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My Quarantine: One More Vibration

Bridgeman Images
Suzanne (Marie-Clémentine) Valadon: The Violin Case, 1923

On March 6, 2020, one of the last days of what we might call normalcy, I bought a violin at a thrift store outside Boston. I had spotted it the week before—a Stradivarius copy made in Germany in the late 1970s—and, by violin standards, it was very inexpensive, approximately .0016% of the record price for a real Stradivarius violin. Though it was missing two strings and had some superficial scratches, it appeared to be intact. I plucked it a few times and it made a somewhat pleasing sound. I put it down and left. But I kept thinking about the instrument, and after showing pictures of it to a couple of violinist friends who thought it looked playable, I went back to see if it was still there. It was, so I took it home.

I am an accumulator of instruments. Though I began my work in music as a professional accordion player, I’ve been gathering synthesizers, guitars, drums, and other sound-making devices since I was a child. I use them in my studio, making my own experimental electronic music and working for clients like filmmakers. I had never played a violin before, but I liked the idea of having one. I ordered some strings online, and with the help of YouTube, I got the violin working again. It wasn’t difficult. Playing it was another story. I started lessons over FaceTime with my friend and colleague Tanya Kalmanovitch, and slowly began to scratch out some melodies.

On April 5, just a few days after the conservatory where she and I both teach closed its doors and went online, the violist Kim Kashkashian wrote this on her Facebook page:

A thought for the day for all musicians.

Our biggest challenge is to find a new performance triangle equation: we still have 1) composer (score) to interpreter, and 2) an impulse from us moving outward to communicate our truth filtered by the score) but 3) the resonance of the space and energy of the listener coming back to us is missing. Therefore, for artistic reasons, I play open strings and resonate through the space of instrument, the body, and try to imagine sending that resonance across the street! Then I pick a movement of Bach, give it a text, speak it across the street and then play it. This process is giving me some sense of completion.

Kashkashian describes a process that many musicians would recognize—the creation of a score by a composer, the formation of an interpretation by musicians through practice and rehearsal, then the projection of the results through the musicians’ instruments into physical space for an audience of human ears. Like many equations, this one elides certain variables like improvisation, oral traditions that challenge notions of authorship, or the construction of a recording—something Kashkashian excels at. The core of Kashkashian’s problem—that quarantine forced us out of resonant spaces, away from audiences’ energies, into our homes—is unchanged. Whether our venue is the concert hall, a house of worship, a recording studio, or a DIY basement space, what purpose do we musicians serve if we can’t inspire an audience’s collective energy through our sounds?

When I read Kashkashian’s post, I was at home with my instruments, trying to figure out how to work with students over the Internet. Once a day, while my son was doing some version of school work, I would take out my violin and, like Kashkashian, slowly play the open strings with my bow. Glimpses of the kind of “completion” Kashkashian can achieve were few. Under normal circumstances, the tiny waver of my hand, my unsure grip of the bow, the constant feeling that I wasn’t even holding the instrument correctly could all be solved through diligent practice and an experienced teacher guiding me through example and, if we could be in the same room, gentle touch. In the rare moments when I was able to induce the string to make the body of the instrument resonate, I could feel that in some fundamental way I had done my job as musician for one more day. I had made one more vibration.

Before all this, in February, I attended an exquisite performance by the cellist Charles Curtis at LAXART, an art gallery in Los Angeles. The first piece on the program was “Naldjorlak,” by the French composer Éliane Radigue, written in collaboration with Curtis in 2005. For an hour, Curtis bowed pure long tones on the strings of his cello, tones that changed radically as he moved to the bridge, then the tailpiece, finally the metal endpin of the cello, the thin stand that holds the cello up off the floor. The long tones collided with their reflections from the walls and floor, bringing out the space’s inherent resonant frequencies, arriving in the audience’s ears as a mesh of ringing overtones and pulsing vibrato, brought on by tiny disagreements of pitch between the cello and the room’s echo—an elegant proof of Kashkashian’s equation.

Born in Paris in 1932, Radigue dedicated more than forty years to creating electronic music of the purest, most elemental nature. “Naldjorlak” is a major transitional work, one of her first for acoustic instruments, written when she was seventy-three. After studying in the 1950s with the giants of musique concrète Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry, in the 1970s Radigue found the instrument that came to form the basis of her musical output: the modular synthesizer. Using an ARP 2500 synthesizer and some tape machines, working alone, she made a series of monumental works, mostly consisting of slowly drifting, undulating tones that generate overtones and interference patterns as they interact in the virtual space of the recording and in the physical space of the listening environment.

Radigue’s commitment to constant, almost imperceptible change reflects her meditation practice rooted in Tibetan Buddhism. Even when the tones in her music shift into harsh, clashing dissonances, sounding almost like Tibetan ceremonial music in “Kyema,” the third hour of her masterpiece Trilogie de la Mort, an elemental calm prevails. Radigue’s music so unifies the three factors of Kashkashian’s equation—the composer, the performer, and the medium in which the work is performed—that despite the effort it took to create them, works like the Trilogie or Jetsun Mila sound effortless—more like natural processes evolving over time than something made by a composer over the course of years with machines in a studio.

In June, with the windows finally open after a long, cold spring, I listened to the Trilogie late at night. The vintage oscillators slowly opened up their ghostly high harmonics. Their frequencies shifted, generating a constantly changing vibrato, as in “Naldjorlak.” Once in a while, overtones seemed to organize themselves into a melody, but mostly the rippling felt like a dance of waves moving back and forth, speeding up and slowing down. From my suburban living room, I could hear insects and frogs from down the hill to my right, and sparse traffic to my left. Radigue’s sounds were in tune with all of it, uniting my house with the artificial electronic space she built thirty years ago, and resonating through me as quarantine wore on.

This is part of “My Quarantine,” a continuing NYR Daily series in which our contributors share how they’re spending their time while social distancing.