Uncertainty

For years I explained to my cello students the art of overcoming uncertainty on an instrument whose bowing and fingering parameters don’t seem to have precise boundaries. The bowed instrument beginner should anticipate the geometry of hand-position shifts within a continuum of infinite possibilities. For many students, an upward octave shift on the A string becomes a leap into the void: cold sweats, trembling bows, frowning faces and, in most cases, a slippery note ending in painful approximation. “Uncertainty in the upward left-hand shifts” was one of my invariable conclusions in the classes I gave in an old painter’s studio – a glass box with a tin roof sitting atop an old building in Caracas’s Bosque Sans Soucí.

One afternoon, while spotting the inevitable hole for the cello spike in the vinyl floor, a student showed me a patch of light. “Professor, your roof has a puncture.” Indeed, precisely between my legs was the dot of a sunray I had never noticed. We looked for the bullet. Among a pile of old paintings, there it was, a 9mm, flattened by its impact on the tin roof. The vinyl tile had a trace of the projectile in front of my chair. As I always sat in the same place during classes, the bullet would have pierced my skull had I been giving a cello lesson at the time of the shot. From then on, we didn’t just talk about uncertainty in upward hand-position shifts. A few weeks later there appeared another hole in a corner of the room. What really annoyed me about these holes was not the leaks that would flood the place but the pellets raining from the sky. By 2002 I had left teaching to devote myself to making music in a forest exile, trading the certainty of a regular income in lead for no certainty of an income at all.

I remember the black film classic The Ladykillers, in which gangsters disguised as a string quintet leased an apartment. To avoid suspicion, they played classical records as they planned their crimes. The ladies of the neighborhood, delighted by such artistic tenants, saw them going in and out with their instrument cases, where, of course, they carried their submachine guns. Now, some of our musicians have to do exactly the opposite to avoid suspicion: appear to be armed thugs in order to walk our unsafe streets, wearing sunglasses and leather gloves and handling their instrument cases with gangster style to make it to rehearsals alive.

We could be reaching a showdown in Venezuela, an opposition between juvenile delinquency and youth’s musical practice on a massive scale. Imagine an exchange: weapons for musical instruments within an educational structure. One of the most important branches of our System of Youth Orchestras [El Sistema] is working on crucial projects in prisons. I remember the pioneering work of a good friend, Manuel Mijares, who founded a pilot orchestra over a decade ago in the now-extinct Los Chorros correctional institution in Caracas. His greatest challenge: overcoming the fear to teach violent adolescent delinquents to overcome their personal uncertainties. They were all transformed by daily orchestral practice. Orchestras can be a radical treatment for juvenile delinquency.

Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland

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Musical Africa

Africa, whose art forms have revolutionized the visual arts, music, and dance of 20th-century humanity, is musically an unknown continent. Like the maps of slave traders that showed only the slim lines of the African coast, the knowledge the rest of the world has of its immense legacy is shamefully superficial. Incapable of communicating the subtleties but profiting greedily from the rhythms, pop music has significantly reduced the fabulous conceptual and organological material of a continent whose cultural treasures are hidden behind the veil of material poverty.

I remember the most famous groove of an album from Radio France’s Ocora collection, featuring music of the Ba Ben Zelé pygmies: the simple song of a girl alternating in syncopation with a leaf whistle that she blew with perfect regularity. A surprising moment of genesis, a musical dawn, a meeting of rhythm and breath that becomes a form of dance; a dialogue between the syncopated human voice and the constant pulse of nature made into instrument.

From there we jump to the master drummers of Burundi, where a homogenous army of giant tumblers executes in unison the orders of a conductor who instructs the group with an improvised sequence of mimicry. The monumental sound is like the tap dancing of elephants. From Nigeria we have the most electrifying dance in the world, accompanied by the sublime Batá polyrhythmic orchestra whose sudden shifts in musical meter reveal hidden folds of time, rhythmic equations intelligible to our Caribbean onomatopoeia. Listening to the tubular harp of Madagascar – the valiha – with rattle and song, we feel a similar inexplicable familiarity – it is almost the same as the harps from the Tuy region south of Caracas. The island’s impressive ethnic diversity shows its greatest intensity in the music of the Bara, masters of hyper-speed. And we mustn’t forget the kora – the giant-gourd harp of Senegal; the oud – a fretless bandola (the tenor mandolin of the Colombo-Venezuelan plains) that covers the huge arc extending from Sudan to Morocco; the South African sanza or the talking drum of the griots, fantastic troubadours and cultural messengers; the xylophones of Equatorial Guinea speaking tonal languages; the Mongo vocal polyphonies from the deep jungles of the Congo, as elaborate as Renaissance polyphony.

Paradoxically, this image of musical Africa was crystallized in Europe (Borges said the idea of Europe was created in America) with the 1960s ethnomusicological recordings of Ocora, Folkways, and others that left us samples of the fabulous cultures that industrialized countries were destroying. We could compare this situation with the scene in Fellini’s Roma where the excavators of the metro discover Roman frescoes and invite a television crew to film the event, and before the cameras, the polluted air attacks the paintings, erasing the images forever in a macabre breeze. The microphones of the investigators in Africa captured rituals that would never again be seen, instruments now forgotten. They recorded songs and exclamations of troubadours that have disappeared, of ethnic groups that have been exterminated or crushed by poverty in the dramatic African acculturation. These lost cultures were far more valuable than all the diamonds, uranium, petroleum, wood, and blood. True appraisals always come too late.

Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland

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Plato vs. MP3

Today, recorded music has the attributes of divinity: perfection (digital editions erased all flaws), ubiquity (the archives are everywhere and nowhere at the same time), intangibility (they no longer have a physical body), immortality (copiable ad infinitum), omniscience (music collections are now complete, and there is no time to listen to them), and, as with divinity, it is no longer lucrative unless a cult or church finds a way to charge for cathedral echoes and lighting equipment. Sound archives expose the defects of their attributes better than the gods. Like a life-term president who feels no urgency to carry out anything at all, we feel no hurry to listen to what we store (in many cases without paying more than the time it takes to copy it). We have the illusion of eternity in our hands.

One of the defects of immortality is banalization, destruction of the emotion of the irreversible. Before the record, a magical, unrepeatable halo surrounded musical execution, without metaphor: the Appearance and Death of sounds. Composing was the first step in the fight to tie that fragile butterfly to the stave and speculate on frozen time. Even so, scores depend on the art of interpretation, which is transmitted orally like any musical tradition and preserves the fragility of that which is unique and perishable. The record arrived, and musicians felt they could at last capitalize on what was previously vanishing from their hands. They wrote their new artistic and economic history in vinyl grooves whose imperfections still made live music irreplaceable. In the 1950s, values were reversed: the stage burst into living rooms, where hi-fi eliminated reasons to go and hear live versions subject to the risk of error, to the point that performers felt unusual pressure to sing and play better than sound equipment. To top it all, fictitious music in virtual spaces was birthed in the recording studio, and it was unrepeatable live.

Archival deterioration seems to be the solution both for the music business and for emotional health: a native virus that progressively scratches recordings. I remember the spirit that reigned in the era of the vinyl record: you bought only the latest, and this keepsake was the cutting edge of creation, a wave of unstoppable progress. The old record, if it was very good, was necessarily scratched. Today, we are condemned to a flawless “Let It Be” or Pink Floyd’s “Money” for all eternity – a new form of hell. Classical music is spared by eternal repetition of old recordings because the repertoire is constantly revisited by new performers, especially when creative currents of contemporary composition go astray. One of the most paradoxical of Plato’s passages (Phaedrus, 274E) is where Socrates polemicizes, opposing, in the benefits of writing, precisely the defects of its main attribute – the potentially eternal storage of ideas: “Well this invention will bring forth oblivion in the souls of those who learn it, for they will neglect the cultivation of memory…” The same can be said of the toxicity of the universal archive of recorded music. The creative spirit of musicians is kept alive precisely by the deterioration of all traces of the past. Much of creation is in trying to recover the remembered stature of what was lost. Plato versus MP3.

Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland

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Cultural Selection

The Spanish Empire took pains to build a colonial system with no room for intellectual or industrial development. Everything was forbidden: gatherings, travel between provinces, free trade, printing, and above all, reading books. (There was no printing press in Venezuela throughout almost the entire colonial period – books arrived with chapters removed and whole paragraphs crossed out.) It was forbidden to make things and even to think of designing ways to make them. (Any resemblance to Cuba is mere coincidence.) Venezuela’s microscopic social mobility occurred only in military or ecclesiastical institutions, dialectical deserts. The university was a scholastic dinosaur, and law, the only viable career, could not be exercised because of procedural labyrinths. In every other province, particularly the viceroyships, Mexicans, Peruvians, Colombians found loopholes to be able to exercise that indestructible faculty: thought, whose freedom gives rise to arts and crafts. In Venezuela, a simple province, the relative poverty of the soil, the absence of minerals, the parched and indomitable natural world, barely allowed the survival of miniscule communities practically without schooling or industry. Fortunately for musical development here, there was no other way to exercise thought in the leisure hours. Music became the only spiritual source where development was allowed and even stimulated by very specific cultural and economic factors.

Our ports were the first stop on terra firma in the route of the trade winds, which meant that Caracas was the stopover for great celebrations just a few hours from the port of La Guaira, unlike Bogotá, which was located weeks or months of travel from Cartagena. Recently alighted travelers, rich or poor, had no option but to celebrate having survived the dangerous crossing; the circumstances obligated the unpacking of fine liquors, merchandise, and gifts. By good fortune, local society was perfectly trained to provide the greatest welcome and to consume the recently imported victuals. Music was the most important piece of this structure of taking advantage of the happiness of travelers, which lasted a few days before they landed in hard colonial reality. Once the victim was trapped, joyful noise, dancing, drunkenness, and seduction were the weapons of the Venezuelan after a long wait and the hurried organizing of a party to attract the traveler. The musical ingredients of mestizo culture were exquisitely honed by centuries of selection and experience in the development of the fiesta: joyful fandangos with harps and guitars, drums and antiphonal song, zapateo and proud verses, sentimental songs performed by beautiful women. Everyone knew the precise steps of a seduction that guaranteed, more than the passing consumption of perishable gifts, the consolidation of a community of selected immigrants who left the welcoming party immediately connected to social networks, measured and catalogued by their economic or political power. Venezuelan social spontaneity comes with music, with the fiesta of talented improvisers. No other province of the Spanish Empire had a confluence of circumstances so focused on perfecting the art of the party and selecting the greatest talents in the only free trade allowed: music.

Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland

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Justus von Schoffel

My favorite composer? Schoffel, incontestably. Nobody in the car had heard of him; no doubt they thought I was being too precious. Since the beginning, Schoffel has always been full of surprises; it’s his transitions, the art of compressing history, of plunging into the deep and then suddenly elevating us into the most vertiginous thermals of the atmosphere. “Do you have anything by him here?” Of course – it’s all I listen to. We connect my iPod: he begins with a Gregorian chant of surprising purity, followed by the voices of a Renaissance opera. Such mastery! It seems authentic! We continue listening. “That’s Monteverdi – don’t tease us!” No, no – listen… Ray Charles performs the second movement – impeccable choral singers, the swing of Baptist tabernacles. In the third movement, after a little guitar intro, “La mucura taenel suelo mama no pueeedo con ella…” I know that song! Silence. Now he launches a three-voice ricercare in A minor on the spinet – unsurpassable. Finally, a dagger to the heart: excerpts of a pompous minimalist opera over Egyptian themes; musical lassitude becomes mockery. “Turn it off! Wait – there are 6,000 more movements!”

I understand. It is discouraging for any composer to listen to a work that is so extensive, so diverse; to feel the many nuances of worlds visited with such perfection, such confidence of design and interpretation. Schoffel says it all. Why bother trying anything else? Not to mention the dedication with which so many performers study his scores, caressing him in their dreams. What remains for the rest of the creators? Is this prodigy real, or is he just a signature, as Borges suggested when he said that no individual was capable of writing all the works registered in Bach’s name? I am convinced that he is a mirage. Since I dropped my iPod and the screen went white I no longer see the titles of his works. It seems impossible to me that the same creature who crafted 48 preludes and fugues would later (or earlier) compose “Mariantonia tuestás loca déjate de ton-te-rias” (“Mariantonia You’re Crazy Stop Your Non-sense”). However, there is a certain fascination in the possibility that this is a single composer, as capable as Pierre Ménard was of rewriting Don Quixote word for word; a master whose infinite virtue lies not in the capacity to replicate all the music of humanity but to recombine it, creating transitions that are melancholy, ridiculous, or sublime, revealing the trajectories of musical thought, how it would require progress or recession, emphasizing contrasts. The humility of an African pygmy song with grass whistles follows, strikingly, an opera fragment by a sort of Messiaen in his vain attempt to move us with an oversized orchestra that doesn’t fit in the pit. Schoffel also reveals the DNA shared by Scarlatti’s harpsichord, the tuyero harp of Fulgencio Aquino, and the valiha – the tubular harp of Madagascar. The gamelan of Bali faces Webern’s miniatures; the collective collides with the highly personal. In the Schoffel collider we no longer see the music of the world in its various isolated bubbles; during the silence between pieces, we feel the immensely powerful questions that culture shock releases. (Forgive me – I meant “Shuffle.”)

Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland

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Montero Superstar

“Hello Radio Warsaw. What are these unknown works of our Frédéric?” asked the Poles during a live broadcast of a 1995 Gabriela Montero recital, when she won third prize in the Chopin Piano Competition. (Martha Argerich, president of the jury, had voted for the first prize for the prodigious pianist.) These were not the works of Chopin – they were the improvisations of Gabriela, the only person in the world capable of spontaneously channeling the heights of the geniuses she dares to clone in public. Pasticcio and imitation are common – many pianists are capable of making us believe that what they improvise is an authentic work, but their imposture does not survive the moment. To confuse an audience in Chopin’s native country for the entire second half of a recital is a feat of another level. To extend his catalog of works postmortem is magic.

The capacity to infiltrate the intimate codes of great composers and produce highly interesting new content in real time, constructed like calculated compositions, is shaking the foundations of the conventional classical concert around the world. These are not some little tricks. Last year, in one of the great halls of Boston, we heard Gabriela create a Bach-style toccata based on a theme proposed by an audience member: exposition, transitions, developments, variations, recapitulation, and conclusion within the most eloquent harmonic discourse, with sublime polyphonies played at high speed without stumbling. An insensitive person might question the artistic value of such a prodigy: is it redundant to create works in styles of the past that possibly are no longer capable of moving us emotionally? Is it creation? Here is precisely where creation is redefined. Gabriela’s gift opens conceptual avenues that supersede the problem. The fact that she uses languages of the past does not mean she cannot travel to the future as well, or find something new to say in a classical idiom. The certainty that history has one sole meaning is replaced by the amazement of rediscovering the sacred fountain where all the greats quenched their thirst; an inexhaustible Borgesian Aleph, vertiginous in its timelessness – a fountain that taxidermist musical institutions tried to monopolize, that merchants of embalmed versions bottled and distributed, that academic tyrannies analyzed and categorized into one sole meaning. Jazz and church organ traditions kept improvisation alive while “classical” music lay in a state of coma. Now we see a phenomenon comparable to the effect of Gustavo Dudamel on concerts everywhere: the rebirth of heated creation in a medium as frigid as the piano recital, where improvisation was the custom until the end of the 19th century and even up to Poulenc. The whole meaning of written repertoire, of the act of playing and composing music frozen in scores, should be revised. A written work is not devalued in the face of improvisation, but we certainly listen to it in a different way when we hear beside it the impromptus of the magnitude that Gabriela Montero invents. Venezuela is transforming music around the world. We will soon study the history of its collective talent.

Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland

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Herder and Watunna

Ever since indigenous voices infiltrated the stanzas of Juan de Castellanos, embellishing with multicolored phonetics his “Elegies on the Illustrious Gentlemen of the Indies,” written in Tunja, Colombia at the end of the 16th century, many writers have sought to represent New World cultures in their poetic or musical works. The signature of an individual claiming authorship at the foot of a work differentiates it irrevocably from the magical collective river of indigenous traditions, but does not prohibit the artistic use, through transpositions and transfigurations, of all the magnificent paraphernalia and materials of the indigenous cultures of the Americas. The result will be measured by the rod of aesthetics and not by assertions of authenticity.

The use of lexicons and texts became a game with the resources of indigenous music. Current examples abound, from the elegant work of Thierry Pécou – a French composer of Antillean origin associated with IRCAM (the Institute of Acoustic and Musical Research and Coordination in Paris), who works with the group Yaki Kandru, who specialize in instruments of the Amazon, producing musical scores of great subtlety of timbre – to the most conceptual work of Beatriz Bilbao centered on the Yekuana maracas, or the high refinement of Gabriela Ortiz’s Nahuatl songs. There is also a whole spectrum of transpositions that take us to the other extreme: pieces such as Andrés Levell’s intense and effective string quartet Trance that do not explicitly employ ethnic elements, but suggest the effects of shamanism.

Today (March 7, 2010) at 11am in Anna Julia Rojas Hall in Caracas, Venezuelan composer Adrián Suárez premieres his symphonic work Watunna, performed by the National Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Maestro Juan Carlos Nuñez. The composer states that to guarantee the authenticity of his piece, he will count on the presence of shamans who will link us to Yekwana mythology. It is certainly worthwhile to know the culture of these master artisans and navigators of the River Caura, whose basin is being destroyed by a gold fever that nobody can control. We do not know Suárez’s Watunna yet, but its presentation reproduces the discourse of the first German Romantics, Herder in particular, who saw in their ancestral mythology the foundation of a great movement that opposed the Cult of Reason and the universality of science at the end of the Age of Enlightenment. “The recited sacred songs that overlap the orchestra attempt to focus our attention on the messages of celestial language, legacies of the Ancient Ones,” writes Suárez. They are undoubtedly the same words, the same localist spirits reacting in a similar way against the global forces that raze the memory of villages in their diversity. But there are two ways to understand ethnic traditions. One is the study of their values – the way of Vico, pioneer of mythological studies; the other is the unlawful, imaginary theft that builds myth upon foreign myth, with the illusion of the primitive purity of the original race. A subtle thread connects the discourse of Herder to that of Hitler, but in Romanticism, certain voices stood out, learning to spin their own discourse without falling into the illusion of purity, invoking instead the subconscious ambiguities that are the cradle of mythology. We hope that Watunna will be in the sphere of Novalis and Schumann; remember that history repeats itself. Please attend.

Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland

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Windows

There is an inexplicable gap between the opera buffa performed by the principal voices of Venezuela’s political power and the opera seria crafted in the ranks of an institution such as our National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras [El Sistema], now celebrating its 35th year. It is as if we are looking at two different countries, with a combo of improvisers playing on the deck of a cultural shipwreck on one side, and on the other, a crew that persistently refines its ship without veering off course, radiating immense benefits for the whole community. The schizophrenia is enhanced by the mediocre content of our state television and radio networks, consumed with polishing myths and fighting windmills when it would be much more effective to work with our national talent to create better broadcasting stations and true cultural channels. Educational programming stripped of infantile doctrine and its carnival of uniforms would offer a stronger image of a stable, integrated, and above all intelligent Venezuela that we all want to know. Any country with the fantastic musical development crystallized in our internationally emulated El Sistema would fight to build at least a framework for broadcasting our most important concerts, taking advantage of the excellent video and audio materials that El Sistema produces, not to mention its gigantic historical and educational audiovisual archive.

The subject of music publishing rights is a detail to resolve, no doubt, but the majority of Venezuelans, who do not live close to concert halls, miss out on the best performances of our orchestra. We can expect little or no culture from commercial television, and government television pours out nothing but predictable propaganda. Only Vale TV (an independently owned non-commercial channel run partly by the Catholic Church) makes the effort to broadcast the occasional concert. National radio or television should also be a great production house. A country without cultural creation is a jetty without an ocean, and El Sistema has for decades produced excellent content that has nowhere to go, paradoxically. Endless graduation ceremonies hosted by our president are broadcast nationally (when the government takes over all the airwaves to broadcast a single program – usually long presidential speeches). Will we ever have a chance to see a symphonic concert or a Venezuelan bandola recital on one of those forced national broadcasts?

In this 35th anniversary year, the Simón Bolívar Orchestra is on a national tour, compensating for the lack of media presence. Many thousands of Venezuelans will appreciate a new way of listening to symphonic concerts in sports stadiums with impeccable production – a cultural revolution of epic proportions, exponential growth of returns in educational investment. A team of experts manages the sound, and the presentation is world-class. When our orchestra performs in Europe, the European networks race to negotiate primetime broadcasts; here in Venezuela, the press offers nothing but momentary windows surrounded by biased programming that is totally at odds with educational function. Note that one television station proposed a space jammed next to a program on guerrilla cells – a lovely profile enabling children to learn how to use their violin cases to transport other things. Symphonism and focalism. With such dull television, we can conserve energy and resume the practice of an instrument. Open the case and take out…the violin?

Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland

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Zenith

The fascinating history of bowed instruments – the most modern of the orchestra – is the story of the evolution in the design of two halves: bow and violin. Traversing Christian and Muslim, oriental and occidental worlds since 1,000 A.D., this saga reveals above all the insatiable quest to replicate the human voice – the ultimate goal of the most refined violin technique. The acrobatics of the modern bow, whose capacity to bounce at high speeds is merely decorative, should be valued only in contrast to the great art of maintaining a seamless melodic line – clearly the final purpose of its evolution to this day. This fact is demonstrated in the design of the bow, whose continual transformation came to an end around 1800, when the French craftsman Tourte found the definitive solution to the problem of the bow’s mechanical instability curtailing expression: he inverted its curvature towards the string and transformed the cart into a Ferrari. (Some, quite rightly, might still prefer horses.)

Until then, the bow was shaped somewhat like a hunting bow in dozens of models. Its slightly arched stick with a center of gravity perched clumsily far from the string gave it a certain agility, a capacity to spring, but it lacked the stability and depth required by the long singing lines fancied by the composers of Mozart’s era – the dawning of cantabile. By the time Tourte’s modern bow – imitated by everyone to this day – achieved better adherence by uniformly distributing the pressure that the violinist put on the string without trembling or bucking, producing a prolonged and homogenous sound yet conserving its springing nerve, the violin had already been established in its current proportions for two hundred years. Mediaeval European iconography offers an entire bazaar of experimental rebecks and violins that tend to evolve towards the predominant hourglass shape with a steep bridge, permitting free bow action from all angles on individual strings. From rhythmic instruments noted for their volume in dance forms, scrubbing rustic drones simultaneously on multiple strings, the extended family of bows became over time an instrumental chorus with a great capacity for timbre fusion and precise articulation.

To highlight and refine these very penetrating voices, the best craftsmen of the Italian Renaissance – Nicolas Amati and Gaspar de Salò – invented the definitive shape of the violin before 1600. Nobody can explain how these tiny cases can support hundreds of pounds of string tension and project a sound at once so potent and so sweet. Nobody knows how those geniuses, whose traditions reached their zenith with Stradivarius and Guarnerius in the 18th century, came across the geometric secrets of construction and the alchemy of varnishes that give the unmistakable sound to these revered objects, depositaries of the highest spirituality, where physical and sonic beauty come together. Recently, in New York, I had the good fortune to play a Stradivarius cello for several hours. I was out of practice, but despite this, the cello played itself. It knew all the music. Without exaggerating, I can say that it had a soul as well as a sublime voice. A mystery. “I’ll take it,” I told luthier Christophe Landon. “I need it immediately.” “No problem,” he answered. “That’ll be four million dollars.” A trifle.

Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland

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Samarkand

What few people think of when watching a symphonic orchestra is the modernity of the predominant instruments: the bows. The violin tends to be synonymous with antiquity: we imagine that, for lack of mechanisms, screws, and springs, it’s the oldest instrument of the orchestra. Its historical stability – crystallized in the design that we have known since the middle of the 16th century, at the cusp of the Italian Renaissance – contributes to the creation of this impression, but the truth is that the principle of rubbing a string to extract from it a prolonged vibration is, according to historical evidence, the most modern of all.

When the first pictorial and documentary evidence of the bow was born, around the 10th century A.D., the hydraulic key organ had already been in existence for at least twelve centuries and ancestors of the oboe and clarinet were already played in ancient times. The flute was more than 30,000 years old, as was the hunting bow that undoubtedly offered the first sound of a tensed string; percussion was a million years old. When Turko-Mongol musicians of Central Asia discovered around the 9th century that the horsehair they used to restring their lutes produced prolonged sound by friction when adhered to the rod with which they hit their strings, a rapid evolution began. Improvements converted the rubbing stick into a bow of loose horsehair interlaced with the tensed horsehair of the strings. The primitive bow was born, fastened by its hairs to a primitive pear-shaped violin that was played vertically, supported on the lap. From fabulous Central Asia, traversed by the Silk Road, by agile Mongol horsemen and Venetian and Arab merchants, the beginning of the rubbed string – invented by Ibn Sinâ in Bukhara, according to the chroniclers – emerged from the Mediterranean, passing through Muslim and Byzantine networks and heading towards China.

We can always see that musical practice incorporates and develops advantageous instrumental innovations with great speed. (Look at the recent history of the Peruvian caja or cajón). The Byzantine connection passes through Venice and places the bowed instruments in the hands of the most talented designers of all time. The Italians study and improve the angles, the tensions, the fastenings, and the pins, but the rabâb, Arab cousin of the mediaeval violin, invades the Iberian Peninsula and gains territory towards the north. By the 17th century, France, Lombardia, Galicia, Alsace, and England are already completely invaded. Innumerable variations of very specific construction are noted, crystallizing over time into two families: viola da braccio and viola da gamba, fretless and fretted, respectively; lyres and rebecks of all shapes and sizes that disappeared with troubadour paraphernalia. The extraordinary thing about this history is to see an instrumental accessory – one that manages to draw prolonged sound from a string that was previously pinched or struck – traverse such diverse periods and geographic regions. It is as if it were possessed by the spirit of the horse whose mane gave birth to the miracle of the modern bow. From the distant Samarkand arrived a steed… (To be continued.)

Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland

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