Friday, 22 September 2017

"Tavolette" in "Roman Festivals", by O. Respighi.

At the end of the last season I was lucky enough to play "Feste Romane" ("Roman Festivals") which, together with "Fountains" and "Pines", form Ottorino Respighi´s "Roman Triptych".

It´s a work featuring an exuberant, imaginative and brilliant orchestration for, of course, grand orchestra. It requires a "percusive force" of one timpanist plus nine percussionists and, in its last movement ("La Befana"), the composer asks for "tavolette". This is an instrument quite unknown to percussionists and on which no consensus seems to exist This article will try to clarify the different aspects concerning this part.

To start with, let´s have a look at the description of the four movements, as seen in the score:

The fourth movement is entitled "La Befana" (not a very precise translation above, I know), a witch whose "job" is equivalent to that of the Three Wise Men in the Spanish and Latin American tradition: bringing presents to good boys, while giving coal to naughty ones during the night between January 5th and 6th.

So, according to the description above, in this last movement we are dealing with a "maremagnum" of popular music, where several tunes overlap each other during the chaos of the festival.

What is, then, a "tavoletta"?. Literally, it´s a board, plank... No coincidence "tavola", in Italian, means "table". In Spanish, "tabla" means "board". "Tavola" and "tabla" share the same Latin root. "Tavoletta" introduces the sufix "-etta", (a diminutive) which means "small" refering to whatever lexema you add it to. So, "tavoletta" means "small board". Same in Spanish: that sufix exists in the form of "-ita" or "-illa" (almost identical to the Italian one), meaning exactly the same: "small" to whatever lexema you add it to. "Tavolette" is the plural ("little boards"). That's were Italian and Spanish differ, as we make plurals adding "-s" or "-es", and Italians make plurals adding an "-i" if masculine (reminiscence of the Latin second declination, dominus/domini) or an "-e" if femenine (reminiscence of the Latin first declination, rosa/rosae).So, "tavolette" means "little boards".

What percussion instrument is made with little wooden planks? In the Mediterranean area (both in Italy and Spain) there´s an instrument consisting in exactly that: a wooden plank hit by wooden hammers. Its name is "matraca", and it´s a popular instrument also associated to several religious celebrations (Easter in Spain). "Matraca" comes from the arab "mitraqa", meaning "hammer" and "taraq", meaning "to hit". Spanish uses that word and etimology, but not Italian, as their peninsula was not occupied in the Middle Ages as it was ours.

It´s, obviously, a popular instrument, nothing complicated. I associate it with the orthodox tradition of the semantron which, under different forms (more or less evolved depending on the composer and time of composition) appears in this work by Respighi, "Les Choephores" by Milhaud, "Three Pieces for Orchestra" by Berg and, why not, Mahler #6.

They are very simple devices, and their only purpose is to make as much noise as possible (exactly what Respighi tries to musically describe in "La Befana"). There are even more complex ones featuring a rotating handle (similar to a spinning wheel) which, when rotated, make atrocious noise. In Spain, there are quite a few of them (of gigantic proportions) instaled in bell towers. In the case of the "tavolette" asked for in "Feste Romane", its size is small, portable, allowing for it being carried in the streets to make noise during the festival. 

What can we use in the orchestra? Two wooden planks hit by two wooden hammers, that´d be the solution I consider to be the closest to what Respighi intended. Having said that, we can use woodblocks, templeblocks, coconut shells... As long as we can produce two different "wooden sounds" (high and low), we´ll be ok. Don´t go for anything too fancy.

But there´s something more... Apart from the "problem" of knowing what instrument was Respighi refering to, it seems that, after a quick look at the part, he wants the "tavolette" tuned to B and E. Well..., if finding a couple of "tavolette" wasn´t hard enough, we need them tuned to B and E... Reading forums, FB groups, talking to colleagues..., it seems this is a trendy topic. People seem to enjoy coming up with solutions (sometimes, terribly complex) so as to be able to play those two pitches. The "tavolette" discussion comes and goes, always with renovated impetus. Let´s see what the part looks like:

Yikes... A treble clef! B and E. It seems like yes, "tavolette" have to play specific pitches. Sure...? Let´s have a look at the other parts.

This is the timpani part:

We all know timpani produce pitches, so we can see the obvious: bass clef, key signature, different pitches...

Let´s see what´s up with the glock part:

Yes... Treble clef, pitches (many!)... We all know the glock is a definite pitch percussion instrument.

Now the xylophone:

Again, treble clef, key signature, pitches... Because it´s a definite pitch instrument.


Treble clef and two pitches. This part has something important: there´s an indication under "2 campane" stating what pitches to play (Bb in octave). We´ll be back to this later on.

Let´s now see the bass drum/cymbals part:

Hmmmm... Bass clef. C for the bass drum, E for the cymbals. Have you ever worried, when playing this piece, to get those exact pitches? No, because everybody knows these are indefinite pitch instruments.

Suspended cymbals now:

Bass clef. An E... Would you look for an E pitched cymbal to play this part? No, because they are indefinite pitch instruments.

Let´s now have a look at the rachet part (an instrument intimately related to the "matraca", with almost identical uses and belonging to the same tradition):

Treble clef, C... So you are going to tell me that you´d use a C pitched rachet, right? No, because they make noise, nothing more.

Sleigh bells now:

Treble clef, C... No, this is not Mozart´s "Sleigh Ride" or "Three German Dances"... Nobody would ever worry about getting that exact pitch.


Because of the bass clef, our tambourine should produce an E. Not likely, right?

Military drum:

This was the part I played. Obviously, tunning to a C was not one of my worries.

Snare drum:

Would you tune it to a C because that´s what the treble clef indicates? No...


Yes, you guessed it: nobody would care about the C, as the tamtam is and indifinite pitch instrument.


Do you have your E tuned triangle at hand? Don´t think so...

You already should have an idea of what´s going on... The copyst uses a pentagram whether the instruments are pitched or not. In this last case, he uses a treble clef for those producing high frecuencies and a bass clef for those producing low ones. He almost always uses the third space (except for the triangle, suggesting it´s the highest one). When two instruments share a pentagram (or produce low frecuencies), he uses the second space (bass drum, tamtam, military drum...). In writing the "tavolette" (and this is what can lead to mistakes), he uses the first and third line.

Still doubts? Let´s go back... In the bells/chimes part, right below "2 CAMPANE", there´s an indication stating what pitches to play. That´s to say, the "intonation" of the bells is specified, as they could be church bells or non specific pitches just making noise. He uses a treble clef, but he is very careful about stating the specific pitches. Why? Because he would have written a treble clef even if no specific pitches were to be used (as he has done with all the indefinite pitch intruments in the work).

In the "tavolette" part, under the instrument name, "grande e piccola" ("large" and "small") is indicated. Nothing more. That´s the indication with regard to the "intonation" of the "tavolette". Should Respighi have wanted specific pitches, the copyst would have done as he did with the "campane", stating them below the name of the instrument. What the copyst has done here is indicating "large" and "small" as the only guide to the relative height of the instruments. Yes, he uses a treble clef (as he has done with other indefinite pitch instruments), but the indication is clear: no pitches, just "large" and "small". Should Respighi have wanted pitched wooden sounds, he could have used the xylophone, an instrument already in the score. Not the case. "Tavolette": just "grande" and "piccola". Pitches are irrelevant.

Still not convinced? Let´s take a passage at random and analyze it harmonically.

There´s a D major chord there, so the B is not in context. We cannot even consider it as an added sixth, as it would be doubled somewhere else. Even more, do we really think we could get a substantial B from a wooden plank so it would be the only instrument playing a B in that harmonic context? It makes no sense.

So... If EVERY SINGLE NON PITCHED INSTRUMENT is written using a clef, why is it that we have only worried about assigning pitches to the "tavolette"? It makes no sense: we should assign pitches to all of them or to none. What´s the solution? The obvious one: indefinite pitch instruments make noises, they don´t play pitches. "Tavolette" are one of them, and if we haven´t worried about assigning pitches to the other instruments in the score, worrying about assinging them to the "tavolette" is absurd... "Tavolette": noise making popular instruments. Don´t over think it, as it´s quite clear that, seeing the edition, they are non pitched instruments. Even more, if finding "tavolette" is quite hard, how hard do you think is finding tuned ones? Hard, very hard. So hard that they don´t even exist, as they are non pitched instruments. Tuned ·tavolette" are as rare as a green unicorn. Don´t search for them, as you won´t find them.

So, next time you play this piece, use the same common sense with the "tavolette" part you use when approaching the bassdrum/cymbals part, or the triangle one featuring clefs and pitches: realize it´s an edition issue.

Having said that, playing this piece is a wonderful oportunity to experiment trying to get a beautiful, musical and popular "tavolette" sound (and, obviously, enjoy a fantastic piece of the repertoire).

Should you get to play this piece, I´d love to know what solution you come up with. Let me know.

…et in Arcadia ego.
© David Valdés

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Rest in peace, Emma Maleras.

Today, at 97 years old, Emma Maleras has passed away. She may be unfamiliar for many people but, for those of us who care about castanets, she is a milestone. 

Emma Maleras created a method that approached castanets like any other instrument: with respect and rigour. She created the bigram, and her pianistic background proved to be priceless. She dignified the instrument and made it achieve soloistic category.

I didn´t get to know her, but I did buy and study her books. Thanks to them I left my ignorance behind, and my perception of the instrument changed for ever. I´m far (very far) from being a castanet vistuoso, but I´m on my way to being able to play castanets at least as well as I play other instruments I´m proficient on.

If you are interested in playing castanets the way they should be played, I encourage you to get her METHOD.    

In the following videos you will get to know this fantastic soloist, sadly unknown for the vast majority of percussionists.

Rest in peace. 

…et in Arcadia ego.
© David Valdés

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Happy birthday, Ms. Abe!

Today is the 80th birthday of a person who has had a tremendous influence in the marimba world: Keiko Abe.

It is not the purpose of this article to detail her career, achievements or insist on the tremendous importance of her figure (everything already well known), but to wish her a very happy birthday on this very significant date and to remember the fantastic days of music making I shared with her almost fourteen years ago.

During my time in London, there was a specially hard week, as we had to prepare many works to play for her which would be recorded live. I prepared solo works by Japanese composers (Tanaka, Miyoshi, Abe...), and a chamber ensemble prepared "Conversation in the Forest III" and "Marimba Concertino The Wave", both by her.

"Conversation in the Forest III". Rehearsals at the Duke´s Hall

Obviously, we were spected to play at our best whic, together with Keiko´s never ending stamina, made for a very hard and demanding week.

After the concert

From that fantastic experience, apart from unforgettable memories, I keep a CD of that recital, a very precious possession of mine that I still play from time to time.

I also played some solo works for her. I got extremely surprised when, having finished with Tanaka´s "Two Movements", she asked me to start all over again... She joined me improvising a second part the one already written. I will remember that duo for ever.

Should you want to listen to a small fragment of that recital, you can do so on my website: MULTIMEDIA, audio tab. The second track on the player is the final part of "The Wave".

A very nice person, full with boundless energy, extremely polite and a rare musical talent. Happy 80th birthday, Ms. Abe.

…et in Arcadia ego.
© David Valdés

Monday, 27 March 2017

The davul.

From March 20th to 25th I played Bartok´s masterpiece "The Miraculous Mandarin" with the OSPA. This works includes a peculiar bass drum part, in which stems up indicate notes to be played with the righ hand and stems down those to be played with the left one. It also asks for a "flexible rod" to be used on the left hand (in the original edition).

© David Valdés

Because of the part, indications, context, type of music, the knowledge Bartok had on folklore (he travelled Turkey, the Balcans and Central Europe) and the explanations given by our conductor Rossen Milanov (a Bulgarian who knows this music very well), I soon realized this bass drum part was clearly influenced by the davul.

Having asked my principal (Rafa Casanova) and the person in charge of the part (I was playing xylo, triangle and tam-tam), it was decided to try my davul. We all liked it and, apart from a timbrical point of view, the scenic and visual ones got really reinforced.

© David Valdés

As you can see, it was played the traditional way (hanging from a shoulder) and using the sticks associated with it: a very thin, flexible rod with the right hand and a "spoon shaped" wooden stick with the left one. You can see them in detail on the next photo.

© David Valdés

What´s a davul? We already mentioned it on "Percussion archeology" but, today, we´ll be more specific about its history, technique and usage

The davul is an instrument of Turkish origin, intimately related to the janissaries, the sultan´s elite troops. They were accompanied by bands named mehterân (a mehter is a musician who is part of the mehterân), the davul being one of the instruments in these bands.

The davul is a wooden drum of variable size (ranging between 18" and 36" in diametre and about 10" in depth), two headed, which is held so both are practicable. The right hand holds a wooden spoon shaped mallet in charge of the bass tones, the left one holds a thin dowel in charge of the ornaments. The right hand holds its stick in the regular way, but the left one holds it so the fingers can be used, permiting very intrincate figures. A technique which, centuries later would be known as "one handed roll" or "freehand technique" (popularized by Johnny Rabb, among others) is a trademark of this instrument, producing several strokes with just one action. This dowel evolved to become our Central European "rute".




Because of the expansion of the Ottoman Empire, the instrument (together with its partners in the mehterân) got to be known in the conquered territories, becoming very popular in the Balcan Peninsula, where it´s know as  tapan, (that´s how our conductor named it), tupan, daul, toba, tof, daouli, tupana, lodra, doli, dwola...  

I´m sure Bartok got to know it during his ethnomusicological travels, and got his inspiration from it to write the bass drum part for "The Miraculous Mandarin". 

Obviously, Europe got to know this instrument because of its wars against the Turks (who besieged Vienna). We adopted it (see Haydn´s "Military Symphony", Mozart´s "Abduction from the Seraglio", Beethoven´s Symphony #9...) and, from there, it evolved into our present bass drum. The following photo shows two very close relatives: a davul (great-great-grandfather) and a bass drum (great-great-grandson):

© David Valdés

How does a davul sound? Here you have some videos:

You can see it here played in context, in a mehterân:

As you can see, the journey of the davul starts as a military instrument, continues as a folkloric one and ends with "classical" music. A mutual influence, a transfer between different human expressions. 

The percussion section and the conductor absolutely loved my davul. It goes without saying that we can use it on any folkloric or janissary influenced music (already mentioned above). Curiosity, imagination, knowledge and respect to tradition should be our guides when it comes to choosing an instrument for any particular work.

Will you give the davul a chance?

…et in Arcadia ego.
© David Valdés

Monday, 13 March 2017

Studio sessions: preparation and thousand more things.

On February 17th, 18th and 19th I was in Colmenarejo (Madrid) taking part in a very interesting project: recording, together with  "Forma Antiqva", the music for "Poem of a Cell". "Winter&Winter" was in charge of the production, and the sessions took place at "Estudio Uno".

I got the parts sent to me two weeks in advance (something to be grateful for as, sometimes, there´s no other option than sight-reading). This way I knew I would be playing baroque timpani, glockenspiel, triangle, wind and opera gongs). Everything but the wind gong was already in my arsenal, so a quick visit to Thomann and, the next day, a beautiful 24" Wu Han joined the family.

© David Valdés

Before any recording, I always check the instruments I´m going to use so they do not fail me: heads, noises, mechanisms... Instruments are my tools, so I must keep them in tip-top shape so they enter the studio in perfect working order. It is also interesting to bring in a few of those needed so I have options and colours (I only own one glockenspiel and one pair or baroque timpani, but I´m very well stocked when it comes to triangles and gongs, so I brought all of them...). For the same reason, I like bringing in many sticks and mallets.

The good thing about getting the parts early is that I can have a look at them in advance, the bad thing is that it´s new music, so no records available for reference... I don´t know which other instrument I´m playing with, how to phrase, the absolute or relative of dynamics, articulation, if I´m doubling parts or soloing... There´s a preparatory work that has to be done so, once the red light is on, everything is perfect and works from scratch: it´s not nice having to roll another take or wasting my colleagues time because of me not being prepared.

So, first things first... There´s a job that, sometimes, composers and engravers miss: numbering all bars (if there are many tacet bars and the conductor asks "let´s take from bar X", I can´t waste everybody else´s time while counting or adding because they are not engraved: if bars are numbered I can pinpoint where to start without wasting a single milisecond). On the next photo you can see how I numbered bars. Also, I used a green pencil to mark a quite hidden bar change which could pass unnoticed during sessions.

© David Valdés

I also number cue bars so as to have information doubled and to minimize the chances of a mistake. You can see that on the second to last pentagram on the previous photo and on the next one.

© David Valdés

The next photo shows a very common problem: engraving software writes with no logic. Although correct, that writing makes reading unconfortable. My preparation work includes modifying it to get a more easy to read part so there are no problems once I´m in the studio. There are many different ways to write the same thing, and I opt for the easiest so the chance of a mistake gets minimized. Because of this previous work, I save my colleague´s time and avoid extra takes.

© David Valdés

Here´s another example. I also add an eye (that´s a personal thing :-D ) as a reminder that I have to keep playing after the line jump.

© David Valdés

I also mark the beats to differentiate very similar patterns. The triplet in the line above and the eighth notes below could be mistaken du to the very similar writing. Dear engravers: time signatures do not bite, you can use them at the beginnig of each line without problem ;-) .

© David Valdés

I also mark a clear mistake to discuss it with the musical director.

© David Valdés

When all the parts are marked and clear so I can´t make any mistake, the next step in my preparation is clear: practice, practice, practice... In this case, although not particulary difficult, the glock part needed some attention:

© David Valdés

 With parts and instruments ready, there we go, Colmenar...

© David Valdés

Once the sessions are rolling, everything goes ultra fast: two passes (at the most) and we are recording. Because of that, my radar has to be on during those previous run throughs so as to grab as much information as possible (pencil and eraser are my best friends). I write down cues from other instruments to secure a music I hear for the first time. This way I make no mistakes, and no takes will have to be repeated because of me. On the following photo you can see cues written down during long tacet periods.

© David Valdés

It´s also time for writting down ritardandi, comas, correcting mistakes (see the previous photo where a 5/4 was changed to 4/4), choosing mallets/sticks, listening to what the other musicians are playing to match their phrasing, articulation, dynamics, intonation...

© David Valdés

With regard to sticks/mallets, it´s a shame I have no photos but, when you go into the studio, it´s compulsory to bring a good arsenal so you can get as many colours and characters as posible and make both conductor and producer happy. But... No matter how many I bring in, the producer will always want to try all of them: I´ll star with a pair which he doesn´t like, we keep on trying untill we go full circle and get back to the original ones (he doesn´t know ;-) ) and... "Those are perfect!". I knew... :-D . Bring many sticks to sessions and use your best diplomacy and tact to deal with these kind of situations (and always remember: the boss is the boss. Do what you are asked to do).

© David Valdés

During these run throughs I have to keep my ears wide open and listen to what the other musicians are playing so we deliver a coherent whole. Here you can see a very easy timpani part.

© David Valdés

The producer told us those notes represented a menace coming from the underworld (with this information I can guess character, dynamics, sticks...). I discover I play them together with the double bass: I now know intonation has to be perfect (it has to be perfect anyway, but because we are playing the same pitches, it has to be "specially perfect"). Also, although we have the same writing (plain half notes), I was playing them legato and he was articulating them. I realize that, have a chat with the double bass player and we decide to play them separated (different articulation fro the same thing is a no no...). There was this discrepancy during the first run through, but everything was perfect from there on. You can see me talking to the cello and bass players trying to unify criteria.

© Forma Antiqva/Jaime Massieu

On the following one, the cellist and I are clarifying an excerpt so my gong part fits where it should.

© Forma Antiqva/Jaime Massieu

A good communication with the other musicians is crucial, and it has to be carried with the utmost respect. I must be ready to modify my playing for the benefit of the group: ego and stubbornness are completely useless: if there´s something people really appreciate in a musician (specially a studio one), that´s flexibility.

More examples showing the importance of reacting (fast!) to what I´m asked... Mi glock part states "sempre piano" (see photo above), but the conductor wants me to do some inflexions the other players are doing. I write down and play them:

© David Valdés

When the producer hears them, he prefers to keep everything flat, as he thinks it´s a stratified, layered texture... He not only wants them piano, but pianissimo. So, in a very short period, I have played the same thing in three different ways. Flexibility is key in this kind of studio work: I have to be able to INMEDIATELY play something that is not on the part, to modify dynamics, articulation, phrasing..., or to add something NOW that was not even written ("David, get into the booth and improvise a pavana "alla Monteverdi", as it will suit this number". I almost spill the coffee I was drinking and, out of the blue, the red light is on and I have to play something that works and not waste my colleagues time: I have to play -whatever- and make it happen no matter how hard it is). I have to be ready to inmediately play what I´m asked.

© Forma Antiqva/Jaime Massieu

So, the tape is rolling: I have to avoid any kind of noise (squeaking chairs, rolling sticks falling down, page turns, sliding papers, resonating instruments...). To avoid this last issue, I always have black towels at hand (they are discreet and don´t call for attention on stage), which I use to lay sticks on or to hang from the instrument (or cover it...). Total silence before and after playing, no speaking unless I´m asked... If I make a mistake, I have to say it so it doesn´t get to the final edition. Loads of patience and concentration for the many repetitions... My mobile phone has to be off: my attention has to be on what I´m playing, not on whatever is going on in my telephone. It must be switched off not only because a matter ot attention and respect: it can interfere with (in fact, it does interfere) the electronics in the studio. Concentration.

If I have to re-tune (unavoidable when using calf heads), I do it piano, respecting when the rest of the instruments do so (makes things easier, I don´t disturb, don´t make any noise, avoid tensions an keep the good vibe...). I always tweak intonation in between takes to make sure it´s perfect when I have to play: tuning fork at hand, soft stick, piano, no disturbing and perfect intonation. Done. Every happy and gay.

If the preparatory work is done, sessions will run smooth as silk.

© David Valdés

If I have nothing to play, I prefer staying out of the booth to avoid noise and distractions. I never go too far so as to be available, just in case I´m needed. My favourite place to be is the control room because I can follow the proccess, I´m at hand and I like technology and recording, so...When in the control room, remember: there´s people working, so no noises, no distractions, no disturbing...

© David Valdés

Everybody in the studio is working: let´s make their job easy. We have to say "please", be kind (sincerely), give them a hand, offer solutions and not problems, know when to ask for something and when not... If, once we are done setting up, the technicians are still bussy, why not helping them?  Remember: if we are not only good musicians, but easy-going and polite, chances are that we will be booked again.

Microphones, techniques, preamps, outboard and all that stuff I like so much will, maybe, be detailed in the future ;-) .

I´d like to thank "Forma Antiqva" and Jamie Massieu (photographer) for some of the fantastic photos illustrating this article.

…et in Arcadia ego.
© David Valdés