Sunday, October 27, 2013


A NOISELESS, patient spider,

I mark’d, where, on a little promontory, it stood, isolated;

Mark’d how, to explore the vacant, vast surrounding,

It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself;

Ever unreeling them—ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you, O my Soul, where you stand,

Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,

Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing,—seeking the spheres, to connect them;

Till the bridge you will need, be form’d—till the ductile anchor hold;

Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my Soul.

We all know the image: the half-crazed violinist who in his empassioned frenzy pops a string and yet continues playing till the end, the grandest of grand finales, his toupee bouncing from side to side. What makes him go so crazy? What makes him give of himself entirely to the music, to the sounds he is producing, forgetting the world in order to do so?
I have played music, but I would not call myself a musician. When I watch truly amazing musicians, I marvel at their performance not just because the melodies and harmonies they produce are so beautiful, but because I have played just enough to know how much effort, time, practice, and dedication must go into such a performance. And, even though I will never play at the level of the greats, I nonetheless feel a certain kinship. Because I understand the dedication to an art form, an act of creation and performance, that borders on ludicrous obsession but is nonetheless essential to one’s existence.

Certainly each and every violinist has his or her own particular reasons for perspiring and working himself or herself into a frenzy while performing. The caricature I have drawn does not do justice to the diversity of violinists. But all would share, I believe, an intense commitment to their art that goes beyond the mundane and enters a realm that could be called spiritual—a realm that encompasses what Walt Whitman might call the “Soul.”

Strings tie things together. They are tendons, ligaments, filaments. String theory posits that on the quantum level, matter is not a set of self-contained points but rather a set of tiny strings, each one vibrating at its particular frequency, to voice its part in the grand symphony that is the universe. If this is the case, it is no wonder that we feel a bond with those around us when we join together to sing hymns in a temple of worship, or our fight song at a football game. There is something electric, primordial, and bonding about listening to and participating in live music. When string instruments produce the music, it is not only their strings that vibrate, but also the air, the atmosphere, and something deep within us.

Orquesta Àrab de Barcelona

Recently I have experienced this communion through music. Under the moonlight and against the backdrop of arabesque architecture, the Orquesta Àrab de Barcelona gave the pleasant Sevilla night its fusion of Eastern and Western sounds that at once entranced with its exoticism and contented with its familiarity. Mohamed Soulimane focused our attention quickly with peppy notes he played on his electric violin.* Sergio Ramos (“el mejor Sergio Ramos en toda España!” Soulimane proclaimed) got us moving with his rock percussion. Mohammed Bout assumed a very proper, upright stance and moved his hands delicately as he sang in Arabic.

The concert was sponsored by the Fundación Tres Culturas del Mediterráneo, which seeks to bring together the Catholic, Jewish, and Arabic cultures of the Mediterranean. In Sevilla these three cultures have historically been very present. Even though today there is a church on every other corner and a different virgin processes through the streets almost weekly, the tall Cathedral tower that everyone uses to get their bearings, the Giralda, is a relic of the old mosque that has been subsumed into the Catholic architecture; the river that is the lifeline of the city, the Guadalquivir, derives its name from the Arabic for “Río Grande” (“Big River”); and the old “judería” or Jewish neighborhood, is now part of the labyrinthine tourist trap called Barrio Santa Cruz. On the one hand, Catholicism and its traditions are sacred in Sevilla, and on the other, so much of the city’s distinct flavor stems from cultures that are held to be exogenous and foreign (as if Catholicism were not exogenous). That the Orquesta Àrab de Barcelona delighted a packed audience with its fusion of music and cultures illustrates that at least in some circles, Sevillanos are eager to embrace the multicultural presence in their city.**

Catalan, Spanish, and Arabic comingled that night, as did ancient and contemporary sounds, young people and the elderly. At the end we all sang along to a song that went “Allah, ho, Allah!” (“You don’t have to say Allah if you don’t want to, but you won’t get a rash if you do!” Mohamed Soulimane told us) and afterwards we asked for more. The dancing began; Soulimane called a young woman and a pregnant woman up to the stage and they happily showed off their Moroccan-flamenco fusion moves. With music and dance combining, the electric strings and vocal chords that had been vibrating and searching all evening struck their mark, and for at least a time, we were all in this together.

Guitars among the Ruins and the Glass

Two weeks ago was the Guitar Festival in Sevilla. On Wednesday I accompanied a friend who studies guitar at the conservatory here and saw Lorenzo Micheli and Javier Riba perform some of the most beautiful classical guitar music I have ever heard. Before the yellow-lit Roman ruins of the city housed in the Antiquarium of the Plaza Mayor, in a glassed-in concert hall that reflected light from everywhere, they elevated the guitar to a place it does not always occupy. I do not always think of the guitar as a classical instrument, but rather as a versatile, portable instrument that almost anyone can learn to strum. As an instrument, it is not often taken seriously. A cheap guitar is affordable, and you can play a song knowing only three chords. The guitar is often the instrument of the poor and of the undedicated men who want to pick up girls. Even when played well, the guitar does not always coexist alongside the elegant violin or the austere cello. But this concert reminded me that the guitar should be taken more seriously. Micheli and Riba treated their guitars as if they were Stradivarius violins,*** and the sounds they coaxed from them were, in my opinion, more lovely than what could be coaxed from a violin. There is just something that gets me about the guitar, more than any other string instrument. And to hear it played in Sevilla, where the guitar is an essential element of the city’s identity, was to feel a humming connection to the city’s core.

Gray Beards and Fresh Faces

In the last concert of the festival on Saturday, a cohort of men in their forties and upwards introduced the four top finalists of the weeklong competition. The finalists were young men in their early twenties at the most, who played in ways that stunned me as much as their teachers had on Wednesday, if not more so because of their young age. After the intermission, students from the esteemed Fundación Cristina Heeren, a flamenco school, performed flamenco guitar pieces with palmas (hand claps). The concert, held in a traditional music hall, was in many senses a bastion of form and convention. It was beautiful and moving, and I felt privileged to mingle with such great artists afterwards at the wine-and-cheese gathering.

But art does not stay within an institution. And Sevilla’s art is found all over, not just in concert halls that charge entrance fees. At 2am that night on a side street off the Alameda, one of the most hopping bar neighborhoods, the classically-trained musicians I was with stopped and listened to the impromptu flamenco jam session that had been struck up. Humble young people with piercings and tattoos strummed bulerías, alegrías, and tientos, sang with their faces contorting, and clapped out palmas. There, amongst the cobbled shadows, was another face of Sevilla. Another set of artists, friends, seeking to express themselves, to unite their souls for a time, to launch strings out into the world and hope they catch somewhere.

This is what I’m searching for, maybe what everyone is searching for: connections. String vibrations, literally and metaphorically, are at once distinctly individual and intensely communal. If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, it has made vibrations, but technically no sound. For that, an ear is needed. Vibrations need ears to make connections. Especially in this year, I am searching for human connections, connections across time and space. Connections between 1500s Sevilla and 21st-century Sevilla. Between the Cajasol concert hall and the flamenco singers on the streets of the Alameda. Between America, Asia, Africa, and Europe. I am seeking to find them, to forge them, to understand them. I do this by writing. I write to find my own particular rhythm of vibration at which to hum in order to play my part in the harmonious symphony of the universe.

*Perhaps this music is tailored to Orientalist-trained Western tastes; nonetheless, I found it beautiful.

**The concert took place at the Fundación Tres Culturas in the Cartuja, the large site of the 1992 “Exposición Universal” that commemorated the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s “discovery” of the Americas. The foundation is on Calle Max Planck, just off the Avenida de los Descubrimientos (Avenue of Discoveries). The Cartuja is a rather ugly, industrial area that nonetheless created space for cultural activities and provides a testament to the city’s 1992 embrace of many different cultures. The Expo brought with it a massive transformation and beautification of the city, including the creation of a riverfront walkway and the proliferation of “zonas peatonales” (“pedestrian zones”).

***Riba’s guitar was indeed 113 years old and had been played by a famous guitarist way back when.

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