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Thursday, June 6, 2013

Intonation XIV - Final Thoughts

OK, no such thing as "final" thoughts on a topic as big as choral intonation! But this IS the final installation in this long series of posts. No more (unless I respond to your comments) until late August--if you have thoughts on new topics of interest, send a note!

A resource I've used is a book on choral intonation by P.G. Alldahl, a Swedish composer (and choral conductor) who followed Lars Edlund as the teacher and coordinator of ear training at the Conservatory in Stockholm. I met P.G. in 1990 when doing research for my dissertation and he's a fascinating person. I have a copy of the Swedish version of his book on Choral Intonation, which deals with ideas of just intonation, exercises of how to approach it, with examples from the literature. What I didn't realize (stupidly) until now is that there's an English version of the book. It's published by Gehrmans and the Swedish price (228 kr) is currently the equivilent of ca. $35, but I don't know about shipping. You could order directly from Gehrmans, but I've also had great luck (and quick response) from Bo Ejeby, who is not only a publisher, but a retailer. He's very quick to respond and ship and you can order with your credit card. I've just gone ahead and ordered a copy for myself, since the English version has been updated and, as you'll see from this short sample pdf, also deals with some interesting literature in terms of problems (Verdi Ave Maria, for example). So sorry I didn't think of this earlier, since it's a great resource for many of the ideas I and others discussed earlier in terms of just tuning.

Thinking a bit more about Eric Ericson's approach, I thought I'd offer some thoughts about what I've seen him (and other Swedes) do.

Eric's (and many Swedish) choirs have long been known for really beautiful, in-tune singing. Eric would say that the Swedish language has some advantages: all very pure vowels and a legato, connected way of speaking (he would also say that "the front side has a back side," that Swedes have to work harder for crisp rhythm or diction, for example). As I noted early on, pure unified vowels go a long way towards helping with good intonation.

But Eric always had a particularly accute ear and early on developed a keen interest in excellent intonation. Of course, Eric was trained as an organist and pianist, so came from the background of equal tempered tuning. When I was in Sweden the summer of 1990, it was he who introduced me to P.G. Alldahl and Eric was very aware at that time of just intonation and incorporated it into his tuning. I suspect it may have happened as early as his trip to Basel after World War II, when he studied at the Schola Cantorum with people such as the pioneering viola da gambist, August Wenzinger, Ina Lohr and others. He had a particular interest in early music and, in fact, his (at that time 16-voice) Chamber Choir was founded in 1945 specifically to perform early music his group of friends had studied, but had never heard. If he did not come across other ideas of tuning possibilities at that time, he certainly would have in the late 1960s when there were some notable collaborations between his Chamber Choir and Niklaus Harnoncourt's Concentus Musicus. And by the time I was in Sweden, Eric was regularly collaborating with the period-instrument Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble as well. 

In addition, to do contemporary scores (of the sort Eric conducted) justice, it required new skills with pitch for both choir and conductor. As Eric said,
The music department at the Radio had many competent people who really jumped on impulses and picked up all the big personalities of the 1950s . . . I sat there with my choirmaster position . . . and was ordered, here comes Stravinsky, here comes Hindemith, and they want to guest conduct their pieces with the Radio Choir, etc.--and I had to be able to study all that. But of course it also meant incredibly inspiring contacts and demanding jobs--"Here you go--study this Dallapiccola . . . "--and that was horrendously difficult at that time! So we stood there with our assignments, and it was exciting for us to jump into all of this modern music.
And then,
You asked how technique and proficiency developed, and I can almost mention certain pieces which were "rungs on the ladder" . . . because that's how I feel so strongly when we've learned a difficult and very good piece. I'm thinking naturally from the viewpoint of the Chamber Choir with [Lidholm's] Laudi from 1947, Fyra körer from 1953, then the big pieces of Stravinsky, Nono . . . Dallapiccola perhaps most of all, which is where we learned to read notes and rhythms. And then of course we have a Swedish piece, again by Lidholm [1956--Canto], that we struggled with for half a year. I have a certain sense that, when you "come out on the other side" after having done a piece like Lidholm's Canto, you are a better musician, a better conductor, a better chorister. Canto feels like a final exam for the '50s choral life . . . early pieces that were difficult tonally and rhythmically became less so. Canto combined all the difficulties one was thrown between.
To sing this music well requires tight control of pitch. When you sing clusters or demanding non-tonal chord constructions, too much vibrato or any vague sense of the pitch simply doesn't work. For the music to sound, the pitches have to be very precise (and more likely with equal temperament, of course). 
I had an interesting experience when doing Lars Edlund's Gloria with my PLU choir (a piece that was very effective with our audiences, once I introduced it with verbal program notes). It involves quarter steps, which are never, however, used harmonically--the choir simply "bends" a note a quarter step higher or lower, then back again--it's an ornamental inflection. In almost all performances I'd heard (including Eric's!) the quarter steps were really close to half steps. So I worked in the following way: 
  • First, we did Robert Shaw style exercises to learn how much distance there really is between a half step and worked these regularly--for example, ultimately having two parts (in octaves men/women) a half step apart gradually "change places" (the higher pitch sliding downward, the lower pitch sliding upward), but at a specific tempo and length, with the goal that half way through we'd meet briefly on the quarter tone (we weren't exact, but got quite good at it).
  • I also had our composition teacher help me program our Yamaha DX-7 to play quarter-tones. When we worked on the sections with the quarter-tone inflections, I wouldn't allow them (for quite a long time) to sing them--they stayed on pitch and I played the inflections for them, so they could hear an absolutely mathematically accurate quarter-tones.
  • Finally, I allowed them to sing the quarter-tones themselves, which they did quite well
The interesting thing was that piece never went flat or sharp during 12 or so performances on tour--other pieces did, but not the Edlund. I think all the intensive work they did on pitch in that work resulted in such a keen sense of where those pitches were (and the consequent muscle and tonal memory) that they had it totally locked and could reproduce it no matter what the acoustic or how tired they were. 

Certainly, I've found that work with contemporary music which requires intense concentration on non-tonal pitches gives the choir a much keener sense of intonation, which can carry over into other music as well.

To get back to Eric:

The kinds of things I alluded to (and which P.G. has in his book) about using the piano to give "pedal" reference notes for intonation come directly from watching Eric in rehearsal. So, a bit about Eric's use of the piano (whether he played or an accompanist--all of whom knew his methods quite well).

First, Eric was a superb pianist with a marvelous, light and "vocal" touch. He almost always played with the una corda ("soft") pedal down and created a transparent, non-percussive sound. Too often I hear either conductors or accompanists pound notes in a way which invites harsh attacks and sound. Never from Eric or his accompanists. I saw Eric work with his own choirs (the Chamber Choir, Conservatory Chamber Choir, and Orphei Drängar), in masterclasses with a "put-together" choir of Americans or Canadians, or at the 1990 IFCM in Stockholm, and guest conducting the first concert of Choral Arts in Seattle as well as other choirs, plus at two workshops at PLU when I taught there. So please understand that we're not talking beginning choirs!

He never simply played along with the choir, doubling what they did. Here's what was typical:
  • sometimes without the choir singing, he'd simply play (normally from memory) the music (Bach's Der Geisthilft, for example, demonstrating all important parts), saying, "I think it might go like this," giving a very complete idea of rhythm, phrasing, and shape
  • he would often play pedals (usually in the treble, above the soprano, but also bass lines) to help establish pitch (but without implying equal tempered intonation and working for just intonation)--often "rocking" an octave back and forth to keep the sound going
  • in something very slow, he would often improvise a melody above the choir in 16th notes, so there was always a pulse audible
  • if the music was harmonically complicated, he would either play (as in the first example) something for the choir, but never exactly what the choir sang--simply a reduction of the harmonic content and shifts so the choir could hear it easier
  • he would also help the choir hear the harmony when it was complicated by playing below and above  choir choir (a bass-line and treble chords), but not in their pitch area
  • and, of course, much of the time the choir sang a cappella -- he played only when it was necessary to help stay in tune, or to help with one of the musical issues listed above
Eric also loved jazz and could improvise in a jazz style rather easily. One of the things I remember from conducting classes was him having all the conductors conducting (asking them to reflect the music--light/heavy, etc.--in their conducting), beginning with the opening of the St. Matthew Passion and then evolving to a jazz version with all sorts of syncopations, etc., all to provoke the conductors to show more of the music in their conducting.

Eric had excellent ears, as I've said, but not perfect pitch. He recorded nearly every rehearsal and would listen to it afterwards--I remember my first time in Sweden in 1989, where I accompanied him and Orphei Drängar on a short tour, when after the concert in the bus, he'd put on his headphones to listen to the recording, humming and occasionally checking pitches on his little Casio keyboard to see exactly where the choir started to go flat or sharp.

An amazing man!

It's been a pleasure to write these posts--good for me to re-think what I just do and get feedback and new ideas from others. Have a great summer!

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