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Emily Grossman

Death and the Monkey

August 26, 2012 at 1:12 AM

Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante seemed pretty straight-forward on the viola--especially when using scordatura and playing in the easier key of D major instead of E-flat major. By playing with the viola tuned up a half-step, the brightness of the open strings would allow it to match the violin's timbre, whose tone adversely would be darkened by the flats. In only a couple of days, I'd hashed out the bowings and fingerings of the first movement, leaving just a bit of polishing to do and some time in the brine to season it up to performance level.

Satisfied, I flipped to the Andante, ready to hoe out some lines and plant some ideas. But instead of tidy little self-explanatory runs similar the first movement, I discovered troublesome phrases that lacked purpose. I fumbled clumsily for a bit and put it away, feeling awkward and thwarted. If I'd had a teacher, I could at least figure out what to do with the bow, or at least they could tell me "Louder here!" "More articulation there!" or something like that. I needed input. Consulting youtube, I dug out a performance by Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman to take notes on their bowings and fingerings. Of course, then my jaw fell off my face: I was nowhere near this level of playing! To an untrained eye, they're just moving their arms back and forth, sticking their fingers here and there, and then these beautiful, expressive phrases come out, simple as that. Anyone could play like that, right? The answer is, unequivocably, no.

Just then, they finished the cadenza, and the orchestra made its reappearance. Something about that C minor chord... What was the impression I just got? I backed it up and listened repeatedly. It was such a vivid, undeniably clear image, the exact taste and color of... of death. Did someone just die? The music so deeply affected me as to haunt me all the way into town. Hopefully, I could change this heavy subject for something lighter to go with my coffee break.

Over an americano, I chanced upon a seemingly random article Laurie Niles had posted on facebook. Apparently, a well-meaning elderly woman, though lacking any formal training in the restoration of fine art, had taken it upon herself to repaint a fresco of Christ that had badly deteriorated. Her intentions were the best, I'm sure, but the result sadly resembled a crude finger painting of a monkey in a tunic. Wow, how would you like to make the global headlines for destroying a work of art with your ignorance? For making a laughingstock of Christ? For being the sole creator of Monkeyjesus? I couldn't look at it without laughing at the pitiful desecration. And then, something suddenly didn't seem so funny anymore. Changing subjects, I checked my email and found an uncannily well-timed note from Michael Avagliano regarding the Andante:

"There's a story, possibly apocryphal, but it makes sense in the timeline of Mozart's life. He was on tour when he wrote the Concertante, and he received the news of his mother's death. The story goes that this movement was a kind of final conversation with her. It is pretty apparent, though, that he tended to reserve C minor for the most somber and tragic works he wrote."

Chills ran up my arms. What an amazing piece, that Mozart was able to convey to an uninformed person like myself such a graphic sensation of loss, and that Perlman and Zukerman were able to communicate it so specifically through their playing that I understood this without ever being told. And to think I'd been tromping around, hacking up those phrases like a hoodlum vandalizing a graveyard! Have I no respect for the dead?

Tiptoeing back into the studio later, I attempted to reverently resume practice, only to be haunted by images of Monkeyjesus hiding around the corner of every phrase. I could barely lay bow to the string without seeing his crude, disfigured mouth and vacuous eyes. What now? Something had to change; I had to get this monkey out of the studio!

Monkey in tow, I reconsulted Itzhak and Pinky, but this time with a different purpose in mind: if the two instruments are having a conversation, then I should listen to what they are talking about. Instead of watching the bows and fingers, I paid attention to how the violin and viola related to each other, noting the underlying orchestral setting as well, which added a context to each phrase. In the margins, I wrote words that would help remind me of these concepts.

Back to the studio. Cautiously bringing the strings up a half step, I finally got to experience C minor on the viola for the first time, and the colors literally unlocked the piece like a decoded secret. This time, instead of putting the cart before the horse and focusing on technique, I focused on the ideas I'd imagined that would fill the canvas with the proper colors and shapes.

Hopefully, the more particularly I envision what I want on this canvas, the better I will be able to find the technique to make an accurate rendition. After all, I want to paint a convincing picture of that final conversation between Wolfgang and his mother. The clearer the image in my mind, the better chance I'll have of getting it there.

I still can't help but wish I'd had a little more formal training, though...

(14:35 for the Andante)

From Emily Hogstad
Posted on August 26, 2012 at 2:19 AM
What a treat to read!! One of your best blogs in a long time! Monkeyjesus is the PERFECT description of the restoration. Reading just the headline I thought I'd feel bad about it, but then when I saw the actual image, I felt it...was humorous, or touching, or something, even though it absolutely shouldn't have just doesn't feel like the total black tragedy it should have. Yes it was appalling but it was also weirdly, weirdly endearing, and yeah I know someone from the art world will probably want to come and shoot me for saying such a thing. I don't know how to describe it. Maybe the same idea can be ascribed to our little diddlings with Mozart and Bach and the other greats: our even trying to engage with them should be tragic, but for some unknowable reason, it isn' least not fully.

That probably makes no sense so I am going to go to bed now.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on August 26, 2012 at 3:54 AM
The wonderful thing is that we can monkey around with music again and again, and it doesn't destroy the composition. The "live" nature of music is exactly what makes it so timeless and impossible to spoil. It doesn't crack or peel, and if one person makes a mess of it, it remains undefiled for the next person. Not only that, but there is certainly more than one way to do any piece of music justice.
From Emily Grossman
Posted on August 26, 2012 at 4:14 AM
Emily, thank you! What I like about Monkeyjesus is that element of humanity, illustrating everyone's need for a little grace. Maybe Jesus was drawing little messed up monkeys in the sand when he said, "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her."

Laurie, there's always that little element of, "Am I in over my head?" when you first approach some hallowed pieces. Bach tends to do that to me, too. It takes a certain amount of humility to address our faults and strive toward something better. And yes, I'm so glad music is a malleable art form, always evolving, always allowing for growth.

From jennifer steinfeldt warren
Posted on August 26, 2012 at 4:32 AM
I very much enjoyed reading this blog, Emily. It had me laughing and solemn and reflective and pondering whether or not I've been neglecting a certain approach to music and intimacy by focus in my studies in general. You are so inspiring!
From Emily Grossman
Posted on August 26, 2012 at 7:44 AM
Thanks, Jennifer. I'm a fan of your writing, by the way, and I'm glad to see you back in the scene.
From Tom Holzman
Posted on August 26, 2012 at 2:00 PM
Very good blog. I think all of us, even those who play as well as you, need to approach the music of folks like Mozart with a certain amount of humility.
From Lisa Van Sickle
Posted on August 28, 2012 at 9:34 PM
Emily H., I'm "from the art world" and I completely agree about the endearing nature of the monkeyjesus story. Maybe we all have a sneaking suspicion our own painterly efforts would have been equally dire. Maybe it's because Sra. Gimenez is publicly living out the common nightmare of showing up to sit for the final in the class we never attended. Maybe it's because we all have a few monkeyjesuses in our pasts, be it the ruined entree for dinner guests we wanted to impress, the violin recital we totally flubbed, any time we overestimated our capabilities.

Laurie puts a finger on the advantage we have as musicians. A performance is a one-time thing (well, before YouTube anyway) and the musical monkeyjesus fades away with the last note. We're human, after all.

From Emily Grossman
Posted on August 29, 2012 at 4:31 PM
Thank goodness!
From Tom Holzman
Posted on August 30, 2012 at 4:40 PM
Did Mozart write the Death and the Monkey Quartet?

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