Fresh Voices and Contemporary Perspectives: Max Raimi at the Violympics

July 26, 2020, 10:16 PM · This may have been one of the most special weeks of Nathan Cole's "Violympics," a 12-week online program that is inspiring hundreds of violinists and violists - including me - to go in-depth, practicing our technique and learning new repertoire at break-neck speeds under Nathan's expert guidance. Not only did we take a close look at string-crossing technique, but we also met contemporary composer Max Raimi.

Max Raimi
Chicago Symphony Orchestra violist and composer Max Raimi.

Inspired by the Olympics, the Nathan's program is divided two-week events, and this one, Event 3, introduced many different ideas and provoked a great deal of reflection, so I’ve divided my coverage of it into two blogs. Each "Event" takes place over two weeks, with the first week consisting of a deep dive into a technical topic, and the second week introducing a new piece to learn - and record - in just 7 days! The first week of this one covered shifting, and you can read about my experiences with those lessons here.

The second week introduced our challenge piece, which was selected for us by violinist Gil Shaham: "String Crossing Etude for Solo Violin: Furtive and Fast," written in 2015 by Max Raimi, a violist in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

I had never heard of Max Raimi or his music before this event, but I was very excited to learn this new etude, which is from a series of three etudes originally written for viola. (If you are interested in getting the sheet music, Raimi said to contact him on Facebook) For some time now, I've become more and more interested in learning about contemporary music and living composers, and I was so thrilled that Nathan included a piece by a living composer in this summer’s Violympics.

An incredibly special part of this week’s event was that Max Raimi joined our Facebook Violympics community and generously participated in our discussions. I can’t think how many times I’ve been frustrated with a composition and wish I could have asked a composer, "Are there any tricks to playing this passage cleanly?" Or " What was your inspiration behind this piece?" Or, honestly, "What were you THINKING?" It was such a luxury to be able to read his insights, answers to our questions, and see his encouragement to us as we struggled with the tricky time changes and many fast string crossings.

I often see etude books as obstacle courses, and the composers as stern taskmasters, looking down at me, demanding improvement. Max Raimi was completely the opposite, as we experienced in the live Q&A that Nathan hosted with him during the week. He was generous, warm, and incredibly encouraging.

He shared his belief that performance is "a partnership between the person who creates the document and the person who interprets the music," with some meaningful examples from his own life, in which he heard his own music differently as a result of hearing a performer play it. When asked for technical help learning the piece, he offered practical advice and support: "You’re all putting so much effort into it and so much thought and so much care," he said. "Have fun with it, do the best you can. Work slowly and carefully and get something out of it!"

When it came to, "Furtive and Fast," he told us that when he composes, he often thinks of physical gestures even before he thinks of sounds. That thought itself was wonderfully helpful when navigating the tricky time changes and string crossings in this piece. He also shared his creative idea behind the piece:

"I just had an image of somebody scurrying around corners and running around corridors...maybe like a rat in a maze."

For an etude like this, a week is enough time to get a good start, but for me personally, I need more time to really do it justice (and get it up to speed without tension). If you’re interested in hearing it in its beginning form, here’s my recording:

String Crossing Etude: Furtive and Fast, by Max Raimi

I am a teacher, and my own learning at this point is inseparable from how I teach my students. So I found myself thinking all week about the idea of using works by living composers in my pedagogy.

I find that traditional violin pedagogy and repertoire sequencing tend to mirror the historical development both of the instrument and Western classical music. As a result, a classical violin student may not make it past the year 1900 in his or her studies. A standard concerto progression for the intermediate player would typically include Vivaldi concertos, Bach a minor, Haydn, and then Mozart. The first "big" concertos are frequently Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole (composed 1874) and Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1 in g minor (1866).

At what point does a student learn contemporary music? Often only when a student is very advanced - if it is covered at all. I remember being completely surprised in college, when our school held a festival dedicated to the composer Chen Yi (also sometimes listed as Yi Chen on Spotify and concert programs). I was wholly unprepared for the harmonies of her music, which sounded strange to to me. After all, in school, I was writing four-part harmony based on J.S. Bach in music theory class and playing etudes by Kreutzer and Rode for violin lessons.

I was intrigued by Chen Yi's music and loved it - but I didn't have the training or framework to understand it. As is the case in many music schools and concert halls, contemporary music was an oddity: something "extra" that you do on the side from your "real" studies. How often have we gone to a concert hall (remember when we could still go to concert halls?), and looked at our watches during a piece by a living composer unknown to us, waiting to get to one of the standard violin concertos and another standard symphony?

All music was once new music, even the standard classical works now considered canon. There was a time in history when people perceived Beethoven’s harmonies as dissonant, even distastefully so. Beethoven’s work was revolutionary in his time. But now, 250 years later, Beethoven is part of the historical record.

So here is a question for performers, teachers, and students of the 21st century: Are we doing our part to collaborate with the revolutionary composers of our own time? Are 21st-century teachers helping students to create their own musical histories and to fully live in their own era? Or do students learn, consciously or subconsciously, that classical music was written exclusively in the past?

To prepare students to play new music, their technical etudes must build their skills and prepare their ears for this repertoire. I loved playing this etude by Max Raimi; not only is it a fantastic etude for developing skills, but it's also a great concert piece or encore. In the future, I think I might give it to my advanced students, along with Fiorillo or Rode caprices, to teach string crossings in a contemporary context.

When it comes to student repertoire, I have only recently started looking for etude books which are written by contemporary composers (for the sake of this blog, let’s define "contemporary" as within 100 years of the present day).

I'm come across two that I would recommend to any teacher:

I would love more recommendations of works for violin by contemporary composers, both as performance pieces and as etudes for violinists at all levels - what have you discovered? Let me know in the comments below!

Thank you to Nathan Cole for a fantastic third Event of the Violympics, and for introducing us not only to Max Raimi’s music, but to him. Our musical lives were all made richer these past two weeks because of it.

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July 27, 2020 at 10:43 PM · Claire: Another wonderful article! (You seem much happier this week!) You played the Raimi etude just beautifully. And I thank you for showcasing a composer who is brand-new to me. I'll be featuring one tomorrow in my weekly roundup. Be sure to check it out!

July 27, 2020 at 10:57 PM · Diana, Thank you! String crossings and contemporary etudes are much more my thing than a in-depth look at possibly how I've been shifting wrong my entire life!

July 28, 2020 at 04:13 PM · Claire, bravo on your performance of the Raimi etude. It looks like a challenging piece and you nailed it. Your slurring look smooth and it sounded that way too.

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