Friday, September 7, 2012

Ashokan fall

My new favorite way to practice the violin is to make it quiet. I feel the vibrations that way, resonating in my skull, buzzing at my teeth. I do this by wearing earplugs and equipping my fiddle with a mute (like this, not that I am endorsing anything - just to give an idea). Unfortunately, I think I still hear all my mistakes just fine.

You might wonder what the point is of playing a quiet fiddle, and I can only answer that it makes it feel really far away, and especially nostalgic. This coming from over the hills feel works particularly well with my current favorite practice piece, "Ashokan Farewell." Written in the style of a Scottish Lament, I can feel it floating across the rolling and rocky landscape of Scotland. Granted, I've never been there, but I have seen The Highlander, and Brave...

Jay Unger, who composed the piece, wrote this about it:
“I composed Ashokan Farewell in 1982 shortly after our Ashokan Fiddle Camp; Dance Camps had come to an end for the season. I was feeling a great sense of loss and longing for the music, the dancing and the community of people that had developed at Ashokan that summer. I was having trouble making the transition from a secluded woodland camp with a small group of people who needed little excuse to celebrate the joy of living, back to life as usual, with traffic, newscasts, telephones and impersonal relationships. By the time the tune took form, I was in tears.”


Summer is nearly over, season-wise, and this lament fits my mood. Still, I find it a very friendly and playful piece, in spite of its longing: jumping octaves, tickling the expected timing, doing major arpeggios slightly out of order to make us feel (I'm guessing) a romantic feeling of out of placeness, of homelessness. For example, the D major arpeggio normally starts with a D, but here it goes ADF#ADF#, instead of DF#ADF#A. I have no idea why, really, but starting on A completely changes the way I hear that scale. Sad, wistful, sweet, hopeful, but definitely not bright and triumphant. Which is good, because I hate bright and triumphant.

As an aside, Ashoka was an Indian Emperor from approximately 304-232 BC (thanks, Wikipedia), and the name "a┼Ťoka" means "painless, without sorrow" in Sanskrit.

Nice twist, I think.

Emperor Ashoka converted to Buddhism after waging a great, deadly war, having returned to fields of burning corpses. This is a common theme in Buddhism: see the story of Milarepa. Maybe a few of our presidents could take their example, and express some regret? He erected a series of pillars, which were inscribed with a kind of monarchical dharma. Nineteen are still standing, and in beautiful condition, with carved lions at their pinnacles.

Here's my teacher, Cathy Clasper-Torch, playing Ashokan Farewell for our class - learning purposes only!


For more of my posts on fiddle tunes: Improving on the Fiddle,  Giraffes and, well, fiddle songs about drugs, and House Sings Saint James Infirmary

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