While the world is burning, I play the fiddle

orchestra.jpgAn old friend of mine called on a saturday morning, looking for me. But he was told that I was at my regular violin lessons that I started taking few months ago. So he said: “ah ah, so while the world is burning Massimo plays the fiddle!” Indeed, I am, and while I do that I live in another world, and think about its dissonance or parallels with our daily lives.

I have joined the East London Late Starters Orchestra last October, few months after I bought myself a cheap violin.The orchestra is an amazing community. It was set up about 25 years ago, a student run training orchestra for those who pick up an instrument late in life. Tutors-conductors are kind, enthusiastic and very communicative of their own individual approach to music, conducting and technique. I am learning much more than few tunes on the violin.

The first thing I learned playing in an orchestra is what keeps us, the players, together. When I timidly entered for the first time with my violin in the hall where the ensemble class was taking place, I found myself facing about 40-50 people already ready in front of their stands looking at their sheet music. The conductor looked at me and said aloud: “so, another violin . . .good . . .1st violin? 2nd violin? .. .” I said “no no, last,very last violin”. . .the class laughed and I was sent to the back of the 2nd violins, but simply because there was a chair available.

Then the conductor raised his arm and 1, 2, 3…we play…I mean, I could barely read music very slowly one note at a time!!! And, there I was, I was supposed to read first sight a Thaicovsky piece while playing my part in an orchestra?!? Few seconds into the music, I realised that I was not alone in this problematic condition. .. the music developed with chaotic dissonance, yet our conductor was gently and calmly keeping waiving his arm, reminding us of the pulse of the piece: 1, 2, 3 . . .and while playing I was looking at my colleagues next to me, we smiled, aware of the embarrassing sound we were producing . . . few minutes into the piece, the conductor stopped, and said: “good, not bad,not bad” .. — I could not believe it, it had been horrible! — and he added: “only one problem, has anybody heard the melody?” We laughed.

We were told that it was not because we were not playing the melody that we did not hear it, but because we were not playing it together. Our rhythm keeping was not good, we were not feeling the pulse of the piece. The entire piece falls apart, if we do not feel the pulse together. “Do not worry if you do not hit the right note . . . worry instead whether you are not keeping the same rhythm” . I could not believe it! It wasn’t that bad thing to miss a note (then I realised that for the orchestra as a whole it was important the pitch of the average note, not of the individual one, and the more trained the orchestra, the smallest the deviations among notes).

From there on, and in the weeks that followed, I kept hearing of the importance of rhythm, and of how rhythm is literally produced in an orchestra. So I started to reflect on this.

For what I could gather, there are four elements in the production of rhythm in an orchestra. First, there is the conductor. One of his roles is to be the rhythm standard, our reference point. The rule of our positioning in the orchestra wants that wherever we sit, we should be able to see the conductor at the corner of our sight, so as we could always see her hands waiving telling us what beat we are at that moment. In this regard - and only in this — the conductor does not really conducts (meaning there is no intentional interpretation in this function, apart from few possible ending bars). She acts as a metronome. She is simply expressing the pulse of the piece through her body for us to see, the pulse we have to feel in our bodies too. And this is the second element of the production of rhythm in an orchestra: our bodies feeling the pulse: 1, 2, 3 . . .the same pulse that the conductor is expressing.

Indeed, string players in an orchestra are not supposed to tap the rhythm with their feet, not even in disguise, hidden by the shoe, shall we move our toes. No, the pulse has literally to pass through us, making us vibrate, modulate our muscles, nerves, and tissues. We must breath with the pulse. And perhaps our fingers will not follow on the strings, or the hands may get clumsy while holding the bow, because we lack in technique, as novice in the activity of string learning playing. And that can only be dealt with exercise, repetition, there is no other way. Yet, there are no excuses in so far feeling the pulse is concerned. That is a state of mind, that is an attitude.

That relation between us feeling the rhythm (and playing accordingly) and the conductor waiving her arms in time is not one of mutual adjustment. The conductor might be wrong in keeping the rhythm, but she still is our reference point, someone we look up to, if we really are uncertain about our rhythm keeping. Someone who can give us confidence in overcoming an instant of uncertainty. In so far as her metronome function in concerned, she could be replaced by a machine. But the relation between my fellow musicians sitting next to me, and me, that is a far more interesting relation, and this is the third element in the production of rhythm. I hear the violin on my right, and I hear the viola on my left. I hear the cellos further down, and I hear the double bass up there. And, to a variety of degrees, they can hear me. Our hearing each other is also what allows (or should allow) the art of mutual adjustment of our outward manifestation of the pulse (which is exposed to the friction of playing a mechanical instrument amplified by our lack of technique). Through this ongoing mutual adjustment — the modulations of which are shorter the more skilful are the players — the orchestra members act as a swarm, continuously recreating the center of gravity of their social cooperation through web-like feedback processes, creating the common around which their community of music producers is built, giving rise to a cohesive flow of music.

This common is the rhythm of the piece, which ultimately is what will allow the tonal instrumental, melodic and harmonic differences of the individual players to be meaningfully recognised and therefore valued. Rhythm is the canvas that the tonal, melodic and harmonic colours all share. However, it is a sharing that is not a given, but is itself an act of co-production.

For a novice like me, the recognition of the importance of rhythm also comes with the awareness of an individual musician attitude to score reading, and this is the fourth element of the production of rhythm. As relatively new to score reading training, in my guitar days I always approached a piece of music looking at individual notes first, one by one, making sure I could get the right one. But I was told instead that the proper way to approach a score, is through bloc reading, one or more bars at a time, depending on the speed of the music. This way, we have a sense of the rhythm, because rhythm is a relation among notes. Tunnel vision focused on individual notes also promotes insecure emotional states in the musicians, facilitating a sense of panic. Wider vision instead, allow us to be more in control of ourselves, to better modulate our relation to others musicians and the ensemble, in that it allows to see patterns in music, recurrences and oddities, anticipation, preparation and releases. I could not avoid to think about modern education, and its emphasis on narrow and measurable “learning objectives”, one by one, as if we were to read the score of life we are playing a part into with a tunnel vision,and hence turn into neurotic and anxious life musicians.

So, while the world is burning, I also play the fiddle…and playing the fiddle with others teaches me that there must be a rhythmical reason explaining the burning of the world: the world metronome is accelerating under the compulsion of more pervasive competitive markets and money making; our adapting to the accelerating rhythm of competition is not a source of reassurance, but further anxiety; to the extent we engage in this market rhythms our mutual relations as co-producers of our worlds is competitive and destructive; while we are encouraged to develop a tunnel vision with which we read, value and interpret the life-score we are contributing to compose only as instrument of competition, not of critique, overcoming and positing of the new. In other words, we are playing the wrong rhythm, we are constructing the wrong commons! These are those in which our differences are valued only to the extent they succeed in threatening someone else livelihoods (and hence de-valueing others, our competitors). The wrong commons definitively!

Comments are closed.