To explain our Music Mountain experience, would require many thousands of pages or one good haiku. Words can never adequately describe the atmosphere. The Manhattan String Quartet, of which I was a member, had been summering on Music Mountain in the Litchfield Hills of Connecticut for several years. We look back on those four summers in wonderment—walks in the woods with friends locked in deadly serious discussions revolving around the ‘music of the spheres’; uproarious laughter when a new skit was produced by the students; and the endless rehearsals which make for continuous music of inspiration to complement the complex and chaotic polyphony generated by multi-varieties of talented local song birds.
You would not believe how many different varieties of winged creatures make their home on the Mountain. Maybe the music has something to do with it. But I’ve always had a special love for the sky, and at Music Mountain, on a clear night, you see into infinity. If you lie on your back in the open field of grass that we use for softball games, away from the neon lamp at the dirt crossroads of Park Drive and the place we called the Abyss, the black sky overhead is bespectacled with so many points of light that you know you are looking at the sky of the Ancient Ones. It’s lying there that the questions pour in and, surprisingly, a great many answers—answers tested that very same day in the chamber music way.
I remember one particularly clear night in July—a very special night because we were all waiting in that field for the eclipse of the moon. All of our students were there—string quartets made up of young musicians just starting their quartet careers and amateur string players taking advantage of the chamber music immersion. Family, friends, patrons and astronomers joined us there. About 50 of us engaged in animated conversation while staring into immense space. The last time I saw Venus like that, so diamond-like near twilight with mist hanging low in the trees, was in San Francisco, high above the bay outside the Legion of Honor in ’68…
The Lenox Quartet trooped out on stage, huddled around a standing lamp, paused with bows in mid—air and then—creation. From the first bar of Bartok’s 4th Quartet, an aural hallucination, a holographic image in sound, was visible hovering just above their heads. It was a winged creature who, from the dramatic opening statement ‘I am”, swooped, soared, extended, contracted and pulsed its way into every part of the hall. They had created a three-dimensional, biological apparition that pulsed with life and, because it was controlled by so small a company, all the detail of its being was clearly visible. It gave me chills. And that was only the beginning. The Lenox’s series of concerts in San Francisco that summer presented a galaxy of creatures. One of them was Beethoven’s Op. 132, one his late quartets revered by all who know. How many times had my teachers told me I was not mature enough to appreciate or understand? These pieces were for old bow masters to play in their spiritual closing. I would ask, “How can I hope to learn them, if I don’t start right away?” From their Olympian heights, they answered, “There is plenty of time! Don’t be in such a rush. Have patience and leave the late quartets alone. Perseverance!!”
It was forbidden fruit that if eaten too early, would cause eternal madness. They were wizened ancients and very serious. The Lenox dispelled all of that the night they played Op. 132 in San Francisco. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard. I wept. It woke me up, inspired me, and gave me courage.
10:00 p.m. We have the telescope out, and Phil Lu, our resident astronomer and my colleague from Western Connecticut State University, is giving a lecture. Everybody takes a turn peering through the Questar telescope at the planet Jupiter. We can almost make out the moons in the Jovian system. There are four large moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, discovered in 1610 by Galileo, all big enough to be planets and waiting for Jupiter to emerge as a sun…
The Music Mountain week begins for the Manhattan Quartet in the backroom Green Room at the Gordon Hall concert hall, a rustic shed of wood built in an oblong to mimic the lines of a violin. Nick Gordon, Music Mountain’s president and son of its founder, Jacques Gordon, violinist and first violinist of the Gordon String Quartet, is sitting in one the lounge chairs. His head is bowed in reverent anticipation for the newly installed MSQ as resident quartet engine of concerts, educational programs and principle fund raisers to create the magic of Beethoven’s Op. 132. Music in place, the insects chirp, the wind whistles in the trees, the moon, planets and Milky Way turn in celestial silence while we four humans, like the moons of Jupiter, try to ignite Jupiter. We sit in a circle, as if to engage in some ancient ritual, instruments of ancient crafted wood in our hands, straining to find meaning in that manuscript of ink blots, the tones to be played in a week. It is the beauty of the unrehearsed quartet. We are out on a limb and soaring off into space. It is a complete orgasmic release. It is full of daring with not a care for “professional polish,” and it speaks volumes. Beginning the rehearsal is spontaneity in the purest form—an ode to joy—and I love it. How does the quartet recapture that joy for an audience of chamber music lovers? To create that magical bond with an inspirational performance is the goal. But how many disappointments and frustrations we must endure for those brief moments of bliss! Remember you multiply those disappointments by a factor of four in a string quartet. Spontaneity in a performance is one of the keys for such a performance. The question is how to get four sensitive people to feel comfortable enough with each other on stage for a release of spontaneous inspiration?
Recording and the resulting mania for “perfect” ensemble have limited the kind of musical expressivity we had at Music Mountain. That wonderful line of expression full of give and take exhibited by the Budapest Quartet during the ‘40s and ‘50s did not appear overnight in their playing. That balance of linear and vertical elements, a smooth line to the quartet mysteries as revealed by the Budapest, was a telepathic communication between four people developed over a 50 year period. This is not to say smoothness in all things is necessary; but when the composer indicates a legato, for instance, a search should be initiated for the connecting energy—what happens between the notes in their transit from one tone to another. The mystery of hidden tension with infinite subtlety becomes the challenge—a challenge very often ignored by our generation of ‘purest’ chamber musicians because it then becomes much harder to be “together”. The ‘true’ legato is often a sleight of hand (or finger), a magic trick: fingers in preparation with alternating light and heavy weight, agogic accenting, portmento—all of these in combination with bowings of similar sensitivities. These things are in imitation of a capella human voices. The greatest challenge in this realm is the descending line of notes under a slur—the sighing figures that evoke weeping—a tone painting of sadness. Lifting the fingers of the left hand with the clear emotion of grief translates into an uncovering of the most important tones in ways indescribable. The downward turn of phrase is an art, which moves humans to tears. For an artist to communicate such deeply felt emotions he must be brave enough to suffer the actual pain. Sharing this pain in the intimacy of a string quartet ensemble can be an act of transcendence—an act of love.
11:00 p.m. Harvest time in ancient Italy belonged to the god of reaping whom the Romans called Saturn. Gustav Holst, the 20th century English composer, in his musical essay, The Planets, used the image of Saturn as the bringer of old age. Saturn, the planet, with its multi-layering ring system, had been delighting amateur astronomers ever since Galileo in 1610 reported those rings as mystifying blobs. “Saturn has ears,” he wrote. It was not until 1656 that the Dutch astronomer Christian Huygens identified the “ears” as a ring. When the Voyager 2 space probe approached the planet in 1979 we all saw the magnificent photographs of those rings, but it was the telemetry that astounded and baffled scientists on earth. They were hearing musical tones in harmony! Music where there should not have been any music! I remember thinking, “Kepler was right!” In Johannes Kepler’s “De Harmonice Mundi” of 1619, along with the postulation of his third law of planetary motion, Kepler proposed the mathematical concept of “harmony” in the solar system, believing he had extended his search for unification by marrying together intervals in the musical scale with the angular velocities of the planets. So here we have Galileo’s “ears” listening to Kepler’s “harmony of the spheres”. Of course all of this is shrouded in the greatest mystery (resulting in the greatest speculation). There is a direct line of thought from Pythagoras (the Greek) to Kepler (the German).
I have always believed that music holds the keys to a knowledge of reality and should take its place with science and philosophy as a means to its understanding. Beethoven’s influence on my belief system is enormous. In Elizabeth Brentano’s account of a conversation with Beethoven, he is supposed to have said, “Speak to Goethe about me. Tell him to hear my symphonies and he will say that I am right in saying that music is the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind, but which mankind cannot comprehend.” JWN Sullivan, in his classic study of Beethoven’s spiritual development, said, “this belief was not consonant with the intellectual outlook of his own time, and which is indeed, incompatible with the general intellectual climate of the last three centuries.” It is certainly not a foreign idea unless you are one of those who consider ancient Greek thought as foreign. They used music as the keystone in the arch of knowledge, and being a musician I tend to agree with them.
12:00 a.m. The Milky Way, a white sash across the entire sky from Eastern to Western horizons, looked awesome. All the stars we could see, with exception for distant objects like galaxies, quasars, etc., are part of this galaxy we call the Milky Way. My mind accompanied this celestial beauty with Schubert’s last quartet, the cosmic G major quartet op. 161. My seven-year old son, Jamie, was staying up late for this special occasion. Wine was being passed around and the students were now talking furiously about quartet problems. They are demanding practical answers to alleviate the pain of their frustrations. “Why does it take so long to agree on anything?” The simplest bowing question initiates a half-hour debate. “What is the glue which will hold us together?” And I chirp, “like the billions of stars above us we need a force of nature to hold us together for our survival. Everyday there seems to be a new theory about the force of gravity in the universe.” I tell them what little I know about the principle of gravity in our galaxy of human beings.
More in the second installment: The Chamber Music Principle