Zukerman on the Poetry of Tuning

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Violinist and violist Pinchas Zukerman shares some interesting thoughts about tuning in this excerpt from a masterclass. For Zukerman, tuning is more than a necessary mechanical process. It’s the merging of two contrasting elements: the bow, representing the “practical,” and the violin, representing the “emotional.” Most importantly, tuning and warming up should be approached musically.

Zukerman’s insights are a great reminder that violin playing starts in the mind. Tone production is about attitude and focused energy as the bow connects to the string and releases. “Technique is conception” was a favorite mantra of the late, legendary violinist and teacher, Zvi Zeitlin.

Here is Pinchas Zukerman performing Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3, K. 216 with the Ottawa, Canada-based National Arts Centre Orchestra:

Are We Forgetting How to Listen?

Unknown-87The world is becoming increasingly saturated with information, but arguably less thoughtful. That was the topic of a recent opinion piece in the New York Times. In Hit the Reset Button in Your Brain, Daniel J. Levitin writes about the increasing amount of information our brains are trying to process through e mails, tweets, Facebook and other technology. All of this crowds out daydreaming, which he cites as the true source of creativity:

Daydreaming leads to creativity, and creative activities teach us agency, the ability to change the world, to mold it to our liking, to have a positive effect on our environment. Music, for example, turns out to be an effective method for improving attention, building up self-confidence, social skills and a sense of engagement.

At same time, writers such as Chris Hedges and Henry Giroux suggest a similar trend in education, documenting an attack on arts and literature-based classical education in favor of standardized testing. On the college level, liberal arts are under attack. In this environment, it suddenly seems less crazy when an NPR host openly questions the value of Shakespeare.

All of this makes me wonder if we’re in danger of forgetting how to slow down and really listen to music. Since the advent of recordings, there’s more music around us than at any time in history. Background music encourages us to tune out, a phenomenon which troubled Aaron Copland. To really listen requires focus and attentiveness. The more times you hear a piece, the more you may get out of it.

Concerts are social and communal experiences, but when the lights go down, the listener engages in a personal relationship with the music. Orchestras have been engaged in initiatives to perform in unusual venues where the audience is up close and personal. These initiatives have value, but when it comes to focused listening, there is no substitute for the “frame” of the darkened concert hall.

The 40,000 year old flute which was discovered in the Danube Valley suggests that music is as old as humanity, possibly pre-dating language. The voices have something to say to us. Let’s put down our cell phones and really listen.

Arvo Pärt: Spirit in Sound and Space

Architect Steven Holl's Chapel of St. Ignatius in Seattle.
Architect Steven Holl’s Chapel of St. Ignatius in Seattle.

In June the Metropolitan Museum of Art and St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary hosted a thought-provoking discussionSpirit in Sound and Space- A Conversation Inspired by Arvo Pärt, in conjunction with this summer’s Arvo Pärt Project. The discussion brought together architect Steven Holl, neuroscientist Robert Zatorre, and musician and theology professor Peter Bouteneff.

For Steven Holl, one of the most visionary contemporary architects, ideas often emerge through the process of painting watercolors. Buildings like the Chapel of St. Ignatius in Seattle and the Knut Hamsun Centertwo hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle in Hamarøy, Norway, register the flow of time with constant, subtly changing plays of light and shadow. Holl notes that Arvo Pärt “sees sound as space.” 

“Music surrounds you. It’s an immersive experience” says Holl, whose work is influenced by music. “Architecture, space surrounds you.”

Zatorre points out that the parietal lobe of the brain handles our perception of music as well as space. His insights, based on a strictly mechanistic view of the workings of the brain, are interesting, but in the end they leave many questions unanswered. The “spirit” part of the conversation remains elusive. What is the source of a creative idea? How do great buildings suddenly emerge out of Steven Holl’s brushstrokes? Albert Einstein hinted at these questions when he said,

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.

A new voice emerges…

The story of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) demonstrates the mysteries of the creative process. At the end of the 1960s, Pärt suddenly abandoned the dissonant, twelve tone music of the mid-century musical establishment. For eight years he was unable to compose beyond musical fragments jotted in a notebook. Then, in 1976 a new and radically different voice suddenly emerged with Für Alina, a three minute piece for piano:

All music flows through time. Listening to the mystical minimalism of Arvo Pärt, there’s an equally powerful sense of time flowing through music. It’s easy to become one with the moment in Pärt’s music. It allows us to “enter inside the sound.” You might be reminded of the meditative, circular flow of Gregorian Chant or the music of Lassus or Palestrina

Pärt’s style of writing, which suggests the overtones of bells, is known as Tintinnabulation. He describes it here:

Tintinnabulation is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers – in my life, my music, my work. In my dark hours, I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning. The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity. What is it, this one thing, and how do I find my way to it? Traces of this perfect thing appear in many guises – and everything that is unimportant falls away. Tintinnabulation is like this. . . . The three notes of a triad are like bells. And that is why I call it tintinnabulation.

Silentium

Silentium is the second movement of Pärt’s Tabula Rasa (1977):

Here is the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir’s performance of Canon of Repentance, which took place June 2 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

God Is in the Details

The Seagram Building in New York.
The Seagram Building

“God is in the details,” said Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), one of the most significant architects of the twentieth century. Mies followed a modernist “less is more” aesthetic, which eliminated decoration and stripped architecture down to fundamental elements of structure and proportion. The results were serenely powerful and soulful monuments such as New York’s Seagram Building.

Mies, whose father was a master mason and stonecutter, found beauty in materials. Bronze, travertine, marble and glass were used in the Seagram Building, making it the most expensive skyscraper ever built at the time of its completion in 1958. The building was set back from the street in the middle of a large plaza, providing a satisfying visual break from the relentless New York grid and reinforcing the contrast with surrounding pre-war masonry structures. Mies paid attention to the way the carefully spaced window panels and vertical bronze mullions related to the lines of the plaza. To preserve the crisp geometry, window shades could be operated in three positions: fully open, halfway open/closed, or fully closed.

Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois
Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois

As other architects began following Mies’ lead throughout the 1960’s and 70’s, sleek, boxy skyscrapers began popping up in cities across the country. Unfortunately, many of the imitations lacked the elegance and sense of proportion which made Mies’ buildings come alive.

Recently, I began thinking about the importance of attention to detail in music. How can I move from one note to the next in a way which allows the music to flow? How should a phrase be shaped? How can I convey the structure of a piece? What sound quality and tonal colors are appropriate to the emotion of the music? Playing the right note at the right time is often a challenge, but it’s just the beginning. Musicianship is about how the notes are played. It’s a combination of thought and intuition. Listening is essential.

The physical motions of violin playing can be broken down into parts. If a technical element seems difficult, it’s probably the result of lack of attention to a specific detail. For beginning students, it’s essential to slowly and carefully build a foundation and then allow the structure to rise, one step at a time. This is the key to a lifetime of effortless, injury-free playing. In music and architecture, God truly is in the details.

Architecture starts when you carefully put two bricks together. There it begins.

True education is concerned not only with practical goals but also with values. Our aims assure us of our material life, our values make possible our spiritual life.

I don’t want to be interesting. I want to be good.

-Mies van der Rohe

Violins and the Power of Suggestion

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The results of a long anticipated study published on April 7 seem to shatter long-held assumptions about the superiority of 300-year-old Stradivari and Guarneri violins to fine modern instruments. The study, led by French scientist Claudia Fritz with the help of American luthier Joseph Curtin, follows up on a controversial blind test conducted in an Indianapolis hotel room in 2010. Ten prominent violinists, including Ilya Kaler and Elmar Oliveira, were unable to distinguish old instruments from new in a blind test. In fact, modern instruments were slightly favored. This tantalizing documentary shows how the Paris Double-Blind Violin Experiment unfolded. 

Currently, many soloists own copies of their famous Strads and Guarneris and frequently perform on these well-crafted modern instruments in concerts. In the end, it’s the relationship between the instrument and the violinist which may be most important. Over time we learn how each violin wants to be played and we discover new colors and tonal possibilities. It’s a relationship of give and take. If we put the right energy into the violin, it rewards us. Nothing can diminish the technological and artistic achievements of the old Italian makers. But this study may be the first step in overcoming an irrational bias against fine modern instruments.

The violin is a ruthlessly honest seismograph of the heart. Four strings stretched over the bridge put sixty-five pounds of pressure on the wooden sounding chamber; this stored energy amplifies every nuance of weight, balance, friction, and muscle tone as the musician draws the bow over the string. Each tremor and movement reflects the musician’s minutest unconscious impulse. There is nothing hidden with the violin-it is like mathematics in that respect; pretense is impossible. The sound coming out of that instrument is a sensitive lie detector, a sensitive truth detector.

-Stephen Nachmanovitch, Free Play: The Power of Improvisation in Life and the Arts

Teaching Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein
Leonard Bernstein

In addition to composing and conducting, Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) was one of the greatest music educators of all time. Starting in the late 1950’s, Bernstein educated and inspired a national television audience with his New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concerts. Later, in 1976 came The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at HarvardHis message was consistent: classical music isn’t stuffy or hard to understand. It’s fun and it’s something everyone can enjoy.

In Teachers and Teaching, Bernstein talks about his own education from Serge Koussevitzky, Dimitri Mitropoulos and Fritz Reiner to Aaron Copland. The documentary, made in the final years of Bernstein’s life, is filled with interesting and thought-provoking anecdotes. Bernstein discusses the contrast between the warmth of Koussevitzky’s approach to conducting and the more cerebral Reiner. As a student, he was able to combine the best of both worlds.

For Bernstein, teaching and learning were closely linked:

[quote]Music…can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.[/quote]

-Leonard Bernstein

When Less is More

UnknownThe best conductors know when to get out of the way. They have an intuitive sense for those rare moments when the music is cooking along on its own and they allow it to blossom. Expressive power grows from economy. The big gesture means more when it’s reserved for the right moment. On one level, conducting involves a mysterious “give and take” between the ensemble and the person on the podium. In physics and electrical engineering, a conductor is defined as:

[quote]an object or type of material that permits the flow of electric charges in one or more directions. [/quote]

In many ways, a similar process is occurring with a musical conductor, except with a different type of energy.

Fritz Reiner, the legendary music director of the Chicago Symphony in the 1950s and 60s, was famous for a small beat pattern, as this excerpt of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony shows. In Chicago, the result was laser precision and attention to the smallest detail.

Recently, I ran across this humorous clip of Finnish conductor and composer (of 270 symphonies and counting), Leif Segerstam leading the Gothenburg Symphony in the Alla Marcia from Jean Sibelius’s Karelia Suite. Watch what Segerstam does around the 0:28 mark and listen to the joy and freedom in the sound and phrasing of the orchestra. It’s a great illustration of the power of trusting and letting go:

The Road to Happiness in Music

Musician's SoulViolinist Holly Mulcahy has written an interesting and insightful post about finding happiness and keeping perspective while pursing a competitive career in music. Holly is the concertmaster of the Chattanooga Symphony and the author of the popular blog, Neo ClassicalIf you’re a young musician enduring the rigors of the audition circuit in the hopes of winning the “big job,” Holly’s post is a must read. Even if you’re not a musician, you’ll find her thoughts relevant.

Reading Holly’s post, I was reminded of this quote by Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero With a Thousand Faces and The Power of Myth:

[quote]If you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.[/quote]

James Jordan’s book The Musician’s Soul offers additional wisdom. The book stresses the importance of openness and vulnerability in the creative process as well as finding your center and appreciating the importance of solitude as well as community. There are many great quotes throughout the book. Here are a few:

[quote]If people are not humane, what is the use of rites? If people are not humane, what is the use of music?[/quote]

-Confucius

[quote]It takes courage to grow up and turn out to be who you really are.[/quote]

-e.e. cummings 

[quote]No pessimist ever discovered the secrets of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new heaven to the human spirit.[/quote]

-Helen Keller

[quote]Our problems are inside our lives, yes; but our lives are lived inside fields of power, under the influence of others, in accordance with authority, subject to tyrannies. Moreover, our lives are lived inside fields of power that are our cities with their offices and cars, systems of work and mountains of trash. These too are powers impinging in our souls. When the wider world breaks down and is sick at heart, the individual suffers accordingly.[/quote]

-James Hillman 

[quote]Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.[/quote]

-Leo Tolstoy