Stravinsky’s Les Noces Reworked for Five Voices and Four Hands

Toward the end of Stravinsky’s “Russian” period, before he dove into Neo-Classism and twelve-tone music, he wrote a rather unusual non-symphonic piece for four pianos, percussion, and a full chorus. Like Stravinsky’s The Rite of SpringLes Noces (translated as The Wedding) was composed for the Ballets Russes. It premiered in the Parisian Théâtre de la Gaîté with choreography by Bronislava Nijinska in 1923, though Stravinsky had been working on different versions of the cantata since as early as 1913.

Looking for a new and ambitious project, local composers Dominique Leone, Kanoko Nishi, and Regina Schaffer decided they were going to tackle Les Noces and make a difficult work even more difficult by arranging it for just two pianos and five voices. Their goal was to stay as true as possible to Stravinsky’s score and capture the fullness of the original arrangement with a much paired-down ensemble.

The results?

We’ll find out this weekend when the ten-piece Ensemble Épouser premieres Les Noces at Berkeley’s Maybeck House. Meanwhile, take a listen to this remarkable recording with Nishi and Schaffer on piano and Leone doing all the choral parts, including the soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, and bass soloist parts.

In case you’re wondering how that was possible, Leone uses a computer pitch shifter to reach all the high and low octaves that are outside his natural range. He also uses voice amplification pedals to double or triple the voice and thus give the effect of a chorus.

The recording is all the more remarkable once you understand the circumstances under which it came into existence.

“Dominique actually tricked us into doing the recording!” says Nishi with a laugh. While she and Schaffer were still just learning the grueling piano parts, Leone spent a month recording them, often only eight bars at a time, apparently for “a demo” to help him learn all the vocal parts.

“It was a very arduous process of stopping and starting and stopping and starting,” says Leone, who later edited all the piano parts together and then recorded the voice parts over them. After Nishi’s initial surprise when Leone released the recording, she was very pleased with the results.

However arduous recording Les Noces may have been, this weekend’s live performance of the piece presents its own set of challenges. As Leone explains, the five singers will be continuously switching in and out of different choral and solo parts with no rest, like they would normally expect to have in a choral performance. They will also have to deal with a lot of the same kind of technology Leone used in the recording, which presents somewhat of an onstage logistical quandary.

Another major challenge for the small ensemble they have put together, says Nishi, is “trying to embody the power of the piece as it’s written originally for a bigger ensemble, trying to accommodate that.”

Her approach to adapting the eight-handed piano for four hands has mostly been to choose what seem to be the most essential parts in each movement. But she also has broken up the different piano parts so that at a given time one pianist may be playing one hand from one piano part, and the other hand will be playing from a different part. Blithely summarizing her approach, she says, “I just try to make it convincing when I play that it’s written for four pianos somehow, so I can get people to believe it and hypnotize them.”

The biggest challenge of all, though, is simply Stravinsky’s score in itself, independently of the way in which it is being adapted for this particular performance. “It is a very very hard piece to start with,” Nishi says, laughing again. “So, that’s been the main challenge, more than the fact that we are doing a different version of it. The parts are just very hard for every single player.”

Leone agrees. “Stravinsky is a very difficult composer for singers,” he says. “He wrote some but not a lot of choral music. He is much more of a instrumental composer. For the singers, that means they have a lot of very tricky lines, a lot of very tricky rhythms, big leaps, lyrics that don’t really seem like they go with the melody that you’re singing. So, it’s kind of odd. You always think that something’s wrong and you never can quite feel it. So, that’s really difficult.”

This, of course, is all part and parcel of what attracts these music adventurers to such a formidable project. While Leone has been a fan of Les Noces for many years, Nishi was unfamiliar with Stravinsky’s choral work till Leone proposed the collaboration. When she first hear it, she too immediately liked it.

“It sounded so contemporary, the way he used the voice in relation to the crazy orchestration he has,” she says, adding, “His writing for piano is just always really amazing. And the idea of having four pianos I thought was really cool.”

Friday and Saturday’s performance of Les Noces will be conducted by Kate McLoughlin with Diana Pray (soprano), Elise Cumberland (mezzo-soprano), Danishta Rivero (alto), Dominique Leone (tenor), Alexandra Buschman (bass), Kanoko Nishi and Regina Schaffer (pianos), Jordan Glenn (percussion), Jason Hoopes (bass), and Mark Clifford (mallets).

Stravinsky’s Les Noces by Dominique Leone, Kanoko Nishi, and Regina Schaffer will be performed at 8pm on July 29 & 30 at the historical Maybeck House in Berkeley. Advance tickets can be purchased here.

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Outsound New Music Summit Celebrates 10 Years

The annual Outsound New Music Summit, possibly the best kept secret in local music festivals, is celebrating its tenth year of showcasing the most exciting new music, experimental jazz, sonic gadgetry, electronics, and noise art from the Bay Area and beyond.

Inventor Walter Funk will be performing on Saturday's "Sonic Foundry Too!" finale event.

This year’s festival, which runs July 17-23, promises to be full of surprises, both for the uninitiated and for summit veterans. Taking place in the San Francisco Community Music Center in the heart of the Mission District, each evening’s events are organized around a different theme.

Starting things off on Sunday night is the aptly named “Touch the Gear” expo, a free event that attracts kids of all ages. This is a unique chance to play with lots of different one-of-a-kind gadgets and inventions, acoustic and electronic instruments, and effects pedals of various sorts. And yes, you can push the buttons.

Monday night’s panel discussion, which is also free, features four local composers in conversation with Outsound’s Polly Moller. Despite the scary-sounding title of the event—”Elements of Non-idiomatic Compositional Strategies”—Moller assures us it will be an informal conversation, not too cerebral or stuffy. Imagine hanging out with your composer friends over a couple of drinks and quizzing them about their creative processes. Later in the week, you can hear world premieres from the four featured composers.

You can see bran(...)pos perform at Wednesday's "Face Music"

After a break on Tuesday, the summit returns with Wednesday’s “Face Music,” an extraordinary-sounding event that features Theresa Wong, Joseph Rosenzweig, Aurora Josephson, and bran(…)pos (AKA Jake Rodriguez), four musicians who all use their faces in weird and wonderful ways to create a variety of sounds and textures. Don’t be surprised to see mics being put in places you never thought you’d see a mic! As summit and Outsound Presents director Rent Romus says of this event, “You never know what to expect…”

Thursday night’s “The Freedom of Sound” performance is focused on non-idiomatic, free improvisational music. There will be three very different performances ranging from operatic avant-rock to free jazz, with Tri-Cornered Tent Show, Positive Knowledge, and Grosse Abfahrt performing. Apart from the poem libretto in the first performance, everything will be freely improvised.

Krys Bobrowski's metal pipes and balloons

“The Art of Composition” on Friday night premieres new works from the summit’s four featured composers, Krys Bobrowski, Andrew Raffo Dewar, Kanoko Nishi, and Gino Robair. Each piece has been composed especially for the event. Some of the descriptions of these new works sound very intriguing, like Bobrowski’s—a “series of short pieces exploring the sonic properties of metal pipes and plates and the use of balloons as resonators.” Can’t wait to see what that’s all about!

Saturday night’s big finale “Sonic Foundry Too!” co-presented by Thingamajigs, brings together ten sonic inventors—one for each year of the summit—to collaborate on five different performances. The ten inventors are Tom Nunn, Steven Baker, Bob Marsh, Dan Ake, Sung Kim, Brenda Hutchinson, Sasha Leitman, Bart Hopkins, Terry Berlier, and Walter Funk. None of the paired collaborators have worked together before, so it should prove to be an interesting performance.

Dan Ake is one of the inventors featured in Saturday's Summit Finale

For anybody who is just a little curious about checking out the festival but not sure which evening to attend, Saturday night may well be the winner. Not only will you be exposed to cutting-edge sound installations and novel instruments made from metal, wood, string, plastic, rubber, and paper, but the display itself will also be visually stunning. One of the invented instruments that will be unveiled that night, for example, is over 12 foot tall! The evening promises to be an architectural and sonic treat, the likes of which you’ve never seen or heard before.

The danger, of course, of waiting till Saturday’s finale to attend, is that then you’d have to wait a whole year to have another chance to see such wild inventiveness and creativity in action.

Perhaps you’re more curious than you thought?

The 10th Annual Outsound New Music Summit (July 17-18 & 20-23) takes place at the San Francisco Community Music Center, 544 Capp Street @ 21st, San Francisco.