Sunday, January 25, 2009

What is a Cello?

What is a cello? The dictionary says it's “the second largest member of the violin family, rested vertically on the floor between the performer's knees when being played. Also called violoncello”. The word “cello” is a shortened version of the Italian word violoncello, which is not related to the violin at all, but rather the violone, the Italian word for double bass combined with the diminutive cello,
meaning “small bass”. The English “cello” is a recent shortening of violoncello, dating from the 1870's.

The cello as Thing is much more than these simple definitions imply. What does the cello-character of the cello consist of? It consists of wood, at least three kinds. In older times woods like poplar, lime, pear, and cedar were used for the back and sides; rosewood for the fingerboard. Today preference is given to Bosnian Spruce from the Balkan peninsula for the top, Italian Maple for the back and sides,
and exotic tropical Ebony for the fingerboard. These woods each have their own distinct character.

Spruce is light and strong, flexible and resonant. Maple is harder, reflective and stable. Ebony is dense, not porous and changeable. These woods grow from the Earth, the source of all materials for building and making, the place to which all materials return when they no longer are Things. The trees are nourished by the Sky, the location of the Heavens and Divinities, of the Sun and the Rain and the Moon. All these qualities are combined in the woods of a cello. In older times, the wood might have passed through the port of Venice, mixed together with the same woods that the long oars of gondolas are fashioned from. The wood is shaped by chisel and gouge and scraper by the human hands of the maker. The maker must possess great technique. This is not simple handicraft, but the Greek techne, to make something appear.

The Spruce is the front of the cello, the open expressive side that shares: the face. The Sun, Moon and Stars inhabit this region. The Maple is the back and sides, the frame that supports and gives strength: the spine. The roots that anchor in the Earth find their place here. The Ebony is the fingerboard, a Cartesian surface without coordinates, a smooth surface for fingers to travel on: the dwelling place. The cello has a neck, a long neck for the hand to travel along, to caress and to hold. The cello has a head as well, a nautilus shaped scroll with Golden Mean proportions.

The cello has an endpin to anchor the cello in the earth like the leg of a compass, the center from which the radius is drawn by the cello outward into the World of sound. This circle is like the line the shaman draws in the dirt to enscribe the area of ritual magic.

The cello has strings, formerly of plant fibres, horse hair, or gut; now of metal. Gut strings are sheep intestines, torn from the freshly sacrificed animal and processed. The pain of the violence of cutting and rending is remembered in their sound. Apollo was the first string maker. The tortoise inspired him to make the first lyre. He used the tortoise's own intestines for the strings. Some of the earliest musical instruments uncovered in the tombs of Thebes had gut strings that still made a tone after some two thousand years. Metal strings are chrome, silver, titanium, tungsten. The high temperatures used to form the metal remains in the strings, giving warmth and strength, silver and gold and adamant. The cello has four strings, one for each direction of the compass, one for each of the four dimensions,
including time.

The strings pass over the bridge, the legs of which transmit the vibrations like a liquid earthquake to the front of the cello, to the spruce top.

The soundpost is a simple piece of wood that connects the top and the back, Heaven and Earth, sending the vibrations to the maple back, to the roots of the cello. In French the soundpost is called l'âme, or “the soul”. A small adjustment of this “soul” in relation to the top (Heaven) and the back (Earth) can change the behavior of the cello in a dramatic fashion. The soundpost or soul is the only part that can exist in the inner void of the cello body, suspended between the roots and the sky.

The outer surfaces of the cello are covered with Varnish. Vernisshe in the middle ages, from Old French vernis, from Medieval Latin vernix, an odorous resin, from Late Greek verenike, from Greek Berenike, an ancient city in Libya. Varnish contains a gum or resin mixed with spirits. This combination concentrates the life essence of trees. Varnish has mysterious properties. Varnish penetrates the exposed outer surface of the wood, sealing its pores. Sundried and lustrous, Varnish gives color, the heat of the Sun and the cool of the Moon and the diamond-glitter of the Stars are concentrated in the Varnish.

The strings are set in motion by the fingers, plucked like a guitar, or by the bow, a contraption of wood and hair. In older times the wood of the bow could be ironwood or snakewood. In modern times preference is given to pernambucco, a tropical wood of great strength and lightness. The word Bow comes from bowen, to bend, bouwen, buwen, buhen , from būgan, from Beowulf in 725 AD. The wood of the bow is curved with heat, arched and ready to spring with strength and agility. The hair is from the tail of a horse, and remembers how to jump like its wild ancestors from the plains of Asia, running through the grasslands, barely tolerating a rider, sometimes throwing him off.

The cello is a tool. It's usefulness consists of it's ability to replace the human voice. A cello is a tool for making music. A cello sings, laments, speaks, jokes, whispers. A cello can be a friend, an intimate enemy. A cello can represent, trigger, give testimony. A cello can represent a hero, a father, a lover. A cello can trigger emotions, actions, words. A cello can give testimony, can confess, can witness.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

What is a composer for?

What is a composer for? What exactly does he do? This question has many answers, depending on the intended use or purpose of the composition. For now, I will ignore our technological age and concentrate on the 18th and 19th century. Some composers were writing music for a specific occasion. This can be something as simple as writing music for background, to cover the clatter of dinnerware in the dining room of a royal patron. This is like musical wallpaper. Boccherini comes to mind in this case. Some are writing music to support a theological position. Bach is like this. Some are trying to convey some sort of narrative line, like a literary novel. Tchaikovsky is of this sort. Some composers are linking music with political and social issues. Wagner is like this. The most difficult task for a composer is to write music that aspires to the same type of expression as poetry. These composers are trying to share inner states of experience, inner truths that require them to turn themselves inside out, baring themselves in an unshielded way to all of us. Beethoven is like this. The “sounding inwardness” of his deafness must have been very deep, practically bottomless. In this way Beethoven is the first Romantic composer. Schumann tries with all his might to link poetic states with musical expression. Mahler was trying to write his inner experience of the whole world into his compositions. The unshielded quality of the composition requires of a performer that they also turn themselves inside out and share their inner experience of the music they are performing. I'm not talking about making faces or looking up to the heavens for “inspiration” during key points of a performance. Performers who do not fully embrace their responsibility to empathize and live in the recreation of the inner states of these kinds of works are not just siding with Apollo, they are missing the point. In Rilke's first “Sonnet to Orpheus” he writes:

A tree ascended there. O pure transcendence!
Oh Orpheus sings! Oh tall tree in the ear!

Orpheus represents the artist who is always turned inside out. This is talking about “sounding inwardness” and its internal growth and eventual outward expression.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Welcome Diable!

OK, so everyone knows who diable is by now...

Friday, January 9, 2009

Laying down the Law

Performing musicians have something in common with judges. Each receives a traditionary text from an earlier time, and each is obliged to interpret the text in their present circumstances. The Judge and the Musician must immerse themselves in historical research to uncover the original intention of the text. However, no matter how deeply one searchs, the ground has shifted since the original was conceived, and one must interpret the text in the context of ones own time. In both disciplines there is a long history of other interpretations that must be consulted in order to understand the text in question. These interpretive traditions are extremely deep, and require a lifetime of study, there is no quick way to this sort of knowledge! Furthermore, there is no way to go back to a legitimate "original", for it can not exist in Music or in Law. An attempt to recreate the original version results in something like a facsimile of a facsimile, etc. These facsimiles are like the mass produced copies of famous works of art. The fact that time doesn't stand still further complicates the task, as the interpreter must be constantly changing to remain current.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Cultic aspects

No, that is not a typographical error, I mean Cultic and not Celtic. "Classical" music is in some ways analogous to religion. Like religion, music is supposed to contain elements that synthesize Man's natural, animal side with the rational, intellectual side. Culture, like religion, is supposed to bind these two tendencies together. We rise up to humanity through culture. The painting of Liszt at the piano clearly shows this metaphor in action. Beethoven is seen as a god figure, Liszt is the priest, and the listeners are receiving the message of the god mediated by the priest. I'm sure you've all noticed the ritualistic aspects of a modern concert hall from time to time.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Do it yourself

In the age of pre-packaged entertainment, we've forgotten how to make music at home. Here's a list of what you need to do it yourself:

1) Equipment: musical instruments (for a string quartet this means two violins, one viola, one cello, and bows for each instrument), four chairs, four music stands, and music to play from (the "potatoes in a cellar" comes to mind)

2) Four players - in our day and age this can be difficult to come by as we rely more on prepackaged cultural goods. Admittedly there is a certain amount of skill necessary to participate.

If only this was more sporting, we could say "Just Do It!" with a swoosh...

Friday, January 2, 2009


Nietzsche describes Wagner operas as "deeds of music made visible". Is this really so different than

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Potatoes in the cellar?

Martin Heidegger writes that "Works of art are shipped like coal from the Ruhr and logs from the Black Forest. During the First World War Holderlin's hymns were packed in the soldier's knapsack together with cleaning gear. Beethoven's quartets lie in the storerooms of the publishing house like potatoes in a cellar." I must admit to having stacks of quartets (not just Beethoven's) in my cellar!