The sound of dawn

A chilly pre-dawn Newburyport ride with
Ted Nelson, ending at Plum Island

This winter, I’ve been heading out on pre-dawn rides to train for what was supposed to be a slightly insane three-day, 400-mile bicycle trip around the beautiful island of Puerto Rico last weekend. Wedged tightly, and perhaps inadvisably, between concerts in Baltimore and Santa Fe, this was to be a personal milestone. It didn’t go exactly as planned.

Early last Sunday, riding up front to stay out of trouble, the rider second in line and directly in front of me went down in a massive pothole, taking out those of us drafting closely behind. Thankfully, nothing broke (body or bike) and I was able to ride almost 140 miles that day at an average speed of 18 mph. I woke Monday planning to ride the next leg (80 miles) but the arm I fell on was really sore and, with concerts the following week, I realized it would be wiser to spend the next days in recovery. All the preparation in the world can’t prepare you for the unexpected; I’ll thank my lucky stars that I had one incredible day and the damage wasn’t bad.

View from a decidedly not-so-chilly ride:
Playa Punta Tuna in Puerto Rico
Bikes lined up at lunch

Leaving before sunrise at this time of year, be it San Juan or Newburyport, you notice that dawn unfolds gradually and then all at once, and that there is a sound to each new day. Haydn captured this sense of expectation exploding into a joyous profusion of light with the opening to his Bb quartet, aptly nicknamed “The Sunrise.”

Link to YouTube: Hayden String Quartet
Joseph Haydn; String Quartet Opus 76, Number 4

I’m a musician, not a neurologist, but it feels to me like practicing the viola and training hard for an athletic event occupy a similar part of the brain. Both require discipline and a single-minded focus to train the body to execute finely coordinated motor control, be it in the legs (cycling) or fingers (viola). The performing arts and sport each are a kind of physical manifestation of an idea, whether it be musical expression or athletic achievement.

Dammit, Jim. I’m a doctor, not a violist!

When I practice the viola, I feel like an actor interpreting lines. The same words in a different tone of voice can have a completely different meaning; figuring out what you want to say is inextricably linked to how you say it. Likewise playing a musical instrument: do I want a silvery, soft sound or a strident, soloistic bellow; what fingerings should I choose; where do I want to be in the bow; what kind of articulation is most appropriate? – every decision affects expression. Once I’ve decided upon an approach, I have to teach my body how to physically execute that concept.

Erich Wolfgang “Control Freak” Korngold

Composers generally provide pretty minimal instructions. Frankly, it can be irritating if a composer gets too nit-picky; they need to trust us musicians more. For instance, I love Korngold’s music but he really needs to back off from telling us what to do every measure. Take a look at the example above from his string sextet. In thirteen measures there are ten changes of meter and the instructions “somewhat faster, intensify and accelerate, slow down, play at tempo (but a little faster), slow a little, at tempo, intensify and get faster, even faster, slow down a little.”  At the other extreme and far more annoying is trying to work with a colleague who misguidedly thinks fealty to the score means not doing anything that isn’t explicitly written in by the composer. Heck, often Bach didn’t even bother with dynamics; obviously, that doesn’t mean you should play like a computer.

Johann Sebastian “Good luck, kid, you’re on your own” Bach

Ultimately, the score is the primary text and this is where it gets really interesting. Just like the words in a play, everything you need to know is written down in the notes on the page. But those little black dots allow for a world of interpretation. When I played in Ensemble Epomeo, Diane Pascal, our brilliant violinist, was a master of changing an interpretation on the fly. She would figuratively swing the wheel and detour onto some dirt road and suddenly we’d find ourselves in a beautiful mountain valley we had no idea existed.

I used this to wake my daughters during high school
(they hate it to this day)

But back to practicing: training in cycling is also generally a solitary pastime with specific requirements. Between the demands of a given workout (hills, intervals, tempo, threshold?), scanning for cyclist-swallowing potholes, and the omnipresent terror of car drivers texting behind the wheel (if you do this, please don’t), riding outside doesn’t leave much room for the mind to wander. Playing the viola and riding a bike require an intense sustained level of concentration.

Link to YouTube: Richard Strauss Alpine Symphony
Richard Strauss' "Alpine Symphony" starts with night and opens up gloriously into sunrise three minutes in.

Such work has interesting side-effects. When I’m struggling to figure something out in my head, I’ve observed that a long ride or a morning in the practice room will often serve up a solution unbidden. The active ingredients seem to be physical movement + the kind of hyper-focus that quiets the mind, allowing it the room to resolve a problem through the backdoor.

My loyal steed

Every time I come up to Newburyport with my viola, I try to bring a bike as well. (My main ride is an S-Works, Campy-equipped, carbon SL-6 mechanical disc with Roval Alpinist wheelset on 25mm clinchers.) With its changing seasons and wealth of routes and landscapes, Newburyport feels about as close to heaven as this viola-playing cyclist can find on earth.

David Yang, Artistic Director

Riding to Portsmouth with John Moreland and Marc Cendron last summer
YouTube: Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, "Morning Mood"
Edvard Grieg: “Dawn” from Peer Gynt
You know this piece, you just didn’t realize it.
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