Living and Music: Beethoven op. 130 and vulnerability

The reason I first started this blog close to a year ago was because I had just finished working on Beethoven’s Quartet op. 130 and the Grosse Fugue and though it wasn’t the first piece I ever loved, it is the first piece that I felt loved me back. That sounds funny as I type it out, but it’s true. This was when I started understanding music as something you can have a tangible relationship with…something that can reflect and show you a lot about yourself and your surroundings and change you. Since working on the piece, I was preoccupied afterwards with the idea that something could be so emotionally familiar without being actually familiar. It was like meeting someone you had an instant connection with…you don’t understand why you connect with the person and you don’t see all the mechanisms behind the connection like nurture, nature, life experience, etc. but you feel it. In my very first entry I proposed a first theory that maybe Beethoven’s music is familiar because it is unfamiliar and in its’ unfamiliarity, mirrors the way our lives are. Even though we have structure in our days and we make plans (similar to how even the most simple or complex musical pieces have form of some kind) there are unplanned elements every second which shape our lives in ways we may not even know. Here is, a year later, my second theory of why Beethoven’s music is emotionally familiar.

I remember practicing the 3rd movement of the Op. 130 by myself in the small room I shared with Denise at Aspen. The 3rd movement is possibly the hardest to grasp of the 6 in the piece because it isn’t easily put into a category. It isn’t a dance, it isn’t the virtuosic fast movement, it isn’t the slow movement, etc. It is certainly beautiful and lyrical at some points…but it is mostly quirky, adorable, and maybe a little persnickety. As I was practicing this movement, I started to cry and I was overwhelmed with this sense of being understood. This was really bizarre to me. It happens sometimes, but not often, that I cry first and figure out why later. Now I’m going to move forward to a few weeks after this initial emotional response to the music. We were working on the piece at a summer festival which takes place on a beautiful beach. During a rehearsal break, I was sticking my feet in some water and watching the ocean. Growing up, instructors have often compared musical markings and gestures to ones found in nature. One of the reasons Beethoven’s music, especially the quartets (in my small experience), is so difficult is because he requires the musicians to do extreme changes in dynamic range very suddenly. Op. 130 is riddled with these rigorous dynamic contrasts and the 3rd movement is especially demanding in this regard. There will be one measure of music with as many as 4 different dynamic contrasts required. That is, 4 different dynamics for 10 notes! It is hard to do this by yourself, let alone, with 3 other people in a quartet where everyone has different concepts of soft, loud, and middle. So I was thinking about this while looking at the ocean, watching each wave build and gently crest, and I realized that despite what my instructors said growing up, I couldn’t think of a single thing in nature that is as instantaneous in extremes as these markings in the Beethoven. If you can, right now while you read this, it is because you are smarter than me or because I just do not think enough. Probably both. And then I realized that there is something in nature that changes as instantly and as extremely as these markings and I remembered that I had cried and now I knew why. The human heart changes this way…our emotions, our thoughts are this volatile, flexible, and hesitating. I made a small video clip of myself playing and trying to explain this part.

So now I know that when I was practicing this part, I was having to constrict and free myself physically to get those higher notes and then to stay in one place before leaping physically again. This kind of leap always reminds me of when they do bars in gymnastics- there is that split second where you aren’t touching either bar or either place on a violin string. This means that as a player you feel vulnerable about your skill, your technique, your physicality. Coupled with the fact that the section is a song but takes so long and so much hesitation to get started- you feel not only physically vulnerable but emotionally vulnerable. I felt understood because this is honestly how I feel socially. In my friendships, in relationships, gatherings, my internal dreams, anything…it takes me a lot of effort to get started and keep going. This was especially the case when I was a teenager when I felt my most physically and emotionally vulnerable, though the 20’s aren’t that much easier on either front. So Beethoven, centuries ago, wrote something that, by physically enacting, I was able to experience emotionally. He showed me how I’m vulnerable and what it would be like if I just gave in, kept trying, and found the courage to sing. And once I could do that in music, it started being a lot easier to do in public.

It’s a metaphor. I’m not actually going to sing in public.
Ling Ling

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