Friday, March 28, 2014


It's time for me to start blogging again. I have things to say and ideas to toss out there and...well, some other stuff. But, let's get (re)started back with something a bit stranger.

As most  musicians with an Internet connection will have heard by now, there's a $45 million viola about to go up for auction. It's a Strad, one of only 10 intact violas (so many potential jokes in that word 'intact') the great master left behind. (Presumably, Stradivari used most of his other no-longer-intact violas for more practical uses such as: paperweight, gardening tool, ping-pong paddle, etc.) It is a story both cool and absurd - of course, no instrument should really be worth $45 million, although monetary worth is what it is, I suppose.

The additional absurdity that this most expensive of instruments should be a viola - well, my head's been spinning around about that for days now. I love viola jokes as much as anyone (and I honestly do love the viola too, by the way*), but I haven't really been able to find the perfect joke here. "Q: Why are they asking for $45 million for a viola?" "A: So it will end up in a museum where no violist will ever find it." See, that's not really that funny (as if I need to tell you), but all my efforts have turned up equally unsatisfying. The $45 million itself is the joke, it seems.

Anyway, today for the first time I listened to the lovely sample of this instrument provided on the New York Times website. David Aaron Carpenter dashes through the Bach C Major Prelude effortlessly, and the instrument sounds wonderful, though probably not 900 times better than the average $50,000 viola. At some point as I was listening, I decided it would be fun to dub in some less ideal viola playing, in the great tradition of "shredding" videos like this and this and this and a hundred more.

My first thought was to enter the notes into the computer by MIDI keyboard and then send them through a viola synth that I would de-tune (I know, sounds redundant), but that just ended up sounding too fake. However, I'd found I could synch up pretty decently with Mr. Carpenter by slowing his version down to half-tempo. Then, it suddenly dawned on me: I can (sort of) play the cello and had learned this prelude once upon a time. Perhaps if I were to record myself playing it at half-tempo, I could follow along with the Strad and quite naturally provide that special viola brand of tuning and sonority. Then, of course, all I'd need to do is double the speed of my recording and that would put my automatically transpose my cello up to violaworld.

So, I set myself a pretty strict time limit - no practicing or warming up allowed (the better to inhabit the violist's spirit) - hooked up some headphones to the half-tempo Carpenter video on my laptop and dove right in. There were a couple of spots where I found it hard to hear where he was, so my "violist" ends up having a couple of minor memory slips, but mostly we stayed "together." It was a pretty fascinating challenge, trying to follow the score, the audio coming through my headphones, and using the video of Carpenter to help guide me - and also trying to negotiate all those string crossings. (I also had our new puppy sitting contentedly about three feet away from me while I played on my wife's very fine cello - so I had to keep an eye out for her as well; I figured if the dog advanced on the cello and I ended up yelling "No, No, No" out loud, it would fit right in.) I came up with some very creative fingerings along the way and I'll admit I let myself miss a few shifts on purpose. It was all a great kind of fun and satisfying in a way I can't quite explain. (Also painful, as I hadn't played a cello for months and months, so even at half-tempo, my hand started cramping up. Remember, I wanted to "become a violist.")

Here then is the result:

I suppose as "shredding" it's a bit too competent, although I like that the beginning is almost plausible as real playing. Almost... Send it to your friends and see if they'd pay $45 million for this instrument.

* P.S. Curiously enough, I honestly have the intention of getting a viola in the next year or two and learning to play. My two daughters are violinists and my wife and son are cellists. The son is only 6, but I figure if I start viola soon, maybe I'll be able to join in the Schubert quintet when he's ready to play it. That would be about the most satisfying thing I can ever imagine doing - and a fun sort of viola joke on myself. But I don't think I'll be ponying up for the Strad...

P.P.S. Apologies to Mr. Carpenter are in order, of course, although being the subject of a shredding video should certainly be considered a kind of flattery.

UPDATE: New version posted, now with 100% more Pop, Goes the Weasel.