Music is like a religion to me, and I’ve tried to describe my thoughts and feelings about it in my blog many times. I just found that Joshua Bell has done it much better than I have.
First, some background: I just finished reading a wonderful book by Barry Green called The Mastery of Music: Ten Pathways to True Artistry , which is a followup to his earlier book The Inner Game of Music, which follows up on The Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Gallwey. I will oversimplify Barry Green’s thesis by saying that we can get in touch with a state deep within ourselves, a state of relaxed concentration in which we are undisturbed by distractions from the outside world (for example, a cell phone ringing) or by distractions from within ourselves (such as a voice saying, “You can’t do that. It’s too hard.”) This state of relaxed concentration or mindful relaxation is a centerpiece of some religions or philosophies of Asia (chi or prana). It is also recognized by Western culture and given such names as “meditation,” “the alpha state,” etc. This state is important to musicians because it is here that we connect strongly to music. One might even say that here we become the music. Some very beautiful things happen beyond our conscious control when we are in this state.
Joshua Bell believes that in this state, you are not presenting your own ideas. Rather, your ideas are arising naturally from the music. He feels nervous before a performance of the Beethoven Concerto, but something happens inside him just before he begins to play his part. He describes it this way. “It is as though I must succumb to this world that Beethoven has created, and I suppose I almost treat it in a religious sort of way. In the world of his music, Beethoven is God. I’d never thought of it that way before, but it is as though I begin to warm up to what religious people refer to as a loving God within that musical world. I feel as though I surrender to this. I feel that there is somebody who knows this world so much better than I do – and it is Beethoven himself, who created it – and there is something very comforting about that. Somehow that gets me feeling very relaxed. I think what a privilege it is to be a part of this great, beautiful piece of music. And this helps me get rid of my nerves and stops my extraneous thoughts about technical issues and what I did or didn’t do in the practice room.”
I can only add, “Amen.”
DG has posted videos of several live concerts from the Verbier Festival online at http://www.deutschegrammophon.com//gpp/popup.htms?ID=verbier07. One of them features solos by guitarist Josh Ritter followed by solos by Hilary Hahn. I haven’t figured out how to fast-forward through Ritter’s performance. Ms. Hahn plays:
Bach, Sonata #2 in A minor BWV 1003 (This is listed, but I don't hear it.)
Ysaye, Sonata #3 in D minor, “Ballade”
Ernst, Erlkonig Caprice for Violin op. 26 after Franz Schubert
Performances by other artists on this website include:
Mendelssohn: Trio no.1 in D minor op.49
Mozart: Requiem in D minor K626
I hope these performances bring you some cheer on a hot summer day.
Continued from July 21
What a combination! Music from Northern Ireland, Virginia (USA), and countries along the Mekong River (Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and China [Tibet]) is quite an eclectic mix. These areas were featured in this year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall. Besides music, there were demonstrations of other crafts and people explaining what they do and how they do it. You can read about the Festival at http://www.folklife.si.edu/festival/2007/index.html. I did volunteer work at night time parties for the Festival participants. Instead of money, I was rewarded with interactions with the participants and opportunities to play my fiddle with them when they jammed. It was very interesting and lots of fun.
I had been looking forward to playing with the Irish musicians. There are a lot of people who play Irish music very well around here, and I expected crowds of them to show up, but they didn’t. The Irish music was the only music that disappointed me because I didn’t know their tunes and I couldn’t figure them out well enough to play along. When six or eight of them sat around in a circle, frequently only two or three of them knew and played a tune together. These were the obscure, authentic Irish tunes that are generally introduced with remarks like, “I learned this jig from an old Irish fiddler in a pub in County Armagh. I bought him a few pints of ale, and then he taught me this jig.” One Irish fiddler wanted some American musicians, including me, to play with him, so he chose well known tunes like Harvest Home and Down in the Salley Gardens. I enjoyed playing those with him. The Irish musicians lived up to their reputation for consuming a lot of alcohol. One night, I trailed along with a group of them looking for a place to jam, and we ended up in the hotel’s barroom. We all sat at one table, totally engulfed by loud voices. The jam began with one man singing and the others playing along. I had heard him sing earlier and was impressed by both the quality and the loudness of his voice. In the barroom I could scarcely hear him. I hung on for a few more tunes, but the din was unbearable, so I left. My work as part of the cleanup crew when the party room closed down (midnight to 2 AM) gave me further evidence of the affinity of the Irish for alcohol. There were more empty beer cans and nearly empty beer glasses where the Irish had sat than anywhere else.
When I first heard music from the Mekong River area, I didn’t like it because it sounded twangy and nasal. Then a friend told me, “Come see this musical instrument. It’s fantastic.” She was right I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s a mouth organ that looks like a pipe organ. It has a row of vertical, metal cylinders of varying lengths. It is played by blowing into a mouth piece which is horizontal. It sounded very pretty when played as either rhythm backup or as a melody instrument. Then I heard more instruments from that part of the world that I liked. There were bamboo flutes and some string instruments. One of the string instruments reminded me of the Chinese erhu, which resembles the violin. It has a gourd for its body, a long neck, two tuneable strings, and a bow made with horse hair. To play it, you sit down and hold the instrument upright, resting in your lap. There was a plucked stringed instrument with very high wooden frets which gave a very pleasant sound. The instruments and musicians were from Thailand.
Some of the Thai people did a ritual dance comprised almost entirely of hand and arm movements. It was beautiful, extremely graceful, and nearly hypnotic. It looked simple, but I couldn’t figure it out. One of my American friends had the Thai dancers teach her. She had lived in Japan and studied Japanese classical dance for several years, and she said that without that experience, she would not have been able to pick it up. I saw a young American man who learned it, too, and when I spoke to him, he told me that he was trained in both ballet and tap dance. The music was the high energy sort, and lots of people got up and started dancing around to it. Eventually they joined hands and made a long line which snaked around the room. I believe that all the ethnicities of the Festival were in that snake dance.
I saw an American man who plays string bass in serious conversation with a group of the Thai musicians. I envied him, because I was too shy to start such a conversation myself. Then they started playing music together, and my shyness vanished. I ran over to them with my fiddle and asked whether I could join them. The Thai musicians were delighted to have me. My American friend, who had spoken with them through a translator, briefed. Their music used a pentatonic scale with the notes G, D, C, A, and E. With only five notes, it was quite easy to pick up their tunes. I tried playing an octave higher or lower than they did occasionally, but it didn’t sound right. I read later that polyphony is avoided in their music. By the time we had finished one tune, people were snake dancing around us. Then the translator told us, “That was just a warm up. Now we have to play two more tunes,” and so we did. My American friend had spoken to them enough to have one of them play their fretted instrument so he knew more what kind of scale it was tuned in. He asked me what piece I knew in A modal and said, enthusiastically, “Red Haired Boy,” a lively Appalachian tune of British descent. We played that, and the Thai musicians joined us. It was a great jam! The music and the dancers went on and on. I felt like I was flying high.
Listening to different genres of music is always fun, but playing them is even more fun.
P.S. Check out my website.
What a combination! Music from Northern Ireland, Virginia (USA), and countries along the Mekong River (Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and China [Tibet]) is quite an eclectic mix. These areas were featured in this year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall. Besides music, there were demonstrations of other crafts and people explaining what they do and how they do it. You can hear webcasts of performances and read about the Festival. I did volunteer work at night time parties for the Festival participants. Instead of money, I was rewarded with interactions with the participants and opportunities to play my fiddle with them when they jammed. It was very interesting and lots of fun.
Old time music is traditional American music indigenous to Appalachia. Its roots go back to settlers from the British Isles, Germany, and African slaves, but in its present form, it is strictly traditional American music. None of the players use written music. It is string band music, played on fiddle, banjo, guitar, mandolin, and bass, but it is strongly fiddle driven. This makes it both fun and easy to play. The melodies are not terribly complex, and fiddlers who play rhythm and/or harmony are appreciated because most people play melody. It is sometimes played for dances, such as square, contra, clogging, flat footing, and free form, and always played for fun. The band at the Festival was very, very good. The leader was a young woman who did many things – singing; playing fiddle, guitar, and bass; and clogging – extremely well. I really enjoyed playing with them and held my own quite well, partly because the music is fiddle-centric and partly because I’ve been jamming on old time music a lot lately. In keeping with the cross traditional nature of the Festival, some Virginians taught some Mekong River people how to do square and contra dancing, and lots of them danced while we played. While we were playing, someone came over to us, told us that he was from the BBC, and asked whether we minded being videotaped. Of course, we all said no. We picked a very well known tune, “Turkey in the Straw,” so lots of people could participate. The BBC man had a most unusual looking mike. It was wrapped in a thick layer of furry looking material, the kind you might see on cushy stuffed animals. I asked him whether I could touch it, and he said “OK.” It really felt like a stuffed animal, and I enjoyed stroking it. I asked him why the furry material was used, and he answered, “To keep the mike warm.” He zeroed in on two people – the band leader and a fiddler from Northern Ireland – and asked them to go out into the hall so he could videotape just the two of them. I had great fun playing that music with that group.
Bluegrass music, also indigenous to the Appalachian area, is quite different from old time music. Bluegrass music was popularized, not invented, by Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys. (Their band was named after a strain of grass that grows well in Kentucky.) Bill Monroe and the musicians who played with him were virtuosos. The bluegrass style is highly technical, sometimes virtuosic, and showoffy. Sometimes the music is so highly ornamented that the melody is lost. Nothing is played slowly. I am attracted to it, in part, because its technical aspects go well with my classical training. I’m surprised that more classically trained musicians aren’t attracted to bluegrass music. The reason may be that bluegrass music is associated with know-nothing rednecks. Each tune is played repeatedly, sometimes with the whole group playing, and sometimes with breaks (solos) by individual players. While the group or another soloist is playing, the fiddler may either play boom-chik (double stops played with short bowstrokes on the offbeats) or play melody softly. When I’m playing with a group and someone calls out “fiddle break,” I usually react with either terror or enthusiasm. The bluegrass group at the Festival was completely out of my league. They were young and played fast and hot. I tried doing a little boom-chik or melody playing with them for a short time and then gave up and just listened. They rocked, and so did the crowds they drew. Just listening to them was exciting.
To be continued
P.S. Check out my website.
I saw a poster-size ad the other day that I can’t understand. It was a photograph of an area from ground level to about knee level. There was an open instrument case on the sidewalk containing an assortment of coins and bills, with one beautiful, lacey, lavender colored bra hanging over the edge of the case. Behind the case were the shoes and pants legs of a man, presumably the busker. Walking away from the case was the lower part of a woman with high heeled shoes, shapely legs, and a skirt. The only words on the poster were “Hard Rock Café.”
I can think of two interpretations, but many more are possible. (1) The man put the bra in the case along with some seed money to attract attention and get more money. (2) The woman was so captivated by the man’s music that she pulled off her blouse and bra, threw the bra into the case, put her blouse back on, and continued walking to her office. I note that when Joshua Bell tried busking at a Metro station in Washington, DC, no one gave him a lavender bra.
Now I ask you, my fellow v.commies, what do you think the ad means? If you use your imagination, I’m sure you can come up with some good stories.
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