Thursday, 18 October 2007

Rhythm methods

Second rehearsal today. We blundered our way through the chorus bits of the Prologue and of Act I, particularly the storm chorus. People complain about student behaviour sometimes, but I was pleased to see the altos, in particular, so well behaved. We didn't hear a peep out of them all afternoon.

The music in Grimes poses a lot of interesting problems. Few of these are related to notes: Britten naturally writes in quite a vocal way, with lots of stepwise, modal or harmonic movement. He's also very considerate at giving you your entry notes: the series of otherwise difficult D-sharps on which Bob Boles starts his rants in Act I, for example, are supplied helpfully a quaver in advance by the oboe. Except we won't have an oboe until June.

But the rhythms are something else. The choruses work in lots of short, repeated or sequenced phrases which overlap, but whose overlapping scheme is never that obvious. Successive entries of your phrase might come in on beat 1, then on beat 3, then beat 2 1/2 but half speed, then beat 1 1/2 but with half of it double speed and the other half half speed. And all this time you're being put off by the sopranos and basses who are doing the same sort of thing but in different ways, often from each other, but I don't think that was in the score. Not the altos, though, obviously.

Nan's hot tip is to practise the chorus parts by speaking the rhythms first, to get those cemented in the head, before proceeding to secondary issues such as notes, dynamics, etc.

As my guitar teacher was fond of saying, rather often in my lessons in fact, get the notes right but the rhythm wrong and everyone will notice; get the rhythm right and the notes wrong, and hardly anyone will notice. Well, for anything written up to 1913, that is. For rather a lot of music after say 1950, you can get the notes and the rhythm wrong, and even the composer won't notice.

When it's done right, all this chorus stuff in Grimes is really, really exciting. Britten has the skill to make these simple units build up, thanks to their varied overlaps, into genuine harmonic and textural momentum.

We're a bloody long way from doing it right.

Still, as Nan reminded us, when she was at Scottish National Opera the chorus managed to learn the whole darn opera in a week. Either they were fantastically committed, or there's nothing else do on an autumn evening in Glasgow. I suspect it's the commitment thing, though.

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