Playing A Violin With Three Strings
By Jack Riemer
On Nov.18, 1995, Itzhak Perlman, the violinist, came on stage to give a concert at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center in New York City. If you have ever been to a Perlman concert, you know that getting on stage is no small achievement for him. He was stricken with polio as a child, and so he has braces on both legs and walks with the aid of two crutches. To see him walk across the stage one step at a time, painfully and slowly, is an awesome sight.
He walks painfully, yet majestically, until he reaches his chair. Then he sits down, slowly, puts his crutches on the floor, undoes the clasps on his legs, tucks one foot back and extends the other foot forward. Then he bends down and picks up the violin, puts it under his chin, nods to the conductor and proceeds to play. By now, the audience is used to this ritual. They sit quietly while he makes his way across the stage to his chair. They remain reverently silent while he undoes the >clasps on his legs. They wait until he is ready to play.
But this time, something went wrong. Just as he finished the first few bars, one of the strings on his violin broke. You could hear it snap - it went off like gunfire across the room. There was no mistaking what that sound meant. There was no mistaking what he had to do. We figured that he would have to get up, put on the clasps again, pick up the crutches and limp his way off stage - to either find another violin or else find another string for this one. But he didn't. Instead, he waited a moment, closed his eyes and then signaled the conductor to begin again. The orchestra began, and he played from where he had left off. And he played with such passion and such power and such purity as they had never heard before.
Of course, anyone knows that it is impossible to play a symphonic work with just three strings. I know that, and you know that, but that night Itzhak Perlman refused to know that. You could see him modulating, changing, re-composing the piece in his head. At one point, it sounded like he was de-tuning the strings to get new sounds from them that they had never made before. When he finished, there was an awesome silence in the room. And then people rose and cheered. There was an extraordinary outburst of applause from every corner of the auditorium. We were all on our feet, screaming and cheering, doing everything we could to show how much we appreciated what he had done.
He smiled, wiped the sweat from his brow, raised his bow to quiet us, and then he said - not boastfully, but in a quiet, pensive, reverent tone - "You know, sometimes it is the artist's task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left."
What a powerful line that is. It has stayed in my mind ever since I heard it. And who knows? Perhaps that is the definition of life - not just for artists but for all of us. Here is a man who has prepared all his life to make music on a violin of four strings, who, all of a sudden, in the middle of a concert, finds himself with only three strings; so he makes music with three strings, and the music he made that night with just three strings was more beautiful, more sacred, more memorable, than any that he had ever made before, when he had four strings.
So, perhaps our task in this shaky, fast-changing, bewildering world in which we live is to make music, at first with all that we have, and then, when that is no longer possible, to make music with what we have left.
From the heart
By Vangelis (with Michael Bond)
This article appeared in Ode issue: #12 - April 2004
What does it feel like to make music? Is composition a structured process, or is it always instinctive and irrational? Here the Greek composer Vangelis, most famous for writing the scores for the films Blade Runner and Chariots of Fire (for which he won an Oscar), explains how he does it.
Music, for me, is not just about notes. It is about everything. Music exists before we exist. It is the shaper of the universe. It is the universe itself. It is the primary vibration, the first thing that moves everything else. People understand the language of music, whether they are composers or not. We do not necessarily need to learn it. We need rather to remember it, for it is part of us. It is deep in our memory.
More and more, I feel I had tremendous luck not to go to music school. I do not read or write music, and I do not believe I need to. I am not against formal training, and there are some extraordinary trained musicians. But music schools do not necessarily teach music. They teach you how to interpret certain things, how to read and write. They teach you a repertoire. Yet music is more fundamental and deeper than that. You do not learn in music school, for example, the essence behind the notes, that each note is an entity in its own right. Each note can be a galaxy. The main reason I feel this, the reason music became the main language for me to understand the world around me, is because I was not taught in the conventional way, which can close doors instead of opening them. From the age of four I learned to let myself go, and in this way learned the fundamental language and function of music.
I compose spontaneously. I try to capture the music without the influence of reasoning or the possibility of alteration. The only way to achieve this is not to think. Thought is a tool of analysis. It cannot be a tool of creation. The crucial thing is to get away from thought and analysis and create as much as possible without subjectivity and misplaced ego, to be absent as much as possible, to be detached from your environment – to be totally “available.” To analyze something, you first have to create it. This, it seems to me, is the natural order.
When the music comes raw like this, it is closer to the truth of the moment. When I touch the keyboard, I do not have to know what is going to happen. There is definitely a reason why I play a particular thing and not something else, but I do not try to analyze that. Often after I have created something, I will walk away and leave it and will not come back to check it, sometimes for months, in order to eliminate any possible attachment.
Of course, when I am writing a score for a film, the situation is different. You cannot use the spontaneous approach in quite the same way. You have to get inspired by what you see, and to take that as a starting point. You have to try to work like a magnifying glass, to bring to people what the pictures cannot completely say and then extend it to something deeper. The emotion I am trying to get across is not all mine. It has to be compatible with what the director of the film is trying to communicate. It is a collaboration.
It is a very interesting exercise, though it is a different approach to my usual one. I do it because I need to. I have to do things like record albums and write film scores in order to build my studio, to buy my equipment, to function. Nevertheless, it is still possible to be truly creative within this kind of structure. All my life I have practiced the spontaneous approach, so it does get through when I have to do something to order, like write a film score. These things come instinctively. Normally when I am writing a score, I play while I'm watching the film. Most of the time, as with Chariots of Fire, Blade Runner and 1492 - Conquest of Paradise, I write it on the first take. What you hear is my very first impression. I always try to be as quick as possible, and not to think, even then.
Music is so powerful, it can change everything about a film. It can change everything about everything. It can be therapeutic or it can be destructive. And we have to be very careful when looking at the effect of music on people because people can interpret music in very personal, subjective ways. You can play someone a piece of music and see them react in a very positive or negative way. This is not always because of the music itself. It may be because the music is triggering a memory of a happy or unhappy period in someone's life.