Thursday, February 4, 2010

String Theory

"I don't like that man. I must get to know him better"  ~Abraham Lincoln

There is no truth to the rumor that Johann Sebastian Bach's "Air on the G String" inspired the 1999 Sisqo hit, The Thong Song. Sisqo's inspiration came from deep within and is rooted in a scholarly overview of women's underwear. (But I do hear an "Eleanor Rigby" riff going on . . . )

Bach, on the other hand, had nothing to do with the ecdysiastic song title. "The Air on the G String" is a violin solo arranged by August Wilhelmj in the 19th century; it's based on the "Air" from Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 3, composed in the early 18th century.

Wilhelmj, a violinist, had a gimmick -- he'd play the melody solely on the g string, the lowest string on the violin. Why? The same type of reasoning led to deep-fried Oreos and frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Who knows why people do such things?

Mercifully, there are no 19th century YouTube videos to document Wilhelmj's unique one-string "sound." But good 'ol August was onto something big; his arrangement of the "Air" became a freestanding classic, widely interpreted by musicians from here to Agra and back -- on the jazz piano, the harmonica and the shredder.

Violins provide a lot of crossword puzzle fill:  BOW, ROSIN, STRAD, AMATI, FHOLE . . . and ARCO.

Recently my neighbor Olga confronted me on the street, in broad daylight; she gave me some serious flak about ARCO, after I had clued it as a musical term ("With the bow, to a violist"). "What the hell is ARCO?" she yelled, from her idling, double-parked, gas-guzzling SUV. "I've never heard of ARCO. Do you just make things up?" She rolled up the window and roared away before I could respond.

Drive-by solvers make me sick.

I'm sure Olga has never heard of ARCO. But millions of musicians worldwide have been familiar with this term from day one of their musical studies. ARCO is to a string player what RBI is to a baseball player, or APSE is to an art historian.

When "ARCO" appears in a score, string players resume playing with the bow, usually after a pizzicato (plucked with the fingers) section. It's a term that cancels out the pizzicato direction -- akin to a "close quote" in writing.

Solver's Takeaway:  President Lincoln's advice has solving applications: "I don't like that man. I must get to know him better, " he said.  [I don't like that word. I must get to know it better.] One solver's obscurity is another solver's immediate reality. Does openmindedness make one a better solver? Yes.

"Air on the G String" is a popular wedding piece. You may have heard it at your own nuptials, or (even more likely) at a wedding you've paid for. Here's a concert rendition by Sarah Chang, the world-class violinist known for her superb BOW control. She plays a Guarneri del Gesu violin (it's right up there with an AMATI or STRAD). Look closely and you'll see traces of white ROSIN on the violin strings, just above the symmetrically-placed F-HOLES. The ARCO (playing with the bow) is understood, as there are no pizzicato passages in this piece.

The irony here is that Ms. Chang plays the entire piece on the upper strings, bypassing the G String altogether.


Greene said...

I'm guessing that if you worked the term col legno into a puzzle, you would have even more drive by unhappiness in puzzledom. A very "striking" effect, of course, put to great use by Gustav Holst in the "Mars" movement of The Planets.

Elizabeth said...

Sounds like you're a string player! I think Olga would run me over if she saw "Col legno" in a puzzle. "Col legno" (which means tapping the string with wooden part of the bow) is called for in Mussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain" as well.

I like your wordplay -- "striking" is the perfect description for this effect. It's murder on the bow, though . . . some folks substitute cheap fiberglass bows when contemporary composers go crazy with the "col legno" markings.

Joon said...

a lovely quote and a lovely post. there are many words that i have "gotten to know better" through crossword puzzles!

Elizabeth said...

Joon, thank you! Perhaps that's the lure of crosswords. Where else can we find LIME JELLO next to ARCO? Lincoln is a source of many fine quotes. And what a relief it is to be able to use a quote without letter-count or symmetry worries.