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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Klanging the Farben

Life does not wait to be written about. And books, sadly, don’t read themselves. I returned to work this week and have been a little overwhelmed with the amount of reading I have to stay on top of. I had started writing a blog post about all the incredible shows I saw last weekend and then just didn’t have time during the week to return to it.

Since then, I’ve seen so much more music that I want to write about. I just can’t keep up with myself. The weather has also been gloriously sunny, so it has been truly delightful to be back in my beloved SF.

I have a little bit of time today before heading out to Switchboard Music, an eight-hour festival of eclectic, inventive, genre-bending music featuring some of the Bay Area’s most interesting composers and musicians. I really should be reading Marx, but what the fuck!

Last weekend was a big one, as far as performances go. Since the jetlag wore off, I’ve been packing in as much as possible.

Friday night I went to see Beats Antique at the Fillmore. In the space of just a few years, this Oakland trio has gone from underground sensation in the local electronic music scene to a band of national and international popularity. The music is a tantalizing blend of breaks, hip-hop, dubstep, and glitch layered with Middle and Near Eastern riffs, and contemporary circus music. The sound is part digitally produced and sampled, part acoustic instrumentation.

After many months on the road, the trio returned to the bay for a sold-out performance at San Francisco’s celebrated Fillmore Theater, a “dream come true” for the band, according to David Satori.

Opening the show was The Real Vocal String Quartet, an innovative all-female string quartet that incorporates pop/folk singing to great effect with traditional chamber music. They also provided the string section for several Beats Antique numbers throughout the evening.

The second support act was a young man calling himself The Tailor who wriggled and writhed around onstage in a skinny pair of stripy low-riders and a wife-beater, singing and playing a looping guitar over mostly electronic prerecorded tracks he pulled up on his computer. The music had a danceable groove and was a good choice given the tastes of the audience, though several times I thought he would have been better able to play to the large crowd had he had some musicians accompanying him. There are lots of musicians who play multiple parts when they create and record their own music, but when playing out they get other musicians to take on these parts for a richer live experience. The Tailor could do with that kind of support onstage, especially at such a big venue like the Fillmore.

Beats Antique put on a great show accompanied by RVSQ on strings, as mentioned, Dan Cantrell on accordion, and a horn section that included Sylvain Carton on baritone sax and Peter Jacques on clarinet and trumpet.

A major factor contributing to Beats Antique’s meteoric rise is, no doubt, Zoe Jakes’ sultry tribal belly-dancing, which she performs throughout their shows when she’s not banging on a big drum and grimacing like a rockstar. On Friday, Jakes brought a bunch of friends with her to perform, so the crowd got to see some great dancing that ventured beyond tribal style. At one point, a hot guest dance troupe came out to perform a mixture of belly and hip-hop. Let me tell you, these ladies could shimmy and grind like nobody’s business.

Saturday night I managed to squeeze in two performances, Schick Machine by the Paul Dresher Ensemble, which was definitely the highlight of the weekend, and jazz guitarist Alex Pinto at my favorite local haunt, The Revolution Café.

Schick Machine is a collaboration between Paul Dresher, a well-known local composer and inventor of some of the wildest instruments you’ve ever seen or heard, Daniel Schmidt, another inventor and builder of musical instruments, Matt Heckert, maker of kinetic sculptures, and writer/director Rinde Eckert. The one-man show is performed by Steven Schick, a master percussionist with an astounding ability to extract every texture of sound from objects, be they simple household objects, sparser inventions born of an idiosyncratic mind, or wildly inventive creations that are both visually stunning and rich with sound possibilities.

Schick moves around from station to station in his subterranean (I imagine) sound laboratory that looks almost like the whirring, spinning, grinding internal workings of a giant piano organ. At times he conducts a kind of locomotive symphony between the different parts of the huge machine, at other times he plays a single instrument tenderly and slow, and the playing becomes a kind of meditative dance.

Renowned writer/director Rinde Eckert is known both for the physicality and musicality of his theatrical work and has collaborated with the Paul Dresher Ensemble on projects in the past.

In Schick Machine, an unseen voice introduces the character Lazlo Klangfarben (“klangfarbe” means “timbre” in German), an eccentric and solitary genius whose obsessive creative machinations have brought forth into existence the “Schick Machine,” an innovation that can reconcile the past and future. Lazlo is unsure whether the time is right to unleash his creation on the world, whether humanity is truly ready for such a powerful invention. Lazlo’s own sense of belonging in the world outside of his laboratory is also in question. We learn that connection and intimacy are problematic, that his wife has already left him.

Eckert’s philosophical ponderings through the character of Lazlo punctuate Schick’s virtuosic playing, and add the kind of intellectual depth and emotional poignancy these wild inventions demand. His words capture beautifully the emotional resonance Schick extracts from each instrument and the narrative provides a frame for Schick’s sonic explorations.

After Schick Machine, we headed over to the Rev for Alex Pinto’s CD release party. As always, the tiny venue was packed to the gills. Pinto is an accomplished young jazz guitarist who blends Hindustani classical music with contemporary jazz and indie rock. In addition to his original jazz compositions, he also does a number of very sweet interpretations of some Radiohead songs. He just released his debut album, Inner State. Definitely one to watch out for!

Sunday night it was time for a contemporary dance performance to balance out all the music. The Contact Improv Research Forum, which organizes the annual West Coast Contact Improv Festival, had a curated show at CounterPulse and Sunday was its last night. One of the biggest challenges for improv-based dance performance is to create something that does not look like a contact jam with lights and costumes, especially because the audience at these shows tends to be mostly other CI dancers who probably don’t want to pay three times as much to see what they could see at a regular jam.

This challenge is all the greater when the performance is conceptually heavy, as was the case with the first performance, Kristen Greco’s The Red Door. The piece was inspired by Jung’s Red Book, though I’m not sure if knowing this contributed anything to my appreciation of the dancing. One of the performers, Antonio Alemanno, switched roles between dancer and musician and even did a kind of contact dance with his upright bass, which I enjoyed. There were also some nice solos, most notably, from the Santa Cruz-based dancer Daniel Bear Davis, whom I just love to watch.

The second performance that evening, Sense Object, is a work-in-progress by Miriam Wolodarski with juggler/dancer Zack Bernstein, who often dances with Scott Wells and Dancers. I loved the names of the three scenes: “1. The polite dinner guest always speaks with restraint. 2. Another person is a foreign country. 3. Say something! Can’t you see I’m hiding?” It was a whimsical dance theatre piece that had me laughing out loud several times. A favorite moment was Wolodarski’s contact dance on and with a huge ladder. I look forward to seeing how this piece develops.

While I’ve seen a bunch more performances since then (it’s been a whole week, for God’s sake!), I will write about them later. The Switchboard Music Festival starts in a few minutes and I want to post this before I leave the house for that. More reviews coming soon!!