Telescopes and microscopes

You may have already encountered this old short film by Ray and Charles Eames, called Powers of Ten. It’s fairly well-known (or was a few generations ago), and despite being a bit out of date it still sends a pretty strong message of the effects of adding or removing a zero from a number more eloquently than I’ve ever seen.

It occurred to me that the first half of that movie was a good metaphor for the pianistic/organistic view of music, and the second half for a single-note instrument view.

The big advantage of a piano of course is that you can play the whole piece yourself. Coming from that background and learning a single-note instrument (sorry, but double stops and arpeggiated chords don’t count) really highlights a massive shift in musical worldview required to make that change. The piano lets you see — and more importantly, implement — the whole musical structure of a piece at once. You can’t be ignorant of music theory since our definition of that is pretty much “whatever your left hand is doing.” (Feet are included for organists, I think.) It still surprises me to hear Rachel Barton Pine remark while talking to George Bellas on an old podcast about music theory that “I don’t really need to know any of that junk.” (It was a casual comment, so I’m sure she has more delicate ways of putting it otherwise.) In a very interesting masterclass of hers that I found on YouTube, one of the young students was a teenaged boy who sounded absolutely wonderful, and who had no idea in what key a certain section of “Zigeunerweisen” — the piece he was playing! — was.

My viola instructor (also a violinist and an excellent player on many other single-note instruments) once had to pop out of a lesson he was teaching to verify with me that the relative major for Cm was Eb, and that it had three flats. I remember feeling a little bemused that he had to check.

Once when I was playing something in GM that modulated to DM, I got punked by the fact that what was a perfectly good A just a second before suddenly sounded sharp. (I’ve remarked on this before.) His characterization of this was that it was a fourth below the next open string, so that’s why it had to move down. My characterization of it was that I had modulated into a new key, and what was a ii had now become a V, and had to move down.

I also recall playing one of those short, cute excerpts of something in C by Bach in Suzuki v1 and just shooting out, “I’m in F here,” or “Yeah, this part’s in Am.” Being a pianist gives you that real sense of where you are in a piece, a bone-deep self-evident awareness of the parts of a piece that you aren’t actually hearing, and the roles that each note plays in various scales. That’s kind of what music theory is, for a quick-and-dirty definition.

That’s the first half of that movie — the telescopic view, where you zoom out further and further and further. Pianos are telescopes. You zoom out until you see it all. We seek larger and larger details and relationships.

Single-note instruments are microscopes. They give you a view of music that is closer to the second half of that movie, where you zoom in to find structure. Each note can not only have its color changed, but changed while you are playing it. There is structure within a note. Start close to the bridge, and move gradually to the fingerboard, and the note gets whispery. Start soft, then get louder. You can actually insert microscopic structure within the notes.

This is why I think that people who start on one and move to the other are befuddled sometimes. It’s very hard not to pick up a viola, as a pianist, and feel a sense of loss — as I said in the previous post, it can feel as if someone’s lopped off your left arm and three fingers off your right hand. (Not quite as bad on a viola as on a violin since you can at least get down to that low C. But still, you lose everything in the bass!) I sometimes feel like I’m sitting at a piano with two fingers on my right hand and a stump where my left arm was and thinking, “What the hell am I going to get done like this? I can’t play music like this!”

I’ve gradually started to force myself to think differently, but it takes conscious effort to not pick up a microscope, look into it, not see any galaxies or planets, and go, “This thing’s broken!” (From the time I was a child to this day, I’ve liked the first half of Powers of Ten much more than the second.) I’m guessing that single-note instrument players think the same thing when they sit at a piano — they sit down and think, “I can’t do anything with these notes! What’s the point!” They look through a telescope and think, “What happened to all that DNA I was looking at before?”

Obviously, I find satisfaction in it even if it’s only the purely muscular satisfaction of learning to do something new with my hands, or else I wouldn’t still be working on this. But for now … well, it’s still a bit strange, and I am carried forward more by the tactile, physical sensation of the instrument that by any real musical satisfaction. I think most of that will continue to come from piano+viola arrangements and thinking of the accompaniment I’m hearing in my mind as I play.

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