Preparing for Hard Music, Hard Liquor


By Chris Wild, Cellist and Lead Artistic Coordinator

We hope that many attending Ensemble Dal Niente's fourth Hard Music, Hard Liquor concert on February 28 will be moved to celebrate with a visit to the bar at Constellation. For those of us preparing to perform on the 28th, however, we find ourselves currently in the midst of a sobering process. For me, it's been six months since I first cracked open the score to Beat (pronounced Bay-At) Furrer's Solo, initiating my preparation process during a summer "vacation."

In case performers, composers, or even others are interested, I am very happy to share my process for preparing Furrer's Solo:

- July: I look through the handwritten score published by Barenreiter, considering the piece's technical and notational challenges.

- July: Since the piece has two staves (each is used for different techniques at different times - probably employed largely to avoid excessive density of information), it's unmeasured, and also handwritten (and probably prepared in a rush), I first go through the score and draw lines with pencil to show how beats and rhythms align or relate.

- July: At this point in time I need to consider how the composer's notation of extended techniques (or as our conductor Michael Lewanski calls them, "techniques") compares to my existing method for editing and recognizing techniques in circumstances such as this where I am rapidly alternating between them. In addition to editing techniques, I also consider where I will play all of the harmonics (which are usually played pizzicato - plucked - in this piece) since harmonics exist in multiple locations. With this in mind, I go through the score a third time, modifying the labeling of techniques and using Roman Numerals to indicate strings for harmonics. Further on harmonics: I usually try to play them in the upper register of the cello (nearer to the bridge) because they are easier to find and isolate up there. When I am forced to pluck a high partial harmonic down low in its "first position" location (due to surrounding "low" pitches), I label those with "1P." For harmonics that are high partials beyond the edge of the fingerboard (of which there are many), I identify their location by their proximity to the heart shape in the middle of my bridge, using that as a visual reference. Once I have finished going through the score with pencil (perhaps now having spent 12 hours with it), I resume my "vacationing" and plan to begin learning the piece with cello in hand back in Chicago.

- August: back in Chicago, I begin to plod through the score at a painstakingly slow rate, maybe getting through one of the piece's eighteen pages every couple days or so. At this point, my process is influenced by my work as an orchestral conductor in that I use colors to codify certain techniques (left hand techniques and quiet dynamics are blue while right hand techniques and loud dynamics are red, for example, and I also employ a highlighter for left hand pizzicati). I find this process necessary because my work in other musical domains (conducting, teaching, being a full-time student) leaves me with very little practice time. I typically practice the cello less than what I request of my high school students, and I thank the heavens that I can get away with that. A trade off, however, is that the slow and intermittent process helps prevent me from becoming frustrated with the piece's numerous challenges. And since I'm now making performance decisions with cello in hand, some of my previous decisions end up being altered.

- September: Snce I'm getting closer to the concert date and will have my available time diminish due to the beginning school year at Northwestern University, I make it a goal to be able to perform pages of music without stopping at a tempo that is close to half of the written speed (eighth note equals 116-120 beats per minute). During the month of September, I probably succeeded in playing through the piece once, maybe twice, focusing on two or three pages per practice session.

- October: At this point in time, I start to get the sense that it isn't possible to play this piece (due to the rapid changes between techniques i.e. alternating pizzicato and bow, etc.) anywhere near the written tempo. Feeling nervous, I take my score and sit down with it and the recording that compelled me to learn the piece in the first place - Lucas Fels' recording from 2001 on the Kairos label. I am reassured when I conclude that Lucas' recording is on average two-thirds of the written tempo, and assume that this recording was made with Furrer's blessing. This is also when I find an excellent live video recording of the piece played by Ellen Fallowfield with tempi comparable to Lucas'. Normally I am very bad at accessing recordings, preferring to build an independent interpretation before consulting others', so in this instance my resorting to recordings is mostly to quell fear.

- November: This month is like the last, although at this point I am getting through twice as much music and at half the speed of the written tempi. When speeding up my playing, I notice that many of my previous technical decisions need to be altered. For example, Furrer has only occasionally indicated that pizzicati must be executed with the left hand. However, due to the speed with which one must go from pizzicato to arco (bow), I end up whiting out many of my right hand pizzicato indications in favor of left hand pizzicati, perhaps quadrupling the number of left hand pizzicati, so that the pulse of the music is less likely to become distorted. To execute these left hand pizzicati, I usually place my left thumb on the harmonic and pluck with a left finger, then quickly change to the following pitch and arco position as written.

- December: Now that I am within 2-3 months of performance, I place pressure on myself to play through large chunks of the piece at a time, and to do so at a speed closer to the tempi chosen by Mr. Fels and Ms. Fallowfield. I alternate this with slower practice, making sure that I can balance goals for increased speed with sustained accuracy. While on winter vacation in British Columbia for two weeks, I am able to practice for one day on a childhood cello of mine and invite my family to listen to me play, making it through about half of the piece in a half hour before leaving for a social obligation. The length of time it takes me to get through the piece is due to a number of starts and stops, because I simply cannot make a mistake (at any point in time while practicing) without stopping to assess it and (likely) mark a modifier into my music. My disdain for mistakes leads me to often swear at myself while practicing, but since I was raised to be a good boy, I avoid cursing in my parents' presence. Further, this "vacation" is also when I was asked to submit a program note for the concert program, still somewhat unsure of what my final tempi will be.

- January: My goal for this month is to essentially be ready to perform a month ahead of Hard Music, Hard Liquor so that I can gain comfortability with the piece and hopefully find at least one person to play it for. Some decisions are now overdue regarding my performance - for one, there is the issue of page turns since each page is quite large and moments of silence are few and brief. I notice that Ms. Fallowfield turns her own pages, adding a bit of extra length to rests. After consulting with my wife, composer Eliza Brown, we agree to have her be my page turner for the performance. Another option could've been using a tablet or laptop with my Bluetooth foot pedal turning pages, but I don't have a large enough device for this piece, and that process doesn't really gel with my editing needs. Also, in terms of instrument selection, I should say that I have only used my carbon fibre cello and bow up to this point in Chicago since there is lots of col legno (which I avoid with my best bow), the cello looks cool, and its reverberance is striking, helping the harmonic pizzicati ring radiantly. Also, in imagining my ideal performance condition and having technical performance requirements requested from me, I decide that I would like to have my performance be amplified. This decision reflects a few things - first, the performance venue is dry and quiet since there's no stage; second, I want to make sure that all of the minute sonic details can be heard in a party atmosphere; third, I also want to make sure that the sounds written for my voice balance with the sounds emanating from the cello.

- February: Now that my school year is getting daunting with numerous conducting obligations and a Dal Niente residency at Western Michigan University alongside my blah blah blah, I put semi-monthly times into my calendar when I must practice the solo. And, after consulting with Eliza, we decide that we will do a run-through of the piece together on February 7. That's tomorrow, fingers crossed... !

I have now addressed issues of how to perform music like Furrer's Solo, but little in my process reveals why one might choose to be so exacting. To summarize, my desire is to remove all questions of how to play before the concert so that I can lend as much of my consciousness while playing to listening and building an active interpretation (relying on muscle memory and notational recognition for technical execution). This final step is certainly reflective of our ensemble's mission to interpret and re-interpret everything we perform (why else would it be worthwhile for us to give second or third performances of works that others have already performed well?). Therefore, I will encourage questions such as what is a potential role of the vocal sounds written into the piece to influence how I make connections between musical material during my performance.

Although this will end up being one of my lowest compensated professional performances (if we're measuring by work hours), it's an opportunity that I'm especially grateful for. In what I believe to be true Dal Niente fashion, I plan to pair my musical rigor with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind (to quote Jim Harbaugh). And soon after performing, I look forward to joining you with a glass of hard liquor!

Updated March 4, 2016. Video of Chris performing Beat Furrer’s Solo at Hard Music, Hard Liquor on Sunday, February 28, 7:30 pm as part of the inaugural Frequency Festival: