27 February 2008

En garde! : Viola da Gamba Bow Biomechanics

 Australian Viola da Gamba Society Clinic

W   ould you agree that the difference is a near-horizontal rear forearm, subsequently maintaining the connection with the shoulders? I think a more vertical forearm is a result of keeping tension in the rear-most scapula. I believe that these players are actually loading their scap’ in such a way that their elbow moves into a more ‘slotting’ position. The reason they maintain connection is because they maintain the ‘scap load’ and let the rotation take their hands/bat to the ball. In some of these drills, the vertical forearm is a checkpoint or even a ‘cue’ to get the young player to maintain some scap’ tension, which prevents disconnection and excessive external rotation of the shoulder/upper arm.”
  —  Anonymous sports medicine physician, discussing biomechanics of baseball arm motions.
Viola da gamba bowing biomechanics is quite a bit different from bowing members of the violin family. For one thing, the under-handed way of holding the bow means that the wrist and forearm have fewer (remaining) degrees of freedom and less range of motion, compared to over-handed violin bowing. And the dorsal flexion of the arm—and supination/rotation of the forearm—to hold the viola da gamba bow put more emphasis on the strength and agility of the supraspinatus. With that in mind, CMT readers who’ve asked about viola da gamba bowing and strengthening exercises may find some of the sports medicine and rehab links below useful. Especially ones that are involved in épée fencing.

 Fencing épée ‘guard’ position, Viggiani
Why? With an underhanded bow hold, much of the work is done with the forearm opening from the elbow, with little shoulder and upper arm. The elbow contributes far more with an underhanded grip than it does overhanded.

You may find that a good bit of the sports medicine literature on ‘rotator cuff’ is germane to viola da gamba bowing performance as well. (The rotator cuff is made up of four muscles: subscapularis, supraspinatus, infraspinatus and the teres minor. The rotator cuff muscles work as dynamic stabilizers of the shoulder girdle. In all, there are 30 muscles providing movement and support for the shoulder: 15 muscles move and stabilize the scapula; 9 muscles provide for glenohumeral joint motion; and 6 support the scapula on the thorax. Supraspinatus and other muscles of the ‘rotator cuff’ are just a few elements of the intricate shoulder anatomy.)

I’d say that the ‘stretch reflex’ probably does matter in viola da gamba bowing. But its importance in the ‘ballistic’ context of rapid bowing passages is probably small—see J Appl Biomechanics 1997, volume 13, fascicle 4, for example. But, for typical gamba passages with backbow-forwardbow abduction-adduction of the scapular complex happening at moderate velocities: that’s where proprioception—the stretch reflex—would be most important in control of muscles moving the bow. Rotator muscles surrounding the glenohumeral joint—the muscles involved in external rotation of the arm/elbow—probably not too important in rapid bowing. Instead, it’s the scapula that’s dominant in terms of mechanical linkage of the bow to the body. And the degree of elbow flexion—how close to horizontal the right forearm is—affects how much the ‘stretch reflex’ around the elbow can then contribute to the biomechanics of the bowing muscles’ performance.

 Dorsal flexion of arm
Gonzalez and coworkers have shown how activity of muscles that cross the ‘elbow joint complex’ (EJC) is affected by forearm position and forearm movement during elbow flexion/extension. They developed a three-dimensional musculotendinoskeletal computer model of multiple-degree-of-freedom (df) rapid (ballistic) elbow movements to study this. The model demonstrated how changes in forearm position mostly affected the flexor muscles, far more than the extensor muscles. The model also indicated that, for specific 1-df and 2-df movements, activating a muscle that is antagonistic or noncontributory to the movement can significantly reduce the movement time. The up-shot is that good muscle tone from moderate strength training likely improves viola da gamba bowing speed and accuracy.

 Jordi Savall
I  f you begin with a backbow (‘roverso’), then you must be prepared also to keep the same consistent alternation of back and forward bows. Practice both ways, so that you are not caught unawares and are unable to straighten out the bowing in a fast passage. A fast run that begins off the beat must start with ‘roverso’ while a similar passage beginning on the beat would start with ‘dritto’. If you have a sequence of ‘groppetti’ [English seventeenth century theorists would call them ‘relishes’ or ‘double relishes’ –Ian Gammie] then begin the first on a forward bow, take the next on a back bow etc.”
  —  Sylvestro Ganassi, Regola Rubertina, 1542, Book I, Chapter 6 (quoted in Gammie I, Chelys 1978; 8:23-30).
T   he bow is to be held with thumb, middle and fore-finger. The thumb and middle finger hold the bow so that it does not fall, the index finger applies greater or lesser pressure on the strings as is required. [This would preclude having a finger on the hair of the bow, as was common practice in the seventeenth century, and the articulation and volume is to be controlled through the stick instead. There has been some confusion in modern times over what Ganassi meant precisely with his description of the fingers. I consider it unlikely that he meant a player to have the index finger on the hair while the thumb and middle finger hold the stick—an unusual physical contortion at the very least. Ganassi intends that the index finger should apply pressure to the strings of the viol, not to the strings or hairs of the bow. –Ian Gammie] The bow should be placed about four finger widths from the bridge—depending of course on the size of the instrument, the arm relaxed, the hand firm but not tense, so as to draw a clear and pure sound from the viol. Playing closer to the bridge will give a rougher tone, playing nearer to the finger-board will give a softer, sweeter tone.”
  —  Sylvestro Ganassi, Regola Rubertina, 1542, Book I, Chapter 6 (quoted in Gammie I, Chelys 1978; 8:23-30).
 Jordi Savall
What else? Besides external rotation and dorsal flexion of the right arm, viola da gamba playing involves a lot of inferior abduction for backbowing and inferior adduction for the forwardbow. The deltoid is an ‘obvious’ abductor of the arm, but the deltoid is not an effective abductor unless the supraspinatus muscle helps. The deltoid alone tends to press the head of the humerus up under the acromion process; but the supraspinatus has also to do considerable work in viola da gamba bowing, at least in the more energetic passages. In terms of exercises, you will want to devise a ‘balanced’ program, to strengthen all of the relevant shoulder muscles. Some of the links below are good resources to help you discover an exercise program that’s right for you, to strengthen and tone these muscles.

Most gamba players think it best to use the terms forwardbow or backbow for viola da gamba bowing, and these terms honor the predominant biomechanics of the arm in proper gamba bowing technique. Understandably, some players or teachers who play viols as well as violins may say upbow and downbow, out of habit. But those terms tend to evoke kinesthetic mental images that may distort the idea of what a proper gamba bowing technic would be.

 Ruby electric viola da gamba
There are aspects of melodic and rhythmic elements of the Baroque viola da gamba repertoire—the long, arching polyphonic lines of the ricercar; of punctuated Italian canzoni; of the dramatic madrigal style—that challenge the player’s shoulder differently than, say, classical violin repertoire. The viola da gamba requires a fluid control of the melodic and rhythmic elements. Rapid excursions to distant registers require a smooth technic that belies the intricacy of the writing. In other words, the biomechanics of virtuosic viola da gamba performance is substantially different from the biomechanics of virtuosic violin performance—not just because of the differences in elevation of the right arm, but also because of the kinematic implications of the gamba repertoire.

 Deltoid muscle  Supraspinatus muscle
In summary, unlike the violin family, the upbow is the stronger motion for viola da gamba, not the downbow. The supraspinatus is often a main source of trouble, just as it may be for baseball players, but the complexity of the shoulder anatomy makes it impossible to say, without physically examining you, whether that is the issue or the only issue in your case. The best thing is to schedule yourself a consultation with an orthopedist, a sports medicine physician, or a physical medicine physician. Or maybe a fencing instructor?

 Fencing underhanded grip

P  etites Règles qu’il faut observer dans les commencements.
  • Ne lever jamais aucun doigt sans nécessité.
  • Les Pieds sur le Plat.
  • Le Pouce suis ainsi le doigt du milieu.
  • Montrer le Poignet.
  • Ne creuser point la main.
  • Ne point faire le dos d'âne.
  • Fermer le poignet en poussant, et ne présenter le dedans.
  • Ouvrir le poignet en tirant.
  • Commencer le Poussé par le bout de l’Archet.
  • Commencer le Tiré tout proche le poignet.
  • Soutenir la Pointe de l’Archet
  • Tirer et pousser à Angles droits.
  • Ne point tendre le coude.
  • Ne point faire de Grimace.
  • Ne point souffler.


[Little Rules for Beginners
  • Never move any finger unnecessarily.
  • Keep the feet on the floor.
  • The thumb is the key.
  • Show the wrist.
  • Don’t ‘dig’ the hand.
  • Don’t do the ‘donkey-back’ (sway-back posture; lordotic spine curvature).
  • Close the wrist while pushing, and don’t present the inside.
  • Open the wrist drawing from it.
  • Begin the stroke by the tip of the bow.
  • When you begin the pull, close the wrist.
  • Support the point of the bow and pull and push at right angles.
  • Don’t extend or stretch the elbow.
  • Don’t grimace.
  • Don’t blow.]”



25 February 2008

Who Is Béla Bartók?: Chamber Music Steganography in Rhapsody No. 2 for Violin & Piano

 Béla Bartók

E   ven in the first five quartets Bartók remains elusive. One might assume that he possessed something of Yeats’s power to develop continuously, and that this is revealed in his tireless revision of his means of self-expression—but what was he trying to express? One feels in late Beethoven, as in late Mozart, that certain changes in technique reflect a change of temperament, a deepening, a serenity which, in Mozart’s case, gives the music a kind of weight without changing its basic quality of gaiety. But it is not this quality that distinguishes [Bartók]... Bartók struck most of the people who met him as a curiously inexpressive person—remote and aloof. As a small boy he had a skin disease that covered him with sores for six years. During this time he was so ashamed of his appearance that he felt at ease only with his mother. The disease ultimately disappeared. But instead of becoming less introverted, Bartók spent his nights worrying that it might come back... [Bartók was diagnosed with leukemia in 1941, and died of complications of this 4 years later.] The story strikes a Proustian note: it is clear from the beginning that Bartok is one of those with a basic mistrust of life and a desire to retreat into some inner world... ”
  —  Colin Wilson, p. 87.
W   e human beings are governed by the urge to conform and blend in with our surroundings. We follow fashion. We become part of cultures of conformity—religious communities, military groups, sports teams. We take on corporate identities. Likewise, we seem to have the capacity to grow into our built environment, to familiarize ourselves with it, and eventually to find ourselves at home there. We have a chameleon-like urge to adapt, and, given the increasing mobility of contemporary life, we are constantly having to do so. The desire for camouflage is a desire to feel connected—to find our place in the world and to feel at home.”
  —  Neil Leach.
The defining quality in Bartók’s Rhapsody No. 2 for Violin and Piano (1928; revised 1945) is its elusiveness. Hiding the simplicity and forthrightness of Hungarian rural culture within the refined modalities of urban art-music—this is inherent in Bartók’s compositional methods in many of his pieces. And in fact disguising and embedding like this are done by Kodàly and Grieg and Brahms and many other ethnomusicologist-composers, too. But this Rhapsody embodies camouflage of a deeper, psychological sort.

We know from his correspondence and various biographical materials that Bartók was unsatisfied with the metropolitan ethos and urban aesthetics, and this dissatisfaction imbued Bartók’s writing with a highly personalized, proletarian politics.

Of course, folksong transcriptions involve compromises. Faithfulness to their cultural meaning depends on the extent to which the ‘other’ is bestowed with power in the transcription/adaptation. Mere empathy in the musical treatment of the folk idiom is not sufficient; there has to be moral standing and respect and power.

But this Rhapsody subverts its own folk-derived character and its character as a ‘work’ and as an object of dispassionate reflection. Instead, it propels the performer/listener to a new level of active subjectivity. The composer embarks on what amounts to a manifesto for the performers/listeners, about the rules of representation. The piece is not a ‘conversation,’ and it isn’t about what exactly is ‘represented’. It’s violinist and pianist presenting a united-front polemic regarding representation itself: what it is to represent reality and ‘self’ in music. And this inevitably hinges on what is or is not accessible to our senses—and on the fallibility of our senses. How do we know what is ‘real’? How do we know who is Bartók? He eludes us.

A   reception aesthetics calls into question one of the central tenets of analysis—the stability of the work’s identity, its capacity to make its own statement independent of any recognitional condition. Ultimately it calls into question the very possibility of an ontological essence for the musical work.”
  —  Jim Samson, in Cook & Everist, p. 44.
 Predator film, 1987
In order to emphasize the quasi-rustic character of the music, Bartók devised ways of blurring demarcations between lines, imparting a faux country ‘roughness’ to them. He devised novel uses of glissandi, lending a throw-down impartiality between the violin and piano parts that dissuades the listener from looking for additional potentially-discorroborating evidence. By sliding the melodic line from one note to the next at the right instants, Bartók conceals the thematic contours and creates the illusion that the piano is ‘merely’ handling the melodic line from the violin. In other words, Bartók uses deceptive musical contours to camouflage personal identities in the complex musical layers. Why else would the glissandi be temporally staggered as they are? The perfect execution of these tightly interconnected glissandi requires an extraordinary level of control in tempi and balance between the violinist and the pianist—and it is a huge challenge to “pull it off”.

 Desireé Palmen photo
Spot the ‘invisible’ men and women in artist’s amazing photographs. Daily Mail, 24-FEB-2008.

[ Desireé Palmen, a 44-year-old Dutch artist, stages trompe l’oeil scenes using traditional ‘analog’ methods. She photographs a scene without people in it and replicates portions of these images on clothing by hand. She then has people put on the clothing and carefully poses her subjects in the previously-photographed background scene. ]

I  ’d like people to consider what it means to let the government control our daily lives [with intrusive surveillance, erosion of privacy, and coercive technology]. When we are controlled we hand over our individual responsibilities to the state. I wanted to make a suit for the non-criminal citizen whose house is being watched 24 hours by street surveillance cameras. I’m also responding [to a progressively more prevalent wish that ordinary people have] to disappear [and regain their privacy and dignity].”
  —  Desireé Palmen, 2008.
 Desireé Palmen photo
Some years ago, Edward Said showed how musical form asserts itself on important issues of social justice—his analysis of Beethoven’s opera, Fidelio, where Florestan, the hero, undergoes ‘extraordinary rendition’ and imprisonment without trial. Florestan’s silence, Said says, embodies a European conception of the politics of silence, where silence socially has been associated with alienation and with recrimination, and where musically it relies on an historical relationship between sound and silence that back-handedly acknowledges the existence of the Other, acknowledges the existence of what is hidden or denied through silence. That’s the kind of evasion that I hear in this Rhapsody No. 2.

W   hen Florestan is imprisoned for speaking an unacceptable truth, we are to suppose ... that he was once able to speak the truth, and then he was buried in a silent dungeon for having done so. What are we to make of other notions of silence: the case of someone already invisible and unable to speak at all for political reasons, someone who has been silenced because what he or she might represent is a scandal that undermines existing institutions?”
  —  Edward Said, Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, 2000, p. 521.

But one can be really silent, and one can be pseudo-silent. The camouflage or ‘disruptive-pattern material’ (DPM) in this Rhapsody seems to manifest—What?—Bartók’s opposition to esotericism? his concurrent and paradoxical wish for privacy at the same time that he desired a more satisfying sense of ‘belonging’? his vehement response to intrusive governments in his own day? He challenges us to try and find him, but he exerts himself to elude us. He increases the musical complexity, much as current encryption and stego software techniques do when attempting to foil automated steganographic detection/decryption.

 Renaissance Steganography
Basically, the Hungarian gypsy folk idioms are the nominal ‘scene’ within which the real identities of violinist and pianist and composer are made to dissolve. This work is a standard, two-part Hungarian rhapsody, with a slow opening and enthusiastic folk music gestures, culminating in a high-velocity, virtuosic conclusion. Bartók wrote rustic rural folk sounds throughout. The violin part—chock-full as it is with florid ornaments, trills, and double-stops—might be thought to’ve been designed to bring out the player’s personality, and indeed that’s the chief temptation. But the part’s complexities are more virtuosic obfuscations and fictions than opportunities for matter-of-fact personal revelations.

When this piece is performed without respect for Bartók’s intentions, we hear the personalities of the violinist and the pianist who are in front of us, alive in 2008, in plain-text and undisguised. But when Rhapsody No. 2 is played particularly well, we hear a convincing mid-Century Hungarian illusion, a convincing deception. Surveillance—of the players, of the composer, of the listeners—is futile, and coercion impossible. Confidentiality and privacy remain protected.

W   arfare has changed in the same ways as the composition of pictures... War has become anonymous and now renounces the desire for show.”
  —  Pablo Picasso, 1944, on improving camouflage, letter to Apollinaire, quoted in Belting, p. 336.
James Ehnes and Andrew Armstrong will perform Béla Bartók’s Rhapsody No. 2 for Violin & Piano and other works this coming Saturday, 01-MAR-2008, in Kansas City. We look forward to trying to unwrap Bartók’s beautiful enigma. At the very least, we look forward to vicariously concealing ourselves in plain sight, in the pungent folk-music extroversions of introverted Hungarian diaspora.

G  ilroy’s notion of ‘changing same,’ in which reiteration ‘is not some invariant essence that gets enclosed subsequently in a shape-shifting exterior [nor is it …] the sign of an unbroken, integral inside protected by a camouflaged husk.’ [It] is conducive to the dynamic, complex movement that Gilroy deems essential for formation of diaspora.”
  —  Cameron Bushnell, Univ Maryland PhD Dissertation, 2007, p. 118.

 Korsyn book, p. 100

W   hat these suppositions together come to is a denial that composers need or want accurate information about music, at least some of the time. Indeed, a more extreme account of the vocational difference wout have it that an occasional outright falsehood may be of use to the composer, even though believing it would be beneath the theorist. This view might leave room for a special discourse that might be called ‘compositional theory’ in a gesture of indulgence to those whose activities depend on occasional self-deception. These ideas seem dubious to me; it is not easy to understand how they can enjoy the credence that the undeniably do in some quarters of our musical culture. Beyond this, I feel obliged to say such ideas are offensive to me: taken to their logical end, they make me out to be too intellectually concerned to be a real composer, yet too uncritical to be a real scholar... Imagine walking in on Beethoven at work. He tapes middle D# a few times on his piano, with evident interest and perhaps a trace of amusement. You can’t hear anything amusing in his D#s, though. In fact, you can’t hear much of anything at all in them. Obviously Beethoven has something in mind that you don’t, that lets him hear something in his D#s that you can’t. What does he have in mind?”
  —  Joseph Dubiel, in Cook & Everist, p. 264.

 Belting book