Sunday, November 13, 2005

on becoming one's instrument


I am often asked the question:

“Do people become like their instruments?”

The cello - like the farmer ploughing his field in touch with the rhythm of the sun, the moon, the wind and the rain – is responsible for the soil. The richer the soil and the deeper the roots, the more colourful and nutritious the fruits.

The viola is the stem. He drinks from the soil and feeds the flower, his energy flowing both upwards and downwards.

The violin soars above them into the vibrant colour and delicate forms of higher frequencies. Our spirits float upon his petals and the flutter of our hearts are echoed by his trills and vibrations.

Feet. Heart. Head.

The perfect musical practice to me, whether alone or in a group, is like Yoga: Starting with the feet we make sure the base is stable but flexible, grounded yet buoyant. Then we move to the heart area, establishing the motive and attending to the breath and the pulsations of the emotional body. From this wellspring the head and neck flow effortlessly upwards. Duality is dissolved and we become one musical body.

However, just like the Ferrari driver who never gets out of his car to see what it is like to walk along a farmtrack, or the mediator who never sings out his own heart-song, or the peasant who never sets foot outside his own village, each area can, if identified with too strongly without paying attention to the whole, limit the person.

-which is why I hang out primarily with cellists and violists. Or why I did until now.

Ever since I was little all my friends have carried the bass or the middle voice. Most of them have also become yoga or Alexander Technique teachers too. All my life, on tour or on a one-off gig cellists and violists simply hung out together, but it seems different in France.

There are two possible reasons I can think of:

I have heard that, unlike in the UK or the States, the French musical education, whatever the instrument, is very much geared to a soloist's diploma, and that the emphasis on chamber music or teaching is not nearly so high. (You only have to look at the extraordinary number of superb choirs in the UK to realize how we are trained to give our individual voice up for the benefit of the whole). This is why, perhaps, in France the voices are more 'equal' - the cellists and violists have a highly developed soloistic voice. It is also perhaps why I 'fit in' here more - exactly because the emphasis isn't on 'fitting in'. The result is different. It's neither better nor worse (though I feel more comfortable here), but here in France an orchestra can be less homogenous whilst often being more exciting.

The other reason is, I believe, to do with the modern versus baroque/classical worlds, since I was largely in the former in the UK and am in the latter here. In the original instrument movement, the bass line has come back to life. When I was studying in the States a colleague said to me:

"You wanna learn how to play a bass line? listen to Stevie Wonder."

Now I believe Stevie Wonder could go to any baroque concert and approve of the groove. In addition, violinists playing on gut strings are far less precious (because Perfection is just not attainable in the same way) and, because the tempi have been upped and we can actually hear the harmonic rhythm, they (and even sopranos!) now seem to have far more awareness that they are merely embellishing the rhythm and harmony.

- Which is why here I hang out with everyone.


Blogger MB said...

Fascinating analysis, Ruth. I would never have suspected someone in classical music would think of Stevie Wonder! I'm loving your recent photographs.

5:13 AM  
Blogger Mary said...

Beautifull written, Ruth, and fascinating. I am particularly interested in your point about the French emphasis on a soloist's training - something I hadn't taken on board.

I wonder if this might explain why so many of the great organists have been French - surely a soloist's instrument if ever there was one.

12:56 AM  
Blogger ruth said...

mary i didn't know about french organists being great....

moose, no sane musician can not have listened to Stevie Wonder (not to mention salif keita or joni mitchell or a thousand others. I was a particular fan of david cassidy when I was young but we can let that one go I guess!!!); in less silly cultures they sensibly don't divide up their musicians or their music.

8:59 AM  
Blogger Mary said...

Ruth: I have to admit it's anecdotal evidence only. I knew an American church organist in Paris who was advised in the US to study in France because that was where the teaching was best if he wanted to study at an advanced level. So he did, and actually relocated completely.

But I must raise my hands and confess to being no great authority on the subject. I did enjoy your post though.:-)

10:14 AM  

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