23 March 2010

Vadim Gluzman: Mixtures of Human Virtuoso plus Virtuosic Instrument

 Improvviso in re minore, mm. 25-30

V    adim Gluzman believes the violin has a living soul and, from the pile of performance reviews on my desk as well as from my own ears, I believe he knows something about how to give it breath.”
  —  Laurie Niles, Violinist.
I    t has this unbelievable G string, it sounds like a del Gesu or a viola—dark, dark, dark; huge! If you think about both Glazunov and Tchaikovsky concerti, they both start on (A3) first position on the G string. Both were written for this violin.”
  —  Vadim Gluzman, interview with Laurie Niles, Violinist.
M y regular employment involves engineering—informatics and computer science mostly, but occasionally chemical engineering as well. Recently, I was working on a project that involved calculating percentages of different dissolved compounds to achieve an optimal net chemical reaction rate.

I  began, then, to daydream about how it is that we realize when a particular instrument is especially apt for us; how we realize when a particular piece of music is apt for us; how we choose combinations of these. Sometimes we realize this when we attempt to switch and try to play on an instrument (try to dissolve into a “solution”) that is less apt for us (in which we are less “soluble”), or when we attempt to play a piece of music that is less apt for us. Sometimes, we realize this when we serendipitously find an instrument that suits us particularly well, or encounter a piece that lies well under our “hand”, on account of cognitive and biomechanics reasons that we may or may not understand or be able to explain to others.

I n principle, could these highly subjective things be objectively measured? After all, enthalpies of transfer (ΔHtr) of electrolytes from one solvent into another solvent are routinely determined by comparing enthalpies of solution in the two solvents, where solid electrolyte is dissolved in each solvent and the heat exchange is measured. Sometimes, the reverse method is used (in which ΔHtr is derived from enthalpy of precipitation measurements, where electrolyte that was dissolved is caused to come out of solution as a solid precipitate). Waveform (enthalpic and entropic—) analysis of back-to-back digital recordings of Vadim Gluzman moving from Nino Rota to J.S. Bach? Put musicians and instruments in giant, room-sized bomb calorimeters and measure per-minute heat flux normalized to time-average identical sound emission?

O f course, musicians and instruments and compositions are not molecules or bulk-phase ensembles of large numbers of molecules, but nonetheless the statistical mechanics of solutions—the effects and the equations that are involved in these—are suggestive of phenomena we recognize when we are mixing musicians, instruments, and compositions. It is only half-serious, my daydream…

 Fugacity of mixture

D o the components in mixtures of performer, instrument, and composition each have a property analogous to what, in chemistry, would be called ‘fugacity’? Suppose the answer is ‘Yes’: Performers-as-solutes; instruments-as-solutes; compositions-as-solvents; concert halls, recordings, etc., as ‘vessels’ to contain the resulting solutions.

 Improvviso in re minore, mm. 49-54

B orn in Ukraine, violinist Vadim Gluzman began playing with a remarkable fugacity at age seven. When he was 16 his family moved to Israel and he continued his studies at the Rubin Academy of Music in Tel Aviv and later with Dorothy DeLay at Juilliard. At age 19, he arrived in Dallas, where he was a participant in the New Conservatory summer music program and subsequently became a student of Arkady Fomin at Southern Methodist University. Vadim Gluzman plays the 1690 ex-Leopold Auer Stradivari on loan from the Stradivari Society of Chicago. He is currently on the faculty of Roosevelt University. Vadim’s wife, pianist Angela Yoffe, was recognized as a high-fugacity musician-in-the-making at age four. She studied in the Darzinia School of Music in Riga, the Rubin Academy of Music in Tel Aviv and the Meadows School of the Arts in Dallas. Vadim and Angela perform as infinitely-miscible co-solutes all over the world and have recorded for Koch International and Bis.

 Vadim and Angela

N ino Rota’s solvent, ‘Improvviso in D minor,’ provides frequent exposure of A3 and other high-fugacity notes for the ex-Leopold Auer Strad, which facilitates Angela Yoffee’s accompaniment on her Steinway with an emphatic, dark lower register and nice miking on the recording.

 Improvviso in re minore, mm. 61-64

    [50-sec clip, Vadim Gluzman and Angela Yoffe, Nino Rota, ‘Improvviso in re minore, 1947’, 1.6MB MP3]

 Improvviso in re minore, mm. 65-70

I mprovviso in D minor was composed in 1947, for the Gianni Franciolini / Carlo Ponti film ‘d’Amanti senza amore’ [Lovers without Love], adapted from Tolstoy’s novel, ‘Kreutzer Sonata’. Inharmonious doctor (played by Rolando Dupi) impulsively marries harmony-craving pianist (played by Clara Calamai)…

 Improvviso in re minore, mm. 82-87

T he marriage is unhappy, and a despondent Calamai attempts suicide, only to be stopped by clueless Dupi. Desperate for real companionship, Calamai makes friends with the violinist (played by Jean Servais). Dupi suspects that his wife is having an affair, but when he obtusely discusses the matter with Servais, he discovers the suspicions are groundless.

S adly, Dupi realizes this after he has already murdered his pianist-wife.

C lara Calamai was 33 and Jean Servais was 38 when they played these roles, and Nino Rota was 36 years old when he composed this film music. Gluzman’s and Yoffe’s age, speed, passion, and fearlessness are especially well-matched (1) to Rota’s gypsy conceit, including its defiant, ‘diabolical’ coda, and (2) to the robust sonic preferences of their respective instruments.

G reat solution ‘chemistry’!

A    ll violin sonatas are microtonal. ;-)
  —  Steve Gregoropoulos, 27-FEB-2010, FaceBook.

19 March 2010

Yo-Yo Ma: Ask Not What Your ‘Ax’ Can Do for You, but What You Can Do for Your Cyborg ‘Ax’

 Yo-Yo Ma & Kathryn Stott

B    asically, everything I’ve learned about Art has been from ‘finding my way inside’. [searching and growing through relationships with other artists, with history, and with the Spirit of all humankind].”
  —  Yo-Yo Ma, Gramophone, 2005.
I f your cello feels like dancing, by all means go! Take it out for a night on the town. Bounce your bow on its strings. Hug it. Cradle its neck tenderly. Praise it in the presence of others, when it can hear you. Fondle its tuning pegs as though they were earlobes, as Yo-Yo Ma did during the superb performance last night in the Harriman-Jewell Series in Kansas City.

Y our instrument has rights, and you have duties—toward your instrument as well as your co-performers.

Y o-Yo Ma shrugs his shoulders after performing—not after each and every piece, but after many of them—as if he were surprised that the result was so felicitous as it turned out to be, and as if he and the pianist Kathryn Stott were not wholly ‘in-charge’. It is not an ‘apologetic’ shrug, just one of genuine modesty and self-effacement. Gee. Aw, shucks.

I n these collaborations, too, Ma sometimes plays as though he were accompanist to pianist Stott: another aspect of Ma’s well-known modesty, incongruous with his stature and fame.
  • Franz Schubert: Sonata in A minor, D. 821
  • Dmitri Shostakovich: Sonata in D minor, Op. 40
  • Astor Piazzolla: Le Grand Tango
  • Egberto Gismonti: Bodas de Prata & Quatro Canto
  • Cèsar Franck: Sonata in A Major
M a’s main performance instrument is the 1733 Montagnana called ‘Petunia’. (The instrument was named this by a young girl after she asked Ma whether it had a name and Ma replied that it did not.) Another of Ma’s cellos, the 1712 Davidov Stradivarius, was previously owned by Jacqueline du Pré and by the Vuitton Foundation.
J    acqueline du Pré’s unbridled dark qualities went ‘against’ the Davidov [conflicted with the Strad’s personality]. The more you ‘attack’ it, the less it returns.”
  —  Yo-Yo Ma.
L ate in her life, du Pré confided her frustration with the ‘unpredictability’ of this cello. Ma, however, has opined that the variability and her resulting frustration with the instrument came, not from the instrument, but instead from du Pré’s impassioned and autocratic style of playing. He has been famously quoted as saying that this Strad cannot be ‘dictated-to’ but instead must be ‘coaxed’ by its player. He speaks of his ‘rehabilitating’ the instrument after he had received it from du Pré—in much the same manner as a physical therapist or a rehab physician or nurse might speak of the journey helping a human patient recover some function that had been lost—after, say, a stroke.
T   here is a mysterious relationship between performer and instrument. Since 1983, this cello’s sound has been ‘growing’—growing constantly during the years I have had it—becoming richer, deeper, and fuller. Partly, this can be attributed to now-constant playing that it receives, which causes it now to vibrate more fully than it did when it first came into my possession ... I had to learn not to be seduced by the sheer beauty of the sound in my mind before trying to ‘coax’ it from this cello. Many instruments sound beautiful in an intimate setting but may lose their quality of sound in the vastness of a concert hall. The Stradivarius does not. The integrity of its sound-picture, the warmth, the clarity and overtone structure—these are, I think, maintained through space much like a laser beam.”
  —  Yo-Yo Ma, Foreword from the book, Antonio Stradivari: The Cremona Exhibition of 1987, by Charles Beare.

If your aging cello develops some kind of ‘Cello Alzheimer’s’, Ma is the kind of gerontologist you would want to look after it—one who could and would bring out the best of its strengths and minimize vulnerability associated with its limitations. He would take it to gatherings where familiar subjects will be discussed by familiar people and not too fast. He would not sedate it or park it, mute, alone in a chair in an atrium.”
I n other words, according to Yo-Yo Ma, your instrument is not ‘instrumental’ in a superficial, ‘ends-justify-the-means’, deterministic, teleological, human-centric, master-slave way. Instead, it has its own spirit: its own personality; its own capacity for belief and intention; its own ‘free will’; its own inalienable dignity and moral standing, in much the way that a pet has these things.

W e often say ‘Take care!’ off-handedly—as routinely or thoughtlessly as a quick ‘Goodbye!’ or some abbreviated, perfunctory expression, devoid of emotion and, really, devoid of attention, except for our attention to habitual protocol.

B ut even then it does convey some sense of connectedness. When said with feeling and forethought, it means something like ‘Take care of yourself, because I care about you.’ I thought about this as I watched Yo-Yo and Kathy on-stage, during the works that they performed after the intermission.

T ake care!’ is something that one can (should!) say to a companion animal—or to a musical instrument; it is not something that must be restricted, to say only to human beings. Yo-Yo Ma’s interaction with his companion instrument—his empathetic attacks with the bow; his jocular brushing of its shoulders; his playful querying of its tuning with the fingers of his left hand; etc.—are gestures of a loved-one/lover toward a belovèd person, not the gestures of a ‘craftsman’ toward a mere ‘tool’. Watching Ma handle and play his belovèd cello, I wonder whether, later in the evening, he will wish it ‘Good night’ and settle it in [its] bed. The cello is a ‘subject’, not an ‘object’. The generosity and dignity that continually flow from Ma make this fantasy entirely plausible.

T he same generosity and moral standing are bestowed upon each composition as well—reflecting the person-like regard in which Ma holds it. Some of the pieces afford more opportunities to detect and assess this; others (esp. Baroque ones) somewhat less. Take, for example, Piazzolla’s ‘Le Grand Tango’, composed in 1981, originally for Mstislav Rostropovich. Ma and Stott animate the strange, tango-ish blend of tenderness and vigorous resolve/conviction that inhere in the score--they do this in a generous way that no one else does.

A nd, in various passages, Ma takes a back-seat and ‘accompanies’ Stott’s piano’s robust expressions—robustness that is implied and authentic, consistent with Piazzolla’s score and the spirit of tango as an intimate-yet-public lovers’ dance—a ‘duet’ of equals. To hear Kathy and Yo-Yo play together is to gain new understandings of the possibilities—and of the depth and breadth of truly ‘collaborative’ musicianship.
A    nd when Kathy Stott played ‘Tres minutos con la reálidad,’ people whispered, ‘She must be Argentinian!’ ”
  —  Horacio Malvecino, liner notes, ‘Soul of the Tango’ CD.
T hrough their playing and their treatment of each other and through their rapport with their companion instruments, we learn something—or are vividly reminded—about being fully human, and about the joys of behaving well, virtuously even, despite challenges and provocations and injustices that we face: an experience far more fulfilling than witnessing admirable technical achievements or finding delight in a [musical] story well-told.

F uturists at MIT and elsewhere talk as though advances in robotics and A.I. and cloud-computing and so on will change our relationships to technical devices and systems in new and unprecedented ways (see links below). I doubt this—at least the ‘new-and-unprecedented’ part. Thoughtful, empathetic musicians like Ma and Stott have, for a long time, been in full-fledged symbiotic ‘relationships’ with their [companion] instruments, and with compositions, and [within limits of ‘partial personhood’ and philosophy of Mind] vice versa. To recognize or appreciate this, you have only to look and listen.

    [50-sec clip, Yo-Yo Ma and Kathryn Stott, Astor Piazzolla, ‘Le Grand Tango’, 1.6MB MP3]

 ‘Soul of Tango’ cover
I    can tell if someone else has touched my Quenoil bass, [even touched it] ‘by accident’. The instrument takes on a ‘different’ energy from my own—a different quality that I can detect and that persists for a considerable time after the other person’s touching it has ended.”
  —  François Rabbath, in Barry Green: Mastery of Music, p. 129.
A    prodigy who played for President Kennedy at age 7, Ma is no snob, performing Bach to pop to tangos… If Yo-Yo Ma didn’t exist, no novelist in the world would have dared invent him. The combination of virtues—musical, intellectual, personal—is simply too implausible.”
  —  Joshua Kosman, Smithsonian Magazine, NOV-2005.

17 March 2010

Artemis Quartett: Dissonance, Forensic Evidence, and Knowing

 Artemis Quartett, © Thomas Rabsch

L   et’s make nonfiction that is more thrilling than fiction. Let’s use the best of what fiction has to offer and make it more exciting because what happened was real.”
  —  Ellen Windemuth, founder, Off_the_Fence Productions, Amsterdam.
A rtemis Quartet’s performance in Kansas City last Friday night received a warm reception here.
  • Natalia Prischepenko, violin
  • Gregor Sigl, violin
  • Friedemann Weigle, viola
  • Eckart Runge, cello
T he all-Beethoven program consisted of Op. 95 (F minor) “Serioso”, Op. 127 No. 12 (E-flat major), and Op. 59 No. 3 “Razumovsky” (C major): supple interpretations throughout, without excesses of any kind, either radical or conservative. In this way, what the Artemis are doing sounds perpetually spontaneous, as though each member is reconsidering the ‘evidence’ that is expressed in her/his part—considering it anew each time they play.

I n fact, one of the qualities that impressed me especially was Artemis Quartett’s emphasis on the dramatic tensions between the parts—discourse between the instruments, yes, but as though the instruments (and the scores) have long-lasting disagreements, and express points of view that are founded on different evidence, profoundly different life-histories, irreconcilably different politics, and so on. Each player/part is not about to renounce what he/she ‘knows’.

    [50-sec clip, Artemis Quartett, Beethoven, String Quartet in F minor, Op. 95 II, ‘Allegretto ma non troppo’, 1.6MB MP3]

T he exciting (and thought-provoking) result is a durable refractoriness to “nice” conclusions—a richness of trans-indivdual tension and dramatic complexity, even in works that are very familiar to us from repeated listening or performances.

T he encore, Astor Piazzolla’s ‘Suite del Ángel: Milonga del Ángel – Melancólico’, was another 6.7-min illustration of this.

T his Piazzolla suite is part of his series of “ángel” compositions from the 1950s and 1960s, usually performed with bandoneon or other instrumentation instead of this gorgeous arrangement for string quartet. Piazzolla had studied with Nadia Boulanger and famously alleged that his unusual counterpoint methods, for better or worse, could be blamed on her insidious pedagogy. In the “ángel” movement that the Artemis performed as an encore, we have lyrical elements that are passed among the quartet members, some of whose musical ‘testimony’ is corroborative of others’ testimony and some of whose testimony is discorroborative or contradictory. The scordatura-governed dissonance is earnest but not fierce; laconic, not agitated and verbose; and, as noted above, its rhetoric is serious, not whimsical or anecdotal.

T his peculiar Piazzolla suite is similar in narrative technique and orchestration methods to the 1949 ‘Sonata for Double Bass’ by Paul Hindemith. In that work, the bass player uses scordatura, tuning up a whole-step, which lends an unsettling, destabilizing effect to the sonata. In this Piazzolla movement, the cello’s C-string is tuned, I think, a whole-step down. In both works, the parts conjure a song in the form of a dialogue between the instruments. Hindemith: creator of ‘disharmonious counterpoint’ in which traditional combinatorial rules are subverted by a ‘decoupled system’ of tonality, or, maybe more accurately, a novel with an “unreliable narrator” point-of-view character. Piazzolla: creator of ‘testimonial dissonance’, with similar “unreliable” point-of-view characters.

T he same melody can be sung either alone or together with other players/characters, or entirely different melodies can be enunciated at the same time, or with variations that substantially alter the sense that the melody makes—the very embodiment of subjectivity and multiple, unstable points-of-view.

W hile we can recognize that the point of view of the “ángel” cello is constitutionally dour or sometimes irritable/unsympathetic, the subtlety and the disputes among the other parts’ responses prevent us from deciding that the cello-narrator, for all his vividness and probity, is more than just a figment of Piazzolla’s imagination. Our drive for certainty is flouted again and again, but we continue to listen, and there arrive more clues. We continue our listening with feelings of prolongèdly heightened suspense. Or ‘suspense-mingled-with-poignant-sense-of-loss-plus-optimism’.

T he result is that we get a riveting, realistic depiction of what may happen to human psyches when they are self-styled and unrelenting. They each know what they know; they each agree to disagree. Such complexity is emotionally engaging and believable, not confusing. In other words, read the quartet as you would read a good novel—as though it were real.

    [50-sec clip, Artemis Quartett, Piazzolla, ‘Milonga del Ángel-Melancólico’, 1.6MB MP3]

T   he Beethoven the Artemis offered was remarkably cogent and organic. The group dispatched the agitated, mercurial first movement of the Quartet in F minor (Op. 95) with a deft combination of rhapsodic vigor and cool control.”
  —  Anthony Tomassini, New York Times, 02-MAR-2010.