Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Viola Dreaming

Inspired by a variety of factors--my recent return to the stage, a general desire for something meaningful in life--I played my viola yesterday for the first time in two years. The last time I took it out of its case was at the end of my first quarter here in Los Angeles, when for a seminar we put together a small amateur performance of a few scenes from an eighteenth-century opera-comique.

The poor old guy is in good shape, luckily enough. I couldn't find any rosin, and the A string I have on there is a cheap brand that I must have put on as a last-minute replacement, but everything else was just as I had left it. The same stickers and cartoons were taped up on the inside ("Stop the Violins!"), my trusty folding chinrest, the same mechanical grey pencil I used to make notes for much of my time at Wesleyan. There was even a program in the pocket of the case from the last "real" concert I played in, a premiere of a string quartet by Justin Yang, then a grad student at Wesleyan. It was an extraordinarily difficult concert, physically. One of the movements was almost forty-five minutes of holding one note in a long sustain. It was also an emotionally difficult work. The piece was about violence, specifically school shootings. Overlaid on top of our live playing was taped excerpts of interviews with survivors of the shootings. Some of them were very hard to listen to. Justin was quite religious, I recall, and I believe the last movement with the enormous prolonged sustain was supposed to enact catharsis of a sort. To be honest, it kind of worked. Rehearsals were difficult, but during that one performance I was entranced enough with the sound of the chord that I didn't mind the passing of time.

So anyways, back to my viola. I played for a little bit, although I made the rather stupid choice to launch into a difficult piece and was rewarded with instant muscle cramps, pains that were immediately familiar even if I hadn't felt them for a long time. My fingers still knew what to do, however. Some of the pieces I used to play, especially the older ones, are permanently burned into my muscles, and I don't think I'll ever be able to shake them. Other pieces, like the more difficult ones I worked on during the year I took lessons at Wesleyan, were a bit harder to pick right up again.

I don't know how I feel about being a musician and a musicologist. One of the things we musicologists always gripe about when we are together is the standard question asked whenever we tell people what our occupation is: "oh, so what instrument do you play?" In those situations, I often refuse to admit to playing anything, since describing myself as a non-musician is closer to the truth than calling myself a musician. Certainly I wouldn't now be a musicologist if I hadn't once been a musician. But part of being a musicologist is being intensely critical of music-making, especially your own. When my closest friend has two degrees from Juilliard, it is hard to say that I do anything similar! I'm more extreme than most about this, and certainly my own department tries to encourage us to continue performing, but the reality of the field is that few of us still consider ourselves musicians. We know too much to say that without irony.

It's a schizophrenic position. We owe our careers to our own history of performing, and our careers (for many of us) keep us from performing with any seriousness ever again. Our--I should say "my," I suppose--playing music becomes intensely private, as if ashamed of itself. An English professor draws upon a lifetime of enjoying reading to be able! But musicologists draw upon a lifetime of performing music

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