. I felt my sore muscles, my burning lungs, my pounding heart. I felt the sweat trickle down my forehead, drip down my back, gather in my elbow creases. None of that was comfortable. I certainly wasn’t running because it was fun. But I had just gotten through a difficult day of rehearsal by dimming myself, and I wanted to at least finish the last remaining bit of the day on my own terms. I wanted to feel, to be fully myself even just for these thirty sweaty, swear-word-filled minutes. I wanted proof that I was living and not just surviving.

Perhaps this is why I sing these two pieces. I want to feel. I feel my body: my ribcage expanding with inhalations, my heart pulsing as I sustain long notes. I lean into or away from the sounds Jacob and Susanna make, I breathe with them, I offer and respond to impulses. I feel the text I am singing, and the subtexts in the dissonances and silences. I feel, and it is proof that I am alive.

Unlike these pieces, I get worn out with use. Each beat of my heart, each breath that I take brings me closer to the moment of my own end. I have finite time, there is no escaping that. But as I grow older, I choose more and more to let myself feel fully, to stay open and optimistic, to spend my numbered heartbeats connecting with other human beings, to feel the delicious ache under my ribcage when a dissonance leans into me with just the right weight.

My sincere thanks and love to Jake and Zan. In a field of work where one spends a lot of time alone, it was wonderful to make music and hang out with these two generous and kind human beings, who gave me the gift of being present and listening deeply. And another thanks to John Potter, who led by example and showed me how to play early music as a living thing, to not be too precious with pieces and overly respectful of authority.