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Listening to Extreme Oboe Music
by Christopher Redgate


oboe+ CD cover Introduction
This article is one of a pair. The other article, Some Reflections on Listening to Contemporary Music, is published in Double Reed News (Autumn 2007). I have used the word ‘Extreme’ in the title of this article as it encapsulates so much of the writing for the oboe that appears on the CD oboe +. It is extreme in the sense that the composers have, in different ways, explored the technical limits of the oboe and worked with a very wide range of emotional and intellectual ideas. This article begins with a brief overview of some of the points from the Double Reed News article.

General points
1. There are currently many different styles of music being written. Some of these styles are very approachable and easy to listen to while others are more demanding.
2. The large range of music that is being written today has not yet had the filtering processes of time and so we are in a position to hear not only many styles but also the good and the poor mixed together. The music of previous generations has had most of the poor music filtered out. This is one of the issues that make listening to contemporary music so challenging.
3. Much of today's music has moved away from traditional and accepted ways of writing with some composers rethinking they way in which they use pitch, rhythm and even the instruments themselves. This can be very challenging for those of us who have been brought up listening to music from the 18th/19th centuries.

Some specific approaches to listening to contemporary music:
Firstly it is important to find an approach to a piece of music that will help you listen to that music. Such approaches can include fascination with a particular sound world, (perhaps in a section of a piece) the technical activity of the performer and what is being achieved, the emotional impact of the music etc.
Secondly I suggest that familiarity with a piece of music is very important. One listening rarely offers great rewards, especially with music of high quality or which is unfamiliar in style. I suggest that getting to know a portion of a work can be helpful, and that listening to an entire CD of difficult or unfamiliar music can be counter productive.
Thirdly I suggest that it is important to listen intentionally rather than simply in the background. Of course background listening can be useful to gain some familiarity but focused listening can offer so much more.
Fourthly, for many of us we need to develop listening tools that can help us to understand and enjoy the music of today. I suggest that there are some similarities with listening to World Music - the sound world and musical language can be very unfamiliar and our ears need to become attuned to the sounds of this other world.

Listening to oboe+

Photo of oboist Christopher Redgate I will now attempt to apply these general suggestions to this CD. Firstly - and this may sound obvious - I am totally convinced by the quality of each of the pieces or I would not have recorded them. Some of the works are relatively new to the repertoire but the works by Roger Redgate and Michael Finnissy have had many performances, and have been extremely well received. Along with the Berio these works have stood the test of time.

In the CD liner notes I point out examples of some of the 'contemporary techniques' that are being used. This is a useful reference for those new to listening to contemporary oboe music. Actually, most of these sounds have been being used for the last 50 years - we probably ought to stop calling them 'contemporary techniques' or 'new sounds' sometime soon! All of the pieces on this CD use these sounds, and what I particularly like is the way in which all the composers have integrated them into their compositional language, rather than using them as circus tricks. I will point out later in this article moments when the composers have integrated the sounds in a particularly interesting way.

Style issues
Whilst the music on this CD is contemporary, the composers represent different approaches to composition, and each produces music of individual character. Looking at the music to the various works one can see major differences in the styles and approaches of the composers. If you have a copy of the CD booklet compare the Finnissy excerpt (inside the cover of the booklet) with the Michael Young excerpt (in the centre of the booklet) and you will quickly see what I am getting at.

I don't recommend trying to get to grips with everything in one go. Here is my suggestion for an order of getting to know the pieces:

    1. Berio's Sequenza VII
    2. '…the sting of the bee…'
    3. Argrophylax
    4. Pavasiya
    5. Ausgangspunkte
    6. Recoil

I suggest starting with the Berio, even though it is the last track on the CD, for the simple reason that it is the oldest work on the disk and is considered to be something of a classic in the repertoire. As such it offers a good introduction to the other pieces. Familiarity with this piece will help to open the doors to the others.

From the suggestions taken from the other article you will note that if contemporary music is a new area to you, or indeed one that you have found baffling, I suggest starting with small pieces - individual sections of the works - in order to gain familiarity. When discussing the pieces I will offer suggestions for sections you may like to start with and offer reasons for doing so.

The pieces (listed in CD order)

'...sting of the bee...'

photo of oboist Christopher Redgate by Paul Medley This short piece gets the ball rolling - it introduces the listener to some of the interesting sounds on the CD. Since recording the piece I have had a great deal of comeback from people asking me to perform it in various concerts and festivals - it is proving quite popular! Because the work is largely improvised, it is never the same twice running - though the outline and basic concept remain unchanged. One reviewer referred to it as a 'composed improvisation' however this is not really correct: it is an 'improvised composition'. I know it sounds a little fussy but there are many works in the classical repertoire called either 'Improvisation' or with the word improvisation in the title and so I like to make the distinction quite clear. Though I have an outline for the work in my mind (format) and many trill and multiphonic fingerings memorised (texture), the work is improvised in a very real sense.

In the current classical world such improvisation is still relatively rare, though of course organists have been doing it for generations. The background to such work comes more from the free jazz world. There are many performers there who are working with extended improvised solos, often to a very high degree of both technical and improvisational standard. Two such performers worth exploring are Anthony Braxton and Evan Parker.

People often ask what I am thinking about when doing this kind of performance. The answer is twofold: first, the usual issues any oboist deals with - sound production, technical skills, intonation etc; and second, I am thinking quite hard about the form and shape of the work. In such improvisation it not unusual to discover something new while in performance - when this occurs improvisation offers the opportunity to explore a sound, phrase or texture and to take a detour before returning to ground previously explored.

I suggest that the best approach to listening to this work is to consider it to be a virtuoso solo piece rather in the way of a Paganini Caprice or Chopin Concert Etude. You may also like to use your imagination and consider the sound world to be rather like a beehive with many bees buzzing around. Some people do make this connection with the piece and though it was not actually part of my imagining I am very happy for people to listen to it in that way - it is the way my wife listens to it!

Oboists may be interested in some of the technical issues in this piece. It is based around double trills but there are times when I have four or even five trills taking place at the same time - usually in the climax sections. Some of the sounds in the multiphonic sections are created by major alterations of the lip pressure to create different pitches from the two or three trills that are going simultaneously.

In getting to know the piece you will notice that there are a few pitches that return as part of the design of the piece, and that there is a kind of growth near the beginning into the multiphonics.

One other thought that oboists might like to consider is: how would you improvise using the same set of ideas?

Ausgangspunkte

There is a great deal to listen to in this piece. The opening ideas are used in different ways throughout. Roger states in his notes that the development of these ideas creates extreme virtuosity and this is certainly the case. From about 9’ onwards the work begins to build towards its climax, piling on idea after idea and using a wide range of contemporary techniques. The climax of the work (at 10’08”) is an excellent example of the integration of the contemporary techniques. The build up of sounds which have increasingly created a sort of polyphonic texture (there are several lines going at once) through the rapid changing of ideas, the range of techniques used, adding in more and more multiphonics and then multiphonics with regular pitches played against them are fine examples of the use of contemporary techniques. This texture becomes, at the climax, a set of multiphonic trills that rejects completely the ‘normal’ sound of the oboe and creates a polyphonic climax before slowly breaking up towards the end. The final moments of the piece are a beautiful deconstruction of the work up to that point.

Roger had written me two pieces before this, one while still at school and the other while a student at the Royal College of Music. Both have now been withdrawn, but they gave hime experience of writing for the oboe and specifically experience of writing for me. While writing Ausgangspunkt he was living in Germany and would occasionally fax me sections of the work. There are several pieces in my repertoire that contend for the most difficult technically - and this usually tops the list! There are two other oboe works currently available - Eperon for oboe and percussion and a Quintet for oboe and string quartet.

I would suggest that if you want to start getting to know this piece then listen to the opening section as this gives you all of the basic material upon which the work is based. The careful listener will hear some of the ideas as they appear again later in the piece.

Oboists may like to consider listening to the middle section where the oboe is written in a very high register - in fact going up to a (very) high D. This is a deliberate ploy on the part of the composer - this is the relaxed section of the work but the relaxed nature of the section is undermined by the tension created by the extreme register of the music.

Argrophylax

photo of Michael Young In this work Michael Young uses a great number of contemporary techniques. The multiphonics are use to great effect, the quarter tones add a tremendous beauty to the slower melodic lines and the use of double tonguing creates amazing energy towards the end of the piece. Michael states "although not 'programme music' as such, it intends to create strong musical evocations of these references: alarms and surprise, intensely shining objects, the swirling waters of a river, maddening confusion and flight."

One way of getting to know the work is to listen to the enormous range of colours and the shape of the sections - considering Michael’s ‘musical evocations’ as a starting point. Michael also points out that he “exploits sensitive and unstable playing techniques that the performer cannot always directly control”. This is an interesting feature to listen out for as there are times when the pressure of the lip is very great upon the reed and though I am fingering the oboe only occasional sounds escape from the instrument, and these are largely beyond my control.

Oboists may be interested to know that the oboe has a microphone attached to the bell of the instrument (this can be seen in the picture above). This microphone is a DPA 4061 which I use when working with computers. It is light and small - in fact I never notice it is there - but it is quite sensitive to the variety of sounds the oboe can produce. For example, the sound of clicking keys can be very effective when amplified. It is not the microphone we used for the recording as such but for this kind of 'live' work it is ideal.

Pavasiya

Michael Finnissy has written a great deal of music for the oboe and has included it in many of his chamber works. Some of his works can be performed on different instruments and are not exclusively written for the oboe. For solo oboe there is Runnin' Wild, Moons Goin' Down, for oboe and percussion Dilok and Delal, for oboe and ensemble All Time Greatest Hits.

Pavasiya is built up of a number of contrasting sections and includes some very long silences which are an essential part of the progression of the piece. Not only are there contrasts in the sections but the piece constantly changes from oboe to oboe d'amore.

The opening of the piece is a riveting evocation of the chaos of creation. In this section the use of flutter tonguing, very fast passages and the complete range of the instrument add to the sense of chaos. The end of the work has a magical use of multiphonics creating a beautiful sound world.

Recoil

This is a work of raw power and energy. The dynamic level is high throughout and the work does not let up for a moment. The one dynamic drop, very near the end of the piece, in fact adds to the tension and pressure as the music crescendos to a final climax.

Sam Hayden use of the oboe takes it into a world that most people would not associate with it. He has managed, through the use of multiphonics and flutter tonguing, to create a stark and brutal world where the oboe has lost all of its traditional pastoral qualities. As a performer it is always exciting when working with a composer who can re-imagine the instrument and come up with a different sound world. Such approaches help to develop the instrument and to broaden its potential.

Berio - Sequenza VII

This is the only work on the CD that has been recorded before. I have performed it many times since first learning it in the 1970s. Sequenza VII is possibly the classic solo oboe piece of the secod half of the 20th century. It is a work that every oboist should be familiar with, and certainly students at college level should have to study.

The use of pitches is very carefully thought through and the 'climax' of the work is, timing wise, at the golden section. Though this is perhaps not aurally obvious, I am convinced that such careful planning is part of the charm and success of the work.

For those wishing to look at a more in-depth discussion of many of the issues surrounding performance of the Berio Sequenza I have written an article Performing Sequenza VII in the Contemporary Music Review Vol. 26 No2, April 2007. There is also a very useful Oboe Sequenza website at www.beriooboesequenza.

For our listening and familiarity purposes I suggest that the Sequenza would make an ideal starting point. Historically it is the oldest piece on the CD (written in 1969) and offers a very good introduction to the sound world of the contemporary repertoire generally and of this CD in particular.

Remember that when Berio wrote this piece these techniques and the sound world that was developing were still very new. The use of the B natural as a 'tonic' (Berio gives it this term in his own programme notes) is now legendary and if not quite as famous as John Cage's silent piece (4' 33") is nevertheless an equally inspired idea. If you have never seen the music to the Sequenza then the next time you have a chance, in a good music shop or library, take a look (not at the version with the time signatures but the version without time signatures (they are printed on opposite sides of the same large sheet) it is quite an eye opener! I personally find this text to be a very inspiring item both to look at and in performance.

I suggest that in getting to know this piece you do begin at the beginning. The opening of the work is a series of B naturals, which is a special kind of melodic line (klangfarbenmelodie or sound-colour melody) with a B natural sounding in the background. I always find the move from this 'one note but many coloured' melody to a number of different pitches to be quite a shock.

The last section of the work (from about 6 minutes onwards) is a slow winding down of the piece as sort of calm after the storm.

Coda - Working with Composers

Several of the works on this were written for me; Pavasiya, Ausgangspunkte, Argrophylax and of course my own '…sting of the bee…'. Ausgangspunkte, the oldest of these, was part of a course of development between two brothers. Roger was away in Germany at the time of writing but he had of course lived with me, and had to put up with my practising for many years! So he had a good idea of what I was capable of. Many sections of the work however broke new ground for me as a performer and this work became a seminal piece in the course of my development as a performer. (I have written extensively about this in an article entitled A Discussion of practices Used in Learning Complex Music with Specific Reference to Roger Redgate's 'Ausgangspunkte' which is published in the Contemporary Music Review Vol.26 no 2, April 2007.) There was therefore a relationship in which we could try things out and take risks.

During the early 80s I was working in an ensemble called Suorran in which Michael Finnissy was the pianist. The ensemble, which was run by composers, was a very exciting group to belong to and was responsible for some very pioneering work. I was really enjoying performing Finnissy's ensemble music and asked him for a work for oboe. His first response was Runnin' Wild, which, while written a couple of years before, had not been performed. Then as part of a larger group of works for the ensemble he wrote Pavasiya for me. He already had an idea of my instrumental experiments and so we got together and looked at a range of musical ideas - especially for the multiphonics section at the end of the work. This kind of work with a composer of Michael's stature is always very stimulating and enlightening. He is also a composer who is prepared to take risks and to explore the very boundaries of instrumental technique. He is a formidable pianist himself with an astounding technique and subtle musical sensibilities, and I am convinced that composers who also perform have another side to their composition even when writing very technically difficult music. So once again the writing of this piece grew from two musicians working together.

I have known Michael Young for a shorter period of time than either Michael Finnissy or my brother. We first met when I was giving a lecture at Goldsmiths College (where Michael teaches). I was commenting upon my desires to develop polyphonic improvisation on a monophonic instrument and Michael offered to show me Max/MSP. We met in the Goldsmiths recording studio and Michael recorded quite a number of the sounds that were to be included in Argrophylax - including my laughter! From this Michael began to develop his piece. It went through several development stages until we arrived at this final version, which developed some of the oboe part further including taking it up to high D.

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