Sunday, May 15, 2011


Death Plays the Violin
We make fun of Al Gore having invented the internet, yet a major paper gives credit to a violinist for discovering subharmonics, as she calls them. Musicians are not usually the brightest of the bunch, but any string player with curiosity and extra free time surely has bumped into this phenomena. I used to drive my father nuts by playing these "undertones" five decades ago. Gut or gut-core strings, the only ones used then, made achieving such impossible-to-explain low pitches quite easy. I would play them as a joke or a curiosity without even thinking of using them in any musical context. Especially a gut D-string would accidentally go into this register if played too far over the fingerboard with the bow pressed too forcefully. It is the kind of opposite of making an open E-string whistle on demand. Yes, I was able play various scales with my undertones, but as the sound was rather ridiculous (the small size of the violin doesn't allow for much amplification for such low notes), never saw any practical use for it, other than driving people with sensitive ears crazy. Having heard Ms. Kimura's recordings I still feel the same about the value of these bizarre tones. I just returned from trying them out again in my studio and the only reaction was that of our cat running for cover. Perhaps with an electric violin which amplifies the sound artificially, such sounds could be utilized, but I'll leave that to a younger generation to discover.

It was wonderful to be young and approach any subject with an open mind, music included. It gave me great pleasure to amaze my dad. Before starting elementary school, I was explaining the concept of negative numbers to him, something he never forgot. A grown-up son of his cousin came over when I was still three years old and my dear proud father made me read news articles from the front page of a Helsinki newspaper to him. My second cousin insisted that my father had made me memorize the text and to prove his point wrote a difficult word down, asking me to read it. Correctly I said Äkäslompolo but rushed to add not knowing what it meant. I soon learned it was the name of a village on Ylläs, a low-lying mountain or fell in very sparsly populated Finnish Lapland. My relative instantly gained new respect for the little tyke and my dad was beaming.

So, early on I also discovered a new way of producing harmonics on the violin. I have never seen this being discussed, so I'm not going to reveal it here either. This technique can actually be successfully used in certain virtuoso passages and the result sounds like harmonics should. I'm sure that there are others aware of the principle and don't want to claim it is my creation, but don't want to read about this "invention" in a paper or online and someone taking credit for it. Perhaps I'll teach it to my youngest before my time is up. Interestingly, the famed pedagogue Carl Flesch came up with a harmonic invention of his own and used it in many of his editions. He claimed that while playing a fast scale down on the E-string, the violinist can simply omit the octave E from the run, going from first finger on an F or F-sharp in seventh position to fourth finger D in third, and the missing note sounds on its own. I have tried this frequently: sometimes it seems to work but more often not. Perhaps Mr. Flesch had a unique instrument that made this trick possible.

This time of the year many students are performing with school orchestras or in their own recitals. Playing from memory is an issue for many. Granted, one can feel terrified in front of an audience, even if the composition has gone fine during a lesson or in privacy. Nobody likes the idea of making a fool of him/herself and if the memory issue would make the performer sound worse, I usually let them keep the music at hand. How many times would these young instrumentalists have to play by heart in real life, even if they became respected professionals? In an orchestra or a chamber group one always uses music; it used to be a sacrilege to perform a sonata from memory unless both partners did so. The book would be on the stand, often not even opened, sort of like the Bible at hand while quoting Scripture. On the other hand, I don't think one really knows a piece of music unless it is memorized. By memorization I mean knowing the work well enough to play the notes with completely different set of bowings and fingerings, or even on a keyboard. Everyone learns memorizing differently. Some have to close their eyes, others depend on the harmony of the accompaniment. Personally I see the written music in front of me, measure by measure, enabling me to finger and bow it as I see fit at the moment. Perfect pitch comes in handy with this method. If the composition is very fast, all of us rely on muscle memory. Granted, my way will not work for everyone and often I have ask the student for help in deciding how the problem should be tackled. 

Having witnessed many great artists getting lost I know that the issue is not if one makes a mistake but when. A soloist needs a Plan B at any given time (and Plan C, D etc.). Solo Bach is notoriously difficult: Casals got stuck in a movement of one of the cello suites and instead of reaching the end, wound up at the repeat. Finally he apologized, left the stage and returned with the music. This was after playing through the music probably thousands of times! Heifetz took a wrong turn in the final coda of the Prokofiev's second concerto in 1968. As there was no conductor, it was scary going for a while. As I have written before, Oistrakh had eight major memory lapses in Vienna in his Beethoven concerto in 1967. I thought it was a freak accident but recently saw a video of another concert where he also got lost in the same work. Although I, as a listener, felt uneasy at the time, did the mishaps really matter? Of course not: the audiences were shown the human side of their superstars and they loved it.

Time for some rich, nice overtones. I leave the undertones for musical morticians, to be buried six feet under.