Machine: Fire Opera

Preparing the Accordion Part

December 2 — The day after the first rehearsal, composer Clark Suprynowicz emailed to ask if I was available to play on the Machine opera. (The accordionist originally hired was unable to play the music.)  So I missed the first rehearsal, and then misunderstood when the music would arrive and I’ve now received it three days before my first rehearsal.

December 5 —First rehearsal.  Invariably, some passages I thought would be easy turned out to be tricky, and vice versa.  Here’s one I didn’t suspect.

The notes seem easy enough, but to play them isn’t. The bass and tympani are playing offbeats, but nobody is playing any onbeats for miles around.  In my part, Clark had thoughtfully written the offbeat bass line, but I missed that, so that in rehearsal I kept sliding the beginning of each measure over so that it coincided, incorrectly, with the offbeats.  You can get a feel for the problem by listening to the metronome at our tempo of 212 clicks per minute.

It is enough to imagine each click as the onbeat, but try imagining the onbeat falling halfway between each of the metronome clicks.  Now tap your foot to that imaginary onbeat.  Conductor Barnaby Palmer wasn’t too happy when I kept getting this wrong, and I was incapable of correcting it in the flurry of rehearsal. But I’ve been ruminating since on how to lock into that beat.  My solution is now to tap the onbeat with my left foot, and the strong offbeat with my right. That seems to work. (This note isn’t accordion-specific, only insofar as most accordionists have weak rhythm.)

December 19 — There are a few places where I am supposed to play synthesizer instead of accordion, since the synth has a wider range of timbres, especially sounds that don’t sound like an ordinary accordion.  I tried this out in the first rehearsal, but it sounded sterile.  After some discussion, I ended up borrowing an effects box from Joel Davel, the marimba player, and running the accordion sound through it as synth substitue.  For example, here are the opening measures with synth, then accordion through the effects box. What it lacks in timbre it makes up in emotion, I hope.

True story: several years ago at a party I found myself bragging expansively to someone about how the accordion is superior to the synth because of the nuance available through the bellows; a foot pedal on a synth is a crude comparison.  After I drifted on for a while, I asked him what he did for a living.  “I’m a synth player,” he replied.

December 20 — Barnaby asked the guitars to play a passage more quietly. Guitarist John Schott quipped that, “Well, when we come across a passage that is actually playable, we kind of like to play it louder.”

December 22 —  Even after the composer has written the music, there are, invariably, interpretations that are left to the player.  This same gap is understood between architect and carpenter, designer and craftsman, as here, between composer and musician.  How to make those small-scale interpretations depends how my part fits in with the whole, but so far, I have little idea what the opera is about.  I can’t hear much of the singer’s words, and I haven’t seen any of the action on stage.  So I emailed director Mark Streshisky to get a copy of the libretto and the short story upon which Machine is based. I’ve now read these, and have a better feel for the tone of each passage, so I can start to figure out how to interpret my part appropriately.

One accordion player’s interpretation is direction of bellows, and I’ve begun writing in bellows direction, just as a string player would write in where to play with an up-bow and where with a down-bow.

For example, in this line I prefer to change bellows direction with each note rather than multiple notes in the same direction.  It seems more in keeping with all the drama going on. There’s no time for musicians to discuss every small interpretation, so I was happy to hear in rehearsal last night that the cellist came to the same decision in her interpretation of the same line.

December 23 — Fooling around some more:  I have several trills sprinkled throughout my part, and I try out different effects. From the composer’s pen, they all look the same, but by varying speed, bellows, and even treble and bass notes, I can get different trills. I start marking my part.  (Contemporary accordion notation uses curvy lines, like a sine waves, to suggest movement of the bellows.)

December 30 — We are on break from rehearsals, but I spent Christmas week playing less accordion than I had hoped.  I went about a few overdue repairs: a new, tighter bass strap, futzing with my shoulder strap adjustments, building a chair riser to get me to the exact right height, an access case for the effects box, and fixing a few reeds that had gotten dust in them.  Over time, dust, lint, and other air impurities get sucked into the accordion and lodge themselves between the reeds and their metal housing, and I had a few smaller, higher reeds which weren’t sounding properly.  So I cleaned those out and vacuumed all the innards to forestall this happening again elsewhere.  I’ve  discovered, however, my tiniest piccolo reed doesn’t just have dust, but is broken.  It’s on the high C, above the highest note of standard accordions, and I don’t have a ready substitute around. So I order the reed from Italy and learn to avoid that note for this show.

December 30 — With dead composers, it’s easy, you can just decide however you want to play their music and they can’t say anything about it.  But Clark is quite alive.  In many places, now that I’ve heard how the accordion part fits in, I am starting to prefer a different octave, sometimes lower, more frequently higher.  So I politely emailed Clark asking him if I could try changing some of octaves in rehearsal.  He agreed, and was in fact thinking along the same lines.  He’s left the particulars to my “good musical taste”.

With all but my highest piccolo reeds working, I’ve transposed this passage up a couple of octaves.  The bass player also doubles the part, six octaves below, and together I think the high and low sound pretty cool together.  Clark likes it.

January 2 —  Usually when I fail at something musical, it seems that I didn’t work hard enough or practice long enough.  But I’ve just stumbled badly in my first rehearsal since break, missing several cues that I thought I had nailed before. I think this was due to a strategic mistake rather than lack of practice: the last few days I had gotten too fancy for my own good, deciding upon tricky reed changes and unnecessary articulations without really knowing my part down cold — a mistake of over-enthusiasm — and so after devoting a few hours to interpretations I can’t sustain, the fundamentals have suffered.  It’s now time for triage.

January 8 — Overall, the twelve rehearsals have had a predictable progression: core instrumentalists,  then adding our  seven percussionists, then singers, so far all off-site at the Paul Dresher Studios.  Our playing area is accurately spiked so that from the beginning we can practice what it’s like not to be able to see each other, and, at many times, not to be able to hear each other very well.  Then rehearsals move to the Crucible, where the singers work on staging and we get used to local acoustics and working with Brendan Aanes, the sound technician.  Some performers can follow Barnaby’s conducting only from television monitors. A direct sight line is not always possible.

It is a tech-heavy production.  Whenever the performers take a break, the Crucible tech crew swarms upon the stage to weld, screw, rivet, staple, paint, wire, and duct tape stuff. Two days ago, Friday, we started rehearsing with the fire effects, after the lecture demo of what to do if we catch on fire.  I get used to a column of fire in front of me and other blasts of fire every time we play certain passages.  I imagine the fire will be more intense if I play sour notes. Barnaby gets a smoke machine that is intended to intensify the mood at his podium, although he might prefer to be able to see the score cleanly.

Today’s rehearsal, from make-up to final notes: 8 1/2 hours.  Tomorrow, Monday, is our public run-through, Wednesday, opening night.