Knowledge Exchange Violin. Stage Two Autumn 2022

Posted on October 10th, 2022 by


TherAtTo To follow this project from its beginnings earlier in the summer, follow the link here:

https://www.peter-sheppard-skaerved.com/2022/06/knowledge-exchange-violin-2022/

Heading out – London to Nashville 10th/11th October 2022

Heading out
5am start for a month on the road

Knowledge Exchange Violin restarts in earnest. i am in Nashville Tennessee, in the tree-lined streets around Vanderbilt University. This has been one of the most important places, where I have come to explore and collaborate, since 2004, when the great composer George Rochberg (1920-2005) sent me here to meet his student, the composer Michael Alec Rose. This precipitated decades of conversation and ideas, a series of workshop/exchanges between the students here at the renowned Blair School of Music, and a continuing flood tide of works for solo violin, a concerto and many chamber pieces, which I play all over the world. Tomorrow, Michael and I fly to Utah, to work on the next stage of a series of site-specific collaborations- ‘A Sedimentary Education’ –  in the astonishing landscape and geology of Capitol Reef National Park. More on that to follow. On the long flight from London to Nashville yesterday, thoughts about this project continued to percolate. Much of what I am doing over the next few weeks, revolves around the idea, and maybe the ideal of the salon. I had time to read, so I spent time translating passages from the letters of the great French portraitist Élisabeth Vigée-le Brun (1755 – 30 March 1842).

Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun-self portrait with her daughter

Le Brun has been so important to me for many years, as a great artist, as Viotti’s dearest friend (she called him ‘Amico’), but perhaps most of all for the multi-disciplinary salons she led and kept, wherever she lived in her ever-itinerant life. By great good fortune she is also at the centre of the exhibit tow which I have contributed at the Minneapolis Institute of Art LINK.

Here is some of the writing that I translated yesterday, from the wonderful collection of her correspondence assembled by Claudine Herrmann ‘Souvenirs: Une édition féministe’.   Le Brun’s excitement about what happens when musicians, writers and thinkers gather, and do stuff, leaps from the page:

‘It was in this modest apartment of which I speak, that, each evening, I received the town and the court. Noblewomen and noblemen, those noted in the worlds of letters and the arts – they all came to that room. As my soirées were there, there was such a crowd, that the leaders of France had to sit on the floor, and I particularly remember how the Comte de Noailles, who was very fat and very old, had the greatest of difficulties, one evening, in getting up again. / However, I do not flatter myself, that, in case you might believe it, that all these important people would come to see me! Rather, they simply walked in through whichever front doors might be open, each one following the other, and hoping to enjoy the best music being made at that time in Paris. The most celebrated composers – Grétry, Sacchini, and Martini, played extracts from their new operas, at my home, before their premieres. Our regular singers were Garat, Asvedo, Richer, Madame Todi, and my sister-in-law: not only did she have a very lovely voice, but she could accompany everyone, sightreading, which was really very useful for us. Even I sang sometimes, in truth, not with any great technique, as I had never had any time to take lessons; buy my voice was very pleasant (Grétry said that I had a silvery tone) . […]/ As for instrumental music, as my regular violinist, I had Viotti, whose playing, full of grace, power and expression, was absolutely ravishing! In addition, there was Giornivichi, Mestrino, and the excellent amateur, Prince Henri of Prussia, who often lent me his best violin [or first violin ‘son premier violon’ is ambiguous]. Salentin played the oboe. Hulmandel and Cramer the piano. Madame de Montgeron [sic] also came once before her marriage, and, although she was still very young, astonished none the less the whole gathering (which really was difficult), with her excellent execution, and most of all with her expression, she truly makes pearls with her touch. Later, after she was well established as a pianist of the first rank, you know well how distinguished she has become as a composer!’ (Translation PSS Tom.1 Pp. 79-80)

Viola by Johann Georg Thir (ca. 1710-1779) made in Vienna in 1752, which I am playing here in Nashville this evening.

 

 

 

And today, back in Nashville, talking with the composers here, most particularly, it reminds me that this is the underlying spirit, the playful exchange of ideas, that Knowledge Exchange Violin seeks to explore and celebrate. I sat in a cafe with Michael Rose and we talked about chaconnes and passacaglias over iced tea, and then, I had a fascinating conversation with composer Stan Link about timbre and rhetoric in his viola piece, which I am playing tonight, when I return to the much-loved chamber hall of the Blair School to play premieres by four of my collaborating composers, David Matthews, Stan Link, Michael Alec Rose and Michael Slayton. I am being lent a lovely viola for one of the pieces, as I am not able to travel with two instruments. Viola professor Kathryn Plummer very generously lent me a delightful viola by Johann Georg Thir (ca. 1710-1779), born in Füssen in Allgäu. This is an inspiring Viennese instrument and ideally suited to Stan LInk’s Milton-inspired piece. And another step on my quest to understand and explore the broadest range of cordophones!

So the programme tonight, will be Selections from ‘Sedimental Education’ by  Michael Alec Rose, Shiva Dances (world premiere)  BY David Matthews,  Nothing Extinguished or Forgotten (U.S. premiere),  by Michael Slayton  and Reach, Then, and Freely Taste: Stan Link monodrama after John Milton’s Paradise Lost (U.S. premiere).

Michael Slayton and Stan Link’s works were both written to be premiered in St Mary Abchurch, at the very onset of Covid-19 in 2020, as part of my ‘Preludes and Vollenteries’ series inspired by the 17th century churches of London’s Square Mile. The composers were prevented from travelling to hear them by the situation, so here in Tennessee, is their first chance. It’s going to be exciting.

Coming off stage with a standing ovation. Turner Hall Nashville 11 10 22 (Four Premieres)

Capitol Reef, Utah 12th October

Beginning the exploration of Capital Reef Utah with Composer Michael Alec Rose 12 10 22

So after a great concert in Nashville, another 5 am start to take the plane to Salt Lake City, and then drive south to Torrey, Utah.  The composer Michael Alec Rose is a vital part of Knowledge Exchange Violin. The movements from ‘A Sedimental Education’ which I played last night in Nashville, are part of a large cycle that he is writing inspired by the amazing landscape and geology of Capital Reef, here in Utah.

This is not the the first time that he and I have collaborated on a cycle inspired by landscape and Geology. His ‘Il Ritorno’ was the result of the time we spent, walking, composing, playing, writing, workshopping, on Dartmoor in Devon. LINK

We intended to do this ‘work’ in 2020, but, like everything and everybody else, our plans were thwarted by Covid-19. So the work began virtually, in anticipation, and 4 movements are completed.

The natural world is a vital part of Knowledge Exchange Violin. My dialogue with conservationist, naturalists, ornithologists, nature writers is a vital foundation for the ideas I am trying to explore. When we wrote my first blog for the project, earlier in the summer, I listed what I thought that these ideas might be. Here they are again.

  1. The storytelling violin. Workshops, collaborations, meetings, history
  2. Migration, travel, emigration, exile, encounters
  3. Music in the landscape. Environment, ecology, birdsong,
  4. Music and visual art, from representation to inspiration, ideals.
  5. The workshop; composers to luthiers,
  6. The revolutionary salon; art and ideas, music and politics

I was expecting the ideas to shift, but if anything, there have simply become more grounded, bedded in. And that image is useful for my first encounter with Capitol Reef. The reef covers 378 square miles of the south-central desert of Utah, around stretched out wrinkle in the earth’s crust, the Waterpocket Fold. Coincidentally, it’s almost exactly the same size as Dartmoor. But there, all similarities cease.

There is so much to say about the impact of this landscape on me. It’s grandeur, beauty, age, texture are beyond words. Upon arriving yesterday evening, Michael and I took a walk up and around Chimney Rock, a vast red sandstone column ,and then into the giants playground of spring valley. I spent a few minutes, perched on top of a cliff drawing the chimney, and realised that Charles Darwin had come to my rescue. In 1832, first encountering the Brazilian rain forest, he found that his only way of helping himself to see, to understand what he was looking at, was Handel’s Messiah. For me, most surprisingly, the music in my head, was Puccini, who came to hold my hand, while my mind struggled to understand what it was seeing.

Lost in wonder/a few minutes at Chimney Rock Utah 12 10 22

Michael Rose is an expert on the geology of his extraordinary place, and I am truly enjoying a ‘sedimentary education’, as we clamber around this environment. But the workshop, the performer-composer exchange, is in full spate as well. Musical decisions are made, language evolves. Here’s a moment: We were standing and sitting  on the top of Mummy Cliff, looking southwest, with The Castle, Navajo Nobs at our elevation to the left and, below us, to the right, the rippling gorges of Sulphur Creek and Fremont Gorge.

First of all, there was discussion – this ranged from the insignificance of a human in this landscape (which I love), to the tilting geology  and folds beneath us, and the contrast between the violence of erosion by the elements and the discipline, even the dignity, of hundreds of millions of years of sedimentation.

And then we stopped talking. There was silence, and we listened, if that is the word, to the utterly mute desert, so quiet, that I start to hear my heart beat, the

Composer Michael Alec Rose on Mummy Cliff, Capitol Reef 12 10 22

swish of blood in the veins. Our shared silence, was very like a moment a few years ago on Dartmoor (this had resulted in an eponymous movement). Finally Michael spoke:

‘Would you think it was alright .. would you mind … if I wrote another movement called ‘Silence’?’

I was thinking exactly the same thing.

 

Capital Reef, Utah, 13th October

Lots of developments. Perhaps the first thing to note, is that I am spending these few days in Utah, without violin. A motel is not the ideal place to leave an instrument, so it’s having a break from me, until I make my way to the Twin Cities in a few days time. Given the nature of my relationship with the instrument and with music, it oddly hardly feels as if I am not practising, and adds a certain intensity to my conversations: after all, Michael and I are exploring the trajectory of a new piece, without the instrument at hand. But the workshop is very much active – musical and instrumental developments aplenty.

Day two at Capital Reef. Looking south from Cassidy Arch 13 10 22

Day two at Capital Reef. Looking south from Cassidy Arch 13 10 22Today we walked the extraordinary path up to Cassidy Arch (named for Butch Cassidy, who used the geology of the canyons and caves here as a hideaway with the Sundance Kid). The layered geology of Capitol Reef is spectacularly on show: from the Triassic  to the Jurassic – on the bottom the chocolate brown Moenkopi Formation, then the Green Chinle Formation, then up to the brick red Wingate Sandstone, then the orange Kayenta Formation, and the cream Navajo Sandstone We discovered that the richly-pigmented Kayenta has musical properties. Sandwiched between two dense rock types – the Navajo and Wingate Sandstones, it is friable, and readily cleaves into plate like sections. And it is full of air, of space, which means that it rings. Sitting with Michael on a wonderful curved outcrop looking down over the Wash Trail, I listened to the rock, or rather, played it.

This was curiously moving – especially at over 8000 feet altitude. neither of us said it, but there was definitely a sense that his might become part of the piece. How could it not? And later in the day, another discussion of types of silence. After sundown, we drove back out from Torrey to Sulphur Creek to look up, at the astonishing display of the Milky Way, arching over the vault of heaven from horizon to horizon, and were given a spectacular asteroid, one of the Drachnid Shower.  Faced with this wonder, I resorted to Alfred Lord Tennyson – his ‘Two Voices’ which he wrote in 1833, while Charles Darwin was riding across Patagonia with a group of Gauchos. It was his first experience of sleeping under the stars, and, clearly, he was as wonder-filled was we. Tennyson’s two voices, in his head, were likewise, outside, under a starry sky:

Thereto the silent voice replied; ‘/Self-blinded are you by your pride: /Look up thro’ night: the world is wide. ‘/This truth within thy mind rehearse, /That in a boundless universe Is boundless better, boundless worse. /‘Think you this mould of hopes and fears/ Could find no statelier than his peers In yonder hundred million spheres?’ (The Lady of Shallot and other poems 1833)

Over supper, earlier in the evening, we had imagined that E M Forster and Henry Melville might have helped, deepened our conversation. The Milky Way, the Egyptian Goddess Nut, stretched over, and all around us, with it’s 400 billion stars, and at least as many planets again, was a reminder that our ideas are just a wonderfully minute part of an unfathomably enormous, ancient whole – just as the hundreds of millions of years of geological history on show at Capitol Reed gently indicate that all of human existence fits into less than one narrow band of strata.

Just the everyday…
The Milky Way at 830 looking up at the Aquila constellation from Sulphur Creek 14 10 22We are stardust

Billion year old carbonWe are goldenCaught in the devil’s bargainAnd we’ve got to get ourselvesBack to the garden (‘Woodstock’ Joni Mitchell 1970)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Factory Butte & Capitol Reef, Utah 14 10 22

So today, more explorations and discussions in the astonishing landscape of southern Utah. At the end of the day, Michael Alec Rose said to me that our way of working, together and apart, on a project, on a piece of music was best illustrated by our two ‘workshop sessions’ today – the first at Factory Butte (see the film above) and the other in the canyons and erratic-boulder strewn ridges around Sulphur Creek, just outside Torrey Utah, where I am writing this. In each case, I found a place to sit, to look, to listen, to draw, on a dune, or an overlook, and Michael worked his way around creek beds and canyons, as close to the earth, to the material as possible. We were not talking, and for most of the time, we could not see each other, but this is collaboration, ‘a counterpoint; he called it. I think that this is a really powerful model of how collaborative work is done – all the more apparent, because in both cases, we were the only figures in vast landscapes. It reminds me of the Paul Klee ‘Contact between Two Musicians’ where two performers are joined on stage, by a thin, curling filament. It’s a filament of ideas, and cooperation.

I think that this morning, a theme emerged from the landscape, all important for our trying to find purchase for making art in and inspired by

Cottonwood Tree by the canyon wall. Fruita, Utah, 14 10 22

it – which is the marks made and left by people who live and have lived here. The day began near the remains of the Mormon settlement of Fruita. a Fruitwas established in 1880 by a group of Mormons led by Nels Johnson,  son of Swedish settlers. It was originally called Junction, as it lies on the confluence of Fremont River and Sulphur Creek. In 1900, Fruita was named ‘The Eden of Wayne County’, and wandering amongst its Cottonwood Trees and lush orchards, this doesn’t surprise me. I said to Michael: ‘the settlers must have thought that they had reached Canaan, the promised land.’ But the town is now a ghost, a palimpsest, as the settlement was flattened in 1955 when the National Park Service purchased the town for Capitol Reef National Park. The Mormons have gone. But they are not the only disappeared in this happy valley.

A few steps up the canyon from Fruita schoolhouse, almost all that is left, are the marks left by the people who made this land their own for a millennium. The ‘Fremont Culture’ (named for the river)peoples seemed to have lived in Utah for about one thousand years, from 300-1300 Common Era (CE). The increasingly arid climate seems to have driven them away. On the walls of the canyon through which the Fremont River runs, and which would give it the fertility which enabled Nels Johnson to settle here, half a millennium after the First Nations peoples had left, are hundreds of petroglyphs; stylized figures and animals, scratched into the red sandstone. It is an astonishing gallery of a lost culture, a notation, if you like. As an artist, I cannot look at this without being profoundly moved. The patterns, the figures, the geometry, seems to be a sophisticated, playful, expressive language: and it is one I feel I should understand. The job of the performer is to give voice to that which is silent.

Fremont petroglyphs- Fruita, Utah 14 10 22

What should I do? At the moment all that is possible is to look and wonder. Others were here before us. They loved this land. And they left art, which could be music, ritual, drama, song, even philosophy or mathematics. There’s nothing crude, or primitive about it – we just need the primer, to crack the code, and learn how to read it.

These petroglyphs stand at the crossing point of what I might be trying to explore with Knowledge Exchange Violin. I am not going to indulge in sentimental speculation about early cultures. However, standing in this exquisite valley, as the sun came over the canyon wall behind me and began to illuminate these vivid, lively figures, who are me, us, I had the profound sense that they offer purchase, between the building, architecture-dependant art and music of our time, and something deeply engraved, embossed, into the landscape, inspired by it, and part of it. This is a challenge not to be shirked: what can I, we do, which might last like this?

It’s 10 pm, and while I am writing this, the composer is working away next door. In the modern world, we communicate between the two rooms ( he is no more than 4 metres from where I am sitting) electronically. As he writes, the pages drift to my computer and phone – but he writes with pencil, like my notebook obsession. Here’s what just arrived, with no comment – music as new as is possible, the pencil still embossed deep into the page, like the incised, dancing figures above. Surely they are related.

Latest page from Michael Rose. Chuckwagon Motel, Torrey, Utah, 14 10 22

As I am without a violin these few days in the West, my response has been drawing. I confess, that it has taken me a moment to settle in to find my eye in this landscape which is so far from my quotidian experience. After all, my quotidian subjects are, in no particular order – people, water, trees, and buildings. These give me my measure, my sense of my own scale wherever I am sitting. But these are largely absent from the vantage points where I get out sketchbook and pencils.

The result, as my hand doodles aimlessly over the page while I look at the mind-bending geological architecture and drama that dominates here, the result is that I have had to learn to trust what I am seeing, not hearing, and feeling. What appears on the page feels as alien, initially, as the ‘landskips’ themselves.

Michael and I have been happily arguing about our favourite landscape artists. Would Jakob Ruysdael, Constable, Wyeth, Turner, or Poussin have been able to find pencil, charcoal, or brush hold here? What would have they have done.

I found help today from remembering the work of the greatest Australian landscape artist of the 20th century, Sidney Robert Nolan(1917 –1992). I remembered reading an interview with him in my mid-teens, where he talked about exactly the challenge I was facing – ‘getting into” the landscape in front of him, in his case, in the Red Centre of Australia. The answer, he seemed to be reminding me, is all around you. You are sitting on it: so I poured water on the dried mud on the top of the dune on which was sitting, and started to work it into some of the washes and smudgings that I was using to find my way ‘into’ drawing Factory Butte. It worked-suddenly it seemed that I could find the timbres and textures, that I wanted. They were the dust and grime dirtying my clothes and drying up my skin. The answer was at my feet.

An hour at Factory Butte
14 10 22

15 10 22 To the Salt Lake

Drawing on Salt Lake 15 10 22

We left Torrey early today, and drove north from Capitol Reef to Salt Lake. Here I am drawing on Silver Sands Beach, looking at Fremont Island. The beauty of this extraordinary, alien landscape, is tempered by sadness, that the lake is shrinking, that the level is so low that the boat ramp can’t be used. This is the front line of climate change, and the politics of this part of the USA is least minded to address the problem. Over breakfast Western Frittata and Biscuits, Michael Alec Rose and I returned to a conversation about the wonder of Edward Elgar, which began a couple of days ago. This is much on my mind, as it forms part of the podcast which I will record at the Schubert Club this Wednesday. Here is an extract from my draft, focussing on collaboration and conversation, between Elgar and T E Lawrence.  There are two Elgar letters to Lawrence, in the collection.

Elgar, T E Lawrence and the Third Symphony

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Sir Edward Elgar, Bt,by Sir William Rothenstein

Even at the end of his life, Elgar could be star-struck as two letters here show – written to the AC Shaw, a soldier, diplomat, writer, and archaeologist (and possibly spy) stationed at Plymouth, where he worked on high-speed boats.

‘It was a very great pleasure to have you here, nearly a month ago, & to know that you were a listener to my music: I have read about you with something akin to awe & never had the smallest hope of seeing you here.  I am only writing to say what satisfaction if gives me to know that the second symphony has a friend in you.’

His correspondent was as much of a celebrity as he was. ‘A C Shaw’ was the name which T E Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, was known. He had visited Elgar at his Worcester house ‘Marl Bank’ (see the headed paper), not far from the cathedral. And it was clear that they had discussed Elgar’s great 1911 Second Symphony. This had a revival of interest a few years earlier, resulting from the composer’s recording for HMV which was made in 1928. Elgar was delighted to find that Lawrence loved the piece.

Two months later Lawrence wrote back, from his Dorset Cottage, ‘Clouds Hill’:

‘… we have just been playing your 2nd Symphony. Three of us, a sailor, a Tank Corps soldier, and myself. So, there are all three of the Services present: and we agreed that you must be written to and told (if you are well enough to be bothered) that this Symphony gets further under our skins than anything else in the record library at Clouds Hill. We have the Violin Concerto, too; so that says quite a lot. Generally, we play the Symphony last of all, towards the middle of the night, because nothing comes off very well after it. One seems to stop there.’

Lawrence pointed out, that his home was rather less palatial than Elgar’s Worcester villa:

‘You would laugh at my cottage, which has one room upstairs (gramophone and records) and one room downstairs (books): but there is also a bath, and we sleep anywhere we feel inclined. So, it suits me. A one-man house, I think.’

But then he got to the point his letter: After the death of his wife Alice in 1920, Elgar effectively stopped composing. However, in the last year of his life, he was working on a third symphony, an idea encouraged by his friend, George Bernard Shaw. Clearly, he had talked with Lawrence about this project. Lawrence continued his letter.

‘There is a selfish side to our concern: we want your Symphony III: if it is wiser and wider and deeper than II we shall very sadly dethrone our present friend, and play it last of the evening. Until it comes, we shall always stand in doubt if the best has really yet happened. ‘

On the 28th of December 1933, Elgar replied. The letter, as you see, is not in his handwriting. By now his health had deteriorated, and he was in care – he dictated the letter. On the stationary ‘Marl Bank’ has been crossed out, and replaced with ‘Nursing Home’. Clearly, he was eager to leave, and the idea of Lawrence’s home had heightened his wanderlust, even if he was unsure of the amenities.

‘Your description of Clouds Hill makes me long to share your cottage even though you appear to sleep outside.’

By this stage, he had completed about 130 pages of the projected symphony. He wrote:

‘I am glad to hear that the 2nd symphony wears so well with you and your friends, but mark you, the 3rd, if ever I am well enough to finish it will make it look small.  (perhaps so, and perhaps not).’

It was clear, that the new work, if and when it was finished, would, in his mind, dwarf the hour-long number two. It was not to be: in February 1934 he died in the Worcester Nursing home. One year later, Lawrence, was killed riding his Brough Superior motorbike, after he swerved trying to avoid two boys on bicycles. He was just 46 years old.

For Englishmen like me, Elgar and Lawrence were in the air from childhood. They represented ideals of artistry, of adventure, and scholarship, and their music and histories were constantly around us. But they also represented something that was lost, as the British Empire, which they had come to signify in all its evil and good, had slipped from the maps in the schoolrooms.

My parents, Susan and Tony, live in a little cottage in the forest which reaches into East London, from Epping to Leytonstone. If you walk out of their front door, into the oak and beech woods, walking towards Chingford, where Henry VIII had a hunting lodge, you come to a rampart in the forest which looks over London, Pole Hill. This was a piece of land which Lawrence owned. He built a holiday hut there, and a swimming pool. When he died, it was left to the people of London, and became part of the public ‘Epping Forest’. There’s a plaque there, commemorating his gift. I sometimes walk there from my parent’s house, and sit and imagine him listening to his 78s of Elgar’s music, most likely reading and smoking.

Edward Elgar – Sospiri  Op 70 (Peter Sheppard Skaerved – Violin, Roderick Chadwick – Piano)

A miraculous piece: my score of ‘Sospiri’ with Elgar’s extraordinarily detailed pedalling and implied portamenti highlighted. 14 10 14

Salt Lake City Morning 16th October 2022

A new work emerges.
Michael Alec Rose’s new work for RSPB Farnham Salt Lake City 16 10 22

Every time I find a great table to work on in a hotel room, I use it to the full, and clearly Michael Alec Rose, in the room next to me here, has the same feeling. At 730 this morning, just after the sun rose over Lookout Peak outside my window, he knocked on my door, and handed me the manuscript of ‘Two Rivers Across the Pond’ -‘for Peter Sheppard Skaerved at Farnham Heath. He knows how much I treasure pencil and paper, so had already had the hotel photocopy the work, so that he could give me the original. And we decided that, in this case, I would mark, emend, and technically edit the MS itself.

The new work is for the for the next British leg of Knowledge Exchange Violin, at RSPB Farnham, where Laurence Rose , Malene Sheppard Skaerved and I go film and record in a few weeks. Weather permitting, we will film and record the new piece outside on the heath itself. At this moment, after four days of silence, rock, sand, salt and sky, I am finding is quite difficult to imagine the overwhelmingly damp, heather-covered, birdsong-filled, leafy heathland of Surrey. Michael’s title evokes that :’Two Rivers Across the Pond’, and sets more ideas spinning about our place in the landscape, and how it, and we, change.

After all, there is no way of standing on Salt Lake, without feeling that. However, the beginning of my work with Farnham was a long collaboration with a UK-based project called ‘Back from the Brink’, which explored and celebrated, small successes in the British Isles, in bringing environments and species, which had been under threat of extinction, back to fruition. Farnham Heath is evidence that it can be done. This should be possible with Salt Lake: if it is not, it is difficult to see how humans can keep a foothold in this part of the world. Art has a place to play in this, and I do understand why the two young protestors from ‘Stop Oil’ threw tomato soup at Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ in London a few hours ago. The symbolic (although far from real) destruction of a depiction of flowers is a powerful manicule to the to very real trashing of the environment in the pursuit of fuel and plastic coffee spoons. Be outraged a that, and then young women will stop having to attack paintings. They know their history, and they did not take a meat cleaver to the painting. I remember what he suffragette Mary Richardson said after attacking Velazquez’ ‘Rokeby Venus’ in the same gallery on 10 March 1914:

“I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs. Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history.”

Substitute ‘sunflowers/flora’ for ‘beautiful woman’ and ‘Mrs Pankhurst’, and the point should be clear.

The sadness of Salt Lake – 16 10 22
‘For from sky/These breathing-creatures never can have dropped,/
Nor the land-dwellers ever have come up/Out of sea-pools of salt.’
Lucretius – De Rerum (Book 5)

Minneapolis MIA 18 10 22

So I arrived back in the Twin Cities late on Monday night, to freezing temperatures, and high expectation as to what might be achieved this week, beginning with today’s salon events at MIA. It was my first time seeing the exhibition which I have enjoyed working on so much – ‘Revolution a la Mode’. I walked in, and I heard the glorious singing and playing of Heloise Bernard and Julian Perkins, singing the arias from the 1790s fashion magazines on show in the exhibition. That was quite overwhelming. Here’s a panorama of the show!

My first view of ‘Revolution a la Mode’ MIA Minneapolis 19 10 22

The programme I played today, was effectively a salon, in an exhibition celebrating salons. I took the opportunity to celebrate the life and work of the great portraitist Élisabeth Louise Vigée-Le Brun, who ran the most extraordinary, intimate musical salons in Paris and London.

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun – Portrait of Countess Maria Theresia Bucquoi (1793) – detail

It was extraordinary to be able to give my performance, playing music that Vigée-Le Brun loved and reading her words from her wonderful autobiographical letters. Here is an example:

Magasin des Modes Nouvelles. On show in ‘Revolution a la Mode’ 19 10 22

‘It was in this modest apartment of which I speak, that, each evening, I received the town and the court. Noblewomen and noblemen, those noted in the worlds of letters and the arts – they all came to that room. As my soirees were there, there was such a crowd, that the leaders of France had to sit on the floor,  and I particularly remember how the Comte de Noailles, who was very fat and very old, had the greatest of difficulties, one evening, in getting up again. / However, I do not flatter myself, that, in case you might believe it, that all these important people would come to see me! Rather, they simply walked in through whichever front doors might be open, each one following the other, and hoping to enjoy the best music being made at that time in Paris. The most celebrated composers – Grétry, Sacchini, and Martini, played extracts from their new operas, at my home, before their premieres. Our regular singers were  Garat, Asvedo, Richer, Madame Todi, and my sister-in-law:

Fashion Plate. 1790 – holding a singing manual

not only did she have a very lovely voice, but she could accompany everyone, sightreading, which was really very useful for us. Even I sang sometimes, in truth, not with any great technique, as I had never had any time to take lessons; buy my voice was very pleasant (Grétry said that I had a silvery tone) . […]/ As for instrumental music, as my regular violinist, I had Viotti, whose playing, full of grace, power and expression, was absolutely ravishing! In addition, there was Giornichi, Mestrino, and the excellent amateur, Prince Henri of Prussia, who often lent me his best violin [or first violin ‘son premier violon’ is ambiguous].  Salentin played the oboe. Hulmandel and Cramer the piano. Madame de Montgeron [sic] also came once before her marriage, and, although she was still very young, astonished none the less the whole gathering (which really was difficult), with her excellent execution, and most of all with her expression, she truly makes perles with her touch. Later, after she was well established as a pianist of the first rank, you know well how distinguished she has become as a composer!’ Elizabeth Vigée-le Brun  – Lettres Tom.1 Pp. 79-80/(Translation PSS 10 10 22)

 

 

Just before I went on, I recorded this little piece to camera.

I will begin with posting what one audience member posted about this event:

‘Our culture segregates, it does not blend. Specialization in the sciences is useful, especially in that it enables us smaller-minded humans to mentally encompass something definable. It’s deceiving, in that mastery of, say, the diseases of marsupials, may allow is to ignore the greater world of knowledge and yet feel satisfied.
In higher education this creates the silly gulfs between the liberal arts and sciences, between vocational education (like medicine) and “pure science”, between art and agriculture.
My friend Peter Sheppard Skaerved said on FB that he was playing violin in an art gallery Tuesday. It was possible, so of course we went. We discovered a lovely little gallery hung with paintings and drawings from the era of the French Revolution — and that this display and the violin concert a whole, and designed together.
Peter played an Amati violin, a “grandfather” of Stradivarii, first with a period bow, then with a modern bow (one that had only just been finished, the maker, Matt Wehling, in the audience). (It was fun to hear Peter tell him this was the best bow he’d ever used; its entire length was usable.)
If you’re interested, there’s a nice essay about this at https://new.artsmia.org/stories/reviving-the-revolutionary-salon-music-for-revolution-a-la-mode ‘Daniel L Johnson
What was clear to me, was that my little experiment worked. A true salon atmosphere emerged, as the music and voices of Rousseau, Marie Antoinette, Viotti were heard, and the conversations after each of the events were truly exciting. One Audience member tweeted:

Two such fascinating audiences, many of whom wanted to talk with me, about music, philosophy, art, education and … violinmaking. Minnesota is a hotbed of luthers and archetiers, and two came along. In concert one, the violin-maker, Jennifer Creadick, and in concert two, the researching bow-maker Matt Wehling. This was a delight for me, particularly as Matt brought along a new bow, modelled after a transitional Francois Tourte design – exactly the maker and the instrument which was perfect for the music and the salons we were celebrating.

There was only one thing to do: having tried the bow for about five minutes, I decided to use it for the second concert. And not only did I use it, but celebrated the immediacy, the real-time discovery of what the bow can do, with the the audience. I think that the most moving thing, with this extraordinary instrument, was playing Viotti’s ‘Ranz des Vaches’. Never was a bow better suited to a piece, than these two.

Bow by Matthew Wehling. 19 10 22

Here is the exquisite ‘frog’ of the Wehling bow, which I have in front of me on the kitchen table here in Minneapolis. We will meet up tomorrow in St Paul, so I can continue to learn from this extraordinary maker. Of course, having played his bow for such a concert, the conversation, has very much begun!

After the concerts were over, yet more conversations with new friends, audience and colleagues. I had a fascinating exchange with a retired timpanist, who made some thought-provoking observations about the similarities between the vulnerable nature of the solo violinist, and the world of the timpanist, stuck out by themselves, the crown, of the orchestra. And then I sat with the young conductor Kehun Nam, who I first worked with when he was a student in Nashville, then at Ithaca College. He is pursuing idealistic work with community music-making, and his energy and belief in what he is doing, fired me up for more.

By the Mississippi. Lilydale, St Paul MN 18 10 22

There’s so much to say about this day, and I will return to the project later in my reflections. But I had another intense day of exploration lined up for the following day in St Paul, which I knew was going to demand a full night of preparation. So I needed calm and a moment away from the violin, from the ideas. My dear friend Kris Tornehoj  (conductor and educator) offered peace and quiet, down by the Mississippi at a lovely restaurant right on the water. Kris is tireless about the pursuit of renewal and inspiration – that we should all seek to make sure that what we do in life, in our music, should be a force for good, and healing. And we need to look after ourselves, and find as much joy in our work as is humanly possible! That is a wonderful thing to pursue, and I continually learn from it.

19th October – Podcasts at the Schubert Club Music Museum, St Paul MN

Today, I spend seven hours glued to one chair in the recital room of the Schubert Club Music Museum over on the other side of the river in St

From where I sit. Recording podcasts at the Schubert Club Museum St Paul 19 10 22

Paul. I had a wonderful team to work with – the museum curator Kate Cooper, and sound engineer, Max Carlson, who kept me sane and upright with lots of cups of coffee, while I recorded podcasts on letters in the Ordway-Gilman collection of letters in the museum. This is an extraordinary small collection of letters to, from and between musicians  and composers. So I focused on material from Bloch, Elgar, Clara Schumann, Brahms, Joachim, Richard Strauss, and Mahler (and more). I also recorded miniatures and album-pieces, by Kreisler, Strauss, Joachim and Ysaye. Here’s an extract from my introduction to the podcasts:

The Schubert Club Musical Museum is housed in the historic Landmark Centre in the centre of St Paul Minnesota. It is a small museum, and perfectly formed, bringing together a globally significant collection of keyboard instruments, a renowned concert series which attracts the great living performers, and an extraordinary Ordway-Gilman Collection of letters, to and from musicians.

This is the first of a series of Podcasts where I am going to introduce some of these extraordinary letters, and talk a little about how and why they interest, and move me. When I first sat with the collection, and started to read, there was a shock of recognition, as a musician. The voices that spring from these pages talk of things I, we recognise. Whatever the posthumous fame of these great artists, here they write wrote about the challenges that they face, the value of their friends, lovers, and colleagues (fellow-travellers). The tenor of the letters ranges from the practicalities of their lives, on the road – facing the pressures of performing – of collaboration, through to their inspirations, which so often they find in their colleagues. These elements are things that we all face, travelling musicians or not. I find that their voices reach out from the page and offer me inspiration and solace. And alongside all of this there’s the overriding joy, that we have the music, a lasting testament, that, if you like, it’s all worth it!

I am back at the Landmark Center tomorrow – so more on this will follow! But for now, recorded at the desk at the Schubert Club today. I was talking about an inspiring letter from Ernest Bloch,  about his former violin teacher Eugène Ysaÿe. So I made a little recording of the second movement of Bloch’s 1st Suite, one of Bloch’s last works – which has more than an echo of Ysaÿe, in the most delicate way. And some leaves on the path here in Minnesota.

Thursday October 20th St Paul MN

Today was my second day at the Schubert Club Museum – but overnight, there have been developments.  Michael Alec Rose’s inspired group of pieces responding to the places and instruments in Knowledge Exchange Violin continues to grow – here is the work that I have done on his brand new work for RSPB Farnham Heath.

Working on the score of the Michael Alec Rose’s new work for RSPB Farnham Heath, Minneapolis 20 10 22

THis

When a new score arrives – the great joy, for me, is a neurotic, one: spending time breaking down the ‘techne’ of a new work. This has, simplistically, two sides. One is ‘foundational’, which is, in some ways, working out what a new work does to me. The other is ‘constructional’, reaching the other direction, establishing how the methods that I evolve to work with the material reach, into, or onto the new piece, and adjust aspects of it. You could say that these two complimentary/simultaneous approaches could be described as: 1. What does the piece to to me? 2. What do I do to the piece?

And, of course, I am thinking about how the piece will work ‘in situ’, maybe outside, at Farnham in a few weeks. In the middle of the piece, there’s an instruction for three tapping sounds, made in a free way. I think that I will look for a place on Farnham Heath, where I/someone else, can bang, tap, scratch a tree stump, a rock etc!

 

Today was in two halves. This morning, I met with the bowmaker Matthew Wehling, at the Landmark Center, and interview him about his art, his connection to the French bowmaking tradition, the tradition of apprenticeship, and the relationship between makers and players. I will be transcribing this interview in the next few days – it touched on some fundamentals, and Matt had some fascinating insights.

The second part of the day was a live presentation of some of the material that I was recording yesterday. The audience was a group of supporters for the Schubert Club, and it was exciting for me to see how inspired they were by hearing the material presented ‘live’. I took the opportunity to honour the work of the singer/scholar Vern Sutton, who blazed a trail  giving voice and life to the Gilman-Ordway Manuscripts Collection at the Schubert Club Musical Museum.

Here’s a first podcast outcome!

 

 

21st October – University of Wisconsin River Falls WI

Today I drove southeast over the St Croix River to River Falls. The centre of the day was a recital in the lovely Abbott Hall in the Kleinpell Arts Building on the River Falls Campus of Wisconsin University. I played Vilsmayr, Telemann, Baltzar, Klagenfurt MS, Skender and Matthews.

Rehearsal, Abbott Hall, Kleinpell Arts Building UWRF 21 10 23

I am always delighted to work with the community there, led by the irrepressible musician and animateur Kris Tornehoj. There are two kinds of educational institutions (and this polarisation is particularly apparent in the USA, but equally true of the UK): those which choose to exist silo-ed off from the communities in which they are situated, and those which live, work and play as part of them, in concert with them. After my concert, I sat down to talk with some friends from the arts community in the St Croix Valley. One of the most dynamic, is Calyssa Hall, who I first met about six years ago. Calyssa is the founder and driving force behind the Zephyr Theatre, which is housed in the old Mississippi & Lake Superior Railway depot by the river in nearby Stillwater. She was a student at UWRF. Calyssa said:

‘The reason that studying here was so exciting, and inspiring was that all the people that worked here lived and created in the world outside. They offered a model of how important it was that what we do is relevant to and is sited in the the communities in which we work, as opposed to being cut off from them.’

This was a reminder to me that one of the big themes of Research England’s ‘Knowledge Exchange’ project, is to encourage and enable just such a sense, that the world of ideas, of education, of research, of thought, has to exist in, in counterpoint with, and as part of the broader world which it reflects. It should never hide itself away in the grove of academe.

With Kris Tornehoj, UWRF 21 10 22

The conversation with Calyssa and our colleagues was fascinating: broadly, we discussed the ways in which the arts can reach out to an age that has become at once pacified and sedentary ( thanks to Covid and the Web) whilst also having very high expectations of what the arts should give them (thanks to Covid and the Web!!). Put simply, this means, that with people of a certain age (not young people), there’s a problem persuading them that they should walk out of the front door, and then, when/if they arrive at an event or venue, an insistence, that what they are then given, offered, should be as exciting and immersive, though not necessarily as challenging, as possible. She talked about the resistance to a play by Sam Shepard in Stillwater (Shepard lived there with his Minnesotan partner Jessica Lange from 1995 until his death in 2004).

‘It was a fantastic play, and there are so many people in town with memories of the author, and we documented a lot of those, but, still, there’s a sense that people wanted something popular- a production of ‘Singing in the Rain’, for instance!’

These are important questions and challenges, and I will have more to say about them. But there’s no question, that audiences are becoming more vocal, about what they want. As I was setting up for my concert, I overheard the following exchange from the back of the hall (from one of the ushers, getting ready to open up for the performance):

‘Make sure that he uses the microphone. There are old people here, and they say they can’t hear, unless he uses the microphone. There will be complaints.’

Working with what and audience wants and needs, and what they think they want and need, is always a delicate balance, and a balance which I am determined to get right.

River Falls gave me further insight, or at least a thought, about the relationship that we have with landscape, and how that and we change. In the 1860s a mill ‘Junction Mill’ was built on the Kinnickinnick River, taking advantage of the ‘falls’ from which the town takes its name.

The Junction Mill Smokestack, River Falls WI 21 10 22

Within a decade, River Falls was milling more corn than the Twin Cities to the west, combined.  The mill burnt down in 1896, and the municipal power station now stands by the weir which is the vestiges of its power source. However, the elegant smokestack of the mill still stands, dating back to the 1879. The design is elegant, and practical. It has clearly, been conceived, as an obelisk. In 1879, work was about to restart on the Washington Monument in DC, which had stood as only a stump since the foundation stone was laid in 1855. It is difficult to avoid the possibility that whoever built this chimney, has that imminent, enormous obelisk in mind (which would not be finished until 1888). Very practically, and with weight in mind, the bottom third of the smokestack is made from local sandstone, most likely from Cudd’s Quarry (River Falls Dolomite Quarry No. 4), two miles to the northeast. And then the top of the chimney is made from red brick. The contrast between the red and the yellow sandstone, would have been striking, when it was built.

But it is also a reminder that we are living in a post-industrial age, that the factory  and mill structures of the 17 and 1800s, and of much of the 20th century, are finding their way to other uses, to ruination, or back to nature. After all, there is no railway to Stillwater anymore (there were three), so the depot is a theatre. Industry to art, to nature. Our presence here is temporary. What do we want to leave behind?

 

22nd October – A moment to reflect. 

The great Mid-Western Writer, Patricia Hampl, at home in St Paul 22 10 22

Threads of conversation have found their way through this second week of Knowledge Exchange Violin 2. These conversations ranged from continuing dialogues with friends and colleagues that I have known for years, through to the precious one-off exchanges which are the lifeblood of travelling.

Patricia Hampl is the heart of my Midwestern family. In point of fact, she has known Malene, my wife, for many years- she first met her when Malene moved to Minnesota, when she was 16 years old. And I did not meet her properly for the first time until some years after I first started visiting the Twin Cities. She describes finding me sitting on the front porch of my father-in-law’s house, 20 years ago, clearly in a very bad mood, and unapproachable. So our conversations had to wait until I was in a better mood. But that all changed, and her ideas, and her beautiful writing are a vital source of inspiration and counterpoint for my work as an artist.

Patricia is a master of the picaresque memoir: using her own experience of her own present, she illuminates the past, and the world around us. This has resulted in an extraordinary series of works, on Montaigne, Ingres, the Czech people and culture, and one of the greatest books ever written about music, or a musician, ‘Spillville’. Spillville is a short book, almost a series of vignettes, in collaboration with the artist Stephen Sorman. Patricia offers glimpses of her time in Iowa, mirroring Dvorak’s famous sojourn in 1892, and new light is shed on that summer through Patricia’s deliberately unsystematic, poetic, even eccentric observations, from a bottle of Czech beer by the roadside on a summer’s day, through to audio tapes of old people remembering the visiting composer asking them to beat the trees to get the birds to fly, and to sing.

Over a much needed burger on Thursday night, we talked about the bible and fundamentalism, the creative vagaries of translation, the irrationality of Christ, and the extraordinary mind of the problematic apostle Paul. Most of all, we spoke of our fascination with pluralism: how understanding and holding multiple points of view can enlighten. It is good to be reminded.

Darcy Bell Myers – illustrator and harpist, at Black Letter Books, Stillwater 21 10 22

On Friday afternoon, after saying goodbye to my friends in Wisconsin, and drove the 20 miles northwest to Stillwater Minnesota. One of my favourite places on Main Street there, is Black Letter Books. The last time I was in town, it was closed. I knew that I would find something special there, and actually spend a little money in Minnesota. And so it proved, and there was another fascinating conversation.

As I struggled to decide, between two possible purchases, I had an interesting talk with Darcy Bell Myers, who was serving in the shop that day. We began by discovering shared interests: she is an illustrator and and a musician. But then, my chosen purchase, a three-volume 1808, ‘The Female Revolutionary Plutarch’, by the turncoat, journalist, publisher, and quite possibly double-agent Mortimer Goldsmith. This book tells stories of some of the women of the French Revolution that interest me (de Genlis, Madame Lamballe, Recamier and more), from Goldmith’s expediently pro-  and anti- republican stances.

Discussion of the book, and music, and my work at MIA led to Darcy’s own interest in the early 19th century harp: she showed me pictures of her own ‘Grecian’ harp by Sébastien Érard, complete with the swell pedal. It is a reminder, that the next time I am in town, which might be very soon, to do an event in the MIA exhibit, I should respond to the beautiful 18th century French harp in the exhibit. This conversation will clearly continue.

 

23rd October Twin Cities to New York City

Upper West Side, New York City. Hailing a taxi on 86th Street 23 10 22

Today was a day to travel and a day to think. I left Minneapolis very early, to drop off the hire car at the MSP airport. So I had a couple of hours with coffee waiting for the plane, then time in the air, which I spent reading Ovid’s ‘Fasti’ (this book has become fundamental to this project, but I can’t really say how or why, not yet!). And I spent a lot of time looking out of the window, at the Lakes Michigan, Erie and Huron, at the most incredible cloud formations, and as we neared Newark Airport, the most wonderful autumn colours in the woods below.

After the fun of the NJ transit to Manhattan, and then C train uptown, I arrived at Central Park West, where my father in law, the writer Garrison Keillor was hard at work. He’s 80, had major heart surgery two months ago, but, nonetheless, gave a big ‘Prairie Home Companion’ revival show in Washington DC last week, and was working to hit a deadline for a column that will be published tomorrow. We went out for supper, with his wife Jenny, and then he went back to write. He’s working away in the room next door while I write this. The message is, that the work, the real work, should never stop, if you care about it, and it cares about you.

After a short walk around the neighbourhood, which has been a second home for me for twenty years, I dragged myself back to the practice desk, made a mug of ginger tea, and have gone to work.

For, tomorrow, I am back at the Metropolitan Museum, just over the park. I have two days of preparation to get ready for filming and recording on five of the great instruments from the collection there. This is an alarmingly broad target to hit. With me, I have a large pile of 17th and early 18th century solo works, by, in no particular order, Colombi, Baltzar, Telemann, Tartini, Marini, Vilsmayr, Matteis, Cosimi, Torelli, Eccles, Purcell, Lonati, Finger, Rost, Westhoff, Montanara, de Machy, Bassano, Biber, Locatelli, Hyme, and more. Tonight, I have to take a gentle amble through the lot, so that I am ready to pull things into tighter focus tomorrow. This is where work is just work – where practice comes close to book-keeping: ensuring that both columns (need and preparation) add up. balance out. So, time to work!

24th October First Day of Collaboration in New York City/Metropolitan Museum of Art

Bradley Strauchen-Scherer, Associate curator in the Department of Musical Instruments, with composer Michael Alec Rose, Metropolitan Museum 24 10 22

 

Today was a truly inspiring first day of work here in New York City. I have to say, that the most inspiring aspect of my work, everywhere that I go, are the teams that it is my privilege to work as a small part of.  There’s a slight contradiction here, which I must acknowledge, that, whilst I tend to give very small concerts – Violin, music stand and I – I rely on teams of people to make all of this possible. The Met is no exception, and the most wonderful thing about today, when I arrived in the morning, was how much the team from Musical Instruments at the Metropolitan Museum wanted to be around, to hang out, help, offer ideas, observations, just be together, with the music and the instruments.

Since I was here in August, the wonderful luthier Gabriela Guadalajara cut new bridges for the Grancino Violetta and the Hill Piccolo violin. These are things of wonder and beauty, and I can’t wait to get back to the instruments tomorrow.

In the afternoon, Michael Alec Rose arrived, and worked with me and the jawdroppingly wonderful Stainer viola. He was/is as overwhelmed as I by the beauty of the instrument, and his piece is a wonderful counterpoint to that – and I think we both relished seeing it evolve and develop in dialogue. Instrument talks to music, and back … and we just sit back and learn. Just marvellous.

 

26th October New York City

I don’t mind admitting, that I am exhausted. It has been an extraordinary three days of exploration,

Filming on the Grancino VIoletta in the Musical Instruments Gallery at the Metropolitan Museum 26 10 22 (Photo Bradley Strauchen-Scherer)

conversation, workshop, experimentation, recording, filming, interviews. I am profoundly grateful to my friends and collaborators at the Metropolitan Museum for everything they have poured into this project. Just from a string-player’s point of view, this has been a wonder. The instruments that we have focussed in on are two violins in Baroque setup by Stradivari and Niccolo Amati, a late 18th century British Piccolo Violin (probably Joseph Hill), the Grancino Violetta/Viola d’Amore and the astonishing 1660 Jacob Stainer viola.

Right from the beginning, the focus that we had begun to find – and the conversations go back years before Covid – was a simple, even simplistic one. We must find a way to listen to what these instruments are telling/singing to us, to give them voice. A great art gallery like this one is a wonderful reminder of how this process works. If we stand, for instance in front of a great painting here,  say, by Bellini (which were were looking at today), we let the painting envelope us, work it’s magic, hopefully for a long time before we attempt to rework the image to fit our expectations, prejudices or opinions. But there is, unfortunately, the opposite tendency with historic string instruments, particularly if they come from one particular city in Lombardy. It’s all too common. A violinist (we violinists are the primary offenders here) finds that they are going to have the opportunity to play on a ‘great violin’. 95 percent of the time, there is an expectation that, in order to sound like Heifetz, Szeryng or Neveu, all that we need is to pick up a ‘Cremona’, and then lightning will strike. Of course, it doesn’t work like that. But there’s an unfortunate result which is that the enthusiastic player will often bang and strain at the unfortunate string instrument with ever more gusto, ever more pressure, and ever more (sorry to say this) vibrato, in the hope that that might help the problem. It won’t, and a great chance is missed, to listen to what instrument is telling us. The wonder of a great violin resides in its timbres, colours, resonances and sensitivities. These are all there, for the player to use, but first of all, the player (I/we) has to discover them, let them shine and ring. Talking with Bradley Strauchen Scherer, Manu Frederickx, Jayson Dobney, and Gabriela Gaudalajara at the Metmuseum over years, we decided to approach a group of instruments in this spirit; to make a gentle approach to them, to see what they offered, and even taught us. And today, I think, we got an answer that we have been hoping for: it worked.

Here’s the repertoire that I recorded today (28 movements in 5 hours, which is not bad!)

  1. Giovanni Grancino – Violetta/Viola d’amore
    1. Giuseppe Colombi – Sarabande & Giga (GDGDgb)
    2. Michel Corrette – Two Menuets (ADADad)
    3. Klagenfurt MS – G minor Suite  (GDGDad) (3 movements)
  1. Nicolo Amati – Violin
    1. Rost/Anon – Allemanda (Scordatura ADad)
    2. Biaggio Marini – Capriccio in imitation of a Lira da Braccia
    3. Giuseppe Torelli – E minor Prelude
    4. Nicola Matteis – D minor Preludio & Sarabanda
    5. Klagenfurt MS/Anon – A Major Passacaglia
  1. Antonio Stradivari – Violin
    1. Henry Eccles – A minor Prelude
    2. Klagenfurt MS – A minor Passacaglia
    3. Torelli – C minor Prelude
    4. Colombi – A corde doppie & Allemanda
  1. Joseph Hill – Piccolo Violin
    1. Tartini – 7th Piccolo Sonata A minor (Adagio)
    2. Telemann – E Flat Major Fantasy No 7
    3. Henry Purcell – G minor Prelude
    4. Baltzar – Sarabande
  1. Jakob Stainer – Viola
    1. Thomas Baltzar – Four Tunings (DAdf#)
    2. De Machy – Courante & Double
    3. Bassano – Ricercata Seconda
    4. Michael Alec Rose – Metonymy

 

There was great excitement about Michael Alec Rose’s wonderful new piece. I know that he will not mind my saying, that the Stainer viola which inspired it taught us so much about what the piece could be, how far it might reach, what an astonishing emotional arc it could traverse. In the three days of work, the instrument revealed quite extraordinary possibilities of colour, harmony, temperament (in the pitch sense), drama, and subtlety. I ended up producing sounds, playing in ways which I had not anticipated, and at times, it felt as if the composer was taking dictation from the instrument itself. The blaze of light with which the piece ends proved to be of a dark brilliance, a ‘darkness visible’ which neither of us imagined, composed or planned.

The curator, Bradley Strauchen-Scherer pointed out that she had been witness to an alchemical process, where composer/instrument/player were working together in indissoluble concert. We did add that there was another element: she was in the room, not just observing, but taking a powerful, profoundly intuitive role in the ‘composers workshop’.

The piece is a marvel – and a testament to Rose’s profound vision. I can’t wait to play it again.

I also need to pay tribute to the wonderful team today: so grateful to cameraman Bobby Berry and engineer Chris Shurtleff, for their brilliance, endurance, creativity and joy in their work. I know how lucky I am.

Left to Right: PSS, Michael Alec Rose (Composer), Bobby Berry (DP), Chris Shurtleff (Sound), Bradley Scherer-Strauchen (Curator)
Met Museum. 26 10 22

27th October Update

Today was a much needed respite from the intensity of this project. But there was a lot to think about, as I to reflect on the past few days, and to hear feed back from people who have heard, seen, and in some cases been very excited by what the team here in New York City have achieved. I am just a very small part of that.

My working map of the National Gallery of Art intervention (s) New York City 27 10 22

And of course there’s the next challenge. I have, now, to steer Knowledge Exchange Violin towards the dialogue between music and the fine arts – to whit, painting, sculpture, when I spend three days at the National Gallery of

Art Washington DC, starting on Sunday.

For the past two weeks, this scrappy printout has travelled with me. I have taped it to Motel mirrors, on blinds, worried over it in diners, made new versions of it, and wondered what I am doing. This is the working map for my two days of pop-up concerts in the West Building of the ‘NGA’ that begin on Monday morning, after Sunday afternoon prep when I get to DC. I continue to puzzle out combinations of pictures, spaces and music new and old, and then forget my reason for doing what I have done. This evening, I sat in my family’s favourite diner on 90th and Broadway, and dug through pictures, artists, spaces and music, again.

In doing so I got waylaid by the wonder of Francois Boucher’s drawings (which are not on show), and had to drag myself back to the workbench (with the help of an excellent cheeseburger). I am going to spend two days in the Connecticut countryside, before I go south, so I am hoping that my thinking will become clearer. Aut viam inveniam aut faciam. 

Earlier in the day, clarity from another great american writer. I hung out this morning, with my father-in-law, Garrison Keillor. Over coffee and pancakes, we talked about the importance of staying small, what can be achieved when you work intimately with audiences, so that they can contribute, be a vital part of the work. It’s something that we both believe in passionately. I think that a large part of my advocacy for site-specific programmes and projects comes from the privilege of watching Garrison work with audiences from LA to Newport, from Sitka to Fort Lauderdale. He never repeats himself, and always, always, works to weave his listeners’ lives and experiences into the work, in real time. The outcomes can be brilliant. This is what I am trying to achieve, with Knowledge Exchange Violin – to understand, to listen, to collaborate, to let things happen.

The writer speaks. Garrison Keillor on a Broadway Diner, 27th October 2022

29th October – Connecticut

It was good to spend a couple of days, away from the intensity of this project, in a landscape as different from the Utah deserts, canyons and buttes as possible. Yesterday I drove north from Manhattan, through Yonkers, up to the Bedford Hills, and then North East from Brewster, through Bethel, and up to Oxford Connecticut, all on back roads. There’s nothing quite like New England in the Fall, and this was a truly marvellous drive. It gave me time to think, to regroup, and to gasp, again and again, at the ravishing autumn colours: here’s a challenge for any artist – Match this!

Connecticut Fall wonder. Cote Pond, Oxford CT 28 10 22

Sunday October 30th Northeast Regional 143 New York – Washington/Preparation at the National Gallery of Art

As always, my favourite place to work. My desk in the café car on the north-east regional 143 train from New York to Washington DC. Working on the map of my intervention over the next three days into the west building of the National Gallery of Art. Pairing works contemporaneous with the art? with pieces by my wonderful collaborating composer friends

One of my favourite things about American trains, are the Cafe Cars. It doesn’t matter how slow the train, or how cheap my seat: I know that I can set up at a table in the cafe care, on a good hard seat – designed to be uncomfortable, but it’s perfect for me – and there will be an unlimited supply of Earl Grey tea for a few dollars, and I can work to my heart’s content while the landscape streams past. So the train south from New York City has always been an absolutely favourite place for me, to work and think. So today, I was able to dive deep into the 16 mini programmes and the paired up pictures I will be performing with and to in the NGA tomorrow and Tuesday.

On Tuesday, I will be be playing Mihailo Trandafilovski and Westhoff next to Orazio Gentilleschi’s exquisite Luteplayer (ca. 1620) at the National Gallery DC. It strikes me that the violin and wonderful Antonino Airenti bow that I am using , are outrageously close to the instruments shown (beautifully) in this detail from the painting.

When I arrived at the gallery, I met up with Sarah Bradshaw, who will be working with me on the project in the next few days, to walk the gallery – checking up on where I will perform, talking about everything from the ideas behind the various pairings of old and new music and paintings, to sight lines and access issues.

I will write this all up in detail after day one, tomorrow. But first a note.

Everytime I come to DC, I take a little pilgrimage to the back, the north side of the National RC Archive. There, carved on one of four panels (two on each long side of the building) is the inscription ‘What is Past is Prologue’. Like many people of my age, I first saw this at the end of the Oliver Stone movie ‘JFK’.  I had no idea, when I first saw the film, how much the motto would get under my skin – become fundamental to much of what I do. It’s Shakespeare, of course, from ‘The Tempest’. The correct quote is:

‘Whereof what’s past is prologue, what to come/In yours and my discharge.’ (The Tempest, act II, scene i, line 253)

But it’s a wonderful way to think about the dialogue between old and new, in both directions and particulars, that is the essence of what I am doing here over the next few days!

Inscription, the National Archives Building, the Mall, Washington DC. Completed 1935 Architect: John Russell Pope

October 31st – Popup performances around the National Gallery of Art Washington DC

Response to my work in the NGA, from an audience member, Nan Dawkins, who is an artist:

‘As an artist, I often visit the National Gallery in Washington to say hello to some of my favorite paintings and catch the latest exhibit. On my last visit, I was a little rushed and almost skipped one of my favorite paintings, The Lute Player, by Artemesia Gentileschi’s father, Orazio. I have often wondered about the instruments depicted in that painting, so imagine the thrill I felt when I rounded the corner to find Peter Sheppard Skaerved standing in front of “my” painting, playing the violin. In between performances, Peter talked about the violin in the painting and the one he was playing. I was mesmerized, both by Peter’s knowledge and by his musical performance. It was a day at The National Gallery that I will never forget.’

November 2nd Washington DC

Amati violin meets its twin in Orazio Gentilleschi’s 1620 ‘The Lute Player’

I don’t mind admitting that the past three days have been overwhelming. The last week of this trip was always planned as the most intense of the whole project, and so it is proving, as I sit writing his on my last evening in Washington. Tomorrow I travel to Baltimore for the last two adventures before heading home on Sunday, and I admit that I am exhausted and uplifted.

In the course of the two days in the National Gallery, I played works written for me by Sadie Harrison, Jörg Widman, Dafina Zeqiri, David Gorton, Judith Bingham, Nicola LeFanu, Elliott Schwartz, Hafliði Hallgrímsson, Naji Hakim, Evis Sammoutis, Peter Sculthorpe, David Matthews, Michael Hersch, Paul Pellay, and Michael Alec Rose. Along side this, works from the 16th, 17thy, 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries by Bassano, Marini, Baltzar, Matteis, Torelli, Purcell, Biber, de Machy, Vilsmayr, Telemann, Bach, Locatelli, Corrette, Rousseau, Viotti, Pindar, Gluck, Woldemar, Ysaÿe, Joachim, Kreutzer, from the Rost Codex and the Klagenfurt Manuscript (and I am sure that I have forgotten some). But at least 35 composers in two days.

Every location, every station, every group of people that listened to me inspired, uplifted and challenged me. Playing Biber’s ‘Passacaglia’ ‘to’ the Rodin’s ‘Age of Bronze’ was as terrifying as playing the Bach Chaconne to an Apollo Citharedes in in Nicosia. A little girl was delighted by Michael Alec Rose’s depiction of the galloping Centaur in the ‘Meeting of St Paul and St Antony’ by the Master of the Osservanza. It was fantastically moving to bring Elliott Schwartz’ evocation of Thomas Jefferson and Maria Cosway back to one of the Gilbert Stuart portraits that inspired it, and also to play it alongside his Adams and Washington Portraits. After playing Kreutzer and Rousseau surrounded by Vernet, Boucher and Fragonard, two Georgetown Sophomores wanted to talk about Virgil with me. I played De Machy ‘Piéces de Viole’ alongside a contemporaneous LeGros musical fountain sculpture of a lyre. Playing Dafina Zeqiri and Pindar over a 3rd century Roman mosaic of Tragic Theatrical and Musical Attributes felt like some pagan ritual. The encounter with the Gentilleschi ‘Luteplayer’ was overwhelming – playing in front of this sublime depiction of musicmaking was astonishing. I will write more about this on the train north in a couple of days.

Michae; Alec Rose’s ‘Saint Tour’ meets its inspiration, and the centaur (note the pun) – ‘St Antony and St Paul’ by the mysterious ‘Master of the San Osservanza’

I played in galleries of all sizes, shapes and acoustics, from the intimate to the cathedral-like. And throughout, there was the amazing experience for me, of people finding, surprised by, music, alongside, in concert with painting and sculpture. I also realised that I relished the unannounced, and consequently, semi-anonymous quality of the performances. It people asked me, or the team working with me, who I am, then I told them. But the majority just encountered music, and someone playing music. This is particularly poignant, in the city, where a few years back, a violin-playing colleague made a certain amount of (interesting) hay, about not being recognised playing in the Metro. There are many paintings here, painted by forgotten artists. And I was playing music by anonymous 17th century composers. Would knowing who I am (or, more to the point, my knowing that people know who I am) bring any extra lustre to the experience. I am not sure that it would!

Here are the works that I played at the NGA (Minus some unplanned additions!_

Telemann _ B minor Fantasie

Michael Alec Rose – Saint Tour after the ‘Osservanza’ (World Premiere)

Jean- Rousseau/Pindar – Air de Pindar, Air a trois notes

Evis Sammoutis – Nicosia Etudes

Elliott Schwartz (after Gilbert Stuart) – Portrait

Pierre Baillot ‘Chant des Litanies’ & Air Ancienne

Biaggio Marini – Capriccio in imitation of a Lira

Jörg Widmann- Etude 1

Peter Sculthorpe – Alone

Giovanni Battista Viotti – Ranz des Vaches

Giuseppe Tartini – Sonata Piccola  

Sadie Harrison – ‘Ballare una passacaglia di ombre’

De Machy – Pieces de Viole

Naji Hakim Miroir

Gluck /Woldemar – ‘Avant l’Aurore’

David Gorton – Caprices

Giuseppe Colombi – Scordaturae

Judith Bingham – Venus & Adonis /We Two

Dafina Zeqiri Dream

Heinrich Biber -Passacaglia

Michael Hersch – In the snowy margins

Nicolo Paganini – Caprices

Paul Pellay – Consolazione

Mihailo Trandafilovski – Chaconne

Giacomo Bassano – Ricercar

Ivan Skender-Korcula Variations

Pietro Locatelli – Il Laberinto

Library of Congress 2nd November

Filming (and being interviewed) at the Library of Congress, Washington DC, by the team from NBC 4 3 11 22

On the following morning I walked up Capitol Hill to one of my favourite places on earth – the  Library of Congress. It goes without saying that this is one of the great libraries. But over the past decade – and – a – half, it has been my privilege and my joy to work with the astonishing collection of instruments and the paper holdings of the museum, for a series of performances and presentations, on the Revolutionary Violin, on Paganini, and on Stradivari. You can see one of these here.

It is such a joy to work with the team at the Library, and every time I go back, it is like going home. The Curator of the musical instruments, Carol Lynn Ward-Bamford always has so many things for me to explore, and challenges for me to take. And one of the central inspirations for Knowledge Exchange Violin has been one very special instrument she introduced me – a star among the collection there, which includes three Stradivari Violins (among them the ‘Betts’) and the ‘Kreisler’ Guarnerius del Gesù. This is a very special Niccolo Amati, made in 1654 – the Brooking. A decade ago, Carol Lynn handed me this violin, while I was getting ready to play a concert on 4 strads and the del Gesù:

‘This is going to change your life’, she said.

The Brooking Amati (1654) in the newly converted state! Library of Congress, Washington DC 2 11 22

And she was right. It really did. This marked the beginning of my exploration of the instruments of the four generations of Amatis, and of a new idea of warmth and generosity, of family, in what a violin can do, and how it was made. Over the summer, this violin, which I know so well, was returned to ‘early setup’ by the great luthier Kenneth Montgomery. And I was the first violinist to publicly try the violin in its new/old set up. Only a week ago, I was playing on the Metropolitan Museum’s Amati, which was put ‘back’ to baroque setup in the 1970s. So there is a huge amount to be said about the experience of this violin ‘reborn’.

All that I will say, for now, is that I was/am enchanted. The violin has retained its richness, it’s dark-light-ness (something that we observed about the Stainer Viola at the MetMuseum). And I could not put it down: and then things got very real, and very public, all of a sudden. There’s a lot of media interest around the Library at the moment, and a team from NBC 4 wanted to film me playing and talking about Stradivari and Amati, and with Carol Lynn talking about the work of the museum.

Before they arrived, we discussed which instruments to use. We decided to contrast instruments in modern and old setup, so chose the Ward Stradivari, and the Amati. It also seemed important to emphasise the link to Thomas Jefferson: his book collection laid the foundations for the library in 1815, and, of course, he was a violinist, and a music lover (see what I wrote about Elliott Schwartz, Jefferson, Maria Cosway and Gilbert Stuart above). So I played music by composers and thinkers that Jefferson loved and played on the Ward (Rousseau and Tartini), and Marini on the Amati.

And then I talked with the charming and thoughtful reporter, Tommy McFly, about why I loved these instruments – the contact across time, with the care, devotion and love which the makers put into them, and which absolutely, SINGS OUT, when we play them. And I talked about the love of natural materials, how a violin frames and resonates with the glory of the wood from which it is made, how it celebrates the beauty of nature which we aspire to, reach for, attempt to match and copy, and which nature throws at us, so generously, at every moment.

The team seemed very excited, and even moved, by the experience, which was lovely. And, as I have said too many times, we only find out what we can do, in concert, counterpoint with music and instruments, when it is witnessed. So I learnt so much: big plans for what next with the instruments!

Carol Lyn Ward-Bamford, Curator of Musical Instruments at the Library of Congress, with an astonishing Viola D’Amore. 2 11 22

After this – down into the wonderful store-room of the Music Division, for a conversation about some amazing instruments – a Quinton, a Pardessus and two spectacular Viole d’amore – one anonymous, and one by Ferdinand Gagliano. Conversations about setups, tone colour, a and most importantly (bearing in mind the work on Grancino last week) ‘What is a violin/viola/viola – bowed string instrument?’

The totality of my experience in Washington this week has been completely overwhelming, and, to be honest, as I get to the end of this trip, I find, that I am increasingly unable to referee my thoughts and ideas, as there’s so much to talk about. I promise that I will become a little more coherent, over the next few days!

3rd November En Route to Baltimore

3-4th November – A wonderful time in Baltimore

Performing Evis Sammoutis ‘ Nicosia Etudes’ with the Choir of St David’s Episcopalian Church, Baltimore 4 11 22

The centre of the work that I had planned to do here in Baltimore was an experiment. For some years, Evis Sammoutis and I have been collaborating on a series of works inspired by the medieval French history of his native Cyprus. One of the important artefacts that survives from this mysterious, and almost lost time in Mediterranean history, is the ‘Cyprus Codex’, a collection of anonymous vocal works collected at the beginning of the 1400s, when a French noblewoman moved to the island to marry King Janus I.

Evis’ ‘Nicosia Etudes’ includes fragments of music from this collection of secular and religious music. These are scored for violin alone, but he and I are moving towards an ensemble version of the pieces.

The director of music at St Davids Episcopalian Church, and of its associated concert series, has used works from the Codex in liturgical performance. He suggested that it would be an exciting experiment, to bring the new music and some of the 15th century polyphony back together. I was certainly enthusiastic, and the idea that this experiment might be presented as part of my concert of very old and very new music in the concert series was an irresistible proposition.

On my first night in Baltimore, I met up with the choir and Douglas, and we spent a first evening experimenting. One of the most exciting things about collaborating is the unexpected. I had a working idea of how the studies and the codex material might work together, but the visceral thrill of working with voices, with such enthusiastic, powerful, and generous singers, was something I had not anticipated. I set in motion one of my key working methods, which I call ‘the rules of the game’. It is an idea, and a technique, which I have been exploring and developing, since first inventing it, initially for use in painting and drawing, nearly two decades ago. The ‘rules of the game’ is just this:

‘If you have an idea – you have to follow it. You are not allowed to resist – unless you have another idea, which you also have to follow ..’

For the first section of the piece, I asked the singers to whisper, susurrate, hiss, murmur or mumble words from the Gloria which they were were about to sing. This was in counterpoint to Evis’ first etude, ‘Resonance’. The ‘rules’ that I mention, governed their responses to the highly coloured, timbral music that I was playing. About 3/4 of the way through the etude, we decided that one of the tenors, Michael, should ‘intone’ the Gloria with:

‘Gloria in Excelsis Deo’

Before the choir joined in with the Codex Gloria, we arranged that I should play the rising and falling tremolandi which end the first study. Then, it seemed to work that I should wait for the first sentence from the choir should finish, before I moved to the second etude. This is the first of Evis’ set that makes overt reference to vocal material from the Codex. However, and I enjoyed this offset, the material that he uses here, is secular, not Latin taken from Volume IV #26 of the Codex:

‘Tour vrai solas ferat en moi entrer…’

We explored how the choir might vary timbre and dynamics, and I moulded the shape of the intricate second study, to flicker and fly, in around, above and below, the glorious choral music, until I head the ‘Amen, Amen’ – my cue to find my way to the end of the study, and to explore various ways of ending to counterpoint the vocal music. This was truly great fun, and I found my way on the 94 bus to my hotel down by the harbour, in a very happy mood, eagerly anticipating the concert tomorrow.

Sammoutis – Nicosia Etude II ‘Tout Vrait solus ferat en moi entrer’ with the ‘Gloria’ from the Cyprus Codex 10 11 22

It really had been a wonderful first day. I had been a little anxious about leaving the familiar environment, friends and luxurious

James Warner Duquette, at the ‘Bun Shop’, Baltimore 3 11 22

accommodations in Washington, and the first hour or so in Baltimore had been a little lonely: a spartan hotel, and a walk around the Inner Harbour by myself: but then I got a message, from the young composer James Warner Duquette, who I ‘met’ and collaborated with extensively during Lockdown, but had never ever met:

‘Just found out that you are in town – meet me at ‘The Bun Shop”

So we met, for the first time, and spent a fascinating, and inspiring few hours talking about the things that fascinate us, and particularly interesting for me, the extraordinarily pure, distilled, nature of his writing, and imagination. This actually set up me, perfectly for the evening of exploration and experimentation with the choir that followed.

Breakfast and drawing at Zekes, Pigtown, Baltimore 4 11 22

The following day, I had carefully kept free, before the concert in the evening. There were two reasons: First of all, I had to conserve my energy, after the intensity of the previous few days, and secondly, there was a museum that I really had  to visit – and it was not the wonderful  Walters Art Museum on Mount Vernon, near the Peabody Institute, which I know and love. So I got up and walked west, past the Baltimore Orioles Stadium, past the Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum, and into the charming streets of Pigtown. There I found the perfect start to the day, a lovely sidewalk table, a good croissant and excellent coffee. These are important things.

Just a couple of blocks north of my breakfast table, you find the yard and astonishing roundhouse of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Museum, which is one of the greatest railway museums, and certainly, the most beautiful. I am fascinated with industrial history, and am an unashamed railway enthusiast (and model builder). If I can put my finger on one reason for this fascination, it is the astonishing (and varied) balances of form and function which the great railway engineers, builders and designers explored and pioneered. The balance of power and beauty of a great 19th century steam locomotive is something which any musician will recognise and, perhaps, seek to emulate, to learn from.

And so it proved at the museum, which, amongst other wonders, offers the most astonishing collection of early engines bringing together creativity and often eccentricity of invention with exquisite design solutions and outrageous beauty of decoration. These are housed in a veritable cathedral to the train. I spent the morning slack-jawed in wonder and inspired for the evening performance.

Two astonishing locomotives – on the left the 1869 4-6-0, Davis Camel, on the right the 1856 4-4-0″William Mason.” which carried President-elect Abraham Lincoln to his inauguration in Washington, DC. B&O Railroad Museum 4 11 22

Here’s a glimpse of the concert – playing Mihailo Trandafilovski’s ‘Chaconne’, later that day. Clearly, inspired_

Paul Ritterhoff was the excellent cameraman and sound-recordist for this concert. He wrote this about the event:

‘While I’ve recorded concerts at St. David’s many times in recent years, I truly enjoyed meeting, hearing, and recording Peter’s century-spanning performance. He shared virtuosity, humanity, and humility in equal measure, and his collaboration with Doug and the St. David’s choir was an inspiration.’ (E mail 7th November 2022)

Here is the concert programme:

Biagio Marini-Capriccio (imitation of a Lira) Op 8 (Published 1627)                           

Sadie Harrison –  ‘….ballare una passacaglia di ombre…'(after Biber) (2012)             

Thomas Baltzar – Four Tunings (1660 Scordatura AEACsharp)                                   

Anna Thorvaldsdottir – Heyr þú oss himnum á & Hafliði Hallgrímsson – ‘Frau Klee is Sleeping’ (2018)                                    

Anon (Klagenfurt Manuscript) – G minor Partia ( 1685) Scordatura GDAD                 

Edward Cowie –  ‘Peter’s Easter EGG Passacaglia’ (2020) (US Premiere)                    

Cyprus Codex – Gloria & Evis Sammoutis – Nicosia Etudes (2014-2022)                                               

Johann Joseph Vilsmayr –  G minor Partia ‘Artificiosus Concentus ‘ (1700)               ’

Mihailo Trandafilovski – Chaconne (2022)                                                                 

Pietro Antonio Locatelli -‘Il laberinto armonico/’L’arte del violino (Published 1733)   

Here is the ‘public experiment’ with Evis Sammoutis piece, at the heart of the concert!

After the composer heard this, he dropped me a note which indicates how useful trying something a little nuts like this can be:

‘What a wonderful idea! And yes a lot of potential there it gives me an idea for one of the movements of the concerto actually!’

Experimentation, trying the crazy idea, can offer a clue for the way forward!

5th November Philadelphia 

So up early again on to take the train north to Philadelphia. There I was going to play a concert, curated and planned my dear friend, tje the composer Michael Hersch. At the centre of this programme was a harrowing sequence of pieces by the great composer who introduced us, back in 2004, George Rochberg. These were taken from his epic ‘Caprice Variations’ which has been central to my work and thinking about music for many years. For both Michael and I, George was family. And cunningly, Michael offset the Rochberg variations with a rare piece with another composer who was crucial to both of us, Hans Werner Henze. In some ways , Rochberg was all around us, as the concert took place in the astonishing studio of the great sculptor, Christopher Cairns, who was actually responsible for my meeting with George (see the film below). George was one of Cairn’s favourite subjects, and his head is everywhere in the studio, which is full of the most astonishing, emotionally fraught, beautiful sculpture. Here’s a corner of the studio, with a bust of Rochberg on a desk. There are enormous Rochberg heads all around!

Christopher Cairns – sculptures – George Rochberg to the left
Cairns Studio 5 11 22

I will speak more about Hersch’s astonishing work later, but one of the great joys of the concert was that lots of young composers made the

With Michael Hersch, (centre behind)Tim Holt (far left) and Peabody Composition Students. Cairns Studio 5 11 22

trip from the Peabody Institute, in Baltimore, where he teaches. It has been my joy to perform and talk there many times, and it was wonderful to see how they young musicians were introduced to the special salon atmosphere of the studio concert (which is invitation only) and the conversation which bloomed afterwards, inspired by the music, the art, the space and the company. This resonates so well with ideas I was leading at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts ‘Revolution a la Mode’ (see above)!

 

Programme for concert at the Studio of Chris Cairns, Havertown, Philadelphia

Giovanni Bassano – Ricercata Ottava (Ricercata/Passagi et Cadentie)
Iannis Xenakis – Mikka
Hans Werner Henze – Ländler
George Rochberg – Caprice Variations (excerpts: nos. 34-35, 39, 41-42, 44-45, 47-49)
Helmut Lachenmann – Toccatina
Giovanni Bassano – Ricercata Ottava
–   i n t e r m i s s i o n   –
Michael Hersch – Of Sorrow Born – seven elegies

I was particularly blessed, in Philadelphia, with a meeting, and a collaboration with the young composer Tim Holt, who was working as camera and sound recordist for my concert. He quietly handed me a delicate new piece, ‘Ikebana 1’ which was dedicated to me. My response, with music when I am given it, is to play it. So while the cameras still rolled, I played it, and then he talked about the piece, and the Japanese art of ‘making flowers alive’ for which it is named. So then I played it again, and the piece, had, literally come alive. Absolutely charming, and I will play it on the 17th November at Goldsmiths College, London, as part of my performance there.

My main reason for being in Philadelphia was to continue my long-term collaboration and exploration with Michael Hersch.

At work with composer Michael Hersch. Cairns Studio, Havertown PA 5 11 22

This has resulted in a lot of new works over the years, and a large scale recording project, which we are presently completing. The second half of the concert was focused on his ‘Of Sorrow Born’, a set of seven elegies for violin alone. This was a piece which we worked on extensively, remotely over Covid, and now was my chance to see/feel the impact on an audience.

In recent years, my conversation and collaboration with Michael, has been alongside a dialogue with Karen Hersch, his wife. Karen, who teaches at Temple University, is one of the world experts on the lives of the women of ancient Rome. Much of her work focuses on the boundaries between ritual and daily life, between history and myth, and reading her ‘The Roman Wedding: Ritual and Meaning in Antiquity’ (Cambridge University Press) this summer has helped many aspects of this project. In addition, she urged me to read Ovid’s ‘Fasti’: this wonderful book has been in my bag everywhere that I have travelled over the past three months.

Why do I love this book so much? Why does it help? Well, Ovid, decided to tell the story of the calendar, of the days of the year. In doing so he, accidentally-on-purpose tells the story of, well, everything, but without hierarchy. It is, in so many ways, a ‘common-place book’, full of information about the practicalities of day-to-day life, the disputes of the gods, baking, astronomy, legends, travel, time-keeping, marriage. Like music, like art, it offers purchase at every level, every stratum, every scale. I would like my project to do that .

8th November RSPB Farnham Heath (Back in the UK!)

The cadence for this month of intense work, was back in the UK. The morning after arriving back in the UK we made our way to RSPB Farnham Heath, where in the year before Covid, writer Laurence Rose, composer Mihailo Trandafilovski and I had had a deep intervention ‘The Dream of the Field Cricket’. Now it was time to return in a different season, for a day exploring the warp and weft between nature and the arts which had begun Knowledge Exchange Violin, back in the summer at RSPB Morecambe Bay.

Cameraman Immo Horn gets close to a Fly Agaric/Amanita muscaria, during the day Filming at RSPB Farnham Heath 8th November 2022

Working with Director Malene Skaerved, Cameraman Immo Horn, and the Warden of Farnham Heath, Mike Coates, Laurence and I spent a day walking and talking on the heath, exploring the weave between Art and the Natural World, which is the essence of this project. At the end of the day which had seen us lashed with every weather that could be thrown at us, a golden afternoon bloomed, and we recorded text and music in the extraordinary light and atmosphere.

 

 

George Wood Theatre, Goldsmiths University of London 17 11 22

I was only back in the UK for just over two weeks, but I took the opportunity to bring the progress on Knowledge Exchange Violin to Goldsmiths, University of London, where I am the visiting research fellow. There’s a wonderful ‘black box’ concert hall there, and it was fantastic to bring some of the works and ideas which have been developing and share them with the informed and perceptive audience, including composers, photographers and writers at this institution taht is so important to me. Here’s my introduction to the ideas.

Back in the USA! Minnesota and New York City 26th November – 8th December 

So I have come back to the USA to deepen my collaborations in the Midwest and on the East Coast. But, in the couple of weeks since I was here last, winter has arrived, at least in the Twin Cities, with a vengeance!

The Saint Croix River begins to freeze. -15 degrees celsius. 30th November 2022

 

Weather, tides, migration, the seasons, is a vital part of this project. Every time we look at the rings of a tree, the grain on the front of the violin, we are looking at the legacy of this constant cycling, of freezing and rebirth, the tidal sweep of temperature, the thing which offers Maple and Spruce, or Pernambuco for violins, so much of its beauty. As soon as I could, when I had an afternoon to myself in the Twin Cities, I took the short drive East to to the river which marks the border with Wisconsin, and down from the restored prairie land at Afton, through the woods which crowd the sandstone bluffs, down to the river. Deep fresh snow, and the water just acquiring that gelutinous quality as the river begins to freeze over, and miraculous patterns and shapes, ice, snow, current, wind, sandbars and tree stumps in the water creating unimaginably beautiful forms.

The freezing river made me think about De Machy, and the wonderful Stainer viola – so here is the Courante on that instrument, last month in New York, with a short film of the Saint Croix, beginning its long journey through winter…

There are a number of parts to my return to the US. The first, was, by popular demand, to give two more salon performances at the Minneapolis Instute of Arts, in the Revolution A La Mode Exhibit which has been such a big part of the last year’s work. In the first of these, I went deeper into the relationship between the world of the Parisian Salons – playing Lorenziti, Tartini, Kreutzer, Woldemar and more, back in front of the wonderful Vigée-le Brun portrait which dominates this exhibit/salon.

The hour before the r has become a vital part of these free-flowing events. A number of people made sure that they were in the room while I was preparing: asking me questions and pointing out fascinating insights about the materials. And two school classes came in, a little surprised to find me there. The first was a group of high school juniors, over the border from Wisconsin: they got excited thinking about the close relationships between art, music, fashion and revolution. One of them confessed that he could decide what he wanted to do more at college – study art or play football. The second class were 2nd and 3rd graders from a nearby Minneapolis school. A wonderful conversation emerged about the textures of the cloths (wool and silk) in the Le Brun painting, and how it related to the textures of the grass, moss and earth on which the lady is sitting: back to materials again.

Rehearsing with Amy Nam. Babcock Trail, St Paul

Soon after I arrived, I met with with the brilliant young composer harpist Amy Nam, to prepare for the second salon at MIA, next week, on the 6th December. One of the stars of the show, is a wonderful harp by Cousineau, and this last concert will celebrate the chamber music for harp and violin that interleaved with conversation in the salons. And some of the most brilliant thinkers, writers and teachers of the day, were harpists themselves. Marie-Antoinette, of course, but especially the troublesome Stéphanie de Genlis, who applied her radical educational ideals (the young should instruct the old, essentially) to her harp method: her ideas about teaching were strikingly modern modern ideas of teaching. She used magic lantern slides to teach history, and took a botanist on walks to teach her students about the natural world. Her words and music will be heard together at next week’s event, alongside music by Krumpholtz, Gluck, Petrini and more.

The workshop is never far from my mind as an ideal and a reality. So I was delighted to be able to drive down to Northfield, most famous as the location of the First National Bank of Northfield, which Jesse James’ ‘James-Younger’ gang attempted to rob on Sept. 7, 1876,. They were thwarted by citizens of the town, resulting in a shootout, which left three gang members dead, three captured, and the flight of James to Missouri. My reason for visiting was far more sedate:

Archetier Matt Wehling’s workshop. Northfield, MN

bowmaker Matt Wehling had (see above) had invited me to his workshop. This was a revelatory visit, for me, and will need some really careful thinking. But here’s an insight about wood, one of many Matt offered.

At the end of a long and fascinating conversation about many aspects of making bows, Matt took me over to a large stack of Pernambuco (Brazil Wood), all of it cut into the rudimentary L-shaped blanks from which bows are carved and bent.

‘I really want to show you something. Here – hold the slick at it’s balancing point, hanging down vertically, and tap it. Now put it to your ear, and listen…’

To my astonishment, every piece of wood, although essentially the same size, weight and proportion, had a distinct pitch, or rather a chord, discrete flowerings of harmonics, and notable variation of ictus, and drop-off after the attack one even crescendo-ed after the attack, like a harpsichord note. Absolutely astonishing – and I was so struck how Matt said that he chose wood for a specific player using this method, linking the acoustic qualities of the wood, to the characters and playing characteristics of each performer. Yet again, I was moved, as so often in the the past, by how much the work of the maker is linked to the composer, the painter, the writer. I learn so much, every time the workshop door is opened, and I am privileged to be let in.

On the 30th November, I was back at the Landmark Centre, St Paul, to give a lecture recital about more amazing letters from the collection of the Schubert Club Music Museum there. This time, I focused on musicians and travel: Brahms insisting on staying put, Clara Schumann on trains, and her friend Ole Bull travelling in the USA.

Here’s how I began. You might notice that the question of workshops was, is, very much on my mind:’

As a violinist, what do I find inspiring? The most obvious answer is the music that I play. One of the most exciting things about performing is that music does not happen, until till it is made, and the making of usic involves, at its most basic- , composition, performance and listening. [Pause] Every musician finds the silent scores that we use all the time,  to be, at once, objects of veneration and utility. They are, in every sense, what the pianist Daniel Ben Pienaar calls ‘our Daily Bread’. We spend whole lifetimes trying to understand them ,  scrutinizing their meaning, looking to find purchase in them, so that we might reach for the beauty, the profound truths, that they so often reveal and hide in equal measure. And we understand them as primers, as instruction books, road maps: they tell us what to do, when to do it, how to do it, and occasionally …why./But we musicians always need to know more, to discover more. This is not because there’s any inadequacy in the way that music is communicated to us, on the page, in the score.  Indeed, by comparison with play and movie scripts, the notation of music is far more integrated: it offers an amazing simultaneity of multiple practicalities (of pitches, rhythms, text, dynamics, tempo, counterpoints, timbres, and much more). But we musicians are never satisfied: Perhaps this very abundance of materials, of information, leads performers to want something more to try to dig deeper: I ofter think that we are convinced that music is a huge conspiracy – that the more composers tell us, in the score, the more we are convinced that they must be hiding from us. But, some of this something more that so many of us reach for can be found in letters between musicians, offering us, a glimpse behind the curtain, of the celestial workings./…all of which makes the collection, the paper holdings,  of the Schubert Club Music Museum, here in St Paul, at once a treasure, and an inspiring ‘tool kit’ for performers like me. Today I would like to explore just a few of the musicians that reach out to me from this extraordinary collection,  for a variety of reasons.’

The following day, I left for New York City, back to the instrument collection of the Metropolitan Museum. This time, the object of my particular interest has been the small English violin, which might date from the mid 18th century. The instrument has been bought for the museum by two generous donors to the museum, Eric and Susan Greenberg. Part of my visit was to celebrate their gift, and to talk about and play the violin for them. As even, the exploration, the conversations led to new ideas, new insights. But first of all, let me give a shout out to the people who support museums. Here I am with the Greenbergs

Peter Sheppard Skaerved, with Susan and Erich Greenberg, generous donors to the Metropolitan Museum New York City 2 12 22

Interestingly, this violin has sent me straight back to the work that I have done in the past with the astonishing 1685 Stradivari (small) violin from the collection of the Royal Northern College of music. It is clear enough to me, that whoever made this English instrument was well

The beautiful two piece back of the 1685 Stradivari

acquainted with Cremonese making and with the small violins made by Stradivari. So a plan is afoot, to bring these two instruments together, and see what they say to each other. Unlike this (or any other Stradivari violin), this instrument at the Met still has its original neck, so there are many insights to be gleaned from working with it. AND, most important of all, it is a wonderful instrument to play, full of colour and precise articulation- all the syntax which a great small violin can offer, is there!