on singing while playing the cello (part 3: Maya Beiser & Sol Gabetta)…

Jon as a Klingon dressed up as a Frenchman for a Halloween show singing tunes in the original Klingon in Indianapolis, Indiana 2011 October 29

Sweet Buddha!  While having this wonderfully stimulating discussion at Bryan Townsend’s blog (here and here) I came across this version of Tsmindao Ghmerto by cellist, Maya Beiser (one of my all time favorite cellists, if I haven’t said that enough on this blog).

It’s an adaptation of an arrangement of a 13th century Georgian choral piece that Evan Ziporyn (of Bang on a Can) arranged as a solo bass clarinet piece (if you haven’t heard his version–you really should because how often do you hear three and four part harmony coming out of a solo clarinetist?!?).  Here are his notes to his arrangement: http://bangonacan.org/library/program_notes/tsmindao_ghmerto

This is reminiscent of a work by Latvian composer, Pēteris Vasks, called “Gramata Cellam (The Book)” for cello (1978).  Here’s a wonderful excerpt of Argentinian cellist, Sol Gabetta, performing it.  The vocals start around minute 2:19:

As I mentioned in my previous installments of this topic, doing sustained vocals while playing sustained melodic lines is quite possibly the most difficult technique of the various ways of singing while playing.  And this is something that is very idiosyncratic to folks who play a bowed instrument–pianists and guitarist never have to maintain long sustained lines the way a stringed instrumentalist does.  Granted–tremolo and trills are ways of sustaining or mimicking a sustained effect but I find that it is far easier to do a tremolo while singing than it is to hold a long note while singing.  The attention is focuses on two different tasks with the former–a tremolo is ultimately a rhythmic motion–while with the latter two very similar kinds of activities need to be separated out in some way.

Notice in the Vasks excerpt that Ms. Gabetta is basically harmonizing–the vocal and cello lines have the same rhythmic movement and same melodic direction.  This is much easier to do (relatively speaking) than the independently moving lines we hear Ms. Beiser doing with the Georgian piece.  However, the rhythmic movement in the latter is still relatively simple so the difficultly level isn’t insurmountable.  In both performances the tempi are slow enough that the multi-tasking necessary for performance isn’t overtaxed.

I think there is probably a maximal point of how many notes can be played or sung in relation to another line where the task is relatively straightforward.  What that point is I don’t really know but can be easily affected by so many things:

  • Melodic direction – if the melodic movement is in a similar direction in both lines, the task is easier than, say, of one line were moving in a different direction than the other.  If the line is moving in a completely contrary direction than the other, this is actually nearly as easy to accomplish than if one or both lines are moving in some mixed combination of parallel and contrary motion.
  • Melodic/Harmonic tempo/rhythm – if both lines are moving at the same time and in the same rhythm, this is much easier than if one line is being sustained for a time while the other is moving at a slower pace.  The exception is if one line is a drone while the other moves a lot.
  • Melodic/Rhythmic repetition – if one line is relatively repetitious while the other line outlines a melody or harmonization of the melody, this is relatively easy as well–probably comparable to having one line drone while the other outlines a melody.

I’ve found that asymmetric grooves (e.g. 7/8, 9/8, 3+3+2) are no more difficult to maintain while singing than symmetric ones (e.g. 2/4, 4/4).  While asymmetric grooves may be more difficult to fall into than symmetric ones (for those of us who didn’t have the advantage of growing up in countries where asymmetric rhythms are just as frequently found as symmetric ones, that is).  Once you fall into the groove and as long as you could normally maintain them, there shouldn’t be any more of a problem singing a line above it than singing a line over a symmetric one.

I hadn’t planned posting another blog about singing while playing, but the Maya Beiser clip was such a nice and simple contrast to the Sol Gabetta one I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to use them to illustrate some points.  Maybe I should write a whole ‘singing while playing the cello’ method book or something.  🙂


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