NYKY at Flow Festival: An accidental case study

I had the interesting opportunity to play last weekend at the Flow Festival, which is a popular annual 3-day music festival here in Helsinki, Finland. Headlining acts this year included Kendrick Lamar, Patti Smith, the Fleet Foxes, Ms. Lauryn Hill and the Arctic Monkeys. Perfect place for a new music concert, no?

This is not the first time that the Sibelius Academy new music ensemble, NYKY, has performed at Flow, and this year was a repeat performance with a similar program: Andrew Norman's Music in Circles (the original version, with permission from the composer, as I understand a new edition is in progress), John Cage's First Construction (in Metal), and Terry Riley's seminal In C. As chance (no pun intended) would have it, the works all coincided with my research topic of contemporary American and Finnish repertoire, and I wanted to reflect on some aspects of performance as a miniature case study.

This was my first experience playing a work by Andrew Norman (b. 1979) and I was drawn quite quickly to the the way he lays timbre and texture over rhythmic development. Music in Circles was composed for violin, viola, cello, flute, bass clarinet and trumpet, and we did use a conductor. The work is framed at beginning and end by sparsely orchestrated sections accompanying a free viola solo, with the other instruments quietly performing glissandi, air sounds, etc. Soon parts overlap more frequently, textures get thicker, but not louder, and the quasi cadenza gives way to the middle section, which itself builds rhythmically to a driving climax, before falling apart again into a viola cadenza, ending quietly like it began. 

We had approximately 5 days of rehearsal on the work, mostly spent on the middle section, which is particularly challenging for the strings. While the viola provides the 'motor', it is the cello who really drives the ensemble to the climax. The challenges for the bass clarinet are in register and rhythmic accuracy. The opening pitches, for the first three pages or so, are 3rd octave high E's which start 'air only' and then with a small crescendo to ppp or pp as the entire volume begins to build. The composer indicates to slowly transition from just 'air sound' to 'air with a little sound' to 'full sound', referring to the presence of full pitch, not loudness. Eventually, about halfway through as the textures get denser, the bass clarinet moves to the middle register and provides its own rhythmic motor with quick crescendos indicated on every note. This is quite challenging to do, while staying rhythmically accurate in the quick tempo, which is about quarter note = 176. Finally, at the climax, all six instruments play the 5-note melodic motive overlapping at different times, again with the bass clarinet in the highest register. The challenge here, I found, was getting the pitch high enough to remain in tune with the strings, as well as the trumpet. I was very intrigued by the composer's use of the bass clarinet and the effects of the instrument, exploring not only the entire range of the instrument (lowest C-sharp, I believe, through highest F-sharp) but the entire dynamic range, variation in sound production and timbre quality, as well as articulations. And because of scoring, I actually felt like most of those effects could probably be heard by the audience.

Amplification in the performance also helped the effects come through, of course, but provided challenges as well. We performed the work in a non-traditional concert venue, a large open floor building, indoors, that had been fitted with an elevated stage, with chairs for audience set up in front. Due to the hanging of curtains, as wall dividers and for decor, the space was quite dim, but casual. We were all mic-ed, unfortunately our sound check (due to time constraints) was not as long as perhaps we would have liked and we only got about 10 minutes to play through the climax of the Norman before it was time for performance. Unlike rehearsing in the Sibelius Academy recording studios, which are not acoustically 'live' at all (there's no reverb in the room), but where we could at least hear each other quite well, the stage left us unable to hear the softer sound effects of the work, especially in the quiet sections. The performance, I thought, went great however, and in speaking with audience members afterwards, got the impression that most of the sound effects (air sounds, the bow tapping, etc) could be heard. It would have been nice to have a recording to at least listen to afterwards, but unfortunately that was not possible. 

The percussionists performed the First Construction by John Cage, which I listened to from back stage. It was interesting to hear Cages' work, as I'm in the middle of reading John Adams' autobiography Hallelujah Junction, in which he discusses how Cage influenced his musical thinking during the late 1960s and early 70s on the west coast where Adams settled after graduating from Harvard. First Construction, composed in 1939, is the first of three Constructions that Cage composed between 1939 and 1942 for various non-traditional percussion instruments and it was one of the first pieces Cage composed using his "rhythmic structures" technique. In First Construction, Cage used a basic unit of 16 measures long, which he repeats 16 times over in 5 sections; the first section contains 4 units, next section is 3 units, then 2 units, 3 units, and the last section has 4 units again. Cage experimented with this technique of rhythmic structuring through the 1940s and 50s, before he started working on aleatoric, or chance, music.

The final piece of the program was In C, by Terry Riley. Terry Riley himself performed at Flow Festival with his son Gyan the night before, on Friday, though I do not think he was in attendance for our performance. Working on the piece, hearing the composer himself perform, and then performing In C, all in one week, was not something I could have even planned! 

The 'rehearsals' for the Riley, if you can even call them that since each rehearsal was a run through the piece, were a different kind of challenge. Of course I was familiar with the work, and the composer's history and aesthetic, but I have to admit I was skeptical of how, really, a piece like that could work. As our coach, Tim Ferchen, advised from the beginning, we just had to 'have at it' and see how it goes. He advised us to try and make use of our instrumentation, to not feel like we have to play all the time, and to try and enjoy a full range of dynamics.  Predictably the first two run throughs were on the loud side. We gave ourselves a day off, and the run we did on Wednesday, before the Saturday performance, was really the best one, I think, of the week. It felt different for those listening (Tim and Libero, the ensemble manager), but also as a player. Aside from not being nearly as loud as the other performances, I felt like we were all listening to each other much better and communicating more effectively. As as a player, I did not get bored for one moment. Even though it was very sparse, I felt like as an ensemble we paced the develop of the motivic cells just so. As is possible with any musical performance, I think we peaked too early, with subsequent rehearsals and the performance not quite matching the musical message of that Wednesday run.

The performance was not bad, by any means, and from the audience reaction they seemed engaged for most of it. But I did feel that we lulled too long, and were not listening as well as we had been. This also could have been due to the new acoustics of the space and simply not being able to hear each other as well. But we strayed farther from each other that I think we intended (Riley's instruction say to try and stay mostly together, maybe a few motives away from any one else in the ensemble), and the piece got very long. We had aimed for about 45 minutes, and we took about 52. But I am so happy that I could experience the work as I did on Wednesday, because I really felt like I understood, in that moment, the artistic and musical intention behind a work like In C. 

Lucy Abrams