Pärt reflections

Dear Rose,

I just had a kind of revelation about the Pärt [Spiegel im Spiegel] and wanted to share it with you even though I’m going to see you tomorrow! I was thinking about how hard it is for me to sustain my long notes at a dynamic level that matches your resonance—if I play softly enough that I can hold the full note length, then you have to play too softly to make the resonances overlap:


which I think is the whole beauty of the piece:


but if I play with a full resonance for the first (shorter) notes, then I either run out of bow on the long note or sound constipated, which I don’t think is what Pärt was going for.

So I’ve been practicing with a metronome, trying to gradually slow it down below the tempo (q=80) so that when I actually play it, it will feel easy rather than strained. But I’m still not able to get the sound I want, either the quality (free, easy) or the volume (sonorous) that seems appropriate. Which I take as a prescription for more practice and trying to correct my tendencies according to a distant, maybe not quite real ideal…

But then it crossed my mind that (1) the fact that Pärt didn’t specify what dynamic the violin part should be, means potentially that (2) he also didn’t specify what dynamics, plural, the violin part could be: in other words, my default idea that the ideal sound should be of a constant loudness is an assumption that is maybe more due to unquestioned habit/Western-Art-Music dogma. (i.e., the best sound is an even, resonant, and pure sonority), rather than a thoughtful and expressive decision. It’s like saying that just because driving at a fast and even speed is the best way to get from point A to point B on a highway, it’s the best way to take a gondola through Venice.

Which leads me to two lightbulb moments: One—if the ideal sound isn’t necessarily a flat, perfectly smooth one, what if I didn’t start by trying to control my bow jitters (should have had less coffee) and natural fluctuations in sound, and instead listened to them the way I watch and love the flickerings of a candle in an open space? So that my starting point is not a suppression of my tendencies, but an attention to them, and an expansion from there?

And Two—if I don’t have to stay at a single dynamic level, what if I just fill the shorter notes with the resonance and freedom that I want to, and then begin the extra-long notes at that dynamic level and let the sound release and decay? The style, after all, is tintinnabuli—imitating the sound of a bell, its resonance and overtones. What kind of bell (except for an alarm clock) keeps a constant volume throughout? Although that’s maybe overstepping—the violin is, after all, a sustained counterpart to the piano’s releases. But you don’t actually need much input of information to convey a sustained sound—once the note is sounding, all you need is to not cut it off—maybe, actually, all you need is to listen.

Not that this should mean that there’s nothing I should strive for and practice—just that it begins from a place of nonjudgmental attention and grows from there, rather than starting from a feeling of constraint and padding or planing away in imitation of an external ideal. Which all sounds overly Zen, given how I have never in my life been able to meditate without tailspinning into distracted and judgmental thoughts. (Like that one.)

Anyway, it feels amazing practicing this way, but of course the test will be playing it with you—which I can’t wait to do!