TEDx Bergen 2013

Posted on October 2nd, 2013 by


 

 

With other speakers and the fantastic young organiser of TEDx Bergen, NHH Bergen, 28th September 2013

With other speakers and the fantastic young organiser of TEDx Bergen, NHH Bergen, 28th September 2013

TEDx Bergen 2013

On Saturday September 29th, I gave a presentation at the Bergen TEDx, held at the Norwegian School of Economics. For the whole day, and audience of 400-odd younger (than me) people inspired 10 speakers by their rapt attention and pertinent questions, tweeted to moderator. The whole thing was a model of idealism, organisation and inspiration, and a privilege to have taken part in. Here is the rough text of my talk, with the musical bits and pieces. I will post the video when it is edited.

Answering Questions at TEDx Bergen September 29th 2013

Answering Questions at TEDx Bergen September 29th 2013

Text of talk given by Peter Sheppard Skaerved at TedX Bergen 2013
New Music, Old Technology/Old Music New Technology. Today’s composers are inspired by the possibilities offered by the old instruments and instrumental technologies used by performers. Paradoxically, the collaboration between performer and composer often inspires new instrumental technologies and techniques.

'Patent' automatic mute recommended by Carl Nielsen for his Praludio og Presto

‘Patent’ automatic mute recommended by Carl Nielsen for his Praludio og Presto

 

Brand new music, using new notation, new notes even, the gaps between the notes, warp-speed, vast amounts of information in conveyed in a very short space of time (about 6000) notes in round about a minute of music, each one of them requiring at least two/three independent movements to execute, across 6 octaves of the audible sound spectrum, and bowing techniques requiring the performer match the speed of a bow, ‘thrown’ to bounce at about 30 attacks per second with an exact ‘controlled’ equivalent created by setting up an interference between the muscles of the right arm, which vibrates at the same speed, quarter tones, irrational divisions of the meter in units of 5, 7…all that you don’t need to know…what I do need us to think about is that it has been written to be executed using a machine made 400 years ago….(thinking about David Gorton’s Caprices, played on a 17th Century Cremonese violin)

 

 

Play: David Gorton – Rosetta Caprice No 1

David Gorton working on the electronics of his Cello Sonata. Malmo November 15th

David Gorton working on the electronics of his Cello Sonata. Malmo November 15th

 

… Brand new music, using new notation, new notes even, extra pitches the gaps between the notes, [warp-speed], vast amounts of information in conveyed in a very short space of time (about 6000) notes in round about a minute of music, each one of them requiring at least two/three independent movements to execute, across 6 octaves of the audible sound spectrum, and bowing techniques requiring the performer match the speed of a bow, ‘thrown’ to bounce at about 30 attacks per second with an exact ‘controlled’ equivalent created by setting up an interference between the muscles of the right arm, which vibrates at the same speed, quarter tones, irrational divisions of the meter in units of 5, 7…all that you don’t need to know…what I do need us to think about is that it has been written to be executed using a machine made 400 years ago …

 

5th September 2013. -rehearsing Sadie Harrison's 'Gallery'. Enraptured by Amati. Photo-Sadie Harrison

5th September 2013. -rehearsing Sadie Harrison’s ‘Gallery’. Enraptured by Amati. Photo-Sadie Harrison

The violin is a challenge to us all, and not just people like me, glued to it for many hours every day since we were children. It’s a rare example of mechanical longevity, of permanent upgrade, of the ‘long now’. This instrument was made in a small city in northern Italy at the beginning of the 17th Century. On the surface it is so simple, a small box made of Maple and spruce, strings of silver/covered animal intestines, pegs of rosewood, a fingerboard of hardwood, structurally, just 84 pieces of wood. Initially little was expected of it, and it was regarded as a lowly instrument [at Elizabeth 1st’s court, the many who ‘played upon the fidel’; was paid lower than the boot-cleaner] It came to be used for music like this:

Plays: Purcell-Prelude (Published Walsh 1704)

Somehow, the ‘fidel’, once reviled as the instrument of the bordello, the pub, took hold, inspiring complexity and subtlety – for a number of reasons, it not only survived, but thrived on history. Bear in mind that we are dealing with something, which from an aesthetic point for of view, to quote Indiana Jones ‘belongs in a museum’.

Not more than a short walk from here [in Bergen], is another violin, made by Gaspar da Salo, in the city of Brescia, a few years before this one, in the Kunst-Museum.

360 view of Bull's violin, in Kunstindustrimuseet, Bergen

360 view of Bull’s violin, in Kunstindustrimuseet, Bergen

In the 19th century, this fantastical violin was celebrated in the hands of your local hero, Ole Bull; Felix Mendelssohn and Ferdinand David organised a celebratory concert in the Leipzig Gewandhaus when Bull obtained this instrument. Bull was the first truly international violinists, playing concerts from the top of the pyramid at Cheops to Saloon bars in Arkansas and Illinois-music like this:

Ole Bull – A Cappriccio 

And then he died, and that violin fell silent, was locked in that purpose-built vitrine in 1881, which is marked‘never to be played’. And it has not been. The voice falters, the development stops, and an object designed to thrive on human contact, was taken from it, and became a museum piece – the symbiosis between machine and user, which liberates both, broken, the vibration all but stopped, the mutually benificial ‘haptic’ quality, that is the element of ‘touch’, removed. Today, many of the talks have circled that question of contact, of touch. It’s the thing we crave, in our age of the network is most at risk – humans, like the most historically successful machines, like violins, are pretty meaningless, dried out, without it

So that’s the central point, the nub of what I would like to offer. How can we take the challenge of the violin family. Around about the same time that the violin was being invented the Italian Inquisition was animated about the question of magnets; there were seen as being heretical, and the inquisition’s own researchers went to some lengths, and offered scientifically sound rebuttals of his theories, based on the fact that he could not offer proof free of the earth’s own magnetic influence (which they did not recognise). The magnet, the lodestone, was considered so mysterious, wondrous, rare, that it might threaten the underlying theology of the church. Most people never encounter one, or even heard of the thing…today the average ownership of magnets, worldwide, is between 40-50 per person.

That belongs in a museum!

That belongs in a museum!

The violin family is like that, it’s usefulness, practical application, in as much as music can be said to be practical in any manner, for us today, for musicians and composers in the future, is apparently limitless. Not only has it not been necessary to change the acoustic and design specifications for over 450 years, not since Andrea Amati, father of the brothers who made this instrument, perfected it, not only does the design not need an upgrade, more to the point, the actual object, the material itself, has thrived from long use. [As the violin gets older, its material stabilises, the wood becomes accustomed to the form, loses its internal moisture, becomes lighter, and less susceptible to being affected by meteorological vagaries. This is a piece of technology, which improves with time, with use.]

Peter with Paganini's del Gesu 'Il Cannone'. Rehearsing, London 2006. Photo: Richard Bram

Peter with Paganini’s del Gesu ‘Il Cannone’. Rehearsing, London 2006. Photo: Richard Bram

A few years ago, I was giving a series of concerts on possibly, the most famous violin in the world, Niccolo Paganini’s Guarnerius del Gesu which is usually kept behind armoured glass in the municipal museum in Genova. When the museum is open, a policeman sits in the room at all times. The University of Florence invited me to take part in an experiment, conducted live, during my performance, about the relationship between the humidity of the inside of the violin and the player, in performance. This had never been done before. A tiny sensor was placed inside the instrument, which fed real time readings, wirelessly, to the team backstage in Genoa as I went out to the audience and played. It was a hot, humid autumn day, so not surprisingly, as I took the instrument out into the packed hall, in which there was no air-conditioning, the readings went through the roof, up to 90% humidity and more. However, the strangest thing happened; as I placed the instrument under my chin and played, the instrument started to benefit from the miraculous technology of the largest organ of the human body, the epidermis, which constantly regulates itself so that our out layer of skin does not dry out, or melt. Within two or three minutes, the proximity of the instrument to ME, regulated the humidity and it settled to a mutually comfortable 65-70%….this is technology which not only benefits from, but needs, the human touch.

And the element of touch is reciprocal. One grail, it seems, to me, of much of today’s design and innovation, is: how do we come up with objects, functional or not, which are not only pleasing to the eye, and in the case of a musical instrument, the ear, but, if I might say this, more than that – constantly absorbing to hold, to touch, truly, sensuous. Of course, I am biased, but consider this; violinists love holding their violins. Next time you see a player with their instrument, observe them closely. Male or female, invariably, they will have a complex physical relationship with this wooden box. Of course, when it is ‘in use’, it the element of touch is limited, to the neck, the collar bone, and the left hand. That’s it. But when the instrument is at rest, not producing music, one might even argue, redundant, unnecessary, seems to be when the design genius steps in. Something about the combination of materials and shapes, the ‘quiddity’ the ‘thingness’ of the violin is intensely attractive in the hand, in the lap, against the cheek, and before you laugh, you will see this again and again, resting orchestral players with the instrument in ‘comfort’ position, scroll against the left side of the face. And therein lies a paradox-on the face of it, the violin is an awkward object, with complex taboos about what you can and cannot touch, with lots of odd angles, but for all that, something of that continues to be physically ‘more-ish’. This has been documented since writers first started writing about these musical instruments-people cannot get enough of them. And, of course, I can speak from long and happy experience. I have been holding various violins (which are all fundamentally the same), for 4-10 hours most of the days of my life. And I am still fascinated, entranced, if you will.

I spend countless hours each year sitting with composers all over the world; they love to get close to this instrument, to listen, to feel, to imagine. The conversations have one thing in common – limitless potential-they are full of ‘what ifs’, ‘can it, can you?’ Over 400 works have been written for me and the violin, and never, not once, have I encountered a composer who was disappointed by the limitations of this machine made of 80 vibrating pieces of wood, and almost no straight lines. Again and again, I witness it exceed the expectations of the freshest, most challenging musical imaginations. This work appeared in my inbox the day before yesterday, written three days ago, a document of contact between a composer (Sadie Harrison) and a writer (Malene Skaerved.

Sadie Harrison-Scherezade (for Malene Skaerved) 2013

Onstage with Sadie Harrison, after the premiere of 'Gallery' Wilton's Music Hall, September 11th 2013

Onstage with Sadie Harrison, after the premiere of ‘Gallery’ Wilton’s Music Hall, September 11th 2013

Sadie ‘met’ this ancient violin, at the beginning of this month, and, even though she has worked with me for 15 years, this old box, has opened new vistas of sound and imagination for her. In today’s world – that is no small challenge.

 

 

[audio][/audio]