Thursday, May 5, 2011

Syncing Violas

So, I've written a few substantive posts recently about Bach, Stravinsky, and Mendelssohn - but it's not all serious business here at MMmusing, not in a world where violists are still at large. I've always had a weakness for viola jokes, so when I saw a video link on Facebook about synchronizing metronomes, I reflexively commented about the need for some kind of violist synchronization system. Then, when I was driving home from work last night, the following started to take shape in my imagination, including a basic plan for how to create it as quickly as possible.

It's not as well-executed as I'd like, but it's a silly enough exercise that I promised myself not to get too carried away with it. What actually interested me the most was the task of creating a bad viola ensemble that slowly morphed into a decent-sounding group. That's more of a challenge than you might think (not just for viola-based reasons, either), and the fact that my computer was born in 2004 isn't helping matters (renders video really slowly). So, I'm not totally content with the audio portion (and there are a few video glitches as well), but it's just a joke after all. For the record, I've played around with synthesizing bad violin playing here and I played around with morphing chaos into sonic order here. Oh, and I wrote about a fantastically subtle little viola joke, hidden away in an opera libretto, here.

I've thrown out tons of viola jokes on Twitter over the years (just load this really large page and search "viola"), and sometimes people seem taken aback at their meanness, but I don't really have anything against the instrument or the poor souls who try to make something of it. And I really wouldn't want to live in a world without Brandenburg #6 or Sinfonia concertante or those wonderfully scrubby chords (4:40) in the Brahms C Minor Piano Quartet or the opening of the Agnus Dei in Faure's Requiem. So, I'm grateful for all the gifts the viola bestows on us - from the sublime to the ridiculous.


Elaine Fine said...

The metronome thing is fascinating, but I don't find the viola joke version of it funny. You see, violists are indeed ensemble players, and they follow one another as a rule. That's what they (actually we) do best.

Perhaps you might want to try this with another instrument. I hate to be grumpy about it, but you caught me at a grumpy moment. You see, I have spent my evening practicing the viola.


Point taken, Elaine, although I tried to show my appreciation for the viola and violists in my links at the end, and that appreciation is genuine.

It is interesting to wonder why viola jokes are so persistent. Yes, there are soprano jokes, tenor jokes, percussionist jokes... even accompanist jokes; but viola jokes have taken on a life of their own, which becomes a self-perpetuating thing.

I do love the viola, but I suppose that along with the fact that sometimes lesser players end up play viola parts, it does have a special sort of timbre which gets part of its distinctiveness from being a little edgy. Putting it very untechnically, it seems to me there's more "stuff" or "noise" in the viola sound than in the smoother cello sonority or the brighter, clearer violin sonority. The word "huskier" comes to mind.

That's not intended to be perjorative - the distinctiveness is part of what I like about viola. In one respect (popular appeal), it's a less sexy sound (violin is flashier, cello is more suave), but in another respect, it's a very sexy sound (mysterious, sultry, etc.).

Of course, violists often do the less glamorous job of playing inner parts, and though we all know that inner parts can be the most interesting, they also are less noticeable and can be a good place to hide. A few years back, I played keyboard in a community orchestra, and watching the back stand of violists at "work" was confirmation of every viola joke that's ever been told. Sure, that could happen watching the back stand of 2nds or cellists too (although I think that cello is generally easier to play decently than violin or viola), but cultural conditioning makes me notice it more when it's violists.

But, I'm probably just making you grumpier, so let me just re-affirm that I have great respect for the viola and I know that there are many, many fine violists.


[Now, I was initially tempted to reply to Elaine's comment by writing, "Hey, at least I've introduced a violist to the concept of the metronome" - but I didn't.]

Elaine Fine said...

Since I do play both violin and viola, I can tell you that it difficult to play the viola in tune without making constant adjustments, and because I am a composer I can tell you that it takes a certain intimacy with the instrument to write for it appropriately.

But viola jokes are about violists, and not about the instrument itself. Violists know the shortcomings and the advantages of the instrument they play, but the value of being able to be in the center of the musical action, whether it be in an orchestra or a chamber ensemble, is well worth the extra effort it takes.

Check out the back stands of the fiddles in community orchestras, and you might find some of the same confirmations you found watching the violas from the keyboard. I have never found violists to be "lesser" players, but the demands of the instrument and the demands of some of the orchestral parts written for it (often by non-violist composers) can give an incorrect impression from afar.

aheaney said...

I have a spiritual calling to be a violist as well as a physical calling. For these reasons I prefer the viola to the violin. There is a warmth and resonance to the viola that is not as easy to achieve on the violin. I have a better temperment for the viola since I am a follower. Some people are better followers and others are better leaders. Both are talented.

Ann Heaney