Yikes. Are we all still here? Just like last week, I advocated on your behalf to That Random Guy. This time, I utilized the law to try to get him to stop. I filed motions against him for Assault against the Ear, Battery against the Senses, Murder of the Intellect, Intent to Kill Murder of the Finer Things in Life, Homicide against the Artistic Tastes, Reckless and Dangerous Conduct against Musicians Everywhere, and more. None of them worked. What is more, I enlisted critics to review his first two performances and try to get public opinion swayed against That Random Guy. However, I discovered that public opinion is already so adverse to the musical rampages of That Random Guy that it isn’t actually possible to make them any more so. So – and I hate to say this – but we have to go through another week of this carnage.
The third and fourth pieces on the program were the Grave from the Sonata in A Minor by Bach and the Gigue from the Partita in E Major by Bach. As you might know from earlier emails, Bach is known for writing a very famous set of six sonatas and partitas for the solo violin. These works are the bedrock of the violin repertoire. You might be wondering why I chose to perform two seemingly random movements from two entirely different sonatas. The logic behind choosing these two works was based on wanting to give the audience an appropriate taste of the breadth of Bach’s violin compositions. I felt that they showcased the two broad characteristics of the sonatas as a whole – on one hand majestic and brooding, on the other hand light-hearted and expressive. I also took into consideration the fact that, in a recital, there isn’t usually time for a long fugue or chaconne and listeners are more apt to enjoy shorter samplings.
I thought it might interest you to hear a bit about how I prepare Bach’s music for a performance. While not extremely demanding on the technical side, Bach’s music is extraordinarily difficult to play at a high level. The solo violin is alone and exposed, the chords Bach writes can sometimes be gnarly, and the purity of sound that his music requires is next to impossible. The violin must imitate a harpsichord, organ, lute, choir, and trumpet at different points (all of which were instruments commonly used in Bach’s day). Above all, the sound that is created must be completely free of tension. This requires that the musician’s body be completely free of tension, which is a lifelong task that only a few of the greatest legends have every accomplished. I have found that the best way to attack Bach’s music is in stages, with each stage lasting about four to six weeks (although I’ve spent months in one stage before, particularly on some of his very long Fugues. The first stage is, of course, learning the notes and mastering the technical aspects of the piece. One of the primary focal points in this process is the transitions between notes, which should be a seamless as possible. The goal is to have a sound like a laser – never-ending and constantly full. Each transition, particularly when going from one large chord to another, is analyzed and practiced in order to connect the sound perfectly. In the end, every single note in the piece is programmed into your muscle memory so that the sound becomes as seamless as possible. This stage also requires training the left hand to fit around the chords and notes in the most efficient way possible, a process that requires slow, careful practice and a merciless ear for proper intonation. The second stage involves removing the body from the music. In short, I literally lift my head off of the instrument, removing any possibility for tension throughout the neck and shoulders, and practice every nook and cranny of the piece in this way. Then I remove the thumb on my left hand to eliminate any possibility of tension in my fingering hand and repeat the process. This is a tedious process, but purity of sound is only possible when the body is totally relaxed. The third and final step is the fascinating mental component of “pre-hearing,” as I call it. This process is the longest and most difficult (but also the most rewarding) aspect of learning any piece. It begins by taking only a single measure and hearing it in your head. I challenge myself to hear every single millisecond of the phrase – every transition from note to note, every nook and cranny that can be filled with sound, the perfect intonation of every chord and note, the movement and direction of the phrase as a whole, the interplay of mini and half phrases amidst the larger phrase, and much, much more. I usually have to hear each measure over 20 times in order to mentally walk through every possible aspect of it. Each time I hear the measure in my head, I attempt to play that measure exactly as I heard it. This usually takes multiple attempts as well. Perhaps you can now see how I could practice for ten hours a day and only make it through a few bars of a Bach sonata. This process then grows to hearing the entire phrase and trying to play that. In the end, the goal is to be hearing – ahead of time – the music that you are about to play while simultaneously playing the music that you just mentally interpreted. This is the true meaning of musical interpretation – not some ethereal emotionality that stems from a superficial sense of “beauty,” but a deep understanding of every single aspect of the piece that has tested every possibility and has the capability to do anything with the music. In this way, a musician truly can perform Bach with a completely different interpretation every single day.
The process above is one that most musicians have not grasped. I was blessed to be able to catch a glimpse of it. The great violinists of the past – Heifetz, Oistrakh, Milstein, Kreisler, etc – could do this kind of in-the-moment interpretation without even thinking. Today’s violinists are sadly less capable, and only a few can truly do this (Hilary Hahn, Augustin Hadelich, Leonidas Kavakos, and Ray Chen are definitely worth listening to). All too often, Bach is played like Brahms (a broiling pot of emotional madness) or Telemann (a tinny and disconnected washout), so avoid listening to musicians like Anne-Sophie Mutter, Shomo Mintz, Ilya Gringolts, and others like them.