The makeup of the Silk Road varies from time to time. This time there were fourteen performers and a variety of instruments. In addition to Yo Yo Ma on cello, there were a bass viol player, two violinists, a violist, a vocalist, and players of instruments from cultures other than European or American. There were several kinds of drums, including the tabla from India; the daf, a Persian drum that looks a bit like the Irish bodhran; and a few others. There was a duduk, a small wooden instrument with double reeds, which Ma described as the soul of Armenian folk music. I saw an instrument that I thought was from India. It was a tar, a plucked instrument akin to the lute, with a long neck and two gourds joined together for the body. Different variants of the tar are played in Iran (Persia); Caucasian countries, including Armenia and Azerbaijan; and Central Asian states, including Tajikistan. I also saw a small instrument that looked like a bowed lute, which was held vertically in the lap. This was a kamancheh, an instrument whose use dates back to ancient Persia. I recognized a pipa, a Chinese traditional instrument resembling a large lute, which is also held vertically in the lap and played with finger picks like those used in playing guitar and banjo. Just having all these instruments on stage at the same time was an impressive pancultural event.
The first piece the ensemble played was the Silk Road Suite, comprised of tunes from Iran and China. (Music, like politics, can make strange bedfellows.)
Next was collection of folk songs from Armenia and Azerbaijan which I found very moving. There must have been many Armenians in the audience because there was a lot of applause whenever Ma spoke the word “Armenian.” The musicians were seated on a low couch with huge pillows covered with what appeared to be silk. The scene reminded me of the Arabian Nights. One of the songs was written/collected by an Armenian ethnomusicologist who survived the attempted genocide of Armenians by Turks in 1915. (Three quarters of the Armenian population was killed at that time.) The songs were very poignant. It was obvious that the singer was giving a dramatic narrative but I have no idea what he was saying. At times he had one hand cupped over his ear while he gesticulated almost violently with his other hand, fist clenched, raised over his head. I had the feeling that he was saying something like, “My god, why hast thou forsaken me?” The sound of the violins suggested to me the wind sighing through the trees and a longing to be free. The sound of the duduk was especially evocative and beautiful to me. It lifted me up and away. It is no wonder that it is considered the soul of the Armenian people.
There followed a total change of pace, an improvisational set played on four different non-Western drums, cello, two violins, viola, and string bass. The rhythms, like many in Indian traditional music were amazingly complex. Some were played in six and others in sixteen. It blew my mind that anyone could improvise in six and sixteen, and they did it so well. I felt like getting up from my seat and dancing, as the audience once did at a Paul Simon concert I attended.
Another suite consisted of songs from the gypsies who migrated westward from north central India through Persia, Turkey, and Eastern Europe. They were enslaved and persecuted mercilessly for centuries. The music of the gypsy Diaspora includes strains from many different cultures. The Ensemble played some sweet, wild music from what are now Turkey, Romania, and Hungary. I especially loved the latter two. It sounded to me like gypsy dance music and also like Gershwin jazz as played on the violins.
The whole ensemble got together for an encore in which they jammed on a melody from Turkey. The musician who introduced it said, “We like to think that, if our ancestors had met around a watering hole, they might have sounded like this.” I was so happy that I heard it in my own lifetime.
The job market in my field is very slow. I don't have other irons in the fire. What to do? I thought about one of my violin students, age 7. She is shy, determined, and adventurous, like me. When she knows what she wants, she goes for it and hangs on. A few months ago she told her parents that she wanted to learn to ice skate and to play the violin. On her first ice skating lesson, she fell down and cried repeatedly. Her father thought that she wouldn't want to come back for another try, but she did. She's still working at it. I will use her as my role model and inspiration.
Of course, I'm taking all this in stride. I'm just feeling weak and dizzy now. Tonight I'll go to the gym and work it out (not ice skating).
Sunday morning I went to a Unitarian church, which I had discovered by way of music. (Unitarians are dedicated music lovers.) I had seen a poster advertising a concert to be given in the Unitarian church in Montpelier. The service I attended was beautiful, and I spoke to several interesting and welcoming church members afterwards.
Sunday night we heard a great concert of Celtic music by one of my favorite fiddlers, Aly Bain, from Shetland, and Phil Cunningham, a great piano accordion player from Scotland. Phil moved his hands like lightning over his big accordion. At times he sounded as though he were playing a real piano. He showed us how he got this effect. He just stepped on a pedal and the rest was done electronically. He had a great sense of humor and he kept us all laughing. At one point, he remarked that the fiddle and accordion were also used extensively in Cajun music, and he told us that they would play an example. The two of them played “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?” in true Cajun style. It was no surprise to hear quick and happy music coming from his accordion. However, he also played some beautiful, sweet, slow airs. One such tune was an air he wrote in memory of his brother Johnny, one of the world’s greatest Scottish fiddlers, who passed away about a year and a half ago. Phil had a distant, sad look on his face when he played it. S, who sings as well as she plays fiddle, said that a lot of Phil’s harmonies sounded like church choir or instrumental harmonies. Aly, too, could play at lightning speed. S and I watched his right wrist with awe and amazement. His bow went so fast at times that it looked like it was flying. I watched the tip of the bow moving at incredible speed. Then I watched the lower half of the bow moving likewise. In the middle of his bow was a balance point or fulcrum, and the bow see sawed on it. He used few, if any slurs. No matter how fast the notes were, he played each one in a separate bow. His left hand was also impressive. Unlike most folk fiddlers, he did not play open strings except as drones. Most of the time he played in the upper positions with his hand way up the neck, often with his fingers down on the strings and fingerboard over the body of the violin. He played with lots of beautiful slides and vibrato and some perfect trills. Sometimes when he was playing very quickly, he would use left hand pizz slipped into his bowing. For most of the concert he had a second violin on a stand in front of him. S and I speculated that it had alternate tuning, and we waited eagerly to hear him play it. He told us that the fiddle was tuned in one of several ways used in traditional Shetland music to imitate the sound of the Hardanger fiddle, a Scandinavian instrument. I knew that he sometimes played with AEAE tuning, but I didn’t know about the other tunings. He played some Shetland tunes on this fiddle and they were awesome, the most impressive tunes of the concert, as several of us agreed. He used drones, lightning fast bowing, and left hand pizz in a tour de force. One of our friends in the audience, who was not a fiddler and did not know that the tunes were technically very difficult, said that these tunes were his favorite ones in the concert because they sounded so pretty. When Aly finished with this set, he looked tired, and he left the stage to rest for a while. Later, a friend told me that he had heard Aly play many times in the past and that Aly had slowed down a bit with age. He sounded awfully good and awfully fast to me. I’m so glad that I had the opportunity to hear him while his playing is still brilliant.
Monday I walked around in the sun for a while, got a milkshake at Ben and Jerry’s (an ice cream chain store which started in Vermont), and hung out and bought S a CD at the violin store. I had a long talk with one of S’s friends, who told me that Vermont has a highly educated population and very few jobs, almost all with low pay. If not for the weak economy and harsh winters, I would gladly move there. When I hugged S and said goodbye, I told her that I plan to come back for another one of their weekly jam sessions. Good friends, good music, and good food: that’s about as good as it gets.
For over 20 years, S has lived in Montpelier, Vermont, a very pretty little city in the Green Mountains. It has the qualities I like in a small city. People are friendly. They make eye contact and smile. They take time to say please and thank you. This is a welcome change from the high population density are where I live. Montpelier has book and music stores, yuppie stores, a Unitarian church, live music performances, even a violin store. There are a lot of song circles and jam sessions occurring regularly, and it seemed strange that I had to leave the Washington DC area and travel to Vermont to find them. It is “artsy fartsy,” as one of S’s friends said. The architecture is very New England, with lots of big old houses with gables and porches. You can get to most places you want to go by walking. The weather was fine. It changed from winter to spring overnight when I arrived. Daytime temperatures were in the 70s, and the sky was sunny, blue, and clear.
Friday night we heard a concert by Tim O’Brien, a folk fiddler, and Chris ??, a guitarist. Both were good, energetic players, and Chris had a great sense of humor. We didn’t pay for our tickets to the show because S donated some food she had cooked to the performers.
Saturday afternoon there was a small jam session of Irish music in a Mexican restaurant. I missed most of it because I got lost in a violin store. I tried playing a few of the fiddles there, including one that was made from wood from an old German pipe organ. That wood had been resonating for centuries. I played another, which I liked better, for a long time. The owner of the store lent me the fiddle for the weekend, hoping to entice me to buy it. (I didn’t.) I got to the Mexican restaurant shortly before the owner threw us out to accommodate paying customers. I had time to play a few tunes with a fellow there who played fiddle, guitar, and wooden flute, and he played them all very well. I especially liked the sound of the flute with the fiddle I was playing. He told me how happy he was with his violin, which he bought recently for $4000. At my request, he let me play it, although he watched me carefully and somewhat suspiciously while I did. It sounded very good. Saturday night, we played music together again, along with several other musicians, at a jam at S’s house.
Saturday night, S invited some friends over to eat some of her delicious food and then to jam. In addition to S and me, there was another fiddler, a recorder player, the fellow I had jammed with that afternoon, and another fellow who played guitar, mandolin, and fiddle and sounded great on all three. Most of these people have been getting together to jam once a week for about five years. S and the two multi-instrument players there were very, very good. The other fiddler had only been playing for about three years and didn’t have a lot of self confidence. She stayed in the back of the room and played softly until the others encouraged her to be a more active member of the group. The recorder player was even newer to jamming. This was only his second time and he seemed rather scared. Practically every time he played, I told him that I really liked his playing and that I felt that recorder sounds especially good with fiddles. He seemed surprised and very pleased. Some of us tried playing each other’s fiddles. We all agreed that the one I had on loan from the violin store was not as good as the others. I especially liked S’s fiddle because it was so sensitive. One of the others was also appealing because it had a good, strong, clear tone. I only knew a few of the tunes they played, so I faked (played harmony) on the others. It was great fun. S told me later that the jam sessions are so successful and long running partly because everyone is made to feel welcome. I told S that I wished I had the opportunity to jam with them weekly for a few years. I would learn a lot of tunes and, more important, I would be a much better musician for the experience.
To be continued
Good news: I'm going away for a few days to visit a friend in Vermont. She's a great fiddler and a great cook, and she's scheduled jams and concerts for us. Hurray! I'm outta here!
The first half of the concert consisted entirely of works by Chopin, all with dazzling pyrotechnics. The last Chopin piece he played was the A flat major Polonaise, the most dazzling of all. At times I thought the piano was going to lift up off the floor of the stage and fly away. Next he played a piece by Medtner which did not excite me. The last piece on the program was Stravinsky’s Petrouchka, a piano version of the ballet music by the same name. This music was full of moods so vivid that I could almost see them. One part of the music called up an image of a sweet, vulnerable person hiding behind the façade of a clown. Kissin brought me that image even though I didn’t know the story of the ballet. We induced Kissin to play four encores. He called out the name of each piece before he played it, but I couldn’t hear what he said. The last two pieces were very familiar. I could have hummed along, but I waited until I got home to do that. I think that one was a transcription of part of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. The other evoked the sensation of taste, of something sweet, light, and full of air, like whipped egg whites with sugar or froth on a cappuccino. It must have been a Romance.
The audience’s reaction was tumultuous. People clapped, shouted, even whistled for a long time. I have never heard an audience respond to classical music like that. It was something I’d expect at a ball game or a rock concert , or it could have been the way audiences reacted at concerts in Europe in the distant past. It’s good to know that we have an artist who can make a crowd feel that way today.
The site of the retreat is like a dream come true. It is perched on a ridge in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains, with beautiful views of trees, hills, and mountains. Of all the kinds of scenery I have seen, I love this the most. The gently rolling hills are comforting to me. I kept thinking, “I will lift my eyes up unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.” Even the clouds in the sky were beautiful, unlike clouds over cities and suburbs, which generally look gray and dirty. The clouds were varying shades of pearly purple-gray, suffused with light from the sun behind them. In my own head, I kept hearing lines from a song by Kate Wolf: “I always knew I’d find you, though I never did know how. Like sunshine on a cloudy day, you stand before me now.”
The retreat is the brainchild of a retired Presbyterian minister, and what a vision she had. There are only three or four small buildings there. The one I stayed in is a remodeled country house. Our group met in the Round House, which was really round, with floor to ceiling windows so you can always see the view from inside. The main lodge, where we ate, also had large windows with beautiful views. There was a path through the woods and a shorter, winding path through a rock garden for walking meditation. At night we were serenaded by peepers (tree frogs), and during the day, by birds (hoot owls, phoebes, sparrows, and others). The air was so clean that breathing was a sensual joy for asthmatics like me.
The indoor areas had beauty of their own kind. They were stocked with lots of books. Some of the large rooms had ceiling to floor bookcases, and the room where I slept had books on a stand by the beds. All the books were of a spiritual nature (“spiritual” in the broad sense of the word) and/or about women’s roles and issues. The whole place was designed with women in mind, with small touches like vases with flowers freshly cut from flower beds scattered generously around the site.
The venue was certainly not monastic. The food was prepared on the premises by a dedicated cook and staff, and it was incredibly good and healthful, too. There was an outdoor hot tub, and three professional massage therapists were summoned for the weekend.
Our entire retreat was planned and managed by women from our church. All the activities were participatory. The program chair this year is a kindergarten teacher, and she chose to center the discussion around children’s books and the way they portrayed girls and women. A related theme we discussed was inner and outer beauty. We did some crafts, and I had a blast making my very first collage. We had a chance to be a princess or choose any other title that appealed to us and explain why. One woman was a “first mate” from Star Trek and another was a special character from a science fiction story. I enjoyed being a Druidess, especially since only men could be Druids. We also divided into three subgroups for discussions and paper bag theatrics (skits using props given to us in paper bags). Two of the three groups chose to rewrite children’s fairy tales according to our own values. We had fun reversing some cultural stereotypes. In one exercise, we talked about personal beauty articles and why they were special to us, for example a piece of jewelry given as a gift by a family member or an article with some symbols which were personally meaningful. Saturday night we cut loose and partied with a happy hour followed by dancing, singing, and telling off color stories. Each of these events was a great bonding experience.
On Sunday morning, we talked about what we had especially liked (lots of things) or disliked (hardly anything) about our weekend. A lot of women said that they liked the feeling of getting connected with each other. Some of the younger women said that they liked interacting with the older women, and vice versa. Lots of people said they especially enjoyed the dancing. I said that at the beginning of the weekend, I felt secure being with so many wise and competent women, and at the end of the weekend, I realized that I was one of them. We ended with lots and lots of hugs. I felt especially good because I didn’t have to say, “I’m sad to think that I won’t see you for another year.” I’ll see most of the people very soon, many of them this coming Sunday.