Thursday, June 29, 2006

Bach off the interstate

The dog runs ahead, prancing and looking back, knowing the way we are about to go. This is a walk well established with us - a route in our minds as well as on the ground. There is a sort of mystery in the establishment of these ways. Anytime one crosses a given stretch of country with some frequency, no matter how wanderingly one begins, the tendency is always toward habit. By the third or fourth trip, without realizing it, one is following a fixed path, going the way one went before. After that, one may still wander, but only by deliberation, and when there is reason to hurry, or when the mind wanders rather than the feet, one returns to the old route. Familiarity has begun. One has made a relationship with the landscape, and the form and the symbol and the enactment of the relationship is the path. These paths of mine are seldom worn on the ground. They are habits of mind, directions and turns. They are as personal as old shoes. My feet are comfortable in them.

- Wendell Berry, from "A Native Hill," collected in The Art of the Commonplace, p. 14

Lately my practicing has been rather unstructured, casually wandering from Bach to Tubin, maybe grazing on an excerpt or two in passing. It's a pleasure to practice this way for a few days, to recapture the simple joy of filling a room with sounds. Though as Wendell Berry writes, we tend to set up habits even when we don't realize it.

At one time or another I've probably worked fairly intensely on each of the Bach cello suites, but just a few movements have made a place in my everyday routine. They risk getting worn and stale, and my excuses are a bit stale as well: audition preparation, the pressure to specialize, the fact that they're just damn hard. Yeah, and I guess I do pick favorites, even when it's all some of the greatest music ever written. (BTW, I read recently that a professor in Australia has hypothesized that the cello suites are Anna Magdalena's work, not Johann Sebastian's - though few scholars agree.)

There's nothing wrong with a well-worn habit, as long as it doesn't get too deeply fixed, and the path becomes a road (or a rut). Here's Wendell Berry again:

The difference between a path and a road is not only the obvious one. A path is littel more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place. It is a sort of ritual of familiarity. As a form, it is a form of contact with a known landscape. It is not destructive. It is the perfect adaptation, through experience and familiarity, of movement to place; it obeys the natural contours; such obstacles as it meets it goes around. A road, on the other hand, even the most primitive road, embodies a resistance against the landscape. Its reason is not simply the necessity for movement, but haste. Its wish is to avoid contact with the landscape; it seeks so far as possible to go over the country, rather than through it; its aspiration, as we see clearly in the example of the modern freeways, is to be a bridge; its tendency is to translate place into space in order to traverse it with the least effort. It is destructive, seeking to remove or destroy all obstacles in its way. The primitive road advanced by the destruction of the forest; modern roads advance by the destruction of topography.

- p. 12

And to continue the analogy, I guess a rut advances by the destruction of music, in our haste to get through it. Today is the 50th anniversary of the creation of the interstate highway system, and while we may love or hate our freeways - depending on how fast they're moving, and how much of a hurry we're in - no one wants to live on an interstate. Or make music that sounds and feels like one. So the challenge is to keep our practice like a path, comfortable and familiar, but always in contact with the landscape of the music, and ready to veer into the unknown when our interest and opportunities arise.

I decided to start some new paths through the Bach suites; yesterday I worked through all six preludes, and today I did all of the allemandes. I'm not sure what inspired me to do it this way, but I did uncover some interesting connections, even as I realized how different these pieces are (and how little I know some of them!) It felt at times like wandering through uncharted forest, searching for patterns and trying to avoid tripping over stray accidentals. At least my mind wasn't wandering too much though, and it made me want to form my relationship with these pieces all over again.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

ghost hotel

Okay, so it's not exactly "The Shining," but things are a little creepy here in our now-almost-vacant Plymouth Hotel. The Plymouth and the Ansonia are the residence halls of the New World Symphony, two stately old art deco hotels that have been slightly modified to house an orchestra of twenty-somethings.

Summer is the off-season for the orchestra though, so most of us are scattered all over the globe. The orchestra very kindly keeps the hotels open all summer, and the few of us here all seem to be doing laundry in preparation for going somewhere else. It's hard to keep track of everyone's festivals and family plans, so I find many conversations sounding something like this:
Friendly horn player: Hey Matt, how's it going? Good to see you!

Me: It's great to see you too! How was Ita- er, um Colora- no, I mean, um...

FHP: Oh, I just got back from Japan. But I'm leaving for San Francisco next week.

Me: Oh yeah, that's right. How was that?

FHP: Pretty good - hey, by the way, could I borrow some laundry detergent?
Other than the whirring of the air conditioning and the thumping of the laundry machines, the halls are eerily silent. You'll hear a trumpet call or a violin arpeggio every once in a while, or maybe someone will turn on a World Cup game and the disembodied roar of thousands of Europeans will seep into the lobby. Mostly these sounds just provide a reminder of what a strange and empty place the Plymouth has been lately.

There are nice things about staying in a ghost hotel - those of us who are around have more reason to keep each other company, make an effort to find and interact with one another. Last night I watched the first part of the PBS New York documentary by Ric Burns - a fascinating project, done in 1999, that points out how exceptional a place NYC has always been, and how complex and ambivalent its relations with the rest of the country and the world. It's narrated by a parade of historians, politicians and longtime New Yorkers, and the great variety of perspectives and stories illustrate some of the magical multiplicities of that city.

Taken in the long view, the city of New York emerges as a character in American history whose role has always been to tempt, provoke, rethink and inspire. It has attracted the greediest, the most ambitious, as well as the most imaginative and creative elements of society - it's startling to see just how Alexander Hamilton, Dewitt Clinton, and other early New Yorkers visualized the future and shaped the city in that image.

The documentary also reminded me how all the friction, argument, tensions and conflicts of city life can lead to great change, innovation and growth. As a city person, the peace and quiet of an empty building feels strangely threatening - much better to have a bit of noise and chaos!

Sunday, June 25, 2006

black and yellow gold

I just saw the global warming documentary An Inconvenient Truth last night along with my friends John and Lydia. If anything could convince me of the necessity to reduce carbon emissions, it's this film, which combines science, anecdote, and some shocking images and graphs - A.O. Scott wrote in his NY Times review "I can't think of another movie in which the display of a graph elicited gasps of horror." Even though the movie is built around Al Gore's slide show lecture, and uses Al Gore's personal and political history to dramatize the science, the message is much bigger and more important than any one man. It's the kind of movie that instantly changes your priorities.

Among those changes, you'll probably find yourself reading the newspaper differently. That was my experience this morning when I went online to read the Sunday Times. Where I might have lingered on the music reviews or sports scores, I found myself gravitating to two big articles - one on the rise of ethanol and the other on the coal industry. Big corn and big coal are among our country's biggest industries, and they impact our lives - and planet - in crucial ways.

Here's a passage from the coal article, which is an excerpt from Jeff Goodell's book "Big Coal":
In fact, just the energy wasted by coal plants in America would be enough to power the entire Japanese economy. In effect, America's vast reserve of coal is like a giant carbon anchor slowing down the nation's transition to new sources of energy. And because coal is the dirtiest and most carbon-intensive of all fossil fuels-coal plants are responsible for nearly 40 percent of U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas-a commitment to coal is tantamount to a denial of a whole host of environmental and public health issues, including global warming. When you're sitting on top of 250 years' worth of coal, an international agreement to limit carbon dioxide emissions, such as the Kyoto Protocol, is easily seen as a crude attempt by jealous competitors to blunt one of America's great strategic and economic advantages.
We don't have a choice when we flip on a light switch; we are almost certainly contributing to coal pollution. We can reduce our own energy use, though, support political changes, and purchase carbon credits to help fund alternative energy sources.

Goodell's article notes that President Bush and Dick Cheney have been great friends to the coal industry. They've also been supporters of the increased use of ethanol - as has every politician, concerned about the votes of Iowans and others in the farm belt. Ethanol in fuel can help to reduce emissions, though because corn is heavily subsidized and fertilized by petroleum, it's not the perfect solution we might hope for. Just like coal, it's a resource we have in abundance, but we would perhaps be best advised to use both sparingly. They only allow us to avoid the inconvenient truths longer.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

the staff of life

Yesterday my brother-in-law Elliot was describing the miracle that is bread - how these four simple ingredients (flour, water, salt, yeast) can create an endless variety of forms, tastes, textures. Elliot is an amateur breadmaker himself - he was finishing a loaf of flaxseed bread as he was telling me this - and he strongly recommended Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice. I read the first chapter, which is inspiring stuff. For the mind as well as the appetite.

I probably haven't got enough space in my kitchen or my life for a new hobby right now, but I do think there are some fascinating parallels between bread making and string playing. String players, like bread makers, work with four basic elements - the speed, weight, placement, and angle of the bow - to produce a multitude of timbres. The way those variables are combined, and the artful touch with which they are applied, make the difference between a tasteless lump of stale dough and the complexly grained, beautifully risen loaf of an artisan. If we were to quantify those variables, measure the difference between a novice violinist and Heifetz, we might not find a great deal of difference. Yet the same ingredients take on a whole different life in the master's hands.

Trying to quantify all the variables would probably tell us very little, about either bread or the sound - since the essence is something living, unquantifiably, in the air all around us. This is literally the case with yeast - it is in the air we breathe, collecting and growing where we allow it to (and sometimes where we would rather it didn't). The taming of this living, changing, complex organism makes bread an art as well as a science. It's a strange and mostly symbiotic relationship, since without yeast we wouldn't have the "staff of life."

Before yesterday I had never heard that proverb - I thought at first that it was a typo for "stuff of life." What this staff represents, I'm still not sure. I get the sense that it's older and more mysterious than some of those other food slogans (e.g. "it's what's for dinner," "got milk?", etc.) Maybe age and mystery are bread's unlisted ingredients - no other food seems to lend itself so easily to metaphor and ritual.

Maybe that's why I've been gnawing on this analogy to string playing. A clarinetist friend commented that we can see everything a string player does - our arms and fingers are in plain sight, unlike the clarinetist's lungs and air pathways. And yet it still strains the mind to account for the sounds those gestures produce; they really do seem to emerge from some kind of metaphysical alchemy rather than discrete physical laws of vibration. Returning from a few days without practicing, I'm sometimes astounded that the things I'm attempting are even possible. I suppose that thinking about the lump of dough majestically rising at least gives me a hopeful metaphor.

Friday, June 16, 2006


Happy Bloomsday, the holiday inspired by that most musical and most impenetrable of novels, James Joyce's Ulysses. If ever there was a novel that deserved its own holiday it's Ulysses. Not only does it chronicle the events of a single day (a rare distinction, in such a long novel), but it benefits greatly from being read aloud and enjoyed communally. It's also sometimes best appreciated in small doses, I've found. Here's a sample passage from Episode 4, known as "Calypso," for your Bloomsday enjoyment:
MR LEOPOLD BLOOM ATE WITH RELISH THE INNER ORGANS OF BEASTS and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencod's roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.

Kidneys were in his mind as he moved about the kitchen softly, righting her breakfast things on the humpy tray. Gelid light and air were in the kitchen but out of doors gentle summer morning everywhere. Made him feel a bit peckish.

The coals were reddening.

Another slice of bread and butter: three, four: right. She didn't like her plate full. Right. He turned from the tray, lifted the kettle off the hob and set it sideways on the fire. It sat there, dull and squat, its spout stuck out. Cup of tea soon. Good. Mouth dry. The cat walked stiffly round a leg of the table with tail on high.

-- Mkgnao!

-- O, there you are, Mr Bloom said, turning from the fire.

The cat mewed in answer and stalked again stiffly round a leg of the table, mewing. Just how she stalks over my writing-table. Prr. Scratch my head. Prr.

Mr Bloom watched curiously, kindly, the lithe black form. Clean to see: the gloss of her sleek hide, the white button under the butt of her tail, the green flashing eyes. He bent down to her, his hands on his knees.

- from "The Literature Network", an online resource where you can search the complete text of Ulysses and many other novels

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Desenne Bass Concerto premiered by Ruiz

Last weekend in New York, a new bass concerto by Paul Desenne was premiered. The soloist was Edicson Ruiz (shown here), with the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas under Alondra de la Parra. A New York Times review praised Ruiz for his "easy fluidity and a relative generosity of tone." The critic pointed out that the piece required amplification - in the world of bass concerti though, that's hardly a critique, since I don't know any that really projects clearly as orchestrated. You can read the review online (until Saturday): "A Conductor's Do-It-Yourself Project: Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas."

Not having heard the piece yet myself, I can only guess at its quality based on the review and Mr. Desenne's excellent website. I was intrigued though to hear Edicson Ruiz and Alondra de la Parra in a live radio interview on WNYC's Soundcheck, broadcast before last week's concert. Ruiz talks about the state of music education in Venezuela (apparently quite good) and his own precocious success: he joined the Berlin Philharmonic at age 17 and remains the youngest member at 21. He also played a short virtuosic piece by Bottesini, variations on a theme from "Carnival in Venice." He stumbled a bit in the live performance, with a little memory slip or two and some odd thunking sounds. Still, he plays with great character and style (and modesty: he apologizes for his mistakes at the end of the interview). I'm sure that he'll be heard again frequently, and hopefully the Desenne concerto will as well.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

symphonic sports

A charming little radio piece by Frank Deford, "The Most Wonderful (Sports) Time of the Year," equates sports with the sections of the orchestra. He uses excerpts from Benjamin Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, accompanied with his own poetic descriptions of the sports.

The violins represent baseball (ubiquitous, virtuosic); basketball is the tuba and low brass (big, slippery); golf summons up the harp (quiet, refined); tennis soars with the clarinet (high, quick); ice hockey takes the violas (forgotten, unloved); while soccer is the percussion section (pounding, rhythmic). I might argue with some of his choices: shouldn't tennis be a string instrument? - and wouldn't soccer, with its long stretches of boredom and occasional flashes of cathartic brilliance, better represent the brass? But Deford's lyrical commentary, and his obvious love for the games and the associations they bring, make it a fun 4-minute listen.

I wonder what sport the lower strings could represent, though. Deford mentions horse racing, without assigning any instrument - maybe we would fit there, with our agile, athletic fingerings, and our occasional, crippling injuries? Maybe swimming, with our steady, supportive cushion of sound - or archery, with our plucky strings and need for uncanny precision. I just hope we don't get stuck with NASCAR racing, though perhaps it works in some ways: numbingly repetitive, needlessly loud, equipment-obsessed, and prone to occasionally horrific crashes.

Friday, June 09, 2006

one note performance

As you see here, I have only one note to play in the John Cage piece 23, to be performed tomorrow on the Spoleto Music in Time series. The other 22 string players have more notes to play, but not that many more. We each get to decide when to begin and end our notes - in my case, I can begin my mezzo-forte D any time after 1:00 but before 1:45. I could continue playing it for the entire length of the piece. Or I could play it for just a moment, and spend the remaining 22 minutes listening to everyone else. And probably wondering if I should have played a bit longer.

That was the case in rehearsal the other day. I ended a bit past 8 minutes, and spent the next 15 minutes in thoughtful silence. The magic of the piece, it seems to me, is in the constantly evolving sonority. It is often difficult to tell where a given note is coming from, with the instruments scattered around the space. And of course, the performance we'll give tomorrow can never be replicated, because of the hundreds of variables involved. Like other Cage pieces, the beauty is as much in the thought and philosophy as in the sound.

I'm hoping the audience will see that beauty. The other piece on the program, Philip Glass' Symphony no. 3, features a lot more notes, many of them quite difficult. Those I'm pretty sure how to end, though; with this Cage note, it's anybody's guess. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, June 08, 2006

small town gossip

No, I'm not the only one obsessed with pitch differences. Here's the opening paragraph of an article by Bernard Holland from last weekend's New York Times, "The Ojai Music Festival: Proud to Be Brief, Small and Eccentric":
IN Europe 300 years ago, one town's perfect A might have sounded like a G sharp to musicians just over the mountain; it depended on the tuning of your local church organ. But the bigger and more easily reached a place is, the less distinctive its music becomes. Not too long ago French, German and Russian orchestras sounded different; now they all sound pretty much the same.
The article laments that the Ojai's quirkiness may have gotten smoothed over recently, as it has gained in popularity. It's the same problem whenever a distinctive, special place begins to attract national attention. We all want to visit there, until it's beseiged by tourists, at which point we decide it's gone all crass and commercial - not realizing that people just like us have made it that way!

It seems to me that the trick of managing tourist interest is "taking away the punch bowl just as the party gets going," as a Fed chief once said about interest rates. In this respect Charleston does a great job, I think. Spoleto is like a big two-week punch bowl of culture, but afterwards the town quiets down and we all disperse, leaving with pleasant memories of quaint streets and enthralling performances. The whole thing has a travelling circus aspect, and in fact the festival regularly features a circus. Still, one of its great charms is that for three weeks or so this town makes all of us, even the freak sideshow performers, feel like locals.

I haven't written up too many shows here - tonight I'll be playing a repeat performance of Beethoven's 5th, excerpts from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, and a love scene from Romeo and Juliet. The Charleston City Paper, the local free weekly whose writers perform their own daunting displays of cultural ingestion and reportage, actually quoted a blog post I wrote here last week. Lindsay Koob, the author of that piece, is a very friendly fellow who also works in the classical room at Millenium Music, the local CD store. We've all learned to be a little careful what we chat about while browsing CDs. Small town gossip travels fast.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

an imaginary violin's sexy life

The last novel I finished was John Hersey's Antonietta, the story of a fictional violin. This was Hersey's last novel, published in 1991; a similar idea was done several years later in the film The Red Violin, with enjoyable results. At the very least, that film gave a whole new meaning to foreplay.

Hersey's book also does its best to make the violin sexy - its premiere performance at Antonio Stradivari's wedding sends the guests running home "in haste, inflamed, the men tumescent, the women moist" (p. 53). The author is an amateur violinist, and his novel struck me as an act of love, for the instrument and the great music that breathes life into it. Each "act" is a sort of love affair between the violin and a character: first Stradivari, then Mozart, Berlioz, Stravinsky, and finally a corporate raider named Spenser Ham. And as in a love affair, the Hersey's fantasies can spin a bit out of control, but they still bring great pleasure and charm.

The last act, in the form of a television script, is perhaps the weakest - its main character is not a musician nor is he particularly likeable, and certainly not worthy of such a fabulous instrument. Still, through him Antonietta manages to find her way into the hands of a talented young violinist named June, who displays an almost maniacal devotion to the music of Hindemith, Schoenberg, Webern, and Bartok. Her repertoire choices seem destined to bring only tragedy, but in the end the Schoenberg Violin Concerto (Opus 36) saves the day.

It's a bit far-fetched, but still there are winning moments. One is when June first sees the violin, in this stage direction:
Her cheeks glow; her lips are parted; her eyes dart from detail to detail. Awe shimmers on her face.... The viewer sees in her responses hints of what it means to be a gifted young person totally dedicated to a craft - traces of years of hard work; self-discipline, patience, stamina, physical endurance; a yearning for unattainable perfection; a generous empathy for anyone who may listen to her playing, a consequent urge to use it to excite and delight; a willingness to subordinate her tastes, when she plays, to a composer's will - but also a stubborn wish to be loyal to her own secret truths. (p. 260)
This clearly was not intended to be filmed - it would take quite an actress to show all of that through facial expressions. Still, these are all qualities that I've recognized and admired in musicians I've known. And that I hope to reflect myself, even if you won't see them in my face. I'm not usually prone to shimmer. This book reminded me of a great deal that I love about music, and musical instruments - the violin was my first love as well. First loves often don't work out I guess, which is why I came to play the bass instead. Still the violin has a special hold on my imagination, as I would guess it does for many music lovers. So it was especially enjoyable to read these violinistic trysts, even if purely imaginary.

Monday, June 05, 2006

organic Cocoa Puffs?

An article by Michael Pollan in yesterday's New York Times Magazine, "Mass Natural," neatly summarizes many of the arguments in the author's recent book The Omnivore's Dilemma. That book's central thesis is the need to be aware, and vigilant, in the choices we make about food. Those choices can affect the economy, the environment, and our own bodies in ways we often barely realize.

Wal-Mart's entry into organic will radically lower prices and making chemical-free food available to additional millions - the tough choices won't disappear, though. As Pollan writes:
To index the price of organic to the price of conventional is to give up, right from the start, on the idea, once enshrined in the organic movement, that food should be priced not high or low but responsibly.
Until the prices at checkout accurately reflect the costs - environmental, social, medical, moral - that society collectively pays, we will continue to encourage destructive choices, and our motto will continue to be "Cheap at any price," in the words of Wendell Berry.

I'm not suggesting we each need to calculate all those costs every time we reach for some organic Oreos; once you absorb some of the facts Michael Pollan relates though, it does affect you. Lately I'm finding that many of my meals are served with a large side helping of guilt. It's not pleasant to realize that one's tasty snack is polluting the air, destroying the land, funding war, driving people into poverty, etc. I'm not sure I like knowing these things, but knowing does change my appetites - "good to think" becomes just as important as "good to eat."

So I would very strongly encourage everyone to read this article and The Omnivore's Dilemma if you have any curiosity about food's impact. It might not make those organic Cocoa Puffs look very appealing, but it does present a shattering expose of the industrial food cycle - and an eloquent celebration of the true sustenance that nature affords.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

sex and death

Noting the two featured operas - Don Giovanni and Romeo et Juliette - as well as much of the other fare at Spoleto - Tristan and Isolde, Mahler's 5th, Don Juan - my roommate and I decided that the festival's theme must be sex and death.

Every stage here in Charleston seems full of sex and death: erotic funerals, morbid orgies, you get the point. Of course, the difficulty is finding an opera or piece of serious music that isn't about sex or death. The only operas we thought of were Hansel and Gretel and Nixon in China. Though the witch dies in H & G, and neither of us has seen Nixon. We just assume there isn't any sex, since that would be gross.

No sex and death celebration would be complete without a little Wagner. We'll play the Prelude and Liebestod (that's love death, but it comes to the same thing) from Tristan und Isolde next Wednesday and Thursday. The program also includes the Scene d'Amour from Berlioz' Romeo et Juliette and Beethoven's Fifth (fate=death, and maybe sex). There's also a theatrical production in town, "Tristan & Yseult," which apparently turns the story into a comedy - here's a review by Joshua Rosenblum of the Charleston Post and Courier.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Mahler 5: inviting the unspeakable

Very few pieces demand so much from an orchestra, both technically and emotionally, as Mahler's Fifth Symphony. During our final dress rehearsal yesterday afternoon, Maestro Emmanuel Villaume was especially attentive to the emotional demands. "To create this music's essence, you must feel free to be mad, traumatized, exhilarated, mean, melancholy, terrified, schizophrenic, delirious, hysterical, manic, heartbroken, sardonic, exultant...." He listed a dozen other extreme emotions and psychological conditions, some of which I had never heard before. That was his point, though - he was asking us to pour feelings into the piece that no one has yet named (or diagnosed). It's very rare that your boss asks you to be hysterical, but in this case we were happy to do our best.

The concert was a triumph, at least according to Lindsay Koob of the Charleston City Paper. Mr. Koob left the concert feeling "reamed out" by "one of the bumpiest, most exalted musical rides of our lives." Thanks, Mr. Koob, we aim to please - and to ream!

Thursday, June 01, 2006

pitchy fiction

Lately I've been reading John Hersey's novel of musical historical fiction, Antonietta (shown here). The novel concerns a Stradivari violin that manages to work its way into the lives and music of Mozart, Berlioz, and Stravinsky, among others. Okay, it's not true, but it is fun to think about, especially for musical history buffs.

Having been preoccupied lately with historical trends in intonation, I was astonished to come across the passage below. This takes place in the novel's 'Act III,' in which 26 year-old Hector Berlioz is composing his "monstrous dramatic symphony" - the narrator, a violinist named Baillot, comes and plays for Berlioz each morning:
[Berlioz] looked bedraggled, and I had the impression that his symphony was taking a strange swerve of some sort. It turned out, however, that his senses were, if anything, more finely honed than ever. When I tuned Antonietta, he said, "Your A is much too low."

His saying this surprised me. Over the last few years the standard concert pitch, the level of the note A above middle C that is built into tuning forks, had been steadily pushed upward, mainly, I think, by composers, and the reason I was surprised by his remark is that I had read an article that he had written opposing this rise, on the ground that the higher pitch was straining singers' voices in reaching for the upper notes. I had thought it would please him that I was using a tuning fork from several years ago. I said this.

"Yes, I did write that," he said. "But I want a higher pitch for this symphony - to give it the brilliance it needs."

- Antonietta by John Hersey, p. 139
Pushed upward by composers? That sounds loony to me, but I guess I'll have to look up Berlioz' writings and see if he actually published an article on the subject. The novel is a joy to read, filled with slick depictions of musical figures and nifty references to their music. There are quite a few details that ring false, though, which is why Hersey begins with this note:
Musicians and musicologists who read this book will know for certain that it is a novel, because they will find so many "untruths" in it - the peppercorns of fiction, which, a novelist hopes, may give the reader a taste for possibilities that are not found on the everyday menus of fact. This book was written for the fun of it, and I trust that those who know and revere the literal record will find themselves able to read it, too, for the fun of it, with forgiving minds.
At Berlioz' request, Baillot goes on to get the violin overhauled, with a new bass bar, sound post and bridge, a more angled neck and more powerful strings. Berlioz even watches the entire operation, asking "a thousand questions" and letting out "a scream as if he had been stabbed" as the instrument's top is detached. Mmmm, yummy peppercorns.