Implied Dynamics and Vibraphone Gymnastics: A behind the scenes look at the preparation for Liam Flenady’s ‘Quite Early Morning, no. 2’

Kupka's percussionist Angus Wilson reflects on learning Liam Flenady's new work Quite Early Morning, no. 2. Come listen to the finished product at our concert Tempi Espressivi on July 18. Angus vibesHaving just come out of a practise session of Liam Flenady's new piece Quite Early Morning, no. 2, I'm grappling with two points which seem integral to the success of the work. The first is what I call 'implied dynamics', i.e. the notated loudness differs greatly from the loudness and/or meaning of the dynamic. Secondly, the 'gymnastics' of his part, flurries of small and complicated manoeuvres that need to be executed with precision, style and accuracy.

It would be an understatement to say Liam gives the vibraphone a workout in Quite Early Morning. I was expecting a notey part given his latest obsession of contrapuntal writing in the 21st century and his 'jazz' background. However he created something quite different and rather exciting. Quite Early Morning (both in the first and second incarnations) uses a range of extended techniques. These include pitch bending, dead strokes (leaving the mallet on the bar so it does not vibrate after being stuck), mallet dampening, white and black note glisses, striking the bar with the rattan handles and more. These are some of the more standard vibraphone extended techniques commonly used by composers today. Some techniques I did not expect were 'bouncing rattan handle on edge of bar', scraping rattan handle on the bar and to hand dampened 'extreme staccato'. (Have a listen to a recording of the first version to get a sense of what these techniques sound like).

Liam and I discussed the 'bouncing rattan' which he has listed at dynamics from pianissimo to forte. Compared to the vibraphone the technique has a capability of dynamic from about ppp (very very soft) to piano (soft). Liam presents the problem of hypothetical dynamic vs actual dynamic. How do I play an mf or f with this technique? Does this mean that I have to adjust all of the dynamics to fit in with this technique? Or is it isolated in its limited dynamic range and I should play everything else as per normal?

After a few practice sessions it's discovered that the dynamics are merely implied. Forte = 'We want to be able to hear the bouncing,' mezzo forte or mezzo piano would usually mean 'I'm a part of the texture and/or I'd like a bounce with less intensity'. Piano or anything less probably means 'Background texture or a very relaxed open bounce.' The reality is each time I play the technique at different dynamics the actual 'loudness' barely changes, just the speed/amount of bounces. You can only hope you have a good set of bendy rattan sticks to reach your full expressive potential.

The majority of the extended techniques used have a decreased capacity of dynamic, due to changing the purpose of the intended way the vibraphone was to be used. Most involve manipulating the metal in a way that doesn’t promote vibration and resonance.

As I navigate my way through Liam's piece I find myself feeling like much less of a musician and more like an elaborate gymnast or circus performer. Holding three differing sticks, constantly changing between techniques and tempos, I bend and flex my mallets to bend the pitch, cut and manipulate resonance/attack. My technique is pushed to the limit with p-f crescendos over 3-9 notes, meaning each strike must be very carefully attended to in regards to its gradation in loudness (remember a vibraphone cannot increase dynamic once struck). Rehearsals are much more strenuous mentally and physically on the performer than usual.

As I come closer have my part ready for a rehearsal, I begin to consider the co-ordination. While pulling off these 'manoeuvres' I have to be aware of my colleagues in rehearsal, what they are doing, if they are in sync with me, if we are matching dynamics and sounds. Each manoeuvre is often quite short and precise and usually part of a longer phrase or gesture. Whilst an overriding pulse does exist within the music... the success of the piece seems to much more entangled in the ability of the performers to pass these to each other. The writing is very hocketed in an abstract way. As the group becomes closer to the looming performance deadline it appears that more detail that is realised and cared for, the more homogenous the overall outcome.

Overall I thoroughly enjoy playing and learning Liam's music… While at times it can be difficult to navigate and comprehend, it has a very organic and expressive quality that gives the performer freedom to mould their own version of his work. I am honoured to give the premiere of it on July 18 at the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Art and to workshop it at the Darmstadt Summer Institute for New Music in August.

Angus Wilson.