The highest note

October 24, 2021

High up the musical ladder, there is a dearth of violinists

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Music is one of the few unifying experiences of humanity. In today’s politically fragmented world, its relevance has grown. People strained by linguistic barriers are drawn to diverse musical genres. Certain sheltered communities in Africa have responded to Mozart; Bela Bartok was deeply moved by the folk music of Turkey.

One of my earliest musical impressions was a percussive, almost martial tune played on strings culminating in a crescendo. My parents showed mild concern when I asked them to put it on regularly. Brahms was heavy-set. The piano and brass bands sounded boisterous and mundane; the music I heard on TV did not stir emotion of a significant degree. Then one day, Dr Imdad Husain played at our house and I was spell-bound. I was also awed by the lilting, glistening tone of the violin; so like the human voice and yet surpassing it in range of expression. I later discovered that unlike the human voice the violin could sustain a melodic line for quite long; not having to breathe at regular intervals. My initial yearning for this enigmatic instrument proved elusive and it wasn’t until we went to England that I embarked on a journey of musical discovery. I was eight at the time.

In England, there were a few hitches to overcome before I was bestowed my first violin. I started on a wood-wind but made the transition once the circumstances permitted.

Learning to play the violin is as complex as the human experience. Even the holding of a violin is not governed by set rules. Instead, it depends on physiology, temperament and musical inclination of the player. In earlier times, the violin was held near the rib-cage. It migrated upwards, to the collar bone, when virtuosity became the rage. I, for one, usually hold the violin at a ‘Heifetzian tilt’ with a slightly inclined chin rest. Unlike the piano, violin notes are not defined, hence there is always the looming possibility of faulty intonation. This is particularly so in the beginning when the topology of the finger board has not been etched in the mind’s eye.

After five weeks of lessons, I was playing in the school orchestra and the teacher, Mrs Brangwin, complimented me by saying I had done a year’s work. I was called a freak and a natural – controversial opinions no doubt, but the fact was, I had not followed any set method. Celebrated pedagogues admit that there is no ideal way.

When I started, more youngsters played the violin than any other instrument, but many I knew gave up. There could be many reasons: lack of availability of violins as many played on borrowed instruments; succumbing to a technical hurdle. Higher up the musical ladder, there is a dearth of violinists. I became acutely aware of this a year after I had started to play. I was playing in a Brighton youth orchestra that was planning a tour of Germany. The veteran conductor informed us that the tour had been postponed because there weren’t enough string players.

After coming to Pakistan I continued to play.

Violin playing is an arcane process. If the mind can envisage beautiful sounds, the hands will find a way. I have rarely bothered with scales and arpeggios shorn of musical meaning. Every note has to be imbued with the impulse of the moment. A piano, harmonium or an array of electronic instruments that have infiltrated the musical landscape have limited timbre quality; they cannot respond to the elusive quantum fluctuations of the mind effectively.

A while ago, I knew someone who played the viola. Lower in pitch by a fifth, it has always played second fiddle to the violin. Once I tried it and produced a drab mushy tone. My friend, who was a violist in the Eastbourne Orchestra, played significantly better – I still felt it did not have the sublime tonal quality of the violin. I am drawn towards the poignant sound of the sarangi, but alas, it is not as versatile.

The violin is arguably the most accessible of musical instruments. When played with panache and flair, it readily transcends cultural boundaries. Once I played my interpretation of Paganini E major Caprice to Sharif Khan’s son Tony. I had made the recording on worn-out mikes. Bird chirps were audible during pianissimos and the sound of clearing my throat had come through. Nonetheless, his response was entirely warm and genial. Later, I played at a friend’s house, who had invited some local musicians; I played Vivaldi and Allemande from Bach Partita II. Their response was no less unaffected.

Recently, my violin bridge caved in and was unable to sustain the strings. Fortunately, there is a competent luthier or violin repairer near Food Street, whom I met. To check the sound, I plucked open strings and played smatterings from Bach’s Prelude. Some passers-by stopped to hear more. It is unlikely that most of them had heard Western classical music before.

The violin is at home in a variety of musical traditions of the world – one noteworthy exception is rock music. A few friends, one of them a singer in a local group and the other two ardent rock enthusiasts invited me. As I approached the spiralled staircase, I was confronted with a cascade of noise. The sound content was repetitive and for me at least, insipid. The lack of substance was overcome by enhancing the decibel level it seemed.

I have two French violins and a Russian one I seldom play. Earlier it belonged to a musician in a ballet company. It does not have a big sound and is ideal for playing in an orchestra. When I haven’t played a particular violin for a while, it sounds less resonant, as if not fully awakened from slumber.

Sometimes I wonder how music compares with other activities I pursue. Over the years, I have played national squash players as well as ordinary ones. A while ago, I took on two players – one of them, Imran, played tournaments albeit at inter-collegiate level. The coach, from the Punjab University, watched the game. It was one against two but I was consistently wrong footing them. The shot selection shouldn’t be pre-meditated; it should be decided at the instant before executing it and the state of mind should be akin to anticipating a musical note. My other interest is mathematics – like music it is abstract. The same mathematical problem can be seen differently each time and the most elegant solution sought, like a musical phrase never played the same way.

The great Italian violins of the 17th and 18th Centuries have not been equalled, let alone surpassed. One can speculate in the distant future a musical instrument of truly unforeseen musical qualities might be developed. Until then the violin will remain my foremost choice.

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