Basic Advice regarding ensemble playing: Part Two
Originally published on Facebook on 2.15.16
Sharing a single, common pulse.
What is a pulse? And how do the musicians feel the pulse as one?
Pulse is not the tick of a metronome or the tick of a clock, it is the actual spiritual and mental force that drives a sound through time in order to become the next sound.
Pulse is the answer, a philosopher might give to the question: “What makes one sound become another?” It is what we feel during a sound, versus at the beginning of the sound or at the end of the sound.*
* Henri Bergson, the French philosopher, calls the experience of time in its real sense as an experienced duration. Put the sugar cube in the coffee and we have to wait until it dissolves into the liquid. No fast forwarding in real life.
The analogy to pulse in electrical circuit is voltage. Its what keeps pushing the flow of electrons through the circuit. It’s the same as the water pressure in the faucet. It’s the thing that makes the water continue to pour out of the spout.
Pulse is not a momentary thing, something momentarily made to coincide with others at the moment a sound begins. It is an ongoing thing, and if pulse is to be experienced by the musician it must an ongoing, ever renewing phenomenon.
It is now, and the updated now of a fraction of a second later, and the same, again and again. It’s the answer to the question: How often can we re-listen to a note before it finishes.*
* Possible answer: as often as one can be conscious of consciousness itself updating itself into the next instant of itself.
How do two people share a common pulse? The answer lies in the fact that while physically, there are two, or more musicians occupying space, there is another entity that replaces all the others. As an example, it’s not the pianist, it’s not the cellist, it’s an incarnation, so to speak, of a conductor who is leading both people, and to whom the two people have completely submitted their individual wills on this moment to moment basis.
It has to do with transcending the personal ego, in the same sense that when we play the most beautifully, we don’t congratulate ourselves but we feel like we’ve been a conduit through which the music spoke.
So with the shared pulse. We don’t jointly claim that we’ve cleverly made our two pulses coincide. For each of us has ceded our control of the pulse, not to the other, but to a common entity that seems to materialize when we are playing at our best.
A useful technique of evoking this common pulse is to count out loud together. But in a very dramatic fashion, where the word ‘one’ extends or prolongs itself through time right up to the verge the appearance of the word ‘two. It’s not the numbers, it’s not so much the timing, but what one does qualitatively with the voice ‘in between’ the onset of one number and the onset of the next.
Or the two musicians can conduct each other in silence.
Or all can play the same series of notes (preferably in the same octave), and hear their individual sounds dissolve into a ‘common’ sound, within which the individual sound looses its ability to be heard separately as against the others.
Basic Advice regarding ensemble playing: Part One of Two
Originally published on Facebook on 2.14.16
The ease or difficulty in remaining together with your partner varies with the difference in the timbre of your instruments. The greater the difference in the timbres the more challenging the task. But there is an alarmingly simple way around this. Let’s use as an example that I am playing piano and my friend is playing cello.
The first step for the pianist in removing the difficulty in matching timbres is to do away with the difference and play the cello part in one hand, and with the other hand play the notes that this other hand plays normally in the piece.
Since one person is playing, the parts will automatically be simultaneous and together. Achieving the togetherness becomes trivial because of the identity in timbres.
The pianist can reverse which hand is playing the cello part. If the pianist had played the cello part in the left hand, now play the cello part in the right hand, while the left hand plays the notes written for the pianist’s left hand.
It is good for the pianist to hear how each hand of the piano part, without the other hand’s part, sounds with the cello part. In each case the pianist will be hearing two thirds of the ensemble. The loss of the third is made up for by learning how each hand meshes with the sounds of the cello part.
When both instruments are again there, and all the written notes are being sounded, the pianist can go through a transmutation of timbres. Even though the cellist is playing with the timbre of a cello, the pianist adds to her awareness, the imagined sound of the piano sounding the cellist’s notes. Then as the final stage the pianist no longer has to cover over the cello sound with an imagined piano sound, but is able to blend with the actual sound of the cello.
Let’s consider this from the cellist’s point of view. It is equally effective to the blending of the ensemble for the cellist to play the notes in the piano part – either hand. Then both artists play their respective parts together, but the cellist still ‘feels like’ s’he is playing the notes in the piano part, while more distractedly bowing and fingering the notes written in the cello part.
The end goal, as in all the forthcoming advice on ensemble playing, is for each person to feel responsible for creating every sound in the ensemble not just those belonging to her proper instrument.