Austin Yip: Miles upon Miles (2018)
I. Gilt Bronze
Instrumentation: Amplified violin and electronics
World premiere performance: Hong Kong Museum of History on Sunday, January 28, 2018 by Patrick Yim, violin, and Austin Yip, electronics.
Interview with Austin Yip about his new composition:
I would like to offer my sincere thanks to Austin Yip for composing this wonderful work.
- The Museum lobby was not designed for the purpose of musical performance and it presented challenges in presenting a concert because the very high ceiling and numerous glass panels mixed the sound from the instruments into a big wash. Because of the difficult acoustic the sound was diffuse and lacking focus.
- Fortunately, the acoustic is not so problematic in the first movement in which the composer writes “Atmospheric” in the score. The muddling of some effects with the electronics seems to create a nice haze of sound. And the third movement as well did not seem to be a problem in the acoustic – there is a lot of silence written into this movement which allows the sound to dissipate somewhat before continuing.
- However, this acoustic is particularly challenging in the rhythmic and dancing second movement, which has many fast notes the are meant to be articulated and heard clearly. This movement also calls for the violin part to play fast, tricky rhythms in unison with the electronics. My effort to align with the electronics was made more challenging by the muddy acoustic which made it difficult for me to clearly hear the electronics part.
- In fact, I found this movement challenging to perform even before rehearsing in the Museum lobby’s difficult acoustic. Playing the second movement feels to me a bit like playing chamber music with a metronome – exact, unyielding, and uncompromising. I must play with machine-like precision. In rehearsal, I found that when I doubted myself and wanted to try to hear the electronics more carefully that I would often lag behind the electronics part.
- Playing with the electronics is also challenging because I am also accustomed to relying on visual cues as I perform to help with achieving unified ensemble, be it the conductor’s baton, another violinist’s bow, a pianist’s nodding, etc. In this situation, there are no visual cues to guide me. I considered the use of a monitor, but for various reasons the idea was shot down. It may be possible to use headphones as I perform this movement. A click track is always helpful in aligning with electronics.
Learning new techniques:
- One of the challenges in preparing this work for performance was the need to learn new techniques. One such technique was the “microtonal inflection by vibrato.” I had certainly played microtones in the past, but not in the way called for in the score.
- The score also calls for a number of uses of “over-bowing.” This is also a technique I have encountered before, but not with so much frequency in the same piece. The “over-bowing” sound is one that beginning violin students are taught to abhor. Here I needed to become comfortable with the sound as another colour in the violin’s expanding tonal palette.
- These are not techniques that I had spent so much time practicing in the past, but I believe my practicing them has helped to grow my vocabulary of sounds on the instrument.
Becoming familiar with the Xinjiang Uyghur Muqam:
- The second movement, which is derived from the Xinjiang Uyghur Muqam, was challenging for me to make sense of. At the beginning of the process, I had many questions: How long do the phrases last? Which notes should receive the most emphasis or should they all be equal? What kind of bow stroke should I use? Should the glissandos be slow, fast, or in between?
- Fortunately, many of these questions were answered after I heard the field recordings taken in Xinjiang by the composer. I also came to understand that the music is not intended as teleological music – it is more about reveling in the raw energy of the rhythms.
Notes and reflections from process:
- I am accustomed to performing music to a backdrop of silence. It is exciting to perform in a sort of “enhanced reality” created by the computer generated electronic backdrop for some portions of this work.
- This piece was conceived for amplified violin and electronics. This is helpful for the violinist in that the common and necessary preoccupation with projection is not longer such an important consideration. Playing on an amplified violin gives freedom to explore the vast palette of sound colors on the violin, including the sul tasto sound, which normally would not at all be audible in the setting of the Museum lobby.
- I found it helpful throughout the process to have the composer sing his intentions to me. I think the direct transfer of intention, in this case through singing, without the trouble of transcribing intentions onto the score is a much more exacting way to learn the composer’s intentions.
- I believe that each piece I study teaches me new techniques and helps to condition me to a new, unique harmonic language and that learning a vast and varied repertoire will serve to help me grow into a more complete musician.
Notes from specific sections of the piece:
I. Gilt Bronze
- I asked for permission from the composer to change the bowing in these few measures, and he consented. It is helpful to be able to ask the composer whether the slur marking is intended as a bowing or as a phrase marking. I think it is up to the performer to find a bowing that honors the original intention of the composer. Certainly not all composers have an intimate knowledge of how to write for the violin and they may require the expertise of the violinist to design a bowing that both captures the spirit of the music and allows the player to feel comfortable technically.
- My initial impression of the Cameleer movement was that the emphasis is on rhythm more than melody and that the raw energy is most important and overshadows any melodic or harmonic considerations. Over time, I have come to see this second movement as being primarily concerned with a forward momentum and dramatic, surging shapes and not so much with neatly packaged phrases. Unlike a piece from the Western classical tradition, in this piece, it is not clear to me which beats, if any, carry metrical emphasis.
- It was necessary in this movement to find a way to start the new sections exactly with the electronics part. The composer had originally thought to have one continuous track that included the pauses, but I noted that it would be difficult to coordinate the entrances after the pauses unless they were measured exactly as rests. We decided instead to have the next track played with my cue. I think this works well too in that in any given space the violinist can judge how much time is appropriate before the next section instead of having that timing predetermined.
- I asked the composer what type of glissando he imagined. I was wondering whether the glissando should be slow and be completed over the course of the whole measure. He responded through a message, “fast, like a laser.”
- In this movement, I was unsure from the start how to interpret the tenuto marking on each note and I was reminded that each composer has a unique way of employing articulation markings. With some composers, I believe the tenuto marking can mean that all the strokes should be played as connected and as legato as possible, but in this case, after conferring with the composer, I came to find that the tenuto marking is meant to indicate that there should be an emphasis, almost like an accent, from the bow for each note marked with tenuto.
- The “Dance-like” indication for this section was helpful in determining the appropriate bow stroke to use. I again had questions about how to interpret the tenuto markings over some of the eighth notes – I wondered whether the marking was intended to indicate that the notes should be played legato, but here again the intention was for the tenuto to serve as an indication of a slight emphasis.
- Given the instrumentation of this work for solo violin, which is oftentimes playing only a single line without a fully fleshed harmonic accompaniment, I sometimes had difficulty finding the directional goal of the phrasing. The composer’s singing the melody was helpful in learning how to shape the phrases.
- I think that this movement exploits beautifully the singing potential of the violin. I felt that the tempo marking of quarter note = 84 felt a bit fast for the singing quality of the movement. With the composer’s consent, I perform the movement slightly slower than indicated. I am reminded that composers are not inflexible and that collaboration can sometimes help them to realise unimagined potential in their works.
- After asking about the shape of the first phrase, the composer told me that the two triplets in the first beat should lead into the quintuplet second beat. I mentioned that it would be helpful to have either a crescendo or an up-bow marked on the first beat to indicate that direction. The direction was immediately clear upon my hearing the composer sing the melody.
- In the absence of any dynamic markings, an up-bow marking will often connote a crescendo and a down-bow marking will connote a decrescendo.
- Violinists are often trained to effect a crescendo through adjusting the elements of bow speed, bow pressure, and sounding point (distance of the bow from the bridge). At some moments in this movement, the composer calls for the sounding point to remain at the bridge. This means that the crescendo should be played by altering only the bow speed and pressure. If practiced, this method of playing a crescendo will add to a violinist’s technical vocabulary. Every unique combination of bow speed, bow pressure, and sounding point (distance of the bow from the bridge) has a different sound.
- I had discussed with the composer the character of this forte passage. We explored a forte that begins with a strong articulation and also a forte that is more of the singing variety. He ended up choosing the singing forte. This caused me to start thinking about the bow strokes that many violinists are taught as they develop. Many of the articulated strokes that we learn are designed to allow the violin to be heard in a large concert hall over the sound of a full orchestra. In the case of a solo violin piece with amplification, projection is not an issue and articulation is more closely linked to character than any other consideration. The amplification allows the violinist to explore the full gamut of sounds and articulations on the violin without needing to dispose of those that would not be heard without amplification.
- Here again, I thought that it would be helpful to have a bowing or dynamic marking to help to decipher the direction of the phrase.
- Slur markings can also be used to indicate emphasis. Certainly in many styles of music, the beginning of each slur would connote an emphasis of some degree determined by the musical context. But there is also other music where the slur should not be heard and the line should be played as legato as possible. In the case of this measure, I wondered whether the syncopated slur that begins with F# should receive any emphasis and if so to what degree.
During the performance, I was acutely aware of the considerable amount of background noise in the Museum lobby. I couldn’t help but think that Austin Yip’s piece might not be getting a fair hearing in this environment, especially given that the piece call for a great deal of very soft playing, subtle effects, intricate mixing of sounds (violin with electronics), and silence. I worried that the silences that were intended to offer moments for reflection might instead serve as moments for the audience to be distracted. Perhaps for this reason, I may have shortened slightly the fermata pauses as a way to keep the audience engaged. I suspect that in a proper concert hall setting I might give the audience the chance to enjoy the silences longer.
Given that the Museum lobby is essentially an outdoor setting where at times it is difficult to hear the music clearly, I think it Is difficult setting to appreciate highly nuanced effects. As I imagine music played outdoors, I can’t help but think of marching band music for which subtlety is certainly not a feature. Perhaps that is why I thought the second movement of the piece was effective in this setting. That movement emphasises rhythm more than any other consideration and does not contain any moments quite as soft as in the outer two movements.
As I reflect on the performance, I also recognise the need to find a better way to stay aligned with the electronics in the second movement. In the performance, I found it difficult to hear the electronics from where I was standing. I am sure now that I will need to have click track or monitor in one ear in order to stay aligned with the electronics.