Elgar, outtakes, and floating violins

Dearest Rose!

Just a quick post, three days before our residency (!!!!)!

I was thinking about our Elgar recording the other day, during which we reinvented a few notes quite spectacularly, and we ended up finishing up the take just for the fun of it, with me doing what I imagined to be a ludicrously over-cheesed ending since I knew we wouldn’t be using the take anyway. I think I mentioned my surprise when we listened back and it turned out that it actually sounded, well, not so ludicrous (I’ll leave out our earlier crash-and-burn):

We’ve talked a bit about the idea of "authenticity" and interpretation, since the edition we’re using reflects Elgar’s early version rather than the published one (subject for a separate post!...), and it made me think about a presentation I saw at the conference I went to in Karlsruhe last month, by a brilliant composer/scholar/creative thinker named Bennett Hogg (http://www.bennetthogg.co.uk/). I have to say first of all that he is one of the most sensitive and creative thinkers I’ve met, and I’m utterly convinced by his work. With that in mind: this work involved something that, when I read the abstract, had made me cringe in horror-- in the name of musical composition and experimentation, Dr. Hogg had inserted microphones inside a violin and then dragged it through the woods on the end of a string; and then, not finding the sounds he had been looking for, transferred the whole setup to a stream, in which he floated the miked instrument in the water on its tether. I hope he forgives the violence of my initial reaction, which I attribute to my deep-seated identification of the violin with something human, a direct extension of my own experience—something so sacred and sensitive that I balked at the thought of knocking on the wood of my violin for the Crumb piece I’ve been playing with Daphne. I owe an explanation here on behalf of Dr. Hogg, which I can’t do as eloquently as he does (one of his articles on this is in Contemporary Music Review 32:2-3, 249-273 : https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/07494467.2013.775811, and another, along with sound recordings, can be found at http://www.hz-journal.org/n18/hogg.html), but I’ll try briefly to sketch my impressions of what he shared:

The project began with him mulling over the connection between the violin and the source of its materials, or rather, as he puts it in his article, “the idea that violins were once trees.” Violins have evolved in tandem with specific Western performance traditions, and in the classical tradition with which you (Rose) and I (Michi) grew up with, they are typically used to project the intentions of composers and performers into a carefully sculpted environment (the concert hall), designed to shield the sound from the surrounding environment (car horns, helicopters, hail, etc.). So basically, they've been isolated from the context they came from (nature), cut off in the service of a focused artistic end. In the article I mentioned above, he gives a beautiful quote by the artist Peter Lanyon, whose work I was unfamiliar with and which I love:


"Coast," Peter Lanyon, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/lanyon-coast-t07819

The context of the quote: Bennett is discussing the idea of the violin as a sensor (in his words, “a measuring device for the seismic activity of embodied human consciousness,” p. 251 and endnote 2). His idea for dragging the violin through the woods came from a desire to shift the tables away from one-sided human control of the violin to a more complex ecology of sound: not just a human bowing the violin, but a violin amplifying its surrounding environment. This reconnects the violin with a natural ecosystem, even if it means cutting it off from a particular cultivated artistic one (the violin isn't all that playable after being dragged through the woods). At the risk of too many nested quotes, here’s what Bennett writes:

I had already conceived of dragging a violin over terrain and recording the sounds produced with microphones inside the instrument, in order to create something like a sonic trace of landscape, a measurement of slopes, materials, and speeds, when I came across the following quote by the Cornish painter Peter Lanyon. Lanyon, a gliding enthusiast, writes ‘The thermal itself is a current of hot air…It is invisible and can only be apprehended by an instrument such as a glider’ (Tate Gallery Website). Lanyon has become an important influence on my own environmentally based sound art of late, someone who, in the words of his biographer Stephens (2000), ‘rejected the hitherto paradigmatic single viewpoint in favour of a multi-directional, experiential depiction of a place’ (p. 19) (252).

He goes on to develop a fascinating discussion which it would be unfair of me to try to summarize, but what I want to share here is the sense I had when listening to his recorded sounds of the stream flowing under and around the body of the violin (I should add that the violins he used were not his primary instruments, but ones he had found languishing unplayed in secondhand shops, and which he felt he could perhaps give a second, if unconventional, life through his experimental recordings). He had sealed the f-holes of the instrument with tape and waded into a stream, with the violin (with mikes inside) floating at the end of its tether like a watery kite. The sound he recorded and played back for us at the conference was like an intricately woven fountain in a stone chapel, or maybe rather a resonant chamber carved inside the center of a cool brook (which, I suppose, is basically what it was). The recordings he’d shared earlier of the violin being dragged (albeit infinitesimally slowly) along a forest path had been, in his own estimation, too violent to convey what he wanted (and I had found them viscerally painful to listen to: knocks and bangs on what I couldn't help but hear as a poor innocent violin). But the recordings of the violin floating made me feel something beautiful (even though the watery process rendered the instrument equally unplayable in traditional senses). It rendered the stream audible in a way that felt very close to me (because of the profile of the violin's resonance). I felt I was hearing something distant-- the shapes of the currents and whirlpools of the stream-- through a familiar lens. It reminded me a little of Ophelia’s poetry, which implies so much through so few words (Incidentally, do you know this song cycle by Hans Abrahamsen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ed1rVvf2PFI ? based on a monodrama written by Paul Griffiths, written using only Ophelia’s words in Hamlet!!).

Anyway, the whole reason I shared that was because I would never have thought to do what Dr. Hogg did, simply because in the religion in which I formed my early worldview (i.e., Western classical music), the violin is seen and felt as a sacred and inviolable object encased in layers of tradition and used for carefully controlled rituals (performances/practicing/rehearsing). And thanks to his creativity and open-mindedness, I was given a beautiful experience I had never had before, and plenty more to think about. Will this change how I use my own violin? I certainly don’t intend to drag it through the water. But it does make me think again about our Elgar run-throughs and how much license we give ourselves in playing his music. The recording I mentioned at the beginning of this blog crashed and burned dramatically in the middle. But this destruction freed me to do something I thought was ridiculous—sacrilege, perhaps, if it weren’t such “light” music to begin with (topic again for another post!). And it turned out that, on second hearing, I found the sacrilege beautiful.