Michael-Thomas Foumai: Relics (2018)
This blog concerns Relics, a new piece composed in eight movements for solo violin written by composer Michael-Thomas Foumai in 2018. I, Patrick Yim, performed the premiere at the Hong Kong Museum of History on Saturday, February 10, 2018.
I would like to offer my sincere thanks to Michael-Thomas Foumai for composing this wonderful work.
This blog is meant to give insight into my process of learning a new work, especially as it relates to the critical way in which I respond to and interpret the markings in the score as I try to ascertain the effects intended by the composer. I hope you will find it insightful!
1. Beastily Treasures
As I first looked through this movement, I had a few questions about the accidentals and whether they carried to other octaves of the same pitch. After consulting with the composer, I found that the accidental markings were not meant to carry over to other octaves. I think it would be helpful to have courtesy accidentals to avoid this confusion.
M. 11: The slur staccato in this movement raised questions for me about the desired articulation. The way it is marked would have me playing the first note connected/legato to the second note and then releasing the second note and adding a small space before the next bow. However, the composer would like spaces after each note. I would execute it this way instinctively if I saw a staccato marking on both notes under the slur. The composer mentioned that he didn’t want the first note to be clipped too short, but I mentioned that given the longer note value of the first note that I would play it longer than the second note. This is a problematic type of marking and sometimes if I am adding bowing markings to a part, I will mark down-down-up-up in order to avoid any confusion that might arise from marking slurs.
M. 29: I was a bit confused at first about why the accent would be on only the single note because adding another string will certainly add some sound. I think that adding another voice in most cases is meant to add strength, so I found the placement of the accent a bit confusing. After mentioning this to the composer, he said that in fact there should be an accent on both eighth notes under the slur. He mentioned also that the twang of the E-string was the most important element in this passage.
2. Jeweled Loops
This movement is written entirely in harmonics in order to reflect the delicate way in which one handles jewels, as mentioned by the composer. I also think of the glassy quality of the harmonics as possibly representing the reflective, shiny, and shimmering quality of jewels.
There was one issue that became immediately apparent to me as I began working on this movement, which was that on the violin not all harmonics are created equal. Some speak much more clearly than others. Thus, occasionally in a passage meant to be played forte the sound may dip in and out depending on which harmonic is (or isn’t) sounding.
To address this issue, I worked with Foumai to try to play the same pitches with different harmonics that sound more clearly easily. This was immensely helpful in finding a more consistently clear and even sound for the harmonics.
I have played only a few movements entirely in harmonics and the exercise of working on this movement reminded me that in order for harmonics to sound clearly, one must have sufficient contact with the string no matter the dynamic.
Beginning of the movement: In order to play the fifths across the four strings, I found it necessary to involve the rotation of the left arm elbow. This motion helps to place the finger squarely on top of the correct position of the harmonic on the fingerboard. I think this movement would actually serve as a very effective teaching piece for learning to keep the elbow and shoulder free. This movement might also serve as an effective teaching piece in learning to keep the pressure of the left hand light while playing sometimes as strongly as forte with the bow. This type of playing with the left hand is in direct contrast with the requisite left hand pressure required for the next (entirely pizzicato) movement in which the pressure required is considerable.
3. Wooden Scrolls
This movement is written to be played entirely with pizzicato (plucking the string). In many instances, the composer calls for a glissando to be sounded between two notes. Given the nature of the pizzicato, which has an almost immediate decaying of the sound after it is sounded, I found it difficult to have the pizzicato last as long as indicated and to have the arrival note heard clearly. In some cases, I thought it would be necessary to pluck the second note of the glissando.
A note on notation: There were three instances (two can be found in the example above) in which a slur was marked over two notes and there was no glissando indicated. In these cases, I was confused as to how to execute this marking. If one simply lifts the finger of the first note or drops a finger for the second note, the second note will not be heard. I think this marking requires either a glissando between the two notes or a re-articulation on the second note.
Foumai told me that the most important consideration in this movement is not that the second note of the slurs be heard clearly, but rather that the glissando sound is prominently featured. Thus though a second note is notated, it is unlikely that the notated pitch will be heard.
I found the double-stopped pizzicato with glissando difficult to execute, especially when the pitches involved playing on the E-string – these pizzicato tend to decay extremely rapidly making it difficult to hear the glissando.
M. 6 (above measure with gliss. instruction): In this case, I think it is not possible in the marked tempo for the glissando to last for two beats. I think that the distance of a sixth is a bit problematic in terms of being able to hear the second notated pitch, A#. In this case, Foumai told me that the glissando sound is most important, not the clear sounding of the second pitch. In this case, I wonder if it would be effective to mark the second pitch in parentheses.
Playing pizzicato with a very clear sound requires a stronger pressure on the string with the left hand than one would use when playing with the bow. This is especially the case if one wishes to hear the glissandi. It was necessary for me to spend time practicing with this way of placing my left hand fingers. I also found that it was helpful to start the glissando immediately after playing the pizzicato. If there is any delay then the pizz will have already decayed considerably. I think this issue makes it necessary to consider the tempo intended for performance. In a tempo that is too slow, it will not be possible to execute the glissando.
This movement includes a lot of rests and otherwise rather quiet sounds due to the nature of the capacity of pizzicato on the violin for projection. Having heard from audience members that the Museum setting is a bit too noisy and distracting, I am concerned about the effectiveness of this movement. I have therefore asked for amplification whilst performing this piece.
I also noticed in this movement that there is a large range of dynamics marked: p leggiero to ff. I think that with pizzicato it is difficult to produce much of a range of dynamics. The amplification will help in this regard, but were the piece to be played in a traditional concert hall acoustic without amplification, I am not sure whether the pizzicato would be heard well enough. I often mention to students that in solo and chamber music playing there is not really such a thing as piano dynamic pizzicato for violinists. The rate of decay in the sound is too quick to allow anything below a certain dynamic threshold to be heard in a hall.
4. Woolen Leaves
Given Foumai’s instruction at the beginning of the movement, “Swiftly, Lightly Weaving,” I have sought to choose the fingerings that include as many string crossings as possible in this movement. This movement, as with most of the piece, uses a lot of perfect fifths, which can also be played on the same string, though in most cases I have chosen the fingering with string crossings.
Given the leggiero marking at the beginning, I’ve decided to play with a very light bow pressure and lots of bow speed. I execute the accents with bursts of bow speed, like gusts of wind. I like to imagine the leaves in the wind.
This movement, which is written in 12/8, includes many instances of displaced metrical emphases. I have sought in my performance to highlight these groupings as I find them interesting. I find this displacement of metrical emphases to be a feature of the entire work.
5. Galloping Jade
This movement also features many different rhythmic groupings at variance with the expected groupings of a movement written in 6/16 and 9/16 time.
Given the title of the movement and the indication at the beginning, Vivace, I had come to the conclusion that the sixteenth notes in the movement might be well served by using a stroke that was slightly bouncing or “galloping.” As it happens, Foumai in fact had a sound in mind best achieved by playing the bow completely on the string. In his words, he found the sound to be more “powerful,” “continuous,” and “flowing.”
6. Tomb Costume
This movement is written with a solemn “bell” tolling throughout played by the left hand pizzicato. I enjoyed the dissonant harmonies and seek to emphasize the various sevenths and tritones throughout. I found the music to have a predominantly yearning quality.
7. Jump Dancer
This is quite a virtuosic movement. I find myself jumping all over the fingerboard and using a lot of bounced strokes with the bow, such as the jeté. The movement is fun and whimsical and written very idiomatically for the violin, including many harmonics and open strings. The tritone and major seventh intervals are featured prominently.
8. Buddha Rock
This movement includes the instruction “always with slight bounce and separation” and after speaking with Foumai I learned that I may have taken the bounce instruction too far. Foumai mentioned to me that the stroke for most of the movement should be similar to the stroke one would use to play Bach, which is perhaps an instruction that could be included in the score. This was helpful for me to know, though I do think that there are a number of different ways to play Bach. For this reason, it was instructive for me to be able to play a few strokes of different lengths for Foumai and learn what length of stroke he had in mind. My takeaway was that I should aim for a slightly heavier and weightier stroke.
M. 35: I instinctively chose to play this passage with a spiccato stroke because of the leggiero marking. The composer had in mind a longer stroke, so I now play a brush stroke. In every piece we play, performers must decide on a bow stroke to use given the clues in the music. I think the more the composer can help by including words such as “on the string” or “brush stroke,” the better.