New Dimensions in Viola Playing
Marco Lombardi’s Mihrab
In 1986 and again in 1988, I was one of over 200 contestants in the Canadian National Open Fiddle Contest, when the little town of Shelburne in central Ontario turns into a teeming metropolis of thousands of folk music fans for one weekend every summer. (My best ranking was in the latter year, when I placed eighth in the 18- to 45-year-old age category – by far the biggest – but according to the judges I had the distinction of being the only violist, and one of only a few Americans, ever to participate in the contest.) The most unusual category was for Novelty, or Trick Fiddling, in which the contestant plays a simple tune – usually “Pop Goes the Weasel” – while holding the violin in all manner of bizarre and contorted positions, including: behind the neck; upside-down against the chest; against the hip, with the bow passing beneath a bent knee; and, in an almost obscenely suggestive display, with the bow held erect between the thighs as the violin is stroked up and down against it. As visually impressive as such histrionics may be, however, they call to mind Dr. Samuel Johnson’s dictum about the dog walking on its hind legs: it’s not done well, but we marvel that it’s done at all. And when all is said and done, the end result is still only a somewhat scratchy, not-quite-in-tune rendition of “Pop Goes the Weasel”.
Yet the clownish antics of these trick fiddlers may in fact harbour latent artistic potential. Novel and unorthodox methods of playing string instruments not only add an arresting visual element to a performance, they can also engender a spectrum of wholly new musical timbres with exciting compositional possibilities.
A strikingly original example of this is Mihrab for solo viola by Marco Lombardi, founder and artistic director of Ensemble Nuove Musiche in Savona, Italy. A graduate of the Nicolo Paganini Conservatory in Genoa, Lombardi is also a cellist who has recorded the earliest Italian solo cello music of the seventeenth century as well as the solo cello Variations I-III of John Cage. Cage, undeniably the most artistically radical composer of the twentieth century, has clearly had a profound influence on Mihrab, with its emphasis on sounds for their own sake, strategic use of silence, elements of indeterminacy, extended instrumental techniques, and so on. Few composers today are continuing further along the paths that Cage pioneered, and I respect Lombardi for having done so.
Mihrab was composed in 2005, and in the following year it received a Special Mention in the Antonio Manoni Composition Competition in Senegallia “for the originality with which it dealt with the instrument, and the outcome of experimental sound design and the notation expressed in the score.” The piece then became what I like to call a “message in a bottle”: the composer sent announcements to various viola societies and online viola groups all over the world in the hopes of finding a performer willing to tackle it. Intrigued by the nature of the piece and the challenges it posed, I was the first violist to take the bait. I presented the premiere of Mihrab at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music on 23 March 2012 and have since performed it elsewhere in Australia and New Zealand, where it has invariably aroused keen interest and an enthusiastic response.
The title, Mihrab, is an Arabic word signifying the niche in the kibla wall of a mosque that indicates the direction of the qaaba in Mecca, towards which Muslims are obligated to face when they pray. However, Lombardi is using the word here in a metaphorical sense, as a portal to an unearthly realm, or a gateway to another dimension. To get this point across, he has devised an extremely unorthodox approach to playing the instrument, completely at odds with what we normally think of as viola playing. Some purists might even question whether it is really viola playing at all.
Mihrab only takes five minutes to play, but because of the extraordinary instrumental techniques involved, it takes nearly that long just to get ready. The most remarkable aspect of the piece is the position in which the viola is held. Instead of placing it under the chin, the player must sit in a chair with the instrument balanced on his or her lap like a dulcimer, but situated so that the neck of the viola points straight out towards the audience. Obviously this is a very precarious position, so to prevent the viola from dropping to the floor it must be tied into place. I use a length of hospital-grade anaesthetic tape (non-sticky) threaded through my belt loops and under the chinrest and tailpiece, then tied off with a simple bow knot, but any ordinary ribbon or shoelace will do; however, I must caution against using nylon cord or any other slippery synthetic material that does not hold a knot well. A second length of tape may be threaded under the fingerboard and below the knees for extra security, but I find this superfluous – just one more task to delay the onset of the performance.
Mihrab also requires the player to use not one, but two bows, one held in each hand. Lombardi suggests a cello bow for the left hand, so I borrowed one from a friend for the premiere, but a spare viola bow will serve equally well. The composer is very definite as to how the bows are to be employed, for example specifying four different gradients of bow pressure: half pressure, normal (ordinario), heavy (forte), and extreme (estrema). The bows may be applied to any point on the strings, from the peg box to the tailpiece; sounds may be produced with the bow hair (con crini), with the stick (col legno), or by tapping with the very point (con la punta estrema); the bows may even be drawn across the tailpiece or, in one passage, against the wooden body of the viola itself.
With a bow occupying each hand, the fingers naturally are unable to stop the strings. Thus Mihrab is played largely on the open strings, and so the matter of tuning is therefore of critical importance. This is one of the indeterminate elements in the piece; Lombardi does not specify a particular tuning for the viola, but he does insist that the strings not be tuned in the traditional arrangement of perfect fifths. His recommended tuning is A-flat/a-natural/b-flat/b'-natural – that is, tuning the C and D strings a major third down and the G and A strings a major second up, creating a symmetrical arrangement of two augmented octaves separated by a minor second. He also suggests two alternative tunings (c-sharp/g-sharp/c'-natural/f'-sharp and A-flat/g-flat/e'-natural/b'-natural) but ultimately leaves the decision to the performer. Having had too many viola strings snap painfully in my face, so that only the occluding presence of my glasses prevented me from losing an eye, I am reluctant to tune my strings any more than a semitone higher than usual. In my performances of Mihrab I therefore use a tuning of A-flat/g-natural/b-flat/a'-natural, lowering the C and D strings by a major third in accordance with Lombardi’s preference but leaving the G and A strings in situ. This likewise creates a scordatura consisting of four consecutive pitches in the chromatic scale, but arranged as two major sevenths with a minor third in between.
The score to Mihrab is only five pages long – but what pages! The music is written out in two parallel systems. The upper system consists of four lines representing the four strings of the viola, upon which the notes, rests, dynamics, and articulations are written. Notes with stems pointing up are to be played with the right-hand bow, and those with stems pointing downward are played by the left-hand bow. Beneath this, on the lower system, diagrams indicate how the bows are to be used, where on the viola they are to be applied, the degree of bow pressure, and so on. The written instructions in Italian should, for the most part, be comprehensible to any classically trained string player; as for the rest, they can easily be worked out with the help of an Italian-language dictionary, which, here in Australia at least, may be found in any public library. In addition to conveying a very clear sense of how this remarkable work is to be played, the score is exquisitely rendered, a real work of graphic art recalling the scores of Silvano Busotti – less abstract and more explicitly functional, perhaps, but every bit as beautiful.
There is no real linear development or formal structure in Mihrab. The opening chords recur a little over halfway through the piece (with the sole difference of being played col legno the second time); but apart from this single instance musical gestures follow in arbitrary succession without returning in any recognisable form. “What really exist are totally unrelated events,” Lombardi writes of his second String Quartet, which employs similar techniques, “monadi [units] lost in a silent ocean: metal, wood, bow hair which contrast, hands which act as if following superior meanings.”
These monadi, however, are sounds of a fascinating and often very beautiful nature. I am especially fond of the effects that can be produced by two bows playing col legno. In several passages the player must stroke the strings lengthwise with the sticks of both bows, either as a shimmering tremolo (on page 1), in short staccato rhythms (page 2), or in smooth, gliding oscillations (page 3), like pulling the oars of a rowboat. At the bottom of page 2 there is a long col legno ricochet tremolo played by both bows on the highest and lowest strings of the viola, like a chorus of bell frogs in a gentle rain. In one passage on page 4, the stick of the left-hand bow is used to stop the lowest string like the slide of a steel guitar, as the right-hand bow taps out quick semiquaver sextuplets in an ascending glissando.
Some effects are produced without using the strings at all. At the bottom of page 4, the right-hand bow is drawn across the tailpiece of the viola, which can sometimes produce a clear, flute-like tone of definite pitch. Years ago I had a viola whose tailpiece was tuned perfectly to A-flat; I once got a huge laugh at a youth orchestra rehearsal when I substituted it for the artificial harmonic at the beginning of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Unfortunately, however, the tailpiece of my current viola yields only a very faint rattle, which no amount of practice or experimentation has been able to alter. I therefore incorporate this sound into my performances, since a certain amount of indeterminacy resulting from the innate characteristics of individual violas is perfectly acceptable here.
Earlier on page 4, both bows are drawn across the corner bouts of the viola in contrasting rhythms, the friction of horsehair against wood creating a dialogue of sighing, ghostly whispers. Playing different rhythms with two bows at the same time takes a little getting used to, but it can be done – and this is the only passage in the piece where this happens. Elsewhere in Mihrab, the bows generally operate in contrary motion, both moving either up-bow or down-bow at the same time. The trick of playing the viola with two bows – the single greatest challenge of performing the piece – is actually not as difficult as it might seem.
Interspersed among these gentle and ethereal gestures are occasional outbursts of great violence. In the climax of the work on page 5, the two bows are gripped together in both hands and scraped over the strings – lengthwise, crosswise and diagonally – while pressing down con pressione estrema against the fingerboard. This is the point in the piece where the faces in the audience, having hitherto expressed varying degrees of amusement and bemusement, transform into masks of abject horror as the viola screeches in what appear to be its death throes. I hasten to point out that I would never subject my viola or my bow to any measures that might conceivably damage them, and Lombardi, a string player himself, would never expect any performer to do so. The key in this passage is to hold both bows with the hands fairly close together (about 20 centimetres apart), to minimise the stresses placed on them by such extreme pressure. Also, I have found that moving the bows in slight arcs, rather than in the straight lines indicated by Lombardi, exaggerates the raucous quality of the tone, which gradually peters out as the bows are drawn over the bridge and onto the tailpiece. Two Bartók pizzicato notes on the lowest string of the viola – the only time in Mihrab when the hands actually touch the viola itself – bring the piece to its conclusion.
As may be inferred from the foregoing description, there is a strong theatrical element to Mihrab which must be brought to bear in any performance of the work. Anna Brooker, in her review of its premiere in Sydney, wrote that “I was so fascinated at what was going on visually that I didn’t sit back and think how this piece affected me musically.” Yet the two elements – the visual and the sonic, or the theatrical and the musical – cannot really be separated in principle. “I imagine a parallel universe made of a kind of sonic anti-matter,” Lombardi writes, “based on behaviour which overcomes the features of the traditional string sound. In practice, we have to consider that each sound, together with the gesture which creates it, takes with it the corresponding gesture of an anti-sound, one with a positive charge and the other with a negative one.” Thus the sounds, whether positively or negatively charged, are inseparable from the physical acts which brought them into being. Observers have compared my performances of Mihrab to a surgeon operating on a patient, a magician sawing a woman in half, a sushi chef carving up a tuna, or a praying mantis devouring its prey. Of these, I feel the most appropriate metaphor is that of the magician, pulling, not rabbits out of a hat, but surprising and unexpected sounds out of a viola.
Lombardi’s other music, apart from his aforementioned second String Quartet, relies exclusively upon traditional instrumental technique and musical notation. At present he has no intention of ever again revisiting the anti-matter universe of Mihrab. It may therefore be fair to pose the question: Where do we go from here? Are the techniques employed in Mihrab so distinctly unique, and so sharply circumscribed, that any other composer working with them could not help but create something very similar? In some respects, perhaps. As far as solo works are concerned, any piece written for unaccompanied viola in what might be termed “Mihrab position”, and working with a similar timbral palette, would necessarily contain occasional silences of several seconds’ duration – not merely as background, or as an element of the musical anti-matter, as Lombardi contends, but for purely practical reasons. It takes a moment to place the bows precisely for each new sonic monado.
Likewise, scordatura tuning would probably be indispensible. Any piece for viola in Mihrab position that used the traditional accordatura of perfect fifths would probably sound very much like any other. (I venture to guess that it would sound rather insipid as well, like a tuning session that never ends.) Yet different scordatura tunings can have vastly different characteristics; a viola tuned in major sevenths, as I have done in my performances of Mihrab, will sound very different to a viola tuned to a major or minor chord, with an entirely different set of artistic possibilities arising from it. As an experiment, I once tuned my D and A strings down to C and G and played an aggressively rhythmic double-bowed improvisation along the lines of Johannes Fritsch’s Violektra (an electronic piece for viola d’amore, in which all of the instrument’s strings are tuned to either C or G) that sounded wholly unlike anything in Mihrab.
Furthermore, Lombardi has by no means completely exhausted the full range of techniques that are possible with the viola in this position. Mihrab, for example, does not contain a single harmonic. Yet I have found that harmonics can be played by holding the stick of one bow, rather than a finger, on the harmonic node; and in fact this yields a much clearer, brighter, purer sound than harmonics played in the usual way. Sweeping harmonic glissandos, familiar to violists from the ballets of Stravinsky, become much more vibrant and vivid when produced in this fashion; and when played in double-stops, with the adjacent strings tuned a tritone or a sixth apart, a stunning effect of radiant beauty is created. Additional techniques may yet be discovered by composers and performers curious enough to search for them; and in works for multiple violas, of course, these possibilities may be multiplied exponentially.
Lombardi sums up his remarks on matter and anti-matter thus: “There is a nearly utopian intent to my work, which can be seen in the attempts to overcome certain borders, and also of accepting the risk of failure. This is a risk that, I am convinced, must be taken by every composer.” Yet with this imaginative and radically original work I feel that he has not only overcome the risk of failure, he has triumphed magnificently over it. Just as the mihrab in a mosque points the way to a transcendent realm, Marco Lombardi’s Mihrab can serve as a guidepost to other composers towards new, exciting and yet undiscovered musical dimensions; dimensions not only of sight and sound, but of mind; “a wondrous land,” as Rod Serling intoned in his introduction to The Twilight Zone, “whose boundaries are that of imagination.”