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Classical 101

Air Viol Playing That Would Do Bobby McFerrin Proud

THREE AUDIO PIECES My husband had a highly unusual upbringing. The oldest of six children and the only male, he spent his childhood and adolescence devising ways to elude his five younger sisters. He was fortunate to have been given his own room, where he spent time alone in all sorts of intellectual pursuits. He loved to read about castles and the Dark Ages. When he learned in school how to play the recorder, he'd jam on his own up in his little room far, far away from the family household's estrogen tide. So, in a way, there was little surprise when he pursued and earned a graduate degree in musicology with a specialization in Renaissance music. We met in graduate school, where I, too, earned a musicology degree, and, to make a long story short, here we are. We were driving around town one Saturday afternoon, and for whatever reason my musical memory called up Dido's lament from Purcell's music drama Dido and Aeneas, one of the great "early" music dramas. You've likely heard Dido's lament, but here's a snippet from the opening: [audio:didos_lament_ground.mp3] The stringed instrument is a viol, and it plays a chromatic pattern - called a ground bass - that repeats throughout the aria. A tricky instrument, the viol. There's a bit of tendency for the sound to swell, then fade away on any long or relatively sustained notes, according to how much or how little weight is actually being transferred from the arm, through the bow, "into" the strings. But no purer sound will you hear than that of a viol played by an expert player. So, at the insistence of my mental soundtrack, I started first humming Purcell's ground bass tune, then vocalizing it in a way that tried to capture the viol's pure, ringing sound and natural swells and fades. As I "sang," my right arm pulled an imaginary bow up and down across imaginary strings. Then my husband joined in with some of the "countermelodies" that accompany the ground bass throughout the aria. This went on and on as we motored past the familiar sites of High Street, my husband eventually improvising on several rounds of my ground bass. Then he took over the ground as I sang a bit of Dido's sad, sad song, which starts like this: [audio:didos_lament_singing.mp3] Our car windows were rolled up, so none of the folks in neighboring cars could hear us. Maybe one or two saw my "bowstrokes" and wondered, though. As well they should have. There is a precedent for using the voice to imitate the sound of instruments. Here's a bit of Bobby McFerrin's vocal rendition of Bach's Violin Concerto in A minor: [audio:mcferrin_bach.mp3] And I do recall an episode of the sitcom Frasier in which Frasier and Niles Crane "play" a Brandenburg Concerto on air violins. So you could say that my husband and I were working within a certain classical music "air instrument" performance tradition that Saturday afternoon. Was our early-music-geek air viol strange? You betcha. Ridiculous? Absolutely. Which proves one thing: one can have giggly fun with classical music without breaking it. Go ahead.  Give it a try.